Chapter 1 1
Ev squats on a heap of garbage, one hand on the edge of the dumpster to keep her balance, and listens for ghosts. Something inside this bin has a sweet stain. It’s strong enough that she could sense it when she skimmed past on her bike. Feels like love, or close enough that people will pay good money for it. It doesn’t matter if the stain belongs to a wedding band, an old photograph, or a doll with matted-up hair. Ev’s gonna find it.
She yanks the broken seat of a vinyl kitchen chair out from underneath some bags. A hint of resentment clings to it, muted but still sour. It’s been buzzing against her boots, rattling her nerves and interfering with the hunt. She chucks the seat over the side of the bin. Down the alley she hears Owen’s voice calling out to her. She ignores him, focusing on her prize. Where are you? There’s still something blocking her, causing confusion, and making it hard to concentrate.
“Evelyn?” Owen knocks on the side of the bin. The sound reverberates in her ears.
“Quit it. You’re giving me a headache.” She feels ill, in fact, but she’s too close to give up.
“Find something good?”
“Whatever it is, I bet I’ve got better.”
“Hey, can you take these?” Ev dangles a six-pack of empty beer bottles over the side. She feels the weight of them ease.
Ev digs deeper, tossing out the occasional empty as she works. She grabs the knotted top of a plastic grocery bag. It’s heavy, with the soft lumpiness of used cat litter. In here. Ev tears into the bag. Flamingo-colored sand spills over her gloves, along with shards of broken glass and five pearly seashells that radiate a solid vibe: affection, longing, and tenderness. They hold a bitter note at the end—betrayal—but it only lends the rest of the stain a satisfying poignancy.
Jackpot. She picks the shells out of the bag and drops them into a lead-lined pouch belted at her hip. She can sell them for ten bucks each. She grabs hold of the edge of the bin and vaults her body over, landing in a squat, boots slapping on wet pavement. A wave of dizziness clouds her head. She stays put and inhales deeply through her nose. She’s mastered the shallow mouth breathing required for this kind of work but could be she was in there longer than she thought. Sometimes she loses track of time when she’s on the hunt.
The feeling doesn’t pass. If anything, it gets worse, a low-grade fuzz scrambling her brain and turning her stomach upside down.
Owen’s voice floats past. “Are you all right?”
She tries to nod but it only shakes things up more. Her head is a snow globe, a blizzard of glitter, a thousand tiny plastic flakes reflecting too many colors for her mind to track. She closes her eyes and waits for the settling.
“Ev, honey.” Owen puts his hand on her arm and she’s too sick to shrug it off. She retreats further, finding that empty place inside. The quiet spot in the center of the globe where the snowman stands alone. She breathes into it. She is the snowman.
“Why are you laughing?” asks Owen.
“I’m a snowman.”
Keep the dirt out, Evelyn.
The intrusion in her mind knocks her off balance again, makes the nausea rise. She clenches the muscles in her face, tightly curls her arms around her body. Squeezes the voice out. When she opens her eyes, she sees the jar. A mason jar with a dented lid. It sits at Owen’s feet, filled to the top with buttons. Brass buttons. Plastic buttons. Satin-covered wedding dress buttons. A blue button with a Dalmatian puppy painted on it. A gold button in the shape of an anchor. Every one of them stained.
Each button contains a unique set of emotions imprinted upon it by a past owner. They are, all of them, tiny ghosts, carriers of desire, sadness, lust, and pride. None of them radiates particularly strongly, but the overall effect is similar to watching two hundred television channels simultaneously. No wonder she feels like puking.
“Here.” Owen presses a stainless-steel bottle into her hands. She takes it. The water tastes soapy, but she drinks anyway. It gives her time to center herself. Owen has taken the refundables she found and lined them up against the side of the bin, offerings left for the next binner who passes through.
As she regains control, questions begin to flood her mind. Who collected those buttons? How? Why? What are they doing in the garbage? This isn’t a jar of odds and ends, spares kept in a sewing box. Someone went through the trouble of tracking these down one by one. It wouldn’t have been easy. Ev knows this well, having just spent twenty minutes knee-deep in dirty diapers and greasy week-old chow mein for the sake of five seashells. It takes a serious emotional connection for an object to get stained. Most trash is just trash.
Someone built this collection over time, button by button—someone who can feel the stains attached to each one. In twenty-two years, Ev has only known one other person who could sense stains like she can. She’s not ready to meet another.
She points at the jar. “Where’d you get that?”
“Eighth and Woodland. Alley out back of an apartment building.” Owen rubs his salt-and-pepper beard as he regards it. “Wonderful, isn’t it? I think I’ll make a mosaic.”
A fucking mosaic. Sure, it’ll be gorgeous, like the rest of Owen’s work, but it won’t sell. It’ll end up on the wall of some café in Kits, its eight-hundred-dollar price tag collecting dust and espresso stains. Ev can earn a couple hundred dollars off those buttons if she packages them right. Owen would give her the jar if she asked. But she won’t ask.
“Did you find anything else?”
“This. I thought of you.” He pulls a handkerchief out of the pocket of his jeans and unwraps it. Inside lies a stone, smooth and flat, the color of bone except for one black splotch in the middle that resembles a bird perched on a hilltop. The stone fits neatly in Owen’s palm. It has a soft, comforting energy. Protection. Peace. He smiles at it, crinkling the skin around his eyes.
“It seemed like an Evelyn thing to me,” he says. “All the things seemed like Evelyn things, but this one especially.”
Ev disagrees. The stone is an Owen thing. She’s tempted by it. It would be a nice weight in her pocket, a thing to carry with her always. When he offers it to her, she pinches it delicately and drops it immediately into her pouch. The stone will sell in a heartbeat at the market.
“How much more is there?”
“Three boxes. I tucked them behind the recycling bins, but that was an hour ago.”
Ev’s throat dries up. That much stain gathered in one place equals a psychic bomb waiting to be triggered. Also, the potential for a lot of money. She studies Owen’s face, thinking. He doesn’t know stains, but he’s done enough salvage missions with Ev that he’s gotten good at guessing at the kinds of things she likes. If she gets her hands on three boxes of stained goods, she could take some time off come winter. At the moment business is good. The Night Market is thriving this year after a couple of dead summers. Ev won’t need to set foot in the stuffy chaos of the flea market until September. But the weather has turned wet and cool over the last few days, a reminder of what picking trash during the rainy season feels like. Bloated cardboard that falls apart in your hands. Water mixed with rust, mud, stale beer, and rotten fruit seeping under your gloves. Oily puddles. Soggy, lipstick-stained cigarette butts.
Some cash in the bank to ride out the cold months is awfully appealing. Appealing enough to quell the fear that rises every time Ev wonders who the hell is out there in her city collecting stains. If it’s been an hour, by now the boxes have probably been picked over. Still, if there’s anything left…
“Show me,” she tells Owen.