22 - Object Memory

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Miriam had, as usual, arrived early that day.

She made her usual route through the store, lightly running a finger over items. Pausing, occasionally, to run her whole palm over something, or lightly drag a piece of fabric over her fingertips. When she did this, her eyes would close, the wrinkles around her eyes magnified by the thick lenses of her glasses. Her face would grow calm, slack, as if listening to something. And then, without fail, she would move on to a further space in the shelf, until she found whatever it was that she was actually looking for.

It was a common ritual, and Nat rarely gave it a second thought.

Today, though, she found herself watching with some interest. It was quiet. Liz was absent, as she often seemed to be lately. Today, at least, her excuse made sense: She was meeting with the lawyer and Kyle, trying to mediate a new custody arrangement for Liam. Kyle didn't want him for full summers anymore; it was too difficult to get childcare, he'd said. Too hard to find someone to watch him during the day while he was at work. Because there was no reason a child couldn't spend his summer days running loose in an antique shop, right?

What could possibly happen.

Nat was in a sour mood about the prospect. A child-free summer was a welcome reprieve for her, an opportunity to enjoy Liz alone, as she had the summer they'd met. A summer of rough, secretive trysts behind rows of bookshelves, of furtive glances and exploring fingertips. That Liz, the Liz she'd fallen in love with, existed now only in brief moments, glances of a person seen between the cracks of a tall fence named Domesticity.

But Liz had seen it differently, of course, and when it came to Liam nothing Nat had to say ever seemed to matter.

So now she was here, alone with a stack of paperwork and the creaking of floor boards, the scent of dust in the air, with only batty old Miriam for company. Miriam with her absurd fox stole and her wide-framed cats-eye glasses and her need to touch everything with knobby, wrinkled old lady fingers, making quiet noises under her breath like an old dog shifting its weight in its sleep.

The stacks of invoices and order slips weren't going anywhere, and Nat looked up from her place behind the counter, eager for a distraction from her thoughts.

"What is it that you're looking for, anyway?" It wasn't a customer service question, a 'can I help you' service with a smile. It was genuine curiosity, asked by a bemused friend.

Miriam took so long answering that Nat thought, at first, that she had not heard. But her eyes were shut tight in concentration, fingertips dancing over the surface of a glass dome. A blackbird, perched on a twig, was preserved underneath. At last, Miriam looked up, earrings jangling against her neck as she twisted her head around to look at Nat. Straight-faced, serious, she said, "They tell me their story. If I like it, that's when I take it home."

Normally, Nat would have been satisfied to smile and nod at this, to laugh it off as the mental machinations of an old eccentric on the edges of dementia. But she wondered, now, if there might be something more to it. "They tell you a story?"

"Their story," she corrected, putting a heavy emphasis on the word. "Objects hold memories. I like things that have a good story to tell."

That made a certain kind of sense, Nat thought. It was the appeal, after all, of antiques — objects that came with a history, character, personality. But these were usually terms used in more of a metaphorical sense. You learned of an object's history by researching its makers mark or learning about the previous owner or having it appraised by someone who knew the history of an era.

But maybe objects could talk. Maybe objects were always talking, and most people just didn't have the ability to listen.

She liked that idea, though Liz would laugh at her for daring to think it.

"So the memories," Nat asked, telling herself that she was playing along and nothing more. "How do they get there?"

Miriam abandoned the bird on the shelf, circling around slowly to toddle her way up to the counter. She leaned there, heavily, a line of perspiration trailing through the thick cake of makeup powdered over her wrinkled face. "It's like ice cream."

"Come again?"

"Ice cream. Left too long in the freezer — it starts to taste funny." Miriam glanced at her over the frames of her glasses, which had slid down the bridge of her fine-boned nose. "It takes on the flavor of other things."

Nat thought she understood. Objects, left in a house long enough, would take on the character of the house, its occupants. Memories would be stored in them, little pieces of a life long gone getting carried with them. That didn't seem so far-fetched. She'd been in enough old houses, dug through enough abandoned junk, to know that old things felt different than new things.

"So you can...hear their stories? When you touch them?"

"Sometimes," Miriam agreed. "Not always. Sometimes just enough to know if they're good or bad."

Nat's brow furrowed. She felt herself frown, although she didn't mean to. An image had surfaced in the back of her mind: A photograph of a smiling family, sitting posed in the living room next to a taxidermied dog. Another photograph: A crime scene, blood spattered in black and white over the newsprint, bodies mutilated beyond recognition. She felt the hairs on her forearms begin to rise.

"That's how memories are different from ice cream," Miriam continued, and there was something shrewd and knowing in the look she gave her, now. Her eyes were narrowed, barely slits in her wrinkled face. "They don't just absorb things. They leave things behind, too. Affect everything around them. And sometimes, if an object is evil enough — it'll call out to others of its kind."

Nat's frown deepened. "Call out?"

Miriam nodded, her somber expression unfaltering. "Calls out, to awaken things that are asleep. Dark, evil things. Certain items, things with an unspeakably evil history...can awaken the evil in everything around them." She leaned back, then, pushing herself up from where she had been leaning on the counter. Her hand trailed, thoughtfully, over the bridge of her fox's flattened nose. She was silent a moment, and Nat did not dare to break that silence. When she spoke again, her tone was matter-of-fact, almost brusque. "And that is why you have to be careful what you bring into your home."

Miriam turned then, perhaps to leave, perhaps to continue browsing the shelves. Nat's heart was beating very fast; she felt it pulsing against her throat. It threatened to choke her. But she swallowed it back, forcing her voice to sound calm. Forcing herself to believe that she had no reason to feel as afraid as she did.

The crime scene photo, the gore splattered over finely patterned wallpaper, surfaced once more in her memory.

"Miriam —" she stopped, and swallowed. The old woman turned to face her with a curious stare. "Could you...do you think...that you could come over to my house? To look at something for me?"

The old woman's brows lifted. She readjusted her stole about her shoulders, but she said nothing. Her expression remained open, gently curious.

"We...got something in. Something strange. I just...it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on it." Nat forced herself to remain casual, though her voice came out curiously strangled, higher pitched than she wanted. She cleared her throat, as if to pretend that was the reason she sounded so strange.

The old woman's eyes seemed suddenly piercing, as though she were looking through her. Her hand extended, fingertips brushing Nat's wrist, and Nat had the sudden terrible feeling that she was being assessed like one of the items on the shelf. She waited for something to happen, a thrill to run through her skin or her heart to stutter in her chest, but all she felt was the touch of papery skin against hers. Then Miriam smiled. "I'd love to. This old lady doesn't have much reason to leave the house anymore. Write down your address for me, dear." Her hand gave Nat's wrist an encouraging squeeze, then withdrew.

With a trembling hand, Natasha reached under the counter for a pad of paper. 

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AUTHOR'S NOTE: This chapter originally came a lot later in the story (it was chapter 40 in fact), but I realized it really needed to happen earlier to work properly. This may have caused some continuity issues, so please let me know if there's anything weird that comes up after. 

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