Nothing outside marked it as a bar; no signs, no opening hours, no listed specials. It was all plain unpainted wood, one story with a wraparound porch. Despite that, and it being early in the evening, the grass lot beside the building had six or seven cars. Up on top of the porch was a massive rectangular box, labelled “ramp, for assembly at home.”
Momma stared at it for several long moments, her jaw clenched. Then she leaned on the horn, hard. She let off of it for one hot, ragged breath, then hammered out a series of quick beeps before leaning on for one more long blast. The front door slammed, and Uncle Taylor stormed out.
“The hell, woman?”
“The hell yourself. Tell me why that thing is up there and still in its damn package.”
“I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow at least.”
“I told you before the weekend.”
“And it’s Wednesday.”
“Which is before this weekend.”
“You said Thursday or Friday.”
“I said ‘Wednesday at the earliest’.”
“Octavia Evans, when in the history of your life have you showed up ‘at the earliest’?” He sighed and crossed his arms. “Look, truth is the delivery man was running a little late. He didn’t bring that up until this afternoon and I already had my first customer. Now if you’d stopped by in some town, made a call to let me know you were almost here, I coulda got some of the boys to help me put it up, or at least warned you about the situation, but as it is-” he shrugged, as someone willing to apologize, but only if the other person cooled off first.
“It’s okay, Momma,” LaRose said. “I can use my crutches. I’m not tired.”
Momma gritted her teeth, and to any eyes she would look mad enough to spit in Uncle Taylor’s face. But she wasn’t angry. Or at least, she could stop being angry now if she wanted to, but she didn’t want to. Sometimes, when people were on the verge of feeling something they did not want to feel, they got angry instead. LaRose suspected it was an easier emotion to force. You could act happy when you were sad, but mostly it was just that; acting. But you did not have to fake anger long before it took over.
LaRose waited for a second to see if this stand-off would go away before giving her a headache. It clearly wouldn’t. She pulled her crutches out from behind her seat and got out.
She had not been completely honest about being tired. While she had been sitting all day, she had also been sitting next to Momma, feeling second-hand tension and irritability. Emotional or physical, it was all energy in the end. That was the worst part of being an empath. People could exhaust her just with their presence. Blocking it out was possible, but not less tiring. Just tiring in a different way. By the time LaRose had dragged herself to the stairs, she was already working to catch her breath.
Uncle Taylor walked past her, two boxes stacked in his hand. He opened the door with his hip and shouted inside, “if anybody wants a free beer, come grab a box!”
Now LaRose had to step aside. The group coming through was slow moving – people in their fifties or beyond, carrying on their conversations and privately hoping that by dawdling behind the others, all the boxes would be taken by others and they would get their free drink just by mingling with the crowd. Even so, she was slower, and it was worth taking a moment to catch her breath. She hated working her way through crowds of strangers. It was like swimming upstream, with everybody’s energy pushing against her.
Uncle Taylor went on to a door at the back room. If she remembered correctly from the last time she was here, that had been his office. She supposed it was going to be her room now. Stopping now and then to let someone pass her, she made her way to it.
The office had a desk, a couch, a couple bookshelves, and a little back closet of records. The couch had been folded out into a bed with a slightly discolored yellow sheet. The closet was jammed with papers, and there were scratch marks on the floor showing where filing cabinets must have been dragged. Uncle Taylor would probably have to come in now and then to retrieve his paperwork. The bookshelves were empty except for dust trails, marking the ghosts of old binders.
If Momma came in to see her sorting through her things, instead of collapsed on the bed, she would leave less worried. As much as she wanted to flop down, LaRose instead lowered herself to the floor, next to the empty bookshelf. She peeled off her sweater and wiped off the dust with it, then pushed it aside. There was a crate of books just past arm’s reach. She half stretched and half crawled, then pulled it over to her.
Alphabetized? By title or by author? Or sorted by theme, mood, subject matter? Maybe just put anywhere, and reorganized tomorrow?
LaRose rubbed her forehead. Definitely the latter.
There was a little more left to bring in, and as the door swung open with the final wave of recruited customers, she heard a sharp, lofty voice from outside.
“I can’t believe he would allow those things where food is served.”
“God, give it a rest Lucille,” another voice said. The owner of the voice knew she wouldn’t. So did LaRose. The moment her attention had been drawn to it, she felt Lucille’s personality, surging straight through the walls. It was a personality with a parasite attached; the one that loved to disapprove of things. It liked to spread itself wide and thin, draw in all the sun it could hold and put as much air as possible between itself and those left on the ground. It measured itself by the shadow it cast. The parasite had grown fat, and the rest of Lucille had grown insubstantial.
“I swear to God, if I see one of those things loose, just once, I’ll call the health inspector.”
LaRose’s stomach lurched with the realization of Lucille’s current target. A glance confirmed that the rat cage was being brought in.
LaRose closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her head, trying to not only block out noise, but distract herself with pressure. There were fears to face and rational checks and balances at the ready to counter them. “She’ll take them away!” would rise within, a choking, sour taste of panicked adrenaline, and then “Uncle Taylor won’t let her,” would be repeated, over and over, until she could make the most fearful corners of her mind believe them. It would be like vomiting – unpleasant but necessary, and over eventually. The problem wasn’t anxiety, not right now.
There were just too many damn things happening. And she still had to say good-bye to Momma.
She had planned to use Science and Philosophy. In the weeks leading up to this, she had carefully rehearsed it in her mind. Everything else would be unloaded; LaRose had put the rat cage farthest from the doors to make sure of that. Momma would come in, carrying the rats, along with worried tension. LaRose would ask about Science and Philosophy and how they had handled the trip. They would have handled it fine. They lived in an RV, for God’s sake. Being in a moving vehicle was half their life. She would show Momma where to set the cage and arrange all their things, and they would take a moment to watch the furry little boys wander around. They would talk about how the two of them were going to be okay. Then LaRose would hug Momma goodbye.
That was the scary part, because Momma might keep on asking LaRose if she needed anything, anything at all, was she absolutely sure? LaRose could say she was fine once, no problem. Probably twice. Three times might break her, and then Momma would leave upset, and would always have left upset, and who knew when they next saw each other. The trick would probably be to say something indirect. Something about sorting through her things, and needing quiet time to adjust. Quiet time was a magical phrase. LaRose needed a lot of quiet time, and reminding Momma of that was a good way to stop her from worrying about leaving on missions.
Momma would hug her one more time, and she would be gone. LaRose would finally have her chance to cry.
Everything was all out of balance now. What if Momma came in and saw LaRose like this, practically in a fetal position on the floor? What if she and Uncle Taylor had a real fight? The exchange outside had been nothing.
What if this dragged on while Momma tried to fix things that couldn’t be fixed?
LaRose could write a book titled The Care and Keeping of Octavia Evans, and the first chapter would be titled, “For God’s Sake, Let Her Believe She Fixed It.”
Heavy boots hit the floor behind her, with a tread too heavy to be Momma’s. LaRose made herself peel her arms off of her head and look up. Uncle Taylor was there, towering and solid, slightly nervous, like a conscientious bull who had found his way into a china shop and would be damned if he would be turned into a living metaphor. She remembered his soul looking like a clockwork iron badger, slightly dented and rusty, but ticking away steadily. She turned on her sight, mostly in hopes that it would be a needed distraction.
There it was, right at his feet, with an indomitable expression.
“There’s a pool in town. Your mother said it’s good for you to go swimming.”
LaRose nodded, taking slow, deep breaths, listening to him without listening. He had a good voice, deep and rhythmic, like a human metronome.
“I can’t promise to take you every day,” he continued. “Just when I can. Or I’ll find someone. She said you don’t need any special help, except getting there and back.”
He was waiting for confirmation. She nodded, then something hit her.
“Is, um-” LaRose couldn’t finish the sentence.
“She said you hate goodbyes.”
“Oh. Well. She wasn’t wrong…”
Had Momma still been angry when she left?
Did she think LaRose was upset with her?
Did she think LaRose was fine?
Did she – Was she – Could there have been an emergency with the Alchemists?
She had always said goodbye before.
At least LaRose didn’t have to not-cry anymore.