The first time I died was at my birth. No oxygen entered my lungs as my mother expelled me into the world. My tiny body didn’t shiver as it met cold air for the first time. No cries passed through my blue-tinted lips.
But I had luck and medicine on my side. Doctors and nurses hovered over me and unwrapped the umbilical cord from around my neck. Pressed fingertips into my chest, and butterfly-light touches pumped life into my heart.
My first gasp of air was followed by my first cry.
There was laughter and celebration in the delivery room. But it was short-lived, for one life was traded for another that day. My mother never had a chance to hold me.
I was five the second time I died—a cardiac arrest resulted from some absurdly high fever. They worked on me again. Cooled my body, pumped me full of drugs, machines breathed air into my lungs. The fingertips pressing into my chest, less butterfly, and more thumping bird. They blamed it on a virus—the catch-all culprit doctors blame for all the ailments they cannot explain.
The third and last time I died, I was thirteen. We were at the beach. I loved the sand between my toes, the tug of the water, the scent of sea and salt in the wind, the distant line where dark green met blue sky on the horizon. The ocean called to me with a siren’s whisper.
I didn’t scream or try to escape when the first wave took me in, lifted my feet off the ground, and robbed me of breath. I didn’t know how to swim, but instinct had me kicking my legs, moving my arms, seeking the light just above the watery prison.
I kicked and kicked, but the ocean didn’t let me go.
Not until he dragged out of it.
Not until again there were hands at my chest, pressing harder this time. And lips against mine, pushing air into my lungs until his breath was my breath, and his gift of oxygen forced the water away. I sat up coughing, saltwater burning my throat, coating my mouth as it left my lungs and stomach.
I opened my eyes to the beautiful face of a young man. A young man with two different-colored eyes. One green like the sea and one blue like the sky. The first time someone’s lips touched mine was to give me the gift of life. I was just a child, on the cusp of womanhood, but I knew I would never forget those eyes.
“Come on, please? Come with me. You don’t have to touch anything.” Lynn holds her palms together as if in prayer. Eyes wide and lips in a pout, like she's a first grader instead of their twenty-eight-year-old teacher.
She’s lying. And she knows I know she’s lying. She’ll want me to touch everything.
My gaze bounces between her and the antique shop across the street from the café we’re in. Morning light streams through skylights. The low hum of conversation fills the bright space. Hanging flower baskets filled with begonias, fuchsias, and lantanas add pops of color throughout the room.
I inhale the heavenly scent of coffee before taking a sip from my mug. “Don’t beg, Lynn. It doesn’t look good on you. No one with working eyes would ever believe you really mean it.”
Lynn points at herself. “Wrong. These baby blues and pink pouty lips work wonders to get what I want.”
I snort. “With horny guys, maybe.”
“Hey, they’re eager to please me. Don’t diss until you try it.”
I roll my eyes. If I could put a mileage counter on eye-rolling, mine would be in the thousands—every single mile caused by my best friend.
“I don’t want to go in there. I’m on vacation.” My words mean nothing. Lynn can always bully me into doing what she wants.
She cuts her stack of blueberry pancakes in half and gives them to me. “Only you would call driving aimlessly through New England a vacation.”
I trade her pancakes for half of my avocado and cheese omelet. “Not aimlessly, carefree. No schedules, no set dates. And we’re here now, in this quaint beach town.” I gesture at the window and the tree-lined street and its colorful storefronts, each more inviting than the next. People walking their dogs and cars driving by slowly. It’s a postcard-perfect little town. “When I told Grandma I wanted to go on a road trip with you, she suggested we go to Ocean Cove. Give it a chance. It’s only day one. We have nearly two months to do whatever we want before we both have to go back to work. If we get bored here, we can just go somewhere else.”
Lynn sighs and slumps back in her chair. “Yes, but when you said we should go on a summer-long vacation together, I was thinking of Paris or London.”
I cut into the pancakes. “I know, but I wanted to take the same trip Grandma took with my mother when she was a kid. Do the kind of stuff I’ve never had a chance to do.” Lynn makes a sad face at the mention of the mother I’ve never met. Her absence shouldn’t bother me, but sometimes it does. This trip is in part a way to connect with her.
Lynn breaks into a big smile, and I know trouble is coming. “I’m calling the best friend card.” She holds an imaginary card above her head like we’ve been doing since we were ten.
I slouch into my chair. Stay still. Try to blend in with the furniture. My gaze finds the exquisite pastries lined in neat little rows behind the glass case.
She waves a hand in front of my face. “I’ll buy you walnut maple ice cream next time we go to an ice cream shop.”
I smirk. “I’ll go if you come running with me.”
“Heck no! I’ll buy you ice cream every day for a week instead.”
I release a mock-exasperated huff. “Okay, I’ll go.” I’ve been trying to get her to jog with me for years. She always says no, but we play this game anyway. She tries to bribe me with food, and I try to get her to run with me.
She points a fork full of pancakes at me. “I would agree to buy you ice cream for a month before I agree to go running.”
I love running. I need the asphalt under my feet, the steady rhythm of jogging steps, one after the other, the burn in my thighs and calves, and the rush of air in my lungs. That’s how I clear my head. How I wash away troubles and center myself. “One of these days, you’ll say yes, Lynn.”
“No, thank you. This girl does not run.”
* * *
The antique store welcomes us with that smell all antique stores share—a bit dusty and moldy. It’s the smell of old things, attics, and the back of closets. It’s the scent of memories and history.
I hesitate by the door, and Lynn tugs at my arm, but I hold my place and stand in the opening. Sunlight at my back and the darkened and cluttered space ahead. I’m on the threshold between the past and the present. I still myself, ground my feet, and inhale deeply. The smells of the past mingle with the fresh breeze coming in through the open door. The palms of my hands tingle. That familiar anxious pressure in my chest makes itself known. I ready myself, step in, and let the door gently close behind me.
The past calls to me like it always does whenever I enter an antique store, an old place, a church. The art historian in me rejoices in finding old objects, little treasures long-lost in time, and my soul rejoices in learning the history and in reading the memories each object holds.
Lynn bumps into my shoulder. “I don’t know why you always put up a fight. You love this.”
I smile. She’s right. I love this. I’ve lived my entire life surrounded by old things. I have the privilege of working with objects most people can only admire from behind a glass pane in a museum. An antique shop is nothing compared to my job. But I spend so much time trapped in the past, sometimes I wonder if I forget to live in the present. But that’s not something I want to voice out loud. “Because I get paid to do this, and I’m on vacation,” I whisper, as if we were in a church and not a store. The place demands a certain reverence.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, they pay you a shit-ton of money to travel all over the world. You get to see and touch treasures, art, and objects that very few people even know exist. This is all I have.” She gestures around.
I laugh. There’s no real animosity in her words. “Gosh, I wish Grandma were here.” I’ve lost count of the many times she and I visited antique stores just like this one. Driving around with Grandma, sleeping in tiny bed-and-breakfast places, with no direction other than whatever called to Grandma next.
Lynn wiggles her fingers. “Do your thing,” she whispers.
My thing . . . psychometry. My gift. The ability to know the history of an object simply by touching it. A secret only shared with Lynn and my grandma. It has served me well in my job. I’m glad I took Grandma’s suggestion to go to Ocean Cove. If Grandma tells you to do something, you do it. In all our travels, we’ve never come this way. I guess it holds too many bitter memories for her and her falling-out with my mother.
Grandma’s abilities are far more potent than mine. My gift, as grandma calls it, clamors for something else. It wants more. More than reading objects for their history or authenticity. There’s an empty spot in my soul, and it is hungry, but I have yet to discover what it hungers for.
“Come! This way.” Lynn waves at me and walks down an aisle.
I follow her voice. Find her near a huge shelf holding dozens and dozens of small blown glass figurines. Nothing about them draws me in.
“These are so cute.” She reaches for a large figurine of a dolphin. I take her hand and point at the sign on the shelf.
You Break It, You Buy It
“Let’s look with our eyes first. I’ll let you know if something grabs my attention.” But something in this store already has. There’s a buzz in my solar plexus, and it—whatever it is—calls to me.
We walk around under the vigilant eye of the shop owner at the back of the store and the security cameras discreetly set into the ceiling. We’re not doing anything wrong, but the extra attention we’re getting, in addition to the pull in the pit of my stomach, unsettles me. The stale air is suffocating. It weighs heavily on my lungs. I make a conscious effort to breathe.
The pull gets stronger with each step I take into the store. The unease grows, and I want to leave, but I don’t. I won’t. I can’t deny the pull. I follow Lynn, who’s completely unaware of my struggle.
Lynn points at a gun. The sign beside it says it’s a Colt 1860 Army .44. The revolver is secured to the display but not encased in glass. I touch it, close my eyes, and wait. Cold metal and smooth warm wood meet my hand. Nothing. A soldier never touched this gun. I open my eyes and shake my head at Lynn. “It’s a replica.”
Her eyes go round, and she gapes at the two-thousand-dollar price tag.
I lower my voice. “That’s worth around three hundred at most.”
I grin. “I know.”
Lynn looks around for the next object. “Okay, find something. Get your spidey senses on.”
I look around the store and smile when my gaze lands on a small picture frame. The black-and-white photo is yellowed with age. It’s a wedding day picture. The woman is seated, gloved hands on her lap. She’s wearing an elaborate gown. Multiple skirts are layered over one another, and delicate lace covers the fabric on the bodice and high neck. Flowers are braided into her hair and a delicate veil is draped over one shoulder. The man is standing next to her in a dark suit and holding a hat in one hand. His other hand is on her shoulder. A flower in his lapel. They look happy. A love match, and not an arranged marriage. The cast-iron frame is gilded with gold. My hands tingle when I brush my fingertips against the top before I pick it up.
My eyes close, and my mind floods with images. My smile gets bigger.
An English countryside flutters before my closed eyelids. Purple-blue wildflowers spread amidst grass and rocks. A dirt road marred by the twin ruts of carriage wheels extending down the path. The giggle of children. A massive stone house with tall windows and heavy draperies. A wall of leather-bound books. A floral settee. The very same picture with someone writing something on the back. The picture frame sitting on a mahogany desk. The frame wrapped in newspapers and the pitch-black from inside of a trunk. A trip across the ocean. An old map of Virginia. A new home, whitewashed walls. Older kids now. The images move through my mind, one after the other, like the pages of a book being flipped until the last image dissolves with the words on a sign: Estate Sale.
I open my eyes, blink a few times, look around, and allow the present to settle into me. It takes a couple of seconds to get my bearings after the vision. The past never wants to let go. I take a deep breath and shed the wash of faint emotions that always linger with the images—the visions attached to the picture frame were happy and bittersweet. That’s not always the case, and I can’t tell what I’ll get until I touch something. The earlier pull I felt is dulled by the lingering effects of this vision. But it is still there, waiting for me.
Lynn bounces on her feet, all impatience and contained energy. “So? What did you see?”
“If someone could figure out how to harness all of your enthusiasm, I bet they could power a small country.”
My smile grows large. I’m enjoying my little power trip and making her wait.
“Avalon Mitchell Bloom, if you don’t tell me right now, I swear—”
“Oh-oh, she’s using my full name. I’m in trouble now.”
Her hands fist a few inches from my face in a mock fight stance.
I put mine up in surrender. The sound of a throat clearing and a chair dragging on the wood floor grab our attention. The shop owner is none too impressed with our antics. He faces us, head tilted down to look over the glasses dangling halfway down his enormous nose. I turn my back to him and repress a laugh. “Shh, behave. We’re nearly thirty, not teenagers.”
She pushes her shoulders back. “No, we’re twenty-eight, and that’s not thirty. I know math because I’m a teacher.”
I grab the picture frame. “Let’s go. I’m buying this. It will look great with my other antique frames.”
Lynn follows me around the shelves as we put some distance between the man and us. I tell her everything I saw.
She sighs. “It’s so romantic. I’m so jealous. I wish I could do that.”
“It’s not romantic. It just is. Not all memories are happy ones.” I’ve had my share of unhappy impressions.
Lynn picks up a teacup and sets it back. “I know. But you have this gift, and it’s such an amazing thing.”
“So do you. You bring joy to kids every day, and they learn to read in the process. You’re creating smart little minds.”
“Fancy words, but at the end of the day, I’m just an elementary school teacher. I do love my first graders and my school. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
I hug the frame to my chest. “Of course, June, July, and August don’t hurt either.”
She nods. “Can’t complain about having summers off. If I had any other job, I wouldn’t be able to come with you on your impromptu summer vacation.”
“Let’s go.” I tilt my head toward the cash register at the back of the store. “Before that guy calls the cops on us.” That pull gets stronger again, but something in me is resistant to the idea of touching it, whatever it is.
I smile big at the man behind the counter and place the picture frame on top of the neat pile of butcher wrapping paper. He looks older than some of the pieces in the store.
That pull I felt when we first entered the store takes hold of me again and doesn’t let go. My knees nearly buckle. Lynn’s hands come to my back and steady me. I glance at the old man, but he’s distracted, wrapping the picture frame. I turn, orienting myself toward the call pulsing in my chest. To my right, in a glass case behind the counter, on a hook, hangs a necklace. Two large blue stones dangling from a long silver chain. The stones sway ever so slightly, as if they’re trying to get closer to me.
I point at the necklace. “May I see that, please?”
The man looks behind him and back at me. His eyes glint. I cannot hide the eagerness in my voice. He’s already calculating how much he can charge me. I try to tone down my interest. “It’s such a pretty blue.”
“Ah, yes, I got this a few days ago. Pretty, eh? I think the stones are lapis lazuli and turquoise.”
He grabs the necklace from its perch, and I want to swat his hands away. Keep him from disturbing the imprints that so strongly call to me.
He dangles it inches from my face, and my hand trembles when I close it around the stones. I’m instantly assaulted by images, even before I can close my eyes. I turn my back to the man and lean into the counter. Lynn shifts at my side but doesn’t touch me. She has seen me do this most of her life. Never touch me while I’m reading an object.
I hold the necklace to my chest, and in an instant, I’m falling backward, falling, falling, arms extended, body stiff, bracing for impact. My hair flowing around my face—no, not my hair. Hers. The owner of the necklace. She’s beautiful, around my age. Long brown hair with hot pink streaks. Huge amber eyes. A beauty mark at the corner of one eye. Then she’s being dragged across the ground, a masculine hand around an ankle. Her emotions flow through me like a whitewater river. Fast and chaotic. She’s grasping at . . . anything, trying to get a hold, trying to stop him, but the only things under her hands are dirt and leaves. Her clothes are dirty, bloody, and tattered. Black slacks, white blouse, a pink floral scarf.
Cold water splashes on her face. She gasps, then moans in pain. Ropes around her chest. She’s tied to a chair. A gray metal chair. She tries to swallow. It hurts. She’s thirsty, so thirsty. And terrified. The man walks around her. Taunts. Grabs at her hair and pulls her head back. She sobs. He slaps her. A glint of silver. He sees the necklace. Tugs at the chain and looks at the stones. Pulls it over her head gently so as not to break it. The stones look small in his hand. There’s a small, jagged scar on his wrist.
The girl whimpers. He wraps the necklace around his palm twice. His hands go around her neck and squeeze. The necklace dangles along his wrist. The metal digs into her skin. She gasps and thrashes, her eyes widen, blood vessels break in the sclera, and her mouth gaps open as she tries to suck air that will never fill her lungs again. Then nothing. Darkness fills my vision.
She doesn’t come back this time. I know she’s dead. This poor girl was murdered, and the necklace was hers.
When I open my eyes, I’m sitting on the floor, back against the counter, Lynn kneeling in front of me and rubbing my arms. My heart thunders so loud it pulses in my ears. I’m shaking, hands still clasped around the necklace and pressed to my chest. The taste of salt on my lips. My face wet with tears.
Lynn digs a tissue from her purse and wipes my face. The man peers from the other side of the counter, his shadow momentarily blocking the overhead lights. “Is she okay?”
“Yes. It’s a dizzy spell. She has them sometimes.” Thankfully, Lynn is talking because I’m not sure I could manage it just now. I take a deep breath and count to seven, exhale and count to seven again. Do it two more times, the way Grandma taught me. The shaking recedes. My vision clears, and my heart slows down to a normal pace. I move my hands from my chest, open them, flex my fingers, and allow the silver chain to slide, dangle from a thumb—the imprint of the stones against my palm—a temporary brand.
“Help me up?”
Lynn holds my elbow and helps me to stand, keeping both hands on me and making sure I'm steady on my feet. Her always happy and smiling expression is gone.
I turn to the counter, the necklace back in my palm. “How much?” As terrible as the images were, I can’t part with this. I need to find out more. I need to help her, somehow.
The glint of greed waned. The man seems more worried than calculating now.
“How about a hundred bucks for everything?” He points at the frame and my hand.
“That works.” I open my purse and fish a crisp bill from my wallet.
“Want me to wrap it?”
I don’t want to part with it, not for a second. I don’t want to have his touch taint the impressions. “Do you have a small box?”
“Sure.” He searches under the counter and opens a small navy-blue cardboard jewelry box. I peek at his wrists. No scar. He’s not the killer. I don’t give him the necklace but grab the box instead. Set the chain inside, arrange the stones, and close the lid. The top is too loose, but I don’t say anything. I want to get out of here.
Lynn grabs the bag with the frame and the receipt. We walk to the door. I stop at the threshold and turn back to him. He’s still eyeing me wearily. “It’s Shattuckite and Larimar.”
“What?” He clearly has no idea what I’m talking about.
“The stones. You said they were lapis lazuli and turquoise. You’re wrong. They’re Shattuckite and Larimar.”
The man glares at me.
“And that Colt 1860 is a replica,” I throw at him as we leave the store.