The child sat on the short 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 blue 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 entered and 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. She sniffed the odors of unwashed bodies crowding the space. There, an empty seat. “Someone sitting here?” she asked the child, pointing to the end of the short bench.
The little girl looked up into her 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, her dress, threadbare but clean, her laces untied. “You were probably told not to talk to strangers. Believe you me, I don't usually talk to them either, but you shouldn't be traveling alone.” Now, why was she talking to this girl? She laughed at her own display of nerves then cleared her throat. “What are you? Seven? Eight?”
Even that elicited no response beyond a crossing of thin arms.
The woman waved her ticket and timetable. “I'm going to St. Louis. Haven't been there for close to thirty years. I imagine the place has changed. Hasn't everything?”
The girl tilted her head to look at her, the start of curiosity narrowing the clear eyes.
“I'm Mildred, but don't you dare call me Millie.” The last time she’d talked to a child was when she visited her niece, Diane, who had three little girls. But it was Diane she had to remind to call her by her full name. “What's should I call you?”
It had become a challenge. She’d get the girl to talk to her before her bus came. “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, my niece and a cousin in Peoria, but he's
A slight nod from the girl was a sign that she understood English, so that wasn’t why she wasn’t replying.
“You off to visit your grandma? Or maybe that's where you're coming from.”
The girl’s gaze drifted 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 were silent, the slight progress she'd made would fade. “Isn’t this bench 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. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? Would you like a soda? Or perhaps chocolate milk? I wouldn't trust much else they sell. But I’m thirsty.”
The child looked up, her focus 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, glancing back once or twice. She returned to the girl 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 into the lid of the girl'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 on her lower lip, then went back to drinking.
“Feel better?” Mildred asked.
She nodded. “Thank you.” The tiny voice held more than gratitude.
Nothing added up about the girl. 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. Was she waiting for someone?
A disembodied voice came over the loudspeaker. “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.
Joyce Hertzoff retired after over 45 years in the scientific information field. Since then she has published three YA novels. There of her short stories were included in anthologies. She is a facilitator and mentor for the MFA program at WVU.