The child sat on the long wooden bench in the shabby old bus station, her legs dangling four inches above the ground. Her right hand clutched the worn handle of the battered brown suitcase, and her eyes stared straight ahead. The soft round face was as expressionless as a China doll, the only movement a slight quiver of her bottom lip.
The old woman looked around for a place to sit. Her tired back and legs wouldn't endure for long if she had to stand, but her bus wasn't due for another forty-five minutes. “Someone sitting here?” she asked the child, pointing to the empty end seat beside her.
The little girl looked up into her weathered face and shook her head.
The woman settled into the seat with a sigh, glancing at the clock, willing the time to fly by. “Are you traveling alone?” The child looked so small to her. “You were probably told not to talk to strangers. Believe you me, I don't usual talk to them either, but you shouldn't be traveling alone. What are you? Seven? Eight?” Even that elicited no response. “I'm going to St. Louis. Haven't been there in close to thirty years. I imagine the place has changed. Hasn't everything?”
The little girl stared at her, the start of curiosity entering her eyes.
“I'm Mildred, and don't you dare call me Millie. What's your name?”
“When I was your age, my mama used to take me to St. Louis and Joplin, all over the state. We had relations in every city, every hamlet from here to Chicago. Now all that's left is me and a cousin in Peoria, but he's a no-account I'd avoid even if he lived next door.” She continued her monologue, as if the sound of her own voice was preferable to silence. “Bet you're wondering why I'm going to St. Louis now. There's doctors in St. Louis. Better than here, I'll tell you.”
A slight nod from the girl was the first sign that she understood English.
“You off to visit your grandma? Or maybe that's where you're coming from.”
The eyes looked down to study the tops of scuffed sneakers. A hole near the big toe of the right one threatened to expand. The muttered 'no' barely reached the old woman's ears.
“No? You're not running away, are you?” Mildred asked.
The silky, fine blond hair swung as the girl indicated she wasn't. But what else could this be?
Mildred tried to think of a question that might get her to open up. She'd been singularly unsuccessful so far. But she was afraid that if she was silent, the slight progress she'd made would fade. “This bench is so hard.” She wriggled against the scarred backrest. “I don't know who designed the first bus terminal, and then convinced others to build them all the same.” She pointed to the tiny refreshment stand. “Would you like a soda? Or perhaps chocolate milk? I wouldn't trust much else they sell.”
The child looked up, her eyes straying to the stand. “Chocolate milk, please.”
“You watch my things, and I'll get us both a drink.” Mildred left her coat on the seat and her suitcase on the floor as she stood and strode to the food vendor. She was back in moments carrying two plastic cups.
The child hadn't moved except to put her free hand on the woman's coat. “Thanks.” She finally let go of her suitcase handle and took the drink carefully in two hands.
“I brought us both straws.” Mildred opened one and inserted it in the lid of the kid's drink.
Watching the woman, the girl took a long sip of milk, then another. She'd finished half of it before she came up for air.
“You must have been thirsty.”
The child sucked in her lower lip, then went back to drinking.
“Feel better?” Mildred asked.
She nodded. “Thank you.”
Nothing added up about the kid. Who left her at the bus station? And where was she going? “I bet whoever you're going to see will give you plenty of chocolate milk.”
The quiver was back and the child's eyes filled with tears before seeking the double doors, then they returned to her drink cup.
A disembodied voice came over the loud speaker. “Four thirty to St. Louis and points east now boarding.”
“That's our bus.” Mildred stood, grabbed her coat and suitcase, and took two steps. “Aren't you coming?”
The girl shook her head. “I'm not going.”
Exasperated, Mildred asked, “Then why are you here?” She looked around at all the other passengers streaming toward the doors and the bus on the other side. None paid attention to the woman and the child. Mildred sat down again. The doctors would have to wait.