Uncle Taylor went to pick up his groceries first, and LaRose waited in his truck. Instead of opening her book, she watched the parking lot with fascination, absorbed in its nothingness. A woman with a long blonde ponytail got out of her SUV and walked to the corralled shopping carts. LaRose tried to get a look at the woman’s soul, and with some effort, she found it. It was a small, walnut shaped thing, strung around her neck with thornlike cords. LaRose shuddered and looked away, then found herself too curious not to look for more.
Before Uncle Taylor returned, she saw the following; a melted marshmallow cloud marbled with cotton candy shades of pink, blue, purple and green; a cluster of lemon-colored mushrooms sprouting from a man’s shoulders; a paper goose that looked like someone had used a potato peeler on it, and that now limped along with ribbons of itself spilling onto the pavement; a massive, rusting car that was lashed to the waist of its person with a heavy chain; a bird that flew so far from the woman it belonged to that LaRose nearly did not realize it was a soul, until she realized it was made of leather and shoelaces.
“Everything all right?” he said as he climbed in.
“Yes. No. Nothing new. I don’t know.”
He had nothing to say to that, so he drove to the hardware store. As she rode along, LaRose wondered if there was a way to better understand what the soul shapes she saw meant. Were they like dreams that held clues to decode? Did they have meanings that would only be understood by the person who they were attached to? Were they just the actual shapes that a person’s personality took, but on a plane that most people could not see?
“Uncle Taylor?” LaRose asked. “Have you known other empaths?”
He pursed his lips, then shook his head. “Lots of psychics. Seers, telepaths, finders, postcognitives, that kind of thing. No empaths. Why?”
“I just thought if I could meet another one, I’d know if my visions are something objective, or a more of a symbolic representation. You know, like a code that I have to solve.”
“Most psychics I’ve met, their powers don’t work much like the other. One telepath hears thoughts, another sees them as pictures. One seer has dreams, another just has gut feelings when people talk about plans.” Wheels turned in his head, and suddenly a cloud of worry formed inside him. “You don’t have a handle on them yet?”
LaRose winced. “Momma always just figured it was better to try not to use my power too much. She said when psychics have trouble understanding their visions, trying too hard can make them snap. We’re just getting more information than any one person can process, so we burn our own brains out.”
“You believe that?”
LaRose chewed her thumb. “I’d have to do more research. I believed it as a kid, and then I didn’t want to make her mad by arguing about it.” She suddenly brightened up. “Can I get a computer? An old used one will be fine. Momma never wanted one in the RV because we needed to stay off the grid. I can find out what studies people have done on empaths.”
“I don’t know much about studies, but your great-grandmother walked right up to that edge. She saw the future, all spread out in so many threads she couldn’t keep track of them all. She got pretty goddamn eccentric. Then she figured out how to keep track, and she held it together after all.”
“Made herself some tools. It’ll be easier to show you. I’ll dig them out sometime when we get back. And I think I’ve got a backup computer somewhere.”
At the hardware store, Uncle Taylor went to get a trowel and a shovel, while LaRose became absorbed in a stand full of little gardening handbooks. Even though they were barely more than pamphlets, they were a perfect distraction. She was completely absorbed in the charts of companion plants, diagrams of garden layouts, and glossy pictures of blooming flowers and ripening fruits.
“Do you think we should get plants today?” she asked Uncle Taylor. “I thought we would, but now I think maybe I should plan more. Make the layout of the garden and decide exactly where things should go, then get them.”
“Whatever you want.”
LaRose’s grin rose so large and sudden on her face it almost hurt. She thumbed through more handbooks, enjoying the magazine smell and the polished click as the pages moved from one side to the other.
Something moved out of the corner of her eye.
No it didn’t. She was looking, where a thing would have been, if it had been anything.
Yes it did. There it was again. The moment she wasn’t looking right at it.
LaRose tried training her eyes on the pages, letting a home-grown mushroom kit burn its afterimage into her retinas. Over her left shoulder, there was something rippling and sinuous. It was almost colorless, like hot air over a grill, but it was also tinted. Blue-green-red-violet-gold, shifting like film on a bubble. She tried opening up her vision, the way she did when she tried to see a person’s soul. It seemed to get a little more stable. Its form still twisted and blurred, but the colors became more saturated. Before she had felt she was half guessing whether or not she was still seeing it, but now she could at least tell, with certainty, where it was and where it wasn’t.
If she took her eyes off the page, even without turning her head, the vision disappeared and she had to start all over again. But her peripheral vision could hold it, with the support of her second sight. As she waited, hoping enough of the thing would move into sight for her to know what it was, she felt her sight opening wider. When she turned on her sight, ordinarily, it was like opening her eyes for the first time after a heavy night’s sleep. Except, of course, her eyes would already be open. As a child, LaRose had thought she had a second pair of invisible eyelids, that were transparent except for having little filters that blocked out the soul shapes. Now she felt as though, under those invisible eyelids was another pair, which she could open, and see the outlines of the shape just a little more clearly. And under those was another, and then another, and if she just opened up enough eyes…
A hand seized LaRose’s right wrist, and she twisted to see who it was. It was no one. The sensation disappeared the moment she turned.
LaRose’s heart was pounding. The hand had not felt like Momma’s, or like Uncle Taylor’s. It was small but long fingered, and cool. Elderly, papery skin. Just as human as anything. Except, of course, that she could not feel anything except the hand. For anyone else, that would have been normal, and if the touch had landed on LaRose’s sleeve, or anywhere else protected by fabric, that too would have been normal.
But it had clearly fallen on LaRose’s bare skin. Where she should have been shocked by a feeling of everything that made up a person. This person was just a voice, and a disembodied hand.
For all the wrongness of that, it was not a malevolent hand, or a deceptive voice. So LaRose gently closed all her eyes, the one real pair and all the ones that could see beyond. Then she reopened just the pair that saw the normal world as everyone else saw it. She gathered the four handbooks that looked most useful, and wheeled herself over to meet Uncle Taylor, trying not to show how much she was shaking.