When they got back from the hardware store, Uncle Taylor went into the back closet of her room. LaRose sat on her bed while he rummaged, wondering if she would seem more impatient if he came out and she was doing nothing, as if she had been doing nothing but wonder how long this would take? Or if he came out and she was reading a book, as if she expected him to take forever? It had just been long enough that she thought scales were tipping in favor of a book, when he came out, carrying a slim box and a thick, heavy journal.
Both were old, probably antiques. The box must have originally been for selling cigars. It was papered with blackbirds happily smoking on their piney branches. The journal was bound in cracked leather. It had been made with a strap, but so many additional pages and photographs had been stuffed in, the strap had broken, and the whole thing strained against knotted cords. Both of them tingled with an angry hope, or a hopeful anger.
Uncle Taylor pulled over a chair and handed the box to her.
“This was my sister’s. Your great-great-” he waved his hand to suggest he wasn’t sure how many greats were needed, and didn’t care to stop and count, “grandmother’s. She was a seer. Back then, even more psychics lost their heads than they do now. But Hazel never did. The stuff in there was her secret.”
LaRose opened the box. There was a saucer for a teacup (but no cup to go with it), a stack of cards bound in a black ribbon, a large piece of chalk, and a filled burlap pouch. She opened the drawstring on the pouch and gently poured out a few of the contents. Out tumbled shells, buttons, beads, and the bones of small animals. She tried not to flinch.
“Her old bone kit,” Uncle Taylor said, as if this was something perfectly normal to find.
“Um…” she tried to steady her voice and sound curious in the way anyone would when asking about an unfamiliar object from the past. “What did she do with all this?”
“Fortune-telling. Somehow the same stuff carnies and grifters used was good for real powers too. She threw the bones, read tea leaves, read tarot cards… Don’t ask me how it worked. It never made sense to me. But it made sense to one other person.”
He handed over the journal. LaRose tried to open it, but the cords had grown stiff with age, and she had a mental image of pages exploding across the bed like something in a cartoon, so she stopped trying.
“We travelled with a little crew for a while. Me and Hazel, then her kids, then her grandkids and so on. We’d collect other people every now and then. People on the run from the SRPA, kids who hit the road because their folks couldn’t handle their powers. That kind of thing. There was this one guy, Matteo, back in the 40s and 50s. Pyrokinetic, with a knack for getting on the wrong side of anyone who mattered. Not a criminal, you understand, just a pain in the ass. But he was great with the kids. Most of us have to figure our powers out ourselves, or figure out how to not use them. He was one of maybe half a dozen people I’ve ever met who could teach. Not just other elementals either. Strongmen, psychics and metas too.”
“What about RWs?”
Uncle Taylor flinched inside, though it wasn’t anywhere on his face. “Well, the only reality warpers we travelled with already had their powers shut down before Matteo joined us. You think the SRPA is tough on them now, you should have seen back in the day. Anyway, he took a lot of notes. What he taught, what he figured out, what other people said helped him out. He settled down eventually, with a couple of the orphans and his-” Uncle Taylor paused, then laughed to himself. “God, last time I talked about this I still had to use a fucking euphemism. Times really do march on. Anyway, he had a husband. Not legally, of course, but in every other sense.”
LaRose smiled. Uncle Taylor was happy and wistful all at once, and it was nice to see him remembering, carrying so many feelings without settling immediately back into a stoic steadiness. Not that Uncle Taylor suppressed things. That felt different, like tense, vibrating rubberbands. He simply felt things in small doses, and for him, something felt right about that. What was nice, LaRose decided, was that he was feeling one of those small feelings, without immediately being spooked by it.
“Anyway, ten or fifteen years after they left us, Nick tracked me down. That was the husband. Matteo passed away. Nothing bad, just life ending, like it does. Apparently he kept filling up that journal. Always wanted to turn it into a book, but the politics were all wrong. Nick wasn’t a writer. Me either. Both of us figured it would take a miracle or crazy luck for us to find somebody to finish it, because we didn’t know where to fucking begin. Luck’s mostly about time, and I had a lot more of it. So he asked me to hold onto it and keep my eyes open, and I said sure. Meanwhile, I don’t think Matteo would mind if you took a peek. He had a lot of long talks with Hazel before she passed. The two of them actually got along, somehow.”
LaRose laughed. Uncle Taylor was so confused, it actually created an expression on his face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain why this is funny… you’re just insulting him like you expect me to join in and I have no idea who you’re talking about… literally all I know about this guy is how much you actually liked him.”
“Of course I liked him! Never travel with somebody you can’t like. If you’re stuck in one place, fine, put up with people you hate. You’re not going anywhere so you might as well. But if you’re on the road, be with people you like. Understand?”
LaRose nodded obediently, trying to suppress the smile.
“He was a little prick, and I liked him. Those things can go together.”
“I know,” LaRose said. “I know, I’m sorry for interrupting.”
“Point is, there’s a lot in there about how Hazel’s powers worked. I figure between her kit and his notes you can figure something out for yourself.”
She kept nodding. “I’ll be careful with them, I promise.”
He shrugged, then stood up, his stoicism finally catching up with his nostalgia. On an impulse, LaRose found herself calling after him.
“You miss travelling. Why’d you stop?”
“Ran out of people I liked.”
He left the room before she could ask any follow up. She wouldn’t have. She felt guilty enough for the twist she had just put in his gut.
After spending far too much time worrying about whether or not she had spoiled Uncle Taylor’s afternoon (of course she hadn’t. She knew he would move on quickly… why couldn’t she?) LaRose tried once again to open the book. The knot was practically calcified. She would have to find something to cut it, and then some way to fasten it closed again.
She would worry about finding something to tie it closed later. She got a pair of scissors from the desk, and cut the cord. Papers fluttered to the ground like so many butterflies who had just found the hole in the net.