LaRose’s first day went like this; a bit of crying, with the door safely closed. Then, when she had a scrubbed-out, newly clean feeling inside, she let Science and Philosophy out to play on the foldout couch that would be her bed. Science, the albino, was slow these days. Cataracts covered his pink eyes, and when he walked, his hind legs wobbled with a slight twinge of arthritis. LaRose could feel the way the joints grated against each other, like rusty hinges. Even so, the new smells of the place triggered his ratly curiosity, and he wriggled across the folds of the pale fleece blanket. Philosophy, chubby and patched with brown and white, made a faster exploration, then scurried back to report to his companion.
Without knowing what was said, LaRose felt the passing of information between them. It felt like any pair of elderly gentlemen, discussing the weather in a new place. Philosophy, though at two and a half fairly old for a rat, still showed a filial concern for Science, who was nearly four. LaRose had gotten the younger rat specifically as a companion for Science, who she had rescued from her cousin’s science fair on impulse. The adolescents and teachers alike had no idea how miserable the little animal had been in his maze, and would have taken him back if they knew she had him tucked into her backpack. So she claimed to have let him loose. She would never have let an albino loose; they were easy targets out in the wild. But they did not know that, so she was not forced to return him. Momma screamed at her in fury, both when the rat disappeared and again later, when LaRose revealed that the rat was not loose in the wild but living in their trailer. It was an awful fight, but putting up with Science’s misery would have been a worse punishment, so LaRose took it. Then, months later, LaRose’s research revealed that rats were such intensely social animals that they could die of loneliness if kept alone. So she got Philosophy.
Watching the pair of them, grooming, nuzzling and chasing, being nurtured by the fact of having the other one to fuss over, always stabilized her. Even Momma had to admit that LaRose was more even-keeled, after her theft of Science. Not enough to openly admit that some of the things she had said had been wrong, but that was just Momma.
LaRose still missed Momma, but less painfully. When her old-men-rat-babies were feeling worn down and sleepy, she tucked them into the hammock in their cage, and sat on her bed to read. She was midway through her fourth re-reading of Middlemarch.
She stayed that way until a little after midnight, when Uncle Taylor came in to say he was closing things up for the night, and did she need anything? It was then that they worked out that she hadn’t eaten dinner, or showered, or really taken care of any such trivial, biological needs since, oh, mid-afternoon. Uncle Taylor felt bad, and LaRose felt bad for being the cause of his feeling bad. She apologized repeatedly, and tried to explain how easy it was for her to just forget things like that, and promised to work on doing better.
Uncle Taylor was puzzled, and LaRose was not sure what to do with that.
The shower was upstairs, next to his bedroom. It was not worth struggling with those stairs this close to bed; she would just wait until morning. The customer bathroom downstairs had been constructed pre-ADA and was too small to draw the attention of any inspectors. In other words, her chair barely fit. She used her crutches, and hoisted herself onto the sink to give herself a short sponge bath, and change her catheter bag. When she came out, Uncle Taylor had a cheeseburger and fries ready for her.
He was already calm. Not flustered over the fact that LaRose had been accidentally overlooked, or the problems unsolved. Just going about his routine, tidying the last dishes in the kitchen, checking the mouse traps, wiping the counters, and not worrying at all about LaRose. It was odd, but also felt nice.
“This is a great burger,” LaRose told him.
“I should hope so,” he said, “or it’s bad news for my business.”
The compliment had made him slightly uncomfortable. LaRose took note of that. Again, the discomfort faded quickly into the rhythm of his tasks.
He took her dishes, which LaRose slightly resented. She couldn’t fight or save the world like Momma. She couldn’t keep up with a normal load of coursework, and they didn’t have money, which meant that love of books aside, she wasn’t going to college. But she could clean up after herself. She had always cleaned up after herself.
Then Uncle Taylor shut off the lights and went to bed. LaRose was tired, exhausted. But she was also clear. All the ways other people could contaminate her mood, her reality, her very sense of self – they were completely cleared out. Her own self had been balanced. For a little while, she could be LaRose, looking through a window, knowing the world without being it. This was a rare feeling, and while she had it, she wanted to explore her new home.
She did not have to go anywhere to do this. If she touched a person, skin to skin, the impressions of mood and flickering soul-visions became a complete experience of them. She would know the size of their palms by the way they sweated. She would know their chest by the way a crush made their heart pound, their stomach by the butterflies inside it. She would know their hair by the weight of it against their neck and their toes by the way their shoes slightly pinched. The only privacy they had left would be their unspoken thoughts, floating like foam on the surface of feelings and sensations.
For a place as alive as Uncle Taylor’s bar, the same principle applied. So LaRose eased herself onto the floor, took off her shoes and socks, and sat.
The familiar spirit was still there, smelling of water and earth and old, mighty trees. But there was something else. A parasite, like on the woman, Lucille, from earlier. It was smaller, though. The merest little worm, suckling at the sap, so delicately the effect could hardly be noticed. But the spirit was already slightly weakened from it. Life was being drawn away, faster than it could be regenerated.
Did this parasite have a physical source? LaRose carefully explored the house. Her room; the former office. The main bar. The side room with the pool table and the dart board. The kitchen and restrooms. The basement. The little bedroom and bathroom upstairs, where Uncle Taylor was getting ready for bed. There were no surprises; no hidden rooms or areas she had forgotten about. Everywhere she looked, the house felt the same. Slightly deflated and fading away.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered into the night air. “Tell me, please.”
The bar’s spirit almost stirred in response. But it had no answer. It did not even seem to know what she was talking about.
LaRose got up early, to meet with Uncle Taylor and describe what she noticed. He listened, then shrugged.
“There’s a patch of land I sold off a while ago. It used to be attached to this place, but I’ve never used it and I got a good offer. I guess it just knows it’s a little smaller.”
LaRose shook her head. “First of all, it’s not the land that has the spirit. It’s this bar, specifically. Second, it’s not smaller. It’s the same size, but weaker. Like it’s getting sick.”
He shrugged again, and served her some scrambled eggs. They were delicious, but she was careful not to compliment him this time, except by scraping the plate and returning it with a smile. His face never moved, but his badger-soul briefly glowed.
She returned to her room, and tried to resume unpacking. There was a lopsided stack of books on the lower shelf, mostly nature, so she could continue sorting them by subject. Or she could work out where to put her clothes. There was no space to hang anything. The only drawers were in Uncle Taylor’s desk. Former desk. She could put socks and underwear there, and fold the rest on the bookshelf.
Momma had said, “you’re going to stay with Uncle Taylor for a while.” How long was a while? “It will be better, now that you’re grown, to not be dragged around all over the country.”
And LaRose had nodded and cooperated and not asked any more questions, because she could feel how afraid Momma was of upsetting her. She hadn’t seen the need to ask any more questions. Momma wasn’t lying or concealing anything. Momma was just confident that everything was worked out, so LaRose felt confident that things would become clear in their time.
That was the loophole in an empath’s inbuilt lie-detector. It didn’t register as an untruth if the person telling it could believe it.
Nothing was settled. Nothing was planned. Momma was just sick of LaRose.
That wasn’t a nice thing to think about Momma. It shouldn’t be true.
It was true. LaRose was inconvenient. She was like one of those changeling children from her fairy tale books. Able to mimic a normal child, but not able to grow up into something independent and adult. Trapped and entrapping anyone who cared for her.
Most people would be able to fight and resist that thought. People did that all the time, with thoughts that disagreed with them. They hurled it up like a spoiled dinner, no matter how real it was. But for LaRose, it was like a thousand rubber bands had snapped inside her, all at once. Because she knew. She had known all along that this was how Momma felt, and she had known that Momma felt bad for it, and that the worst thing in the world was for Momma to be reminded that LaRose couldn’t help but know. So LaRose had tangled that knowledge all up inside her, so it couldn’t touch any other part of her, and contaminate her words or actions or any of her other thoughts.
No more Momma. No more need for the strings. So they gave out.
Now there was Uncle Taylor to make happy. He could understand crying on her first night, but too much would worry him. She rubbed hard at her eyes.
Tea. It was time to make some tea.
The kitchen was too narrow for her wheelchair, and she couldn’t go in on her crutches and carry hot water at the same time. She felt oddly nervous to mention this to Uncle Taylor; like she was making herself too visible. Too needy. But when she overcame this, he simple dug an electric kettle out from the back of one of his cabinets, and said she could keep it in her room. All she had to do was fill it from the bathroom sink, and she could brew as many mugs of tea as she wanted.
Long ago, she had abandoned tea bags for loose leaf, partly because the flavor was better. Mostly because it was an excuse to collect little infusers. She had ones shaped like cats that hung on the edge of the mug, koi fish that swam below floating lilypads, long stemmed roses, and friendly sea monsters who lurked on the bottom but waved a tentacle up above the surface. Also, she liked the neat rows of jars that gave the air a faint flowery scent.
LaRose took her koi infuser and put down a layer of black tea, then a sprinkling of cinnamon, ginger and orange peel. She stripped off her shoes and socks and pressed her feet again to the floor.
“If you can find a way to tell me what’s wrong,” she whispered, “I’ll try to fix you.”
For a second, the floor seemed to vibrate in acknowledgement. LaRose waited, but there was nothing more. She started to pull her socks back on, then stopped, and left them off. She put away the books she had begun to sort. The bottom two shelves were for her tea things. The kettle, the mugs, the jars and the infusers. Then her skirts and sweaters and other bits of clothing that she didn’t mind being seen.
One top shelf could be for her Andrew Lang collection; The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Pink Fairy Book, and so on. She rarely read them anymore. If she wanted to read a fairy tale, she had several other collections that appealed more to her now. But they had been too important to her childhood; getting rid of them would never be an option. Besides, they looked so beautiful together, lined neatly in all their colors and the black and gold lettering. So it made sense to put them somewhere inconvenient for reading, but in full display.
The rest of her books could be arranged throughout the room. Maybe she could turn some of the milk crates sideways and stack them into bookshelves, maybe tie them together with ribbons and put beads on the outside ones, so they had a colorful, bohemian kind of look…
Below her, the floor grew warm. Almost the way anything would if it was pressed against human warmth for long enough, but also just a little bit more.