TW: Suicidal ideation.
I woke up with Victor’s arms wrapped around me. I laid there for a few minutes feeling his warmth behind me. After last night, everything is different even though very little has really changed. I began to untangle myself from him so I could go shower and make our breakfast as usual. Victor stirred and pulled me back against him.
“Don’t get up yet, stay here with me.” His voice was still full of sleep. I rolled over to face him. Victor’s raven black hair was, as usual, falling in his eyes. I reached up and pushed the hair back. His eyes are so dark it is impossible to tell where pupil becomes iris and I find them mesmerizing. His full lips curved upward in a smile. “Good morning, Grace.”
“Good morning, Victor.”
“I was afraid maybe last night was a dream.” Victor said, running his hand down my arm and leaving a trail of goosebumps behind.
I looked around the room, our clothes were everywhere except on our bodies. I lifted the sheet and peeked underneath. “All evidence points to the contrary.”
Victor pressed his forehead against mine. “Good. Very, very good.”
Victor had been sleeping in my bed almost every night for nearly a year but until yesterday, we had never even kissed. I’m a sorrow eater and Victor is my guide. When extracting someone else's sorrow and absorbing it into my own body is too draining, Victor helps me recover by holding me and transferring some of his energy to me. At some point, Victor started staying rather I needed his energy or not. We settled into a comfortable routine. We worked together, lived together, ate meals together and slept in the same bed. We had become a couple and I hadn’t even noticed. Until yesterday, that is.
Yesterday my friend Sasha had dropped by unannounced early in the morning and busted us. Victor had come down the stairs just out of the shower, half dressed. We had pretended to be a couple because, as crazy as that might seem, it was more believable and easier than explaining that sorrow eaters and their guides exist. None of my friends know about that and until now, they knew nothing of Victor.
Victor had taken our pretend romance as an opportunity to kiss me. That kiss had rocked me to my core and evidently the feeling was mutual. Just like that, everything became different.
Now I was in my bed which is evidently “our” bed staring into the dark eyes of my guide, friend and lover. Victor is seven years younger than me; I wonder if that qualifies me as a cougar. I’m sure someone in my circle of friends will let me know and my money is on Kara; she always calls it like she sees it.
“I need a shower.” I wrinkled my nose.
“I’m coming with.” Victor tossed the sheet back revealing his lean body with chiseled abs and muscular but not bulky arms. Genetics has graced me with excellent metabolism, I am thin, but I don’t like to work out and I am soft. The memory of his firm body pressed against my soft form last night makes me smile.
Eventually we made it downstairs for coffee and breakfast.
“Now that Sasha knows about you, it’s a safe bet all my other friends know or will soon. I’m meeting them for dinner Tuesday night. Would you want to go with me?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” He winked at me.
“I think we need a cover story in place. Obviously, we can’t tell them the truth, but our stories need to match up. When and how did we meet, how long have we been together, that sort of thing.”
“I imagine the easiest thing would be to stick as close to the truth as possible.” Victor thought for a moment. “We met a year or so ago when I showed up at your house to do some work.”
I nodded. “Ok, that’s true enough but what do we say your work is instead of saying you poofed into my dining room and became my sorrow eater’s guide?”
“How about just saying I’m a handyman? I can do plumbing, painting, pretty much anything around the house. If one of your friends asks me to do something, I won't blow our cover.”
“Perfect. What else should we say?”
“That I spent months making excuses to see you as much as possible, I’ve been secretly in love with you practically since the day we met and when I finally got up the nerve to make a move you were shocked, but I kissed you and you kissed me back, and it was pure magic and I can’t imagine my life without you in it, ever.”
“I thought we were sticking as close to the truth as possible?”
Victor laughed and the sound was magical. “Grace, that IS the truth.”
“It is?” My stomach was doing summersaults and my heart was working overtime. “Um, all of it?”
“Yes, all of it. I’m in love with you, Grace.”
“Crap.” It was a wildly inappropriate reaction, especially since what I felt inside was pure joy.
“Not the reaction I hoped for.” Victor stood from his seat at the table, came around to where I was seated and extended his hand to me. I took his hand; he pulled me to my feet, looked into my eyes and gently tucked my hair behind my ears. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time now Grace. I guess it’s alright if you need some time to catch up.”
“I don’t need time.” I shook my head. “Last night when I thought we might be split up I realized, I don’t ever want to be without you either. Just the thought of that gutted me. I’m in love with you too, Victor.”
“Well.... crap.” Victor said with a grin.
I walked into the restaurant; Victor’s hand clasped in mine. We spotted Sasha seated at a table; my friend Rita was seated next to her. Rita was two and a half months pregnant and glowing. It was good to see her out of her house and looking happy. Her husband Mark died in an accident before they even knew she was pregnant. It had been heartbreaking for Rita and for those of us who love her. I felt guilty that I had only visited her once since Mark’s funeral. I had taken her a casserole, that's what you do when someone dies, you take food as if that will solve anything. Rita had been in the pits of despair until she found out she was pregnant. Now she had something to live for; this baby was a gift from God.
Rita smiled politely when I introduced Victor. I got the impression Sasha had given her a head’s up. Probably for the best, shocking a pregnant woman was likely a bad idea.
Soon the rest of the girls arrived, Lydia, Paulene and Kara. Sasha had NOT forewarned them about Victor, that was obvious by the looks on their faces.
“Ladies, everyone welcome Victor, Grace’s boyfriend.” Sasha smiled and gave Victor and I a wink. She then introduced each of our friends to him in turn. I watched my friends as they took this revelation in. Everyone was warm and welcoming; this was my tribe and if I was happy, they were happy for me.
Throughout dinner, Victor and I were bombarded with questions. We stuck to our cover story, and no one seemed to find it unreasonable.
“Come on Grace, we need to powder our noses.” Kara said as she stood from the table. I obliged her, wondering if I was about to be dubbed a cougar.
In the restroom, Kara made sure all three stalls were empty. “Grace Parker! Why didn’t you tell us about Victor sooner? I can’t believe you kept this a secret for so long. Is it because he’s younger? And how much younger IS he by the way?”
“He’s seven years younger than me. I’m not a cougar, am I?” I cringed. “I didn’t tell you guys because I wasn't sure this was a long-term thing, you know?”
Kara thought for just a moment, then smiled. “Nah, I’m pretty sure there has to be more than ten years difference before you qualify for club cougar.” I sighed with relief. Kara laughed. “He clearly has it bad for you; looks at you like you hung the moon and stars. And dang he sure is pretty.”
“He is, isn’t he?” I blushed.
“I’m happy for you Grace, we all are. Now we better get back out there and rescue your man from the rest of the crew before they eat him alive.”
Victor raised an eyebrow at me as Kara and I returned to the table. I winked at him to let him know all was well. When I sat down, he leaned over and whispered to me.
“Do me a favor Grace, look in your friend Rita and see if you can see her sorrow. You don’t need to do anything else, just take a look for me. I’ll explain later.”
The request caught me off guard. I had never attempted to look at the sorrow of anyone who wasn’t assigned to me. Looking into Rita felt like invading my friend’s privacy. I was afraid of what I might see. Mark had passed away so recently and while she looked surprisingly well adjusted, I knew that could be a façade. If I saw massive crushing tentacles of blue and black sorrow inside Rita, I wasn’t sure if I could handle that. I looked at Victor, he smiled at me reassuringly.
I looked inside Rita and gasped. Where I had expected the worst, what I saw was much more shocking. There were a few thin tendrils of sorrow wrapped around her brain and her heart; nothing near what I expected. When I visited Rita a couple weeks after Mark’s death, she had been devastated. Now she seemed oddly at peace.
The waiter came to see if our checks would be together or separate. I insisted on paying for everyone’s meals. What’s the point of being obnoxiously rich if you can’t treat your friends now and then?
“Consider it my apology for being MIA lately girls. I promise I’ll be around more from now on.”
“We will hold you to that.” Rita gave me a hug. “Thank you for dinner.”
“My pleasure Rita. You need anything at all, you call me.” She nodded appreciatively.
We said our goodbyes, headed to the parking lot and hopped into Victor’s car. I was about to burst to tell him what I had seen. I gave him my report, he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Interesting.”
“Why did you ask me to look in the first place?”
“Your friend, who I had no idea was your friend, was showing up on my radar for a while a couple months ago. In fact, she was rapidly reaching the level of sorrow that meant I could offer to take it away. Then one day, her signal was just gone. That’s extremely rare. If someone begins to heal from grief on their own, they usually gradually fade off my radar, not drop off suddenly. A sudden drop off like that usually means the person has died and Rita is clearly, not dead.”
We both pondered that for a moment. “Do you think maybe when she found out she was pregnant her sorrow went away?” I asked.
“Maybe but, I would still have expected a gradual recovery.”
“Victor, is it possible the powers that be sent a different sorrow eater to Rita because of my personal relationship to her? You’ve told me there are thousands of others, maybe one of them removed her sorrow?” I wasn’t sure how I felt about some other sorrow eater poking around in my friend. On the other hand, the idea that Rita might now be aware of the existence of sorrow eaters was very interesting to me.
“I don’t know Grace but, something unusual happened, that much is clear.” I nodded in agreement. We drove home in silence, both lost in our own thoughts.
I was curled up on the couch reading a book when Victor poofed in.
“Got an assignment. It’s a rough one, we need to go now.”
I tucked my bookmark in place and reached for Victor’s hand. His sense of urgency alarmed me. I braced myself as he poofed us to our destination. In an instant we were in a dingy apartment. The curtains were drawn, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. Then I saw him. Slouched down in a reclining chair was an older man, he was skin and bones, his clothes hung off him awkwardly. The man had a revolver in his hand, pressed to his right temple. I gasped. Victor remained calm.
“Charlie, this is Grace. She’s here to help you, just like I promised.” Charlie’s hand was trembling so hard I feared he might pull the trigger accidently. I held my breath as Victor carefully and slowly approached the recliner and put his hand out. “Let me have the gun, Charlie. I don’t want anyone to get hurt while Grace helps you, ok?”
“Didn’t think you were real.” Charlie mumbled. “Didn’t think you’d come back.” He still had the revolver against his temple. “I don’t deserve your help. It’s my fault she’s dead. My fault.”
“No Charlie, it’s not your fault. You did everything you could to try to save your granddaughter. You nearly drowned yourself trying to save her. You were very brave.”
Charlie took the gun away from his temple and allowed Victor to take it. “I wasn’t strong enough.... cancer... old bones. My fault.”
My heart broke a little as the picture of what had happened became clear to me. Charlie’s granddaughter had been drowning in the lake and he had tried to swim out to save her, but he was too weak from illness and old age; he couldn’t get to her in time. He had almost lost his own life in the process.
I went to Charlie’s side. “Charlie, your granddaughter wouldn’t want this for you. Please, let me help you.” He nodded his consent and I got to work quickly. Charlie’s sorrow was massive. The blue and black tentacles permeated every part of his body, not just his brain and heart. It took me a long time to untangle it all and when I pulled the writhing mass from Charie, it tried to hold on to him. I fought with the flailing mass as Victor looked on with concern; there was nothing he could do to help me; this part was my battle alone.
I finally managed to force the beastly mass against my chest; it melted into my body. The rush of despair that came over me was stronger than any I had ever encountered before. The blocking techniques Victor had taught me weren’t working. The sorrow was crushing my insides, wadding up my organs like old paper. I clutched my chest. My eyes met Victor’s; he looked terrified. Crap. I hit the floor.
I was vaguely aware Victor had poofed us home to our bed; his arms were wrapped around me. I opened my eyes to find his dark ones staring at me intently. He smiled. “There you are.” He sounded relieved.
“How long was I out?”
“Two days.” Victor stroked my hair. “I was getting worried.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what went wrong.” I assessed my physical situation. I seemed no worse for wear; with Victor’s help, I had recovered almost completely.
“I’ve never seen such intense sorrow as what you pulled out of Charlie. You did beautifully; you were beyond fierce.” He kissed me on the forehead.
“Two days explains one thing. I REALLY need to pee.” The beautiful sound of Victor’s laughter followed me as I left the room.
We took the next few days easy. Victor never said but I suspected he had given me far too much of his energy over my two days of recovery following my battle with Charlie’s sorrow.
It was midafternoon and one of those rare occasions when sunshine and rain combined. I was standing at the sliding glass door that leads to the deck contemplating for the hundredth time how I could find out if my friend Rita knew about sorrow eaters without giving myself away, when I saw the rainbow. I called Victor over to see it.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I smiled. Rainbows always make me smile.
“Want to do something crazy?” Victor asked.
“With you? Always.” I laughed.
Victor opened the sliding glass door and took my hand. We stepped out onto the deck in the rain and sunshine. The rainbow was still visible over the treetops.
“Dance with me.”
“Here? In the rain? There’s no music.”
Victor smiled and pulled me to him. “I hear music every time I look at you. Just follow my lead.”
We slow-danced and kissed in the rain and sunshine beneath the rainbow. It was crazy and it was also perfect.