LaRose put down the last sugar packet, exactly lined up with the other twelve on the top of the bar. She studied them. Cherry blossom paper popped against the dark ripples of the varnished wood.
“Sameness is a relaxing process,” she said.
Uncle Taylor looked up from behind the bar. He was drying off dishes and lining them up for the evening. His shift had just begun and there were no customers yet. When they did, LaRose would disappear into a corner booth, but for now she and Uncle Taylor could talk.
“This about the trees again?” he asked.
LaRose nodded. It had been eight months of the same vision, every time she closed her eyes to meditate. She tried going back into the water with her monsters, but the lake was empty. She tried drawing patterns and making sculptures in the sand. The trees hissed and blew her work away. She tried music, but the only thing that sounded anything like the forest was a repetitive droning of the same note, over and over again. Molding copies of the trees in clay didn’t work either. Back when it had been monsters in the water, she had found ways to shift them from something that seemed twisted and tortured into something strange, but innately itself. If the trees could be changed, but they could not be changed in a way that left them as themselves. Any beautifying detail made them unique, and they did not want to be anything but their repetitive selves.
“I guess if they just like making themselves the same,” LaRose said. “They find the repetition soothing, and I’m the one disturbing them. So I should just… leave them that way?”
“Fuck that shit,” Uncle Taylor said. He didn’t feel the need for any further argument or elaboration. LaRose sighed. She had hoped he would be in more of a debating mood. She would have to carry out her arguments and counterarguments herself.
“On the one hand, they shouldn’t have to change if they don’t want to. On the other hand, it’s my head. I shouldn’t have to stare at creepy anonymous trees every night.”
“Damn right,” Uncle Taylor said.
She looked back down at the lines of sugar packets. “Even these… It was nice lining them up, but I wouldn’t think they looked nice if they were, say, tan packets on a tan counter. There’s order, but also contrast.” She chewed her lips, then smiled. “Maybe I just need to explain that to them. I mean, I show up looking like this -” today she wore daisy printed leggings under a turquoise skirt and a crop top that she had upcycled from a Grateful Dead T-shirt. Also, when she turned her head quickly, there were so many beads in her locs that they made sounds like a wind chime. “- maybe they assume I’m going to just make them look like me. When instead I think they would just look nicer if they each had a little something that was their own.”
“I’ll try explaining that to them tonight,” she said, grinning in relief. She had been stuck for weeks, and this seemed promising.
A car entered her empathic field. The size of her field varied from day to day, but right now it filled the bar, the parking lot, and the crossroads where customers would turn off the main road to come this way. She frowned at the sagging weight of the mood that was coming their way.
“I’m going to put Simon and Garfunkel on,” she said. Chuck Berry was playing right now, and he paired wonderfully with good moods, but drunk, sad people had a dangerous tendency to close themselves off from the world, especially when confronted with significant happiness. Reminders that other people could feel sad were an important antidote to that closing off. Uncle Taylor didn’t mind her doctoring the emotional atmosphere in this way, so long as she gave him a warning before she touched his music.
Unfortunately for the first customer, who turned out to be Jerry from the gas station, he was shortly followed by six rowdy twentysomethings, so any effects from the music were cancelled out by the way they shouted and crowded around the pool table. LaRose retreated to her corner booth and tried to hide inside a biography of Pythagoras. She was trying to decide whether he was the good or bad kind of eccentric. She wanted him to be the good kind, but there was the distinct possibility that he had once drowned a man for discovering irrational numbers. LaRose disliked murder. On the other hand, she also disliked simplistic moral assumptions based on hearsay; all her time with vigilantes had taken care of that. But on the other, other hand, she really, really liked irrational numbers.
The bar filled quickly, and worse, people were leaving quickly. A crowd that stayed together for long enough would synchronize into a sort of collective mood. A settled hum that LaRose could tolerate, in the same way that the music playing was just background for her reading. But in the same way that you couldn’t adjust to music that changed abruptly from loud to quiet every few measures, LaRose couldn’t adjust to the shifting makeup of customers.
When she realized that a couple’s fight was bleeding into her reading, making her dizzy with anger while she was trying to process a paragraph about fava beans, LaRose went out to the porch. It did not lessen the pressure of all the minds and feelings on her, but the mild summer wind cooled her body. It gave her a sense of separation from all the other minds, just as playing on her swing had when she was a child.
She took a deep breath, and pressed her fingers deep into her arms.
“I’m me. I’m me. I’m not them. I’m me.”
Thankfully, before she had sat out for long, she felt a familiar, steady presence approaching. Uncle Nick was here for her.
He had taken the horses up to a wedding at the resorts. On nights like this, when Uncle Taylor and Uncle Nick were both away working, LaRose would usually help with the horses. She loved the horses, the horses loved her, and people were generally happy at weddings. But when she went to help with the preparations last night, LaRose had realized this was one of those extravagant weddings full of people who slightly hated each other. So she had helped groom the horses in the morning and load them onto the trailer in the afternoon, but stayed home with Uncle Taylor.
“Bad night?” Uncle Nick asked as he left the truck. “Or just loud?”
“Just loud,” she said.
He grinned and kissed her forehead, then went into the bar, to tell Uncle Taylor he was taking her home, LaRose leaned her head against the trailer, focusing on the horses. Like many herd animals, they tended to share moods. Right now they were happy and tired, with stomachs full of treats from the guests. They did not acknowledge her, which was all right. Tonight they were tired and had seen enough of people. She would get more out of them in the morning.
There was another emotion on the ground. Tense but also sparkly, or twisty. Puzzle hungry. Small, but oddly human. That probably meant that, somewhere nearby, there was an object of significance. People sometimes cared about things enough that they left an emotional residue on them. LaRose carefully angled her crutches so she could lean down and look for them.
It was a copper plated chain, with a little carabiner on each end. It must not have been in the dirt for long, because it was clean and shiny. LaRose picked it up, and examined it. This was definitely the object with the attached emotions. Odd. It was rare for such practical things to have that kind of significance.
The bar door closed, and she straightened up.
“Ready?” Uncle Nick said, as he walked to the trailer.
“Do you know where this came from?” she held out the chain.
When he was close enough for a good look, Uncle Nick stared for a long moment. She felt a painful freezing in him.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“What do you think you have?”
“It’s just a chain. I think it’s important to somebody.”
“LaRose,” he said numbly, “your hands are empty. There’s nothing there.”