There was little traffic downtown. That was logical, given that everything was closed and the nearest bar on First Street was six or eight blocks east. Gramma had plenty of neighbors living above the businesses down here, but they must have been enjoying the air-conditioning instead of the warm evening.
Mila didn’t need to look in the doors of A Long Time Ago to see the shop was empty. Few lights were left on inside, and the heavier, pricier pieces that stayed outside on display were all pushed together and locked with a heavy chain. That didn’t stop Poppy from eagerly sniffing each piece, leading Mila in a circle around the bunch twice.
“Do you know a dog’s sense of smell is a thousand to ten thousand times better than ours?”
The hairs on the back of Mila’s neck stood on end. She couldn’t tell whether the raspy voice was male or female, and when she turned to face the stocky figure, she still wasn’t sure. A rush of shock went through her, followed by guilt and shame.
It was hard to say anything about the woman—she thought—besides God bless her. Her hair was like straw and grew in every direction, and the skin on her face was shiny, tight, the colors mottled in shades of purple and red. The symmetry of her face was askew, as if doctors had rebuilt it with no idea of how she’d looked before. The scars continued down her throat and beneath the collar of her shirt and picked up again on her left arm. She wore a plain white glove on that hand.
What terrible burns she’d suffered, and what incredible strength she must have had to fight her way back from them.
Abruptly Mila remembered the woman’s question about dogs, and she held Poppy a little tighter so she wouldn’t suddenly decide she needed to climb and sniff all over the stranger. “I’m not surprised. She can smell the bread drawer opening from a mile away.”
The woman smiled, just a stretching of taut skin, then glanced around. “This is a lovely downtown. I can’t believe no one besides us is out here enjoying it. I hear almost all of these buildings have apartments upstairs.”
Mila considered for a moment that she’d exhausted her supply of chitchat. Even the friendliest clerks at the grocery store were satisfied with a line or two. But the woman showed no inclination to move on, and learning to be more…well, just more included learning to be friendlier. “Do you live here?”
“I’m passing through. I’m driving the Mother Road and doing some sightseeing along the way. Started in Chicago and I plan to stay with it all the way to the Pacific Ocean.”
“That’s nice.” Though not to Mila. Route 66 passed through Arizona, New Mexico and California, states where she’d lived with her parents. They’d lived along the Mother Road, too, in big cities and small towns that had sprung up when the highway was built, faded away when the interstate replaced it, and they now survived on nostalgia. She would be happy if she never set foot in those states again. “Are you traveling alone?”
That curious stretch of a smile once more crossed the woman’s face. “I am. It’s the only way to make sure I don’t get pissed off at my traveling companion. Though if I had a girl as beautiful as she is, I’d have brought her along.” She nodded to Poppy but made no effort to approach her. Mila appreciated it.
Now she had exhausted her chitchat. “Well, good luck with your trip. We, uh, we should get going.” She tugged the leash, and Poppy happily began moving again. Instead of walking to the corner, then crossing the street, Mila trotted across in the middle of the block. This being-friendly stuff wasn’t as easy as people thought. Something about the woman made her feel vaguely anxious.
It wasn’t the scars or the odd, eerie sound of her voice. Mila wasn’t that superficial. It was just that her whole life she’d avoided unnecessary contact with strangers, and it was going to take a long time, she feared, before it felt as nonthreatening to her as it apparently was to everyone else.
She and Poppy set a good pace, crossing the intersection and walking the few hundred feet to Gramma’s building. When she stopped to open the door, she glanced back down the street and saw the woman, her stride stiff, returning back the way she’d come. She struck Mila as alone and sad.