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The body's a week old, and Claudia hopes there's still a nice sharp souvenir left. Cops don't like vague answers from touches.

"Watch it," says the cop kneeling at the body when she takes off her glove. He stands up with his eyes trained on her fingers, finds something to do on the other side of the room.

Claudia touches the corpse.

No matter how much you brace, there's no way to soften it. Someone was murdered. It's awful, every time.

(What she sees: terror and a pastrami sandwich, a gun, his first kiss with Susan and the boss he hates his faucet needs fixing the pinch in his right shoe, vomit—

That time in college when he nearly froze in the bay and the doctor's kit he had as a kid that he threw out because he knew he'd never make doctor—

He should have gone to check on his mother at home because now it's too late and a gun, he really has to stop gambling, he promised his mom but what else do you say to your mother, "No"?—

The electrician's case by the door because he has to go out and a light-haired stranger gone fisheye in the peephole and that short kid who brings up his bike when he delivers pizza at two in the morning—

A light-haired man, the glint of gunmetal—)

"It was a stranger," she says. "White male, mid-thirties, blond."

The cop takes notes. "Any motives?"

She sees the toolbox. "Open that."

The cop gives her a look that says what he thinks of the idea, but he ambles over, lifts the top layer of tools.

After a moment, he holds a wad of bills towards her.

"I don't handle money." She slides her glove on. "Try Benjamin Harris."

In the lobby, cops edge away, trained to protect themselves from touch telepaths, just in case.

(As if I want to know one damn thing more than I have to, she thinks, makes fists so tight she rips her gloves.)

Outside, she has a pang for a pastrami sandwich before she remembers herself.

She goes to her tailor.

Claudia wears her clothes couture, because those tend to be less miserable to wear. Some touches prefer the cheap stuff, because the souvenir's fainter when people handle something for a short time. They'd prefer to keep out collective misery than fend off two or three insistent souvenirs.

She doesn't judge. You pick your battles.

This tailor works a lot with touches. Everything in the place is a century old, and she can lay hands on anything and it's only whispers.

(Some people assume that souvenirs aggregate in orderly layers of memory, an immutable, objective residue that varnishes things forever. Those people haven't thought much about how memory works.)

"Looks like you decked someone," he says. "What happened?"

She rests a bare hand on the upholstery. A filmy girl in white lace flickers beside her, disappears.

"Hazard of the trade," she says.

The next case comes in before the last check clears.

"It looks like a suicide," the detective says over the phone, "but we want to be sure, and our usual touch won't take it. Recommended you."

This precinct is braver; three cops stay in the hotel room as she approaches the woman in the bed and does her job.

She knows instantly this wasn't suicide. Something about making that decision leaves a very particular souvenir. (It's why some touches refuse to handle suicides—that one follows you home.)

But that skin-crawling calm isn't there. The panic of a murder victim isn't there, either.

Nothing is.

The woman's mind is all darkness—some glimpses in the periphery like the souvenir on a book someone read once and gave away, and then nothing. She's not a person—she's an absence, a hollow doll.

Claudia draws her hand back. Her fingers are cold.

Around the body, the cops look for evidence of any struggle before she slit her wrists and bled out.

Someone moves behind her.

"Haven't seen you around, Ben," she says without looking over.

He doesn't answer; doesn't have to. They'd been at his place the last time they'd slept together, and he probably sees her every time he touches her pillow.

That's his own fault. She'd thrown away everything of his. You can't hold on to things like that. Drives you crazy.

His jacket is too big—he buys clothes cheap—and he looks like he hasn't been sleeping.

"So," he says, "what happened?"

She shakes her head. "It's not suicide. I don't know."

He pulls off his gloves, hesitates a long time before touching the body.

(He always uses two hands, like a healer.)

He frowns, steps back, pauses like he's debating whether to tell her something.

Finally he says, "That's new."

She reports to a Detective Cho.

He makes notes. "No memories. So, amnesia?"

It's not amnesia, not at all. She wants to explain that it's like crayons. When her touch started to develop, the crayons were the first thing to go; the ugly colors no one touched started to fade and thin out at the edges after a while, like they were giving up hope of ever being held.

(She hears it's like that sometimes for touches who work in archeology, but souvenirs hang on longer the more a thing was cherished; they never have a problem so long as they stick to tombs.)

"That's different," she says, trying to explain. "Her memories weren't scattered. There were no memories of her inside her. There was nothing."

Cho frowns. "So, was this murder or what?"

With a sinking feeling, she says, "I'll look into it."

Cho takes down her information. He holds out a hand to shake, then draws it back.

"Sorry," he says. "Forgot my manners."

When she and Ben are alone, she asks, "You with me?"

He doesn't answer; doesn't have to.

The woman's ID has an address on it. Claudia drives.

"I thought you'd gone private," she says.

Ben shrugs. "There's only so many ways to tell idiots they're being cheated on. It loses its charm."

He'd been sick to death of scraping souvenirs off corpses. Going private must be worse than she thought if he was back on the beat.

She pulls up to the curb and frowns. "What's the address?"

He checks. "We're here."

They look out over the dusty, empty lot tucked between two houses. Weeds have grown along cracks in the ground. There's a falseness that's difficult to look at, like a photograph projected into a heat haze. She feels dizzy, can't look at it for long.

When she can stand, Claudia goes to the edge of the lot, the tall grass tapping her ankles.

Beside her, Ben toes off his shoes like a dreamer, moves to step onto the unruffled grass.

Unruffled—the air in the lot is still. (Too still—a photograph, a false front before some awful drop.)

"Don't," she snaps.

He stops, one foot a few inches above the ground.

They're still standing there when Detective Cho pulls up and asks if they've already gone inside the house.

Claudia's stomach twists.

Cho motions at the lot. "You need an invitation?"

It's Ben who finally admits, "We need a house."

It's a comfort to Claudia that Cho looks as confused as she is, and a moment later, as frightened.

"So," Detective Cho is saying into the mic, "let's review what we know, and develop a strategy for moving forward."

Claudia's standing in the line of touches along the back wall of the auditorium, trying to be invisible.

(Every touch in the precinct had been called in. "Just to keep things organized," Cho said, like she and Ben didn't know what happened when a crowd got angry at a touch. Half the reason the feds had developed the Registry in the first place was to have a shortlist of people at risk of being beaten to death.

The other half was because they wanted to know who they couldn't trust around secrets any more.

That's the half she understands.)

"We know," says Cho, "that the residence of Nancy Cunningham has no souvenir."

Over angry murmurs, Cho carries on. "Two touches have confirmed. This complicates the forensics of the case, so we'll rely on—"

"But what does that mean?" someone calls. "No souvenir—how's that even possible?"

(She knows him. Once he'd offered her a chair, and she'd had a souvenir of him looking at a photo of a dead boy, crying until his lungs hurt. His knuckles had ached like he'd punched something.)

"There's no further information on that at this time," says Cho, and as the volume gets out of hand: "Let's avoid speculation and deal with the facts, please."

Those are the facts, though. The cops know what this means. They know a touch must have done it.

Good, she thinks suddenly. Let them be worried. They should be. I am.

By the time the angriest detectives are sent home for the night and beat cops are assigned to the touches afraid to go home by themselves, Claudia and Detective Cho are alone amid the empty desks.

"Shit," Cho says, running his hands through his hair. "A murderer. As if it wasn't hard enough to handle touches. No offense."

"You could just not regulate us," she says. "Let everyone wonder who's seeing through them. Maybe people would develop some manners."

Cho doesn't agree with her, but he looks as though he might understand her reasons, which is maybe as close as a cop can get.

He's worried about backlash, so she's carrying a pistol, precinct-issue. She has it in a death grip, her finger passing back and forth over the safety.

Cho watches her hands. "What do you think the touch is going to do?"

"We don't predict the future," she says, automatically.

"Okay," he says. "But what would you do now?"

She imagines what she would do if everything she touched crumbled under her fingers. She doesn't get far—some things don't bear thinking about.

Cho watches her, switches tacks. "What's it like to touch something? I mean, what is it really like? Like when you kiss someone."

She raises an eyebrow. "You volunteering?"

He smiles. "When you train, you see a lot of graphs and flow charts about how touches find souvenirs and how to use the information, but that doesn't tell me much about what really happens to you."

The first time she kissed Ben, they'd both been holding back so much she couldn't feel a thing.

The second time it had been the smell of jasmine outside his window as a child, and his collar scratching his throat, and his first kiss (with a normal, who had cried after), and the skin of her own forearm under his fingertips, and his terrifying certainty that this, too, was doomed.

She says, "When I kiss someone, I see my chances."

Cho's quiet for a long time, his face drawn, as if he's realized that after that, there's nothing left but to try to make the world disappear.

That night she sits awake, pushing against the last lingering hopes of the people who made her sheets and wondering how someone erases a souvenir.

(She envies the killer, feels like a traitor.)

Sometimes she can remember being five, sitting on a park bench and sensing nothing but the bench. It's like remembering a time before she could speak.

She can live with it, most of the time. It's either that or go under. You pick your battles.

Ben fights it. Every time she touched him there was an undercurrent of desolation that lingered like a signature cologne. It's why he doesn't do suicides. Every touch knows their tipping point.

When she touched Nancy Cunningham and found no souvenir, it was as if she was caught in an avalanche, blank and freezing and breathless. When he touched Nancy, it was just like when he handled money.

("There are worse things," he told her once, his fingertips on a stack of hundreds. "Officer, this was for a ransom.")

She doesn't know how he does that, either. Every time she'd touched a bill, it had been a sinking desperation going back and back into the printing press.

Cho calls her at two.

"Nancy's sister Mina is a touch. Her boss at the antique store rescinded her alibi after he checked the stockroom footage."

Touches are a built-in certificate of authenticity for things like that. Decent money, if you can get it. Better than handling corpses for government pay.

She wonders if he'll be looking for new help.

The boss is waiting in an interview room.

"Mina's work is fine," he's telling Cho. "I'm not reporting that. I just wanted to be on the level with you and the Registry since you were worried about her sister."

Then he catches sight of Claudia's gloves.

"Hang on," he says, grips the table. "No touch stuff."

"Sir," says Cho. "You either have a souvenir taken here, or we investigate the possibility that you're an accessory."

She waits patiently. She sees this struggle a lot. It's only ever a matter of time.

Ben's waiting outside. "What did you see?"

"A coffee mug," she says. "A coat she kept at the office. A dresser. A tin on her desk."

He only nods. (You find a lot of answers from things you don't understand.)

After the evidence guys come back, she watches them unload an empty bag straining at the seams. Another. Another. They have labels.

For the normals, those bags have things inside them.

"Shit," Ben says, quietly.

He reaches into one of the bags, yanks his hand back like it's frozen.

"Something's wrong," he says.

The evidence guy frowns. "It's a mug," he says.

Claudia had hoped the house was an aberration—something so awful couldn't happen twice. Hell, Nancy she could still lay hands on.

(But Nancy was just the first, Claudia already knows. It only meant Mina hadn't gotten good at disappearing things yet.)

Cho calls at dawn.

"Mina's at the store. Meet us there."

Ben's sitting on her front porch. He looks like he hasn't slept since this began.

"You could have come in," she says.

He shakes his head. He's been picking at the bricks with a fingernail gone bloody. His chaos is almost a touch.

This is why they didn't make it. Life is hard enough without believing what the normals believe about you. That sort of sorrow you're better off without.

"We should get there before the cops," he says. "If she's gone spooky, we can help."

"All right," she says.

When he's not looking, she ghosts her hand over the holster at her waist.

(You pick your battles.)

Mina's in the back, with the door open to the parking lot, sitting cross-legged on an Art Deco dresser that's already going translucent.

She's young—twenty, maybe. Claudia had expected someone intimidating. Mina hardly seems old enough to have a job. She looks starved-out, frantic. When she sees them she turns her head away, throws an arm straight out.

"Don't touch me," she calls.

It's the last thing Claudia would ever consider, but Ben says, "We won't, we promise."

Mina glances up, catches sight of their gloved hands.

"Oh," she says, then colder, "Take them off."

They oblige, show her their palms.

Her gaze lingers on Ben's. "You raided my desk?"

Claudia freezes.

Ben makes fists, opens them. "How could you tell?"

Mina shrugs. "I'm getting good at seeing who's touched something of mine."

"Can you still see the things you've touched?" Claudia asks.

"Yeah," Mina says. "Why? Can't you?"

They shake their heads (Ben hesitating).

"I was only ever trying to help my sister," Mina says. Something flickers over her face, disappears.

"Does it hurt?" Ben asks.

Claudia asks, "Is it better?"

She doesn't know where the question came from. She tells herself she's stalling for Cho.

Mina looks down. "It doesn't hurt, I guess," she says finally.

Claudia says, "I bet it hurt your sister."

Mina flinches. Ben shoots Claudia a glare.

"That was a mistake," Mina says. Her voice shakes.

Ben says, "We know."

"She was so sad," Mina says, "and I thought that maybe if I could erase what was making her so miserable, then she'd be okay." She curls her fingers around a dresser Claudia can't see any more. "I would wipe away the souvenirs that were dragging her under and then she would be fine, you know?"

Tears make two tracks down her face. "I didn't know that would happen when you erased souvenirs. What did I know what it would do? I had to do something. She was my sister."

"You have to stop," Claudia says.

Mina frowns. "Why?"

Because you're robbing things of their reality, Claudia wants to scream, because you're erasing us, because no matter how much they hate us, when I touch something I know where it's come from.

But Ben shakes his head, and she hesitates. Maybe this is a sympathetic front. Maybe this is good cop/bad cop.

"Don't you get tired?" Mina asks, looking between them, her voice cracking. "Don't you wonder what it's like to live in a quiet mind?"

"All the time," Ben says.

The sound of her own heartbeat fills Claudia's ears. Somewhere nearby, there's the sound of something on gravel. They're buying time. She has to answer.

Claudia says, "It would feel like death."

It's the truth, almost by accident. Ben looks over at her like a lot of things are coming clear.

Mina leans forward. "But if you could do what I do?"

I'd kill myself, Claudia thinks.

"I don't know," she says. "I don't even have a sister."

Mina's face falls apart, and for a long time she doesn't move.

Then she plants her hands on the dresser, ready to come down, to give up.

Then Ben says, "Cops are here. Run."

The air goes out of Claudia's lungs, and she reaches for the gun.

(Mina scrambles and bolts, a man falls to his knees at Claudia's feet, there's the sound of a child screaming, her arm aches from kickback, a door crashes open and the air fills with shouts, Ben has loved her all this time, Mina is screaming, someone fires.)

It takes less than an exhale. When Claudia focuses her eyes she sees the cops converging outside the open door.

Her hand is on her holstered gun. Ben has his hand pressed to her wrist, keeping her from drawing.

She's still tense from the ache of someone else's kickback, and she has to concentrate before she can separate her memory from the gun's souvenir.

Ben's watching Mina's body, curled on the ground.

When Claudia glances up later from her police report he's beside the body, watching the Coroner's people in HAZMAT suits shake out a black bag.

Ben kneels, peels off his gloves, takes Mina's hands in his hands.

The hair on the back of Claudia's neck stands up, and she watches them until the Coroner's yellow suits descend like a thicket of wasps.

Cho has them fill out a preliminary report while they're still at the scene.

He hasn't asked yet why she and Ben went in alone. She'll take small mercies.

Finally he asks, "What are the chances there are other victims we don't know about?"

What he's asking is, Are you willing to look for her souvenirs?

She shakes her head.

"Ask Ben," she says. "He had some contact with her . . . after. It's probably in his statement."

Cho nods, moves away through the crowd.

Turns out Ben's police statement is a single line, written on the report sheet that he slid through her passenger window face-down.

There are worse things.

When she sees him kneeling on thin air two feet above the empty dirt lot, she goes cold to her fingertips.

(She already knows she won't be able to see him long.)

"Ben," she says. "You shouldn't be here."

He has both palms pressed flat to something, like a healer.

"You won't believe it," he says. "She was right. This feels—it's only the dirt. There's nothing else."

If he'd already given over to Mina's madness he would be invisible to her somewhere inside the house, not kneeling in the air between worlds.

It's not too late. She can still get him out before he loses hold.

"I believe you," she says.

He sits back. "This is what everyone else feels," he says, marveling, half to himself.

Then he glances up, and something in his eyes makes her take a step back.

"You really should try it," he says.

She shakes her head, tries to shrug it off. "I didn't like what happened to the last touch who managed this. It doesn't do any good."

"For normals or for us?"

She doesn't know what answer will work. She hedges her bets. "For anyone."

"As if normals care what happens to the souvenir of a thing." He half-smiles. "They'd bottle this and drug us with it if they had any idea what it's like to be able to take souvenirs."

He leans back against thin air (a wall she can't see) and sighs. "It would be better not to be so in thrall to what other people have done. Do you think people would do half the things they do, if they knew what we could really see?"

She doesn't argue.

"Ben." Her voice is shaking. "You need to leave."

His smile slides into a grimace. "Or what?" He dusts his hands off, stands. "Don't you understand what a gift this is? Don't you want to walk around with bare skin for once? Here, I'll show you."

He steps closer, hand out.

She pulls the gun.

His face drains of color. She thinks of crayons.

"They'll find a way to do this to everything," he says, "just to keep us out. Mina didn't realize that, but you do. The next time one like her comes along, they'll paint the world with her and we'll be blind. Do this now, while it's still your choice."

There's a chance he's right, but some chances are slim. Mina's dead. There might never be another touch who can do this.

(It strikes her, too late, how big a loss that is.)

She tries, "Come back to me. If you stay there, it will scrape you down to nothing."

He smiles, exhausted, and says, "Thank God."

There's dust in her throat.

He watches the gun, his hands limp at his sides.

Then he says, with a tremor in his voice, "You might as well, if it will help you sleep."

She thinks about the second time she kissed him, about their chances.

It takes a second longer than it should to shoot; the gloves are hard to navigate.

Detective Cho doesn't ask questions. He just climbs into the nothingness and carries Ben's body out of the house she'll never see.

It's disgusting to watch someone going into a building with no souvenir.

Cho is at the edge of the lot. As he moves forward she feels dizzy, blinks, forgets something important; then he's back on the street again, staggering under a weight she can't see.

When she reaches out where she knows Ben's body must be, her hand runs into the same empty dark she remembers, and she pulls back chilled fingertips.

Ben's gone. There's nothing left.

She tries not to be sick.

"What do we do with the house?" he asks.

(She had sat on the hood of car after it was over and watched Ben fading. The blood was slowly scrubbed from her vision until it vanished into the dirt; then he was made of vellum, the sunset filtering through him as his souvenirs peeled away from his eyes and his mouth and his fingertips, until every trace of him had disappeared.)

"Burn it to the ground," she says.

The official report makes Ben Mina's shooter.

It's Cho's idea. "Better to make it between two touches," he says. "If a good one takes out a rotten one, people figure that's fair. Otherwise . . ."

He doesn't need to finish. The papers have been plastered with TELEPATH TERROR ENDS for a week.

The funeral's well-attended. Some aren't even touches.

Cho waits behind. When Claudia holds out her gloved hand, he shakes it after only a little hesitation.

(Between the seams, she catches a little shadow of him. She pushes it back before it takes shape.)

"I'll walk you," he says.

Outside, the first snow has just begun, and their feet leave black marks against the dusting of grey.

The flakes settle and melt on her face; with every one, for just a moment, she can see back and back into the spring.

Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and other magazines, and the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, Teeth, and more. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is out now from Prime. You can learn more about it at the Circus Tresualti site. For more about the author, see her website. Her previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives.
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15 Jul 2024

I inherited the molting, which my mother will deny; she’ll insist it’s a thing only women do, each heartbreak withering from the body like a petal.
a sand trail ever fungible, called to reconcile the syrupy baubles—resplendent pineapple geodes
Who chose who spoke? Who silenced the sparrow?
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