Touch of Rain
My breath came faster as I stared into the shoe box sitting on the counter at my antiques shop. None of the items inside was exceptionally valuable or remarkable in any way—a kaleidoscope of bric-a-brac and childhood keepsakes that had once made up a young woman’s life.
A missing young woman.
I met Mrs. Fullmer’s swollen, tear-stained eyes, small and brown inside the fine scattering of wrinkles that were evidence of her suffering. Her hands tightly gripped the edges of the box holding her daughter’s possessions, though the box sat on the counter between us and needed no support.
I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t have to. If I refused, Jake would escort the couple quickly outside and make sure they didn’t return. I was very near to fainting as it was, though more with fear of what I would discover than of what the box contained.
“You okay, Autumn?” Jake’s voice, both worried and curious. He smiled tentatively, his teeth white against his brown skin.
“I’m fine,” I said.
A soft snort came from Mr. Fullmer. “Maybe we should be going.”
An unbeliever. I didn’t blame him. I hadn’t believed it myself when it started happening, and I hadn’t told anyone about my strange gift for months after. I’d confessed to Tawnia first, and that my practical sister believed me was a testament to the connection between us—despite our having spent the first thirty-two years of our lives apart.
Jake Ryan was the second person I’d told. Solid, reliable Jake, who was gorgeous despite—or perhaps because of—his chin-length dreadlocks. When he was at the counter in my store, women bought more of my antiques just to see him smile or to have an excuse to talk to him. He had increased the sales in the Herb Shoppe considerably since I’d sold Winter’s business to him. Winter Rain, my father.
Silently, I met Mr. Fullmer’s gaze and saw him notice my eyes, his mouth opening slightly in surprise. People are always surprised when they look at me long enough to actually see my eyes. I didn’t give him credit for seeing, though, as we’d met already once before and because he’d been staring at me for the past five minutes, searching for obvious flaws. He took a step back, which I regarded as defeat.
“If there’s any chance Victoria left a clue,” Mrs. Fullmer said in her breathless voice, “we have to try. She’s been gone for months.”
When no one spoke further, I slowly removed the oversized antique rings from my fingers and handed them to Jake, the comforting, pleasant buzz they gave off ceasing the moment I released them. I reached for an object. A hairbrush. I held it in one hand, running the fingers of my other hand over the polished length, pushing at the hair-entwined bristles.
I saw a face in a mirror, a narrow, pretty face that I knew from the pictures they’d shown me as belonging to Victoria. Her hair was long and blond. There was a sound at the door and a flash of an angry man staring down at me, words falling from the lips: “You are not going tonight, and that’s final!” The urge to throw the brush at the face, an urge at least nine months old. Nothing more.
I shook my head and set the brush back in the box. I’d recognized the man as Mr. Fullmer, but the scene hadn’t told me anything except that once last year Victoria had been angry enough to want to throw the hairbrush at her father. She hadn’t done it, though, and the memory was already fading. Mentioning it now wouldn’t help them find her. I moved to the next item, passing purposefully over the new-looking socks and worn swimming suit.
I’d learned by touching everything of Winter’s that distinct feelings remained intact only on belongings connected with great emotion: objects a person treasured most; items held while experiencing extreme levels of joy, fear, worry, or sadness; articles that weren’t often washed or forgotten.
For Winter that meant the colorful afghan my adoptive mother, Summer, had crocheted, the first vase I’d made on my wheel when I’d gone through my pottery stage, his favorite tea mug with the sad-looking puppy on it, his plain wedding band. And of course, his cherished picture of Summer, the one I’d dropped in shock and surprise on the day of his funeral, causing the glass to shatter. It was the first object that had “spoken” to me.
Other objects gave off a muted sensation, a pleasant low hum, but no clear images or scenes I could relive when the burden of missing Winter became too great. I never found anything among his possessions that contained angry or hateful imprints. He must have long ago come to terms with those feelings. My adoptive father had been an exceptional man.
My hand settled on the journal from the Fullmers’ box, but I could tell right away this hadn’t been a real journal for the missing girl. No emotional imprints, except perhaps the barest hint of old resentment. If she’d written in the book at all, it hadn’t been willingly.
I picked up the prom pictures instead. Victoria was a slim, pretty, vivacious girl, and her date equally attractive, but though he was nice enough, the girl hadn’t been attracted to him. The feeling had been strong enough to leave a faint residue of distaste on the picture when she’d held it in her hands as recently as six months earlier, which would have been mid December, several weeks before her disappearance. I set it down.
The sea shell hinted at the ebb and swell of the ocean, the girl’s possession of it not long enough or felt deeply enough to make an imprint. An old compact mirror with jeweled insets radiated a soothing tingle. Most of my antiques were like that, the emotions clinging to them soft and old and comfortable. I believe that feeling is why I went into the antiques business. Perhaps the objects had quietly hummed to me all along, though I hadn’t yet understood their language.
Even in the old days there had been attractive items I’d never pursued, and now that I was conscious of my gift, or curse, as I sometimes thought of it, I think those were the antiques that had fresher, negative imprints, perhaps even violent ones. A cast iron statue at an estate sale last month had flashed a terrifying image of crushing a human skull. No way did I want that statue in my shop. I didn’t care that my markup would have been phenomenal.
I let my hand glide over several more objects in the Fullmers’ shoe box, scanning for emotions that Victoria’s mother hoped might be clues. The letter (contentment long faded), the porcelain figurine of a ballet dancer (sleepy dream of the future), a book of poetry (whisper of an old crush). To tell the truth, I wasn’t positive any of these weak impressions were real or if my mind only showed me what I expected to find. These items had obviously been important to the missing girl at one time, though, or she wouldn’t have kept them all these years.
Not until I reached the black velvet jewelry box did I feel a jolt. My hand closed over it, my palm covering the small object completely. Even through the box, the emotion was strong—too strong to come from even my active imagination.
“What is it?” Mrs. Fullmer asked. “That’s my daughter’s—”
She was hushed by her husband, who probably thought I would make something out of whatever information she might let slip. But I didn’t need anything from the mother to tell me the girl had loved whatever was inside.
I opened the box and took out a gold chain with two intertwining heart-shaped pendants, one studded with diamonds. A beautiful piece, one that would never be outdated, and expensive enough to be out of reach for most young girls in their first year of college. I knew Victoria had loved the necklace because it had been her grandparents’ high school graduation gift to her mother and then her mother’s to her. Yet the overall feeling emanating from the piece was not love but guilt, one emotion overlying the other.
I gently rubbed the hearts between my fingers, my eyes closed. Jewelry often retained the best imprints, which was why I’d saved the velvet box for last. “She wants to take it with her,” I said aloud, “but everything she has will become theirs, and she knows it’s not right to give them her mother’s necklace. It should stay in the family. She thinks you will give it to Stacey when she’s gone.”
I very clearly felt Victoria replacing the necklace with a sigh. She hadn’t wanted to pass it to her younger sister, and that’s where the guilt came in. She’d wished there was a way to follow her dream and keep both her family and her necklace.
Several other flashes of memory rushed like water through my hands to my brain: a college campus, a park, a man dressed in a flowing, button-down shirt with a wide, pointed collar and elaborate cuffs turned upward, the tails of the shirt untucked. He had kind eyes and longish black hair, and he was surrounded by younger people wearing white T-shirts.
“Yes, I’m going with you,” Victoria said to him, her hand going to the pendant at her throat. “But I have to go home first. There’s something I have to do.”
When I opened my eyes, everyone was staring at me. “She left on her own,” I said. “Or at least she was planning to leave with a man in an old-fashioned white shirt. He had blue eyes, black hair down to his collar, a short beard. She wasn’t the only one to go with him. Did you ever see her wear a white T-shirt with navy blue lettering that says ‘Only Love Can Overcome Hate’?”
Mr. Fullmer paled noticeably, but Mrs. Fullmer was nodding. “She had one.”
“A cult then,” Mr. Fullmer sputtered. “That’s what you’re saying.”
I shrugged. “Maybe a commune.”
“Same difference,” Mr. Fullmer said.
“I can’t say for sure. But she believed anything she took with her wouldn’t be hers anymore. She wished she didn’t have to choose between them and you.” Almost as an afterthought, I added, “They were selling Christmas cakes at a park. Near a university, I think. That was when she met them.”
“She came home early on break,” Mrs. Fullmer whispered. “She’d been having a hard time, but we didn’t know until later that she missed all her final exams. She never registered for the next semester.”
That explained the despair Victoria had left imprinted on the necklace. “She was more hopeful when she met them,” I said, meaning it as a comfort.
“It’s not only the colleges they’ve targeted,” Jake said into the awkward silence that followed my statement. “I’ve seen a similar group here down by the river, selling things to the crowds who come to watch the bridge reconstruction. In fact, they’ve been there almost every time I’ve driven by this past month.”
“Stupid child.” Mr. Fullmer’s gruff voice was tinged with pain. “She should know better than to talk to crazies.”
“She could be in danger,” Mrs. Fullmer protested. “She’s too young to know better.”
I didn’t respond. I didn’t need to. There was nothing more I could give them. I stood back from the counter and waited for them to leave.
Jake handed me my rings. As I slid them on, his warm hand touched the middle of my back, and I was grateful for the support. Last September I’d begun entertaining the thought that we could be more than friends, but our relationship remained mostly linked to business. I didn’t mind too much. After my sister, he was my best friend, and since Tawnia had married and was now expecting her first child, her attention was divided. At this point I needed Jake’s friendship more than I needed a romance.
The Fullmers left, walking together slowly. Mr. Fullmer, his back rigid in his dark suit, carried the box of his daughter’s belongings. His sandy hair was thinning in the back. Jake had a natural remedy that would halt the hair loss, but that wasn’t why he’d come, so I remained silent. Next to him, Mrs. Fullmer looked shrunken, her shoulders hunched forward, her blond head bowed. She clung to her husband’s arm, staggering more than walking. Below her dress I could see a run in the back of her nylons.
Before she reached the door, she paused, stepped away from her husband, and retraced her slow steps to the desk. “Thank you,” she whispered. She looked around somewhat frantically before her hand shot out to grab the Chinese thirteenth-century Jun Yao vase that sat in glory next to the counter. It was a dark, glossy red piece with bright blue highlights, wider than it was tall. The sale price was seven hundred dollars and a steal at that because it was in extremely good condition.
“I want to buy this,” Mrs. Fullmer said.
I arched a brow. I didn’t think she really wanted the vase, but business had been slow, and I wasn’t going to turn her down. I took it from her, enjoying the pleasant tingle of the thoughts that surrounded the piece. Not an image I could see but nice and comforting feelings. At least one person who’d owned this vase had cared for it lovingly and had lived a life of quiet contentment. I wrapped the vase as Jake rang up the sale. Mr. Fullmer waited by the door, impassiveness and impatience alternately crossing his stern features.
As I passed the bag with the vase to Mrs. Fullmer, she caught my hand and pressed something into it: the velvet box with the necklace. “Keep it for a little while. Maybe there’s something more.”
I shook my head. “There’s never anything more. I’m sorry.” The last words felt ripped from me, not because I didn’t mean them, but because I knew they wouldn’t help her suffering.
She made no move to take back the box. “Please.”
I nodded, sighing inside where she couldn’t see. It was a false hope, and I didn’t want to give her that, but I wasn’t strong enough to refuse.
She smiled. “Thank you for the vase.” She turned and joined her husband.
I didn’t feel guilty about the vase because they could obviously afford it, but I did feel bad that she might think buying it could help me see something more.
“That was nice of her,” Jake said.
“Buying the vase. I told her when she called that you didn’t accept money, but I did suggest that she might want an antique for her house. This way you earn something for your trouble. That’s important, especially if it makes it so you can’t work the rest of the day.”
As he spoke, he was pushing me onto the tall stool I kept at the counter. Then he disappeared into the back room and returned with a small book of poetry that my parents had written for each other at their wedding. I took it willingly, grateful for the positive emotions that flowed into me. Touching it, I could see them as they held the book in turn and exchanged their flower-child vows in the forest, Summer with a ring of flowers on her head and Winter with his prematurely white hair in a long braid down his back. Though this session hadn’t been all that draining, I felt full of life as I witnessed their silent, love-filled exchange. I hoped these feelings would never fade from the pages. Almost, it was like having them with me again.
We kept the book at the store because not all imprints were as easy to stomach as Victoria Fullmer’s. Two months ago I’d been asked to touch the bicycle of a ten-year-old girl named Alice, who had vanished while riding her new birthday present. At first there had been only elation at her new toy—until the dark-haired man had stood in her path and torn her from the bicycle. I’d fainted with her fear. Later my description of the man had allowed the police to make an arrest and had eventually led them to little Alice. Too late. The memory still haunted me sometimes when I was alone. I’d had to sleep with my parents’ book for a week—and the picture of Summer as well. I tried not to do that often, afraid my parents’ imprints would be overwritten by my own.
Jangling bells told us a customer had entered the Herb Shoppe next door. Jake looked at me. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Go ahead.”
He walked around the counter and sprinted to the double doors that joined the two stores. My father had put in those doors back when Jake had worked for both of us. Jake and I still helped each other out, using a networked computer program to keep track of sales so we could ring people up at either counter. We also shared two part-time employees, Thera Brinker, who worked early afternoons and Saturdays, and Jake’s sister, Randa, who came after school and during special weekend sales events. Thera mostly worked for me and Randa for Jake, but they crossed over when either store had a rush of customers. It worked for all of us.
“Jake,” I called. Too late, I thought, because he had disappeared, but his dark head popped back in. “I’m going for a walk, okay?”
“No problem. I’ll keep an eye on things until Thera gets in.”
I knew he would, but to make it easier for him, I locked my outside door on the way out, flipping over the sign that told people to use the Herb Shoppe entrance. That way Jake would be aware of any customers coming to browse my antiques, and they’d have to pass by him to leave. Only a few pieces in my inventory were really expensive, but all together, they added up to my entire future.
The cement felt warm against my bare feet, and I relished the sensation. I couldn’t believe the outrageous shoes women put up with these days. In my late teens when I’d gone through a shoe phase, my back had ached constantly, and once I’d spent a month in traction because of the pain, so for me it didn’t make sense to continue wearing shoes. But then, I liked to feel the earth under me—or as close as I could get with all the cement. There was a better connection with nature that way, even in the city.
Thankfully, not wearing shoes wasn’t against the law, and there were no government health ordinances against bare feet. I could even enter the post office. I was more worried about what germs my hands picked up on doorknobs than anything my feet might encounter, and as a plus I never had to deal with sweaty, stinky feet.
I’d been raised to celebrate my differences. Other children learned their letters and mathematics. I’d learned about herbs and human nature. I’d called my adoptive parents by their first names, Winter and Summer, and the only reason I’d gone to school at all was because I’d wanted to, even though every October, the principal would threaten to call child services until I brought shoes to school and kept them under my desk. Summer would have been happier teaching me at home, and I was always glad I had stayed with her that last year, when I was eleven, the year she’d died of breast cancer.
My hand grazed the box in my pants pocket. I felt not the velvet but a flash of emotion. Victoria had loved this necklace, and she’d loved her family. Yet she’d chosen to leave them. A well of bitterness came to my heart. I’d give anything to have Summer and Winter alive and in my life. I could no sooner have left them than I could cut off my own arm.
What had possessed her? Was there more to her family than I’d seen? Had her father’s anger driven her to seek people who might love her unconditionally?
It’s none of my business, I thought. My part was over. They knew she’d left of her own will, and they knew where to begin looking. I’d even been compensated for my trouble. In a few days, I’d mail Mrs. Fullmer the necklace so she could eventually give it to her other daughter.
Slowly, I became aware of my surroundings. I’d walked long and far, or what most people would consider far in these days of cars and motorbikes, and my bare feet had taken a path I should have anticipated, given my reading for the Fullmers and what Jake had said about the group he’d seen.
I’d ended up near the Willamette River, downstream from the Hawthorne Bridge, where the bombing had taken place and where Winter had died. We’d been on the bridge in my car when the explosion collapsed the structure. I had come up from the cold, heavy depths, and he hadn’t. Thirty others had also lost their lives in the bombing, and though those responsible had been punished, the holes in the lives of those left by the dead weren’t easily filled.
I hadn’t been this close to the river since Winter had been found a week after the bombing, and it was strange to see the rebuilding in reality instead of on television. The construction area was fenced off, so I couldn’t go all the way to the riverbank, but I could see the bridge had come a long way in the past six months. The promise to have the bridge ready for traffic in less than three years would probably be met. Not that I’d ever had any doubts. My brother-in-law, Bret Winn, was the director of the project, and he was conservative in his estimates. He was conservative in almost everything. That’s part of what my sister loved about him.
My tumbling thoughts halted abruptly as I caught sight of a man wearing coarse brown pants and a white, old-fashioned, button-down shirt that looked all too familiar. He stood in front of the high chain-link fence surrounding the construction site, handing out flyers with his companions—young people of all sizes and shapes. All of them carried baskets and were wearing royal blue T-shirts with white lettering that proclaimed Love Is the Only Thing That Matters.
Jake had been right about the group coming to the river, though why I had felt compelled to track them down was another matter altogether. Victoria’s college wasn’t far away, but that didn’t mean this group was connected with her disappearance.
Or maybe they were. How many groups like this could there be in the same town?
I moved toward them purposefully. Questions might not get me very far, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t find a stray imprint or two. If they were hiding something I was going to find out what.