Chamomile Girl, Chapter One

The important thing was that Momma did not think that LaRose felt abandoned. That fear crackled through Momma’s mind with each stage of the move. Momma was trying to ignore it, but it was like the static electricity in a tangled mass of laundry. Just when you thought the charge had been absorbed, another T-shirt would be pulled from the heap with an unpleasant zap. LaRose felt every shock of guilt.

There was a tricky balance here. If she reassured Momma too much, it would become a source of annoyance at best, and, at worst, evidence of the “she doth protest too much” variety. However, saying nothing would seem like she was holding something back, or even sulking. The best approach was indirect.

“I should get some local nature guides,” LaRose said as they packed her books into milk crates. “There’s so much wildlife up by his place. I could start birdwatching, or making those scrapbooks with pressed leaves and flowers.”

She was especially proud of that one. It gave Momma a way to alleviate her guilt by spending a little money on a treat. Earlier she had let Momma overhear her telling her rats, Science and Philosophy, about their new home. Then yesterday, they had argued about whether or not LaRose should bring any food. It was a good argument, because Momma needed to be reminded that Uncle Taylor not only had food, he had an entire kitchen attached to his little bar, and there was no need to worry about the old man forgetting to feed her. It had also been a draining argument. LaRose hated arguing, even when it was the good kind.

Uncle Taylor was technically a great-great-great-uncle. The family was not sure whether or not he could actually die. His power was healing. He could break every bone in his body and wake up the next day feeling no worse than most people did after a slightly grueling workout. While he did age, it was slow, and seemed to be getting slower the older he got. He had been born back in the days when not everybody kept close record of their birthdates, so his exact age was unknown.

He had childhood memories of the Civil War. In the postbellum world, he had survived three lynchings. In the Great Depression, he had gone weeks without food so his friends could eat. He had been shot in the chest while fighting in Korea, and then twice more while protesting for civil rights through the sixties. Then, when the whole “don a cape and a fake name to zoom around fighting crime” business had taken off, he had finally snarled at the world, bought an old junkyard and transformed it into a bar, and holed up in the mountains. To people who knew nothing about his history, which was mostly everybody outside of the family, he looked like an eccentric hermit in his forties. Early fifties at the latest.

LaRose had only visited his place twice. The first time she was too little to remember, though there was a picture of her tiny self on a tire swing hung in his garage, grinning like she had just remembered what happiness felt like. The second time she was eight. Her impressions of the place were still with her. The unpainted wooden walls were covered with old vinyl record covers – any singer from Nina Simone to Metallica was fair game. A secondhand TV could display whichever sport was most popularly demanded by the customers. The tables, chairs and barstools were collected from thrift stores, with the only requirements being that they were cheap, sturdy and had “no damn frippery.” There were no booths, but there were some armchairs in the corners, with the upholstery patched as needed. While there was no color scheme per se, there was slightly more maroon than any other color, followed by forest green.

What LaRose remembered most was how vivid the emotional residue had been. People were always confused when she explained that, while most things did not have emotions left on them, places usually did. It was common enough that walking into a room that was truly emotionally neutral was as unsettling as touching a corpse. Even so, the emotions in most places usually were milder than those in people or animals. Uncle Taylor’s bar was alive enough to be almost human. The sensation was of piney smells, cold water rushing against beaded sweat, grit under the nails. Like a summer’s day by a mountain stream.

LaRose wondered if, after living there for a while, the bar’s sensations would disappear. She wondered mostly because of how weak the sensation was in their little trailer. It felt chilly, mostly, with the faint echo of a snap and spark. Like someone had broken a matchstick while trying to light it. But was that telling her something about her home, or was it just the empath’s equivalent of being able to smell everyone’s home but your own? LaRose could not conjure visions of her own soul, so it made sense that she would not see emotional residue that her own soul left.

On the other hand, she could see her mother’s soul (shaped like a carved sandstone cat, who hovered over her shoulder with a mild irritation frozen on its face). So shouldn’t she be able to see emotional residues that her mother left? On the other hand, her mother was sometimes gone from the trailer for weeks at a time.

It was a mystery. Living with Uncle Taylor would solve it.

Once her things had been packed away, the whole trailer looked bare. There had never been clean distinctions between the common kitchen area and her open “bedroom” in the back, but she had not realized just how much of the space she had taken up. Momma had her little loft in the space over the kitchen and driver’s seat, and she did like to rent a separate motel room when she was on a mission, so she did not accidentally lead people back to LaRose. Even so, the big vehicle suddenly felt like it had never quite been a home for the two of them, but a giant home for her that was towed from place to place.

This thought gave LaRose a sudden panicky feeling. It was the idea that if she could just erase time, and make Momma feel like this was their home, not hers…

LaRose choked the thought down. It was irrational. Momma had never felt that way. That was not why they were parting. It was just that LaRose was almost seventeen, and before long she’d have to start asking questions about her life. Questions that were more easily answered if you had put down a few roots somewhere. That and the medical issues had never been easy to manage, while they were moving. Everything from wondering if the pool was wheelchair accessible to whether the nearest hospital knew how to check for infected shunts. It was too much to expect a person to put up with forever. That was all.

Although they must have passed it the last time they visited Uncle Taylor, LaRose did not remember the little town they passed through. It was small, with a dry, stale sort of residue. Easy to overlook, easy to forget. She felt a little bad for it. It must be lonely to be such a small place.

They left the town and turned onto a mountain road that quickly became dust and gravel. Branches slapped both the trailer’s sides as they rumbled up. Momma gritted her teeth the entire time she drove. After several minutes of watching Momma with her eyes frozen to the dust and gravel ahead, LaRose felt it was safe to indulge in a moment of nostalgia.

Momma was beautiful. Pale brown coppery skin and black curls cut close to her skin. She liked combat boots and battered leather jackets but also donned makeup done every morning – especially her scarlet lipstick. LaRose was almost afraid to ask to learn how to do makeup herself. It felt like stealing a trademark.

Momma did not have a cape or a secret superhero name. She drove the two of them to a new town, met the other Alchemists, and usually gathered intelligence for them through her network of plants. That was not a metaphor. Momma could talk to plants. They could not exactly pass on a photograph, and their memories were lousy, but they were sensitive to vibrations, gossipy with each other, and they could pop up almost anywhere. Not to mention, corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen loved to have their most incriminating meetings away from the office. Parks and outdoor cafes were favorites. Momma could lounge on the grass or sit by an ivy covered wall and get as much as any bug.

She did not need proof. Just truth. The Alchemists were insistent about truth. They needed to know what to point the reporters towards, when they took down their targets, and staged the bodies to be found.

“As above, so below.”

That phrase, somewhere on the corpse or the scene, was the only signature any of the Alchemists had. It meant their crime scene had clues to something hidden from view. The more accurate that promise was, the harder it would be to bury public interest. LaRose liked to think that made Momma’s role the most important. Anybody could kill. Momma could make it mean something that would change the world.

Momma was incredible.

Sometimes Momma knew that, and sometimes she just felt burned up and smashed inside. The best thing for that problem was no talk at all; just Billie Holiday and hibiscus tea. LaRose made sure not to pack her records. Or the jar of hibiscus petals. She hoped Momma would remember to use them.

As they hit a stretch that levelled out, Momma began to glance over to LaRose. She quickly turned out to look at the road, so Momma wouldn’t catch her looking sad. Probably she had moved to quickly, or not quickly enough, because something was coiling inside Momma, ready to be said. But before that happened, they hit the looped driveway in front of Uncle Taylor’s bar.

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