Through the walls of their trailer, LaRose could feel Momma simmering. She was trying to make anger. Whenever Momma did not know what to feel, or did not like what she was feeling, she tried to feel anger. Lots of grown-ups did this. LaRose did not understand why. She hated how anger felt, bubbling up and blistering the skin from within. She did her best not to feel it, or give other people reasons to feel it when they were around her. This did not stop them from finding other reasons to feel it.
LaRose wasn’t sure why Momma was trying to feel anger. Uncle Taylor was coming to stay. Supposedly that was good news. When Momma said he was coming, she said it was a good thing for all of them, and she believed it. LaRose wouldn’t be alone when Momma had to leave on missions. If LaRose needed something, he could help her, and Momma wouldn’t have to worry. And it was good for Uncle Taylor because… Momma had stumbled for words here.
LaRose had thought the conversation was going very well. It was pleasant and straightforward and there were no lies in it. She felt bad for Momma, coming up on a difficult topic and not knowing the words for it, so she had decided to help out. She had filled in that Uncle Taylor was old, and when people grew old their friends all died, so it was good for them to be around younger people, who weren’t going to die so soon.
For a moment she felt proud, and then the sinking realization that the pride was not coming from Momma. She was feeling proud of herself for having figured something out and put it into words, but, even though her conclusion was right, Momma felt uncomfortable. Then a little angry. There had been a lecture on not saying that kind of thing when Uncle Taylor came over. LaRose had cried and promised without being certain what she was promising. Momma’s anger had given way to this strange abyss that was made of hardly any emotions at all. LaRose had tried making fudge with ice cream to make Momma feel better, and it didn’t work, but Momma fake smiled and LaRose fake smiled back, then hid in the woods behind their trailer until Momma felt better for real.
Things like that often happened when LaRose tried to say things. Because of it, she didn’t talk very much.
Anyway, it was now a week later. Uncle Taylor was due sometime between now and dinnertime. Momma was inside, feeling a little bit of every emotion and trying to simmer all of them into anger. LaRose was on her swing, trying to feel as little of Momma as possible.
Everywhere they parked the trailer, LaRose found a nearby tree and Momma hung the swing. It was just an old wooden plank on a rope. It was perfect because LaRose could exercise just by shifting her weight back and forth. Sometimes she kicked against the dirt or the trunk of the tree. There wasn’t much power or control in those kicks, but at least she was trying to move, and that was some exercise. She had been born with spina bifida and the doctors had said she might not move her legs at all, so just being able to make them do something gave her satisfaction. The hard part was how to get down and back to her crutches when she was done. The simplest way was to simply slow down, let herself tumble to the ground, and shimmy over to wherever she had dropped them. Her clothes ended up grass stained and dusty, but most other kids ended up that way after a day of playing, so that was all right.
The other good thing about swinging was how much it made her feel like herself. Other people’s feelings tended to cling to her. Momma’s moods came to her, of course, but also those of any neighbors who happened to be near their current spot; trailer park neighbors or fellow campers or people in cars passing by on the highway. Even objects could carry emotions, if they had once meant enough to somebody. Lost toys on the roadside were like buried mines to LaRose. Sometimes it seemed like feelings followed her around. Like they were crying out for attention, and the moment an empath came into range, they rushed in, eager to be perceived by someone.
“Wasn’t it enough to be felt the first time?” she wanted to ask them. “Why do I have to feel you too?”
In crowds, it could get so bad that she completely lost track of herself. She became like a clear glass marble in a jar of tumbled stones; the feature that made her unique also made her invisible. Solitude helped, but something about the suspension and the spinning and the vortices of cool air spiralling around her made her feel like herself again. The only thing better was to find a pool, perhaps in a motel during the off-season when it would be completely deserted, and go for a swim. The water took away the excess feeling like so much dirt.
About half a mile up the road, a mind drew her attention. It was interesting because it was focused on their trailer. There were no expectations, either hopeful or anxious. Just an intention, moving itself from point A to point B. Sensing it, she felt the same as she felt when she sat in front of the screen door during a thunderstorm, seeing all the colors turned to indigo and purple-black, and hearing grumbles so steady and strong, they were as reassuring as silence. It had to be Uncle Taylor.
LaRose tumbled off her tire swing into the dust. Instead of pulling herself up on her crutches, she tucked them under her arm and army crawled under the trailer. She did not know why she did this. Her mind had a tendency to catch up late to her body, when it came to actions. Especially when other people were involved. Under the trailer, she realized that when Momma met Uncle Taylor, simmering mock-anger soup would meet calm thunder, and whatever chemical reaction spewed out of that mixture, she wanted to be formally introduced after it had completed.
She congratulated her body on its quick recognition of the threat, but chided it for choosing such an uncomfortable hiding place.
After a few minutes, a forest green truck pulled up and parked behind the trailer. Boots stepped out of it; the stompy kind, not cowboy boots, with dark jeans pulled over them. The stride didn’t look like someone who was very old. They got to the stoop, paused, and LaRose felt a prickling. Something was telling the man that there was something going on. His attention swept back and forth along the grass, and then he lowered himself.
LaRose didn’t think the face that met hers looked like someone related. It also didn’t look like the face of someone old. Momma had said Uncle Taylor was her great-great-great uncle, so he had to be ancient, but he seemed like a regular adult. He looked like twilight made into a person; solemn and tall enough to fill the horizon, with little points of light reflecting off of his black-brown eyes like the first stars.
People who looked at LaRose were usually charmed, then disappointed. Charmed because she had big eyes and soft black curls and, if she felt like smiling, a pretty smile. Disappointed because of all the disappointing things about her. Shortly after being disappointed by her, they tried to ignore her, because it wasn’t pleasant to think about cute eight year olds who were never going to amount to anything.
She waited for the man to get disappointed.
“Is she in a mood in there?” he asked.
“Well, then.” He straightened up, without this news having had much of an effect. “Guess I’ll see you inside when I see you.”
LaRose couldn’t hear enough words to know how the argument started, but it did. It felt like waves battering a rocky coastline. Like a force of nature that didn’t care how unmoved the receiver of the attack was. She wrapped her arms around her head, against the sensation of having her insides pummelled by words she couldn’t hear. There was no point in trying to get farther away. She moved too slowly and her range was too big, and once this was over she would be expected for supper.
It ended, eventually, and she felt she could come out without it being too obvious that she had cried a little. There were greens and creamed corn from a can, and hot dogs. LaRose washed up while Momma poured two beers and a soda. Then she was finally officially introduced to Uncle Taylor.
He still wasn’t disappointed. He wasn’t charmed either. Just sizing her up. He wasn’t upset after whatever he and Momma had argued about. LaRose wondered if he had feelings at all, or just thoughts.
Momma wasn’t angry anymore. She was tired out, and all the parts of her that weren’t tired were busy making sure she moved so fast that nobody could see that she was tired. Even tired, Momma was beautiful. She had pale brown coppery skin and black curls cut close to her skin. She liked combat boots and battered leather jackets but also had her makeup done every morning – especially her scarlet lipstick. LaRose would always lie in bed pretending to sleep until Momma put on her lipstick. It felt rude to even open her eyes until Momma had the feeling she had when her makeup was done. In other families, it would be like walking in on people while they were on the toilet.
While they ate, Momma went over the care of LaRose.
“She listens okay, but she can be a little stubborn about speaking to strangers. If you have some old army buddies over, she’ll hide, and if you can get her to say hello, nice to meet you and goodbye you’ll have done better than I can most days. But she won’t bother you either. Mostly she reads or plays outside on her swing. She’ll do schoolwork without being asked and so long as she passes an exam at the end of the year the government says it’s okay to have her down as homeschooled. If social services comes by, the story is that I’m a photographer, and you’ve been here this whole time, except last month you were off to see a friend who was sick.”
“The government knows she’s got a power?”
“Yes, but they think she’s a locator like me. Not an empath.”
“How’d you pull that off?”
“Had a friend pull a blank form for the tests and filled it out myself. Then when the hospital tested her I switched the results. They think it’s a real record.”
“Good. How does she manage it?”
“She just doesn’t use it.”
That sparked curiosity and skepticism, both of which he filed away like letters to read later.
“I explained the danger when she was little,” Momma continued. “She knows to leave it alone. And as long as she does, the SRPA won’t come back on our trail. Which can never happen.”
The last sentence was framed as a warning. Uncle Taylor shot a steady look back at her.
“Now you should know,” he said, “that I’m the last man on earth who you need to warn about that.”
For a moment Momma tensed up, like she was about to argue with him about whether or not they needed to argue about that. Then she sighed and moved on. “Now the medical stuff. There’s a folder in the box under my bed. All the important papers are in there, but there’s one with all her surgeries and records. You’ll need that if you ever take her to the hospital…”