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?”