Uncle Taylor went outside and called Momma. He left three voicemails, all of them shouting. Inside, LaRose felt like someone had attached a chain to her waist, and the other end to a roaring freight train. Hauled along behind someone else’s fight, unable to break away, unable to brace for the next battery, unable to do anything except hope she would come colliding into something so big she stopped feeling anything at all.
When he came in, she hid under her bed. Not because it would stop her from feeling anything, but because she could feel that he was coming in to say something nice. Something to apologize for the fight he must know she couldn’t help but sense. He would have no way to understand. He would need to see her smile and kindly accept his apology. If she didn’t, he would feel bad. Then she would feel worse for making him feel bad. And she was just too tired to smile.
So she hid. Not well enough to make him worry because he couldn’t find her. She hid obviously and childishly, because that might just give him the hint that he needed to leave her alone.
He got the hint. While she silently shook and cried under the bed, he worked in the kitchen. First putting the food away, then cleaning the dishes, then sorting all the food from most to least salvageable. The anger dissipated in the rhythm of work. He was a cool tower of twilight again.
She lay there for a while, feeling the quiet, trying to let it soak in the same way the anger had. Trying to let it wash the old feelings away. Why did good feelings work so much more slowly than the bad ones? It was no fair.
Eventually, though, she did crawl out. She pulled a marker and a sheet of paper over to her. I’m going outside to swing.
She sat and held it up until he noticed, and nodded.
“You know what schoolwork you’ve got to do?”
She hadn’t thought about it. When the mood struck her, she would study; this worked well enough for LaRose because the mood to read something struck her two or three times a day. Usually curiosity over the same subject stuck with her for days, and she would learn everything she could until something else made her curious. When she tried regular school, the way they divided the day into subjects frustrated her. Why couldn’t she just spend all day learning about addition and subtraction? If they wanted her to also learn about the life cycle of a butterfly, that was fine. She could guarantee that, by the end of the week, she would be ready to study something new. Changing topics every forty-five minutes made her stupid, because by the time she was over her disappointment at not continuing the math, they would be almost done with science, and she wouldn’t remember a thing that had been said.
Rather than explain all of this to Uncle Taylor, she grabbed a nearby book about the history of pirates and smiled at him. He nodded with an approving grunt. She tucked it into the waistband of her pajamas so she could grab her crutches, and went outside.
She spent a long time swinging, either back and forth for exercise, or just to rest while she read about Bartholomew Roberts. It was probably an hour before Uncle Taylor’s mood inside shifted. Mild surprise, then tension, then concern, then an unmoving cloud of clammy depression. He came outside, and stood for long, awful moment. The misery just hung over the both of them, LaRose anxious to know the cause and get it over with it, Uncle Taylor knowing and not feeling any better for it.
“We’ve gotta go down to the police station. Your-” he sighed and rubbed his head. “I guess if I try to sugarcoat it, you’ll just know and feel worse.”
“They found a body with your Momma’s things on it. So next they find a person who knew the person to say if it’s her or not. That person’s me, I guess. I figure, if she put her things on somebody else and bolted she had her reasons, so I’ll say it’s her either way.”
LaRose’s fingers were tight around the rope of the swing.
“I can’t leave you here, so better go get some clothes on.”
In the car, he said, “she might be all right. I figure it’s fifty-fifty whether something happened to her, or she’s trying to fake something. If it’s the second, I’ll still tell them it’s her. But when I come out, I’ll tap my chest like this,” he put his finger to his heart and gave two slow taps. “So you know she’s really fine.”
LaRose nodded, then curled up with her head against the glass.
“Even if she’s safe, you’ll need to act sad for the cops. Can you do that?”
She nodded again. She was a terrible liar, but if the news was that Momma was in hiding, she would still be sad without any acting.
“Good. One more thing. I’m pretty sure she called me over because she knew this was going to happen. She wants me to do the smart thing, and I’m pretty sure that’s to go disappear somewhere. That means leaving. No trailer. It’s too easy to track. When we get back, can you pack up your stuff to move into my truck?”
She breathed on the window pane and wrote with her finger. My swing?
“Whatever you need, kid.”
They drove in silence the rest of the way.
Waiting in the police station was like being in the bottom of an ocean trench, down so deep that light could not penetrate. Bad memories filled it up to the point that sorrow and fear and anger and hatred all compressed into a colorless, heartless weight. Most of that was left by the people who did not belong there; the people who came in on the worst days of their lives. Whether it was bad because they had done something bad, or had something bad done to them, or been falsely accused of doing something bad, the wretchedness flaked off of them and became part of the sickening wallpaper.
The cops wandered around in a sort of emotional diving suit. Inside might be anger, fear, hatred or compassion, but all of it was kept separated by a layer of pure will. Whatever kind of person was inside, for as long as they were in sight of the regular people having their miserable days, the cops would be no more human than they needed to be in order to finish their work. Even the ones being sort of nice. Even the ones being sort of horrifying. This was the bottom of the ocean, and they were the beings adapted to it. Everyone else was just hoping that whatever current had taken them down would soon take them up again.
LaRose, sitting in the waiting room, was all of it. The misery and the terror and the history, the police and their carefully insulated layers of feelings, the separation, the compression, the alienation. Uncle Taylor had left his old denim jacket, because the waiting room was cold and he was big enough to ignore that more easily than her. LaRose had it half wrapped around her shoulders and half tucked up between her cheek and the armrest. It was the only thing that didn’t feel like all the rest of the police station. She was trying to make it her diving suit. It was not completely working, but it was better than nothing.
When Uncle Taylor came out, LaRose stared at him, waiting for the tap on his chest. After a moment of nothing, he sighed, stuck his hands in his pockets, and shook his head. She pulled the sleeve of his jacket over her face and squeezed herself into a tight ball. She pushed the heel of her hand into her mouth and bit down. She wished she was a balloon, and with enough pressure, combined with the slight puncture of her teeth, she would just pop into nothingness.
She didn’t pop. Instead, Uncle Taylor filled out some paperwork, and they left.
“You’re going to be all right,” was the first thing he said on the drive back to the trailer.
She shook her head.
“Yes, you are. You know why? Because I’m your guardian now. I know we just met, but I think we get on okay, and I’ll make sure everything’s taken care of. So you’ll be just fine.”
She pulled the collar of her T-shirt up over her head.
“I don’t mean you can’t be sad for a bit. That’s normal. Be sad for as long as you want. Just, you know, no need to be sad and worried. Nothing bad is gonna happen to you.”
Her voice came out muffled. Uncle Taylor reached out with one hand and pulled her shirt down off her face.
“Say that again?”
“I fucked up,” LaRose said. “I pulled her off the mission. Something bad should happen to me, because this was my fault.”
“First of all, no cussing until you’re thirteen. Second of all, there is no way in hell this was your fault.”
“But they wouldn’t have found her if she’d stuck to the mission. She had a system, and she had to break it to come back and take care of me.”
“Uh-uh, no way, this is not on you. No fucking way.” They came to a red light, and he took the opportunity to look straight into her eyes. They were like hers; so dark brown they were almost black. Momma’s eyes had been lighter. “Tell me exactly what happened last month. Your words.”
“I, um, I was stupid. I made soup and I was boiling it too long, and I knocked it off the stove by accident. It splashed on my legs and it hurt – I mean, nothing on my legs hurts too much because my nerves are all fu- because of the spine thing, but I could feel it hurt a little. I cleaned it up fine but then my skin started bubbling and smelling funny? So I called the hospital because I was scared. Then they called CPS and Momma had to leave a mission. That’s why she had to call you.”
The light changed and behind them cars started beeping.
“Listen, kid,” Uncle Taylor said as he started the truck moving. “You didn’t do a goddamn thing wrong. You did exactly what you were supposed to do.”
“But if I hadn’t-”
“Fuck if you hadn’t. Fuck ifs and becauses and all that shit. Half the time nobody knows what’s going to happen. A million things could have happened. Your Momma could have lived through whatever happened this morning, or she could have died out in the field without you having done a thing. Listen, for the rest of your life, before you ask what should have happened or what you should have done, ask yourself one question. Say it after me. ‘What’s my job?’”
“What’s my job?”
“What’s my job?”
“One more time, just so it sticks.”
“What’s my job?”
“Everybody’s got a job. Even if they aren’t making money, even if nobody’s asked them to do anything. Just by being alive and who they are and what kind of a situation they are in, they have a job. When people don’t do their jobs right, things go wrong for everyone. When people take on jobs they aren’t supposed to have, that can make things go wrong too. Like a kid trying to be their own parent. That’s not supposed to happen. Kids suck at being parents – that’s why nature doesn’t let them have babies until they’re grown. Well, until they’re teenagers, which is half grown, and still not a great idea even if it works out sometimes… that’s a whole other conversation we can have another fucking day. Point is, you are definitely still a kid. You think you know better than nature?”
LaRose shook her head.
“Don’t quit using your voice, after we’ve made so much progress.”
“Good. You’re a kid. Kids have two jobs; figure out how the world works, and figure out how to be decent in it. Parents also have two jobs; don’t let the world get in the way of kids figuring things out, and keep the kids alive until they’re grown-ups. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Kids’ jobs. Parents’ jobs. It was your Momma’s job to either be around to make sure you didn’t give yourself a fucking burn, or make sure somebody was. Everybody in that story did their fucking jobs, except her. So it is not your fault.”
“But she had a mission.”
Uncle Taylor sighed. “Look, kid, thing about being a grown-up is you have lots of jobs. Sometimes they get to be a little too much. When that happens, you can get rid of some jobs, or build a team to help share the work. Your Momma had too many jobs. That’s not bad, that’s just life. But she could have made any number of calls to balance things out. Some of those calls would have sucked, but they’d have been better than making you be your own parent. That wasn’t your job; say it.”
LaRose didn’t want to say it. It felt like a betrayal. But she forced it out, in a small whisper. “I’m not my own parent. It’s not my job.”
“I’m not my own parent. That’s not my job.”
“I’m not my own parent. It’s not my job to be my own parent.”
She was shaking and, for the third or fourth time in one day, crying. But it felt a little bit good this time. Like some well inside of her was being unstoppered. Nobody else around her was mourning, she realized. Uncle Taylor was feeling little flickers of worry and sadness, floating on the surface as usual. People in the cars nearby were bored or irritated or even happy about something. She was sad. LaRose was deeply, achingly sad, and the only person she had to cry for was herself.
“You’re a triple threat,” Uncle Taylor said. “You’re little, you’re an empath, and besides all that you care about right and wrong. So you’re gonna want to take on a lot of jobs that aren’t yours. Always focus on your job. Do it the best you can before taking on another. And for right now, remember that your only job is just to be a kid.”
LaRose nodded and wiped her eyes.
“And forget about the monster. Your Momma was just so worried she tried to scare you. I hate that; I know why people tell stories like that to little kids. But they do.”
LaRose shook her head.
“Trust me, kid. You don’t even have to be mad at her for it. I will be mad, but it’s just something people do.”
LaRose shook her head again. “No. It wasn’t a lie. I can tell.”
He started to open his mouth, then his thoughts caught up. “Oh. Shit.” Then he shook his head. “No, no, I’d have heard about something like that. It doesn’t exist.”
“Well maybe Momma was wrong, but she believed it when she said it.”
Uncle Taylor mulled it over. “Well,” he said. “Guess now it’s my job to figure that out. But don’t you worry. Even if it is real I think I can take it. You want to know why?”
LaRose thought for a minute. Pieces came together; how young he looked, how he complained like an old man, how old a person would have to be if he was her great-great-great uncle. “Are you… can you heal fast and stay young and things like that?”
He grinned. “That’s right kid. As far as I can tell, I’m fucking immortal. I’m going to be around for at least as long as you are. So I better make sure that’s a long time, or else I’ll have to find somebody else to keep me company.”
“Yeah. It sucks to be lonely.”
“Yep. Stop cussing.”