The shrill of the teakettle made me jump. Victor was making chamomile tea to calm my nerves before we hit the road for a two-hour drive. I knew tea wasn’t going to help me, but he was trying so hard; I would drink it anyway.
I was nervous. Palms sweaty, stomach in knots nervous. Not because I was on my way to my next assignment to rip someone else's sorrow out of their body and force it into my own; that horror I have gotten used to, sort of. This was much more horrifying. Victor was taking me to meet his parents.
“They’ve been nagging me to bring you for a while now. They may be under the impression that we’ve been an official couple for a long time now. I’ve been telling them about you for nearly a year....”
I slapped myself on the forehead. “Well, that’s what we told my friends so at least the story is consistent. “I sighed. Victor reached over and took my hand in his.
“Grace, there’s no reason to be nervous. My parents are going to love you.”
“I’m sorry Victor. I’m thirty-three years old. I haven’t had to meet anyone’s parents in a long time.”
Victor spent the drive giving me the cliffs notes version of his family dynamic. None of his family members know anything about sorrow eaters and guides, and we need to keep it that way. His parents, both sixty, are Wanda and Ronnie. Victor’s older brother Thad is staying with them temporarily due to his recent divorce; he may or may not be around today. Thad’s daughter Maya lives with his ex and it’s a touchy subject best to be avoided.
The house Victor’s parents live in now is not the house he grew up in, but he did spend a lot of time there as a child because it belonged to his grandparents on his father’s side. The house is an old Victorian style home. It had fallen into some disrepair, but Wanda and Ronnie have been working on it steadily since they moved in ten years ago.
As we pulled into the driveway, I gasped. The two-story Victorian was beautiful, sage green with white trim and fretwork. The wide porch stretched across the front of the house and was lined with white rocking chairs with sage green cushions. Two of the rocking chairs were occupied. Victor’s parents stood to greet us.
“Mom, Dad, this is Grace Parker. Grace, my parents, Wanda and Ronnie.” I extended my hand expecting a handshake; what I got was a near bone-crushing hug from Victor’s father followed by a much gentler one from his mother.
Victor had obviously gotten his height and his black hair from Ronnie although Ronnie’s hair was now salt and pepper. He was a distinguished looking man with laugh lines around his dark brown eyes.
Wanda was average in height and a little on the curvy side. Except for a few age spots on her hands and a few wrinkles here and there, her skin was still porcelain perfection. Her hair was almost completely white and piled up on her head in a messy bun. Her eyes were hazel, and she was beautiful.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Grace.” Wanda gushed.
“We were beginning to think you were Victor’s imaginary
girlfriend.” Ronnie laughed at his own joke. Wanda poked him in the ribs with her elbow.
“Really Dad?” Victor rolled his eyes.
“Would you like a tour of the house Grace?” Wanda asked.
“Oh, yes please!” I love old houses and Victorian happens to be my favorite style. Victor started to follow us inside.
“Victor, you stay out here and chat with your father. Grace and I will be just fine.” I could only hope the panic I felt was not reflected on my face.
The home was beautiful; every room had been decorated with loving care. Most of the rooms were the same sage green from the outside of the house, but the kitchen and dining room were a soft buttery yellow. There were original hardwood floors throughout the house. There were four bedrooms and two baths. “There’s plenty of room for you and Victor to stay over any time.” Wanda said with a hint of hope in her voice.
“Your home is gorgeous.”
“Thank you, Grace. Victor tells me you serve on the board of the historical preservation society in your town, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s correct. How I got roped into that I am not sure, but I have really come to enjoy it.”
“This house has been in Ronnie’s family for four generations. I have a scrapbook full of pictures and documents about its history. I could show it to you after lunch if you’re interested.”
“I would love that, thank you.” Finding common ground with Wanda was easier than expected and I started to relax a little.
“Victor, take Grace out back to see the garden while I finish making lunch.” Wanda said, shooing me toward the back door.
“Oh, let me help you with lunch.” I offered.
“Nope. You’re our guest, run along outside. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
Victor and I headed out the back door and into a charming garden. Rose bushes, flowering trees and birdbaths were everywhere. A jasmine vine climbed the back fence, its aroma was heavenly.
“Doing ok?” Victor asked.
“Yes actually, I am. Your mother is sweet, I like her, and the house is amazing.”
“See? Nothing to be nervous about.” He smiled. “Thad will be here any minute. Looks like you’re getting the full experience today.” Victor reached over and tucked my hair behind my ears, he was always doing that. He stared at me for a moment. “You are so beautiful.” He lowered his lips to mine, his kiss, as always, sent electric currents through my body from my lips to my toes.
“Ugh! Get a room already.” A voice from behind me said.
“Thad!” Victor led me over to where his brother stood with an amused grin on his face. “Grace, this is my brother Thad. Thad, this is Grace.”
Thad, four years older than Victor, was a couple inches shorter and bit heavier. He shared the same raven black hair as his brother but cut much shorter. His eyes were hazel with dark brown specks in them.
“Nice to meet you, Grace. Mom says lunch is ready.” He held the door open for me and then let it go when Victor started to step through the doorway.
“Jerk!” Victor smacked Thad in the back of the head.
“Turd!” Thad smirked.
“Settle down boys.” Ronnie said. “Pretend to be civilized while we have company.”
The meal was delicious, and the conversation was casual and pleasant. It was topped off by Wanda’s award-winning oatmeal cookies. I stopped myself at two cookies, but I could easily have polished off the whole batch myself. I told Wanda as much; she was thrilled and promised to send some home with us.
Wanda made Victor and Thad wash dishes while she went to dig out her scrapbook for me to look at. Ronnie went to sit out on the porch. I waited for Wanda in the parlor and looked around at all the family photos on display.
“Pssst!” I turned to see Thad creeping into the room. “Victor thinks I’m in the bathroom.” I raised my eyebrow in question. “I’m sorry but I just have to ask; are you really Victor’s girlfriend?”
The absurdity of the question made me laugh. “Yes, I am. Why would you think I wasn’t?”
“Honestly, Victor has never really dated much, at least not anyone that he has told us about or brought here. I thought he might be gay. Dad thought he made you up.” I covered my mouth with my hand to keep from laughing. “You aren’t one of those beards, are you? Fake girlfriends for appearances sake?”
I couldn’t contain myself any longer, I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe, and tears streamed down my cheeks. Victor heard the commotion and came to see what was going on. I pointed to myself and tried to speak while laughing hysterically. “Real--- girlfriend.” I pointed at Victor. “Definitely -- NOT—gay.”
Wanda entered the room with her scrapbook in hand. “What in the world is going on in here?” I couldn’t stop laughing to explain. I was done for.
“If I understand correctly, Thad asked my girlfriend if I was gay, and if she wasn’t really my girlfriend.” He smacked Thad on the back of the head. “Jerk!”
“Turd!” Thad shouted and punched Victor in the arm.
I was incapacitated with laughter, collapsed onto the sofa gasping for air. “You two get back in there and finish those dishes.” They ran from the room like scolded children. Wanda turned her attention to me. “Well Grace, it’s a good thing you have a sense of humor. You’ll need it if you’re going to be part of this family.”
When I finally regained my composure Wanda opened the scrapbook. There were documents back to the 1800s. Photos showed the house had once been painted pink. Wanda and I both cringed at that. The sage green was a much better choice.
“Someday, I want to replace the stained-glass window that used to be above the front door. It got broken during a storm back when Ronnie’s parents lived here.” She held up a photo of the long-departed window. The measurements were written on the back.
“Do you mind if I borrow the photo? I may know someone who can help. I promise I’ll return the photo.”
Wandas eyes lit up.” Oh, that would be wonderful. Please let me know what you find out.” She handed the photo over. I felt honored that she trusted me with something so obviously precious to her.
The four of us spent an hour rocking on the front porch talking. Victor and Thad play-bickered the entire time while Ronnie barked sarcastically at them, Wanda rolled her eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed so much. Soon it was time to go.
“Don’t be a stranger young lady.” Ronnie wagged his finger at me.
“I won't, I promise.”
We had just made it to the car when Wanda called Victor back to get the cookies, she had promised me. He dashed back inside with her while I waited in the car. He returned a few minutes later with a large container of cookies and a smile.
I waited until we were on the road before asking if I had passed the family test.
“It wasn’t a test but, if it HAD been a test, you’d have passed with flying colors. They love you, just like I knew they would.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “When I went back for the cookies, Mom told me she was happy that I had found my person. She said she and Dad can already tell you’re the one and I better not screw it up.”
“Your Mom told me I’d need my sense of humor if I’m going to be part of the family. They certainly are welcoming.”
“That’s true. As you saw, Thad and I revert to pre-teen shenanigans when we get together. Sorry about that.” He looked embarrassed.
“Don’t apologize. I never had any siblings; I don’t know what that’s like but I am glad you have that kind of relationship with your brother. I’m not sure he liked me much.”
“Thad liked you fine. Remember he just went through a tough divorce. He’s not exactly at his best these days. Did you by any chance, look at his sorrow?”
“No. I feel like that’s an invasion of someone’s privacy unless they are assigned to me. I was scared to death when I looked into Rita that time.”
Victor nodded. I knew he understood.
“Have you figured out any way to find out if Rita knows about sorrow eaters without giving our secret superhero identities away?”
“Now we’re superheroes?” I laughed and snuck one of Wanda’s oatmeal cookies out of the container to nibble on.
“Well, you are a superhero, I’m just your sidekick.”
“You are NOT a sidekick.” I frowned. “You are my guide and my partner. I couldn’t do my part without you doing your part. Not that I ever asked for this gig in the first place.”
“I didn’t ask for it either but, it’s the reason I met you. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.” Victor’s voice was full of love, and it melted me inside.
“Crap. Me neither.” I sighed. He was right. Becoming a sorrow eater brought Victor into my life and he is worth it all.
“Back to the Rita issue. Any ideas?” Victor was evidently just as curious as I was.
“I don’t have a clue. I guess we just need to spend some time with her and see if we can tactfully ask some questions. She mentioned wanting to paint the nursery. How about I offer our assistance?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Rita had been thrilled when I called to offer our nursery painting services. She had already bought the paint and all the necessary supplies. Lydia, Paulene and Kara had come over a few days earlier and moved all the furniture to another room. They had also carried up the large heavy box containing the crib, assembly required.
“Ladies, the room isn’t that big, and I don't think Rita needs to be inhaling paint fumes. Why don’t you two go downstairs and catch up. I’ve got this.” Victor was already spreading tarps and taping off windows.
“Are you sure? I can stay up here and help you.”
“I adore you for offering but, go enjoy your gal pal time.” Victor kissed my forehead and shoved me toward the door.
Back downstairs, Rita and I settled into comfy chairs in the living room to talk. She showed me the ultrasound photos of her “little peanut” and we talked about how the nursery would be decorated. I shared with her about meeting Victor’s family. Rita had been most amused.
“Meeting the parents, ooof. I would have been a nervous wreck too. I’m so glad it went well. You seem really happy with Victor, Grace. I love seeing you like this.”
“Thanks Rita, I am happy. But enough about me, how are you doing, really?”
Rita sighed and rubbed her pregnant belly. “I’m alright. I mean, I wish Mark were here obviously.”
“I know honey, we all wish that for you. I know it’s no substitute for Mark, but you know the girls and Victor and I are here for you; Sasha’s husband too, I’m sure. It takes a village, and we are your village.”
“I know and we are so grateful.” Rita wiped a tear from her cheek.
We? I guess Rita plus little peanut equals “we”.
“I want to apologize for not coming by more. Last time I was here, you weren’t doing so well, and I should have been there for you then. “
“Oh, Grace, all I wanted to do then was to be alone. Not true, what I wanted was to die so I could be with Mark.” I sucked my breath in and held it. I hadn’t known it was that bad, but I now knew what her sorrow would have looked like if I had looked inside her then.
“When you found out you were pregnant, that’s what made you want to live again?”
Rita hesitated. “It was about that time, yes.” She wasn’t meeting my eyes. If I was ever going to go for it, this was the time.
“Rita, I know sometimes when people are in the depths of despair, there are rare occasions when someone can come and take the pain away.” She lifted her eyes to look at me, they were wide with shock.
“You--- know about that?”
“I do.” I nodded.
“Oh God, of course you do. You were just a kid when your parents died.” A look of relief passed over her face. “I’m so glad you know. I didn’t think I would be able to talk to anyone about this. It was a month after he died, the first time he came to me. We’ve been together every night since.”
My jaw dropped. Rita was having a love affair with her sorrow eater? “Wait, your sorrow eater came to you more than once?” I felt pretty sure the powers that be would frown upon a sorrow eater taking advantage of the fragile emotional state of a pregnant widow.
“My what? It’s Mark. Mark comes to me every night in the space between the plane of the living and the plane of light. We call it the visiting room. Didn’t your parents visit you after they died? Who were you talking about? What the heck is a sorrow eater?”
“Crap.” I put my head in my hands and took a deep breath. What had I just done?
“Grace, you said you knew. I’m not crazy, I swear. You’ve got to believe me!” Rita was entering panic mode and that wasn’t good for her or little peanut.
“I believe you Rita, it’s alright. Apparently, we were talking about two very different supernatural things. Now I need you to believe that I’m not crazy either.”
“Grace, I sleep with my dead husband every night. If you can accept that, I can accept whatever it is you are about to tell me.” She looked calmer and sincere.
I started with the day Victor had poofed into my life and gave her the necessary facts. I didn’t tell her how bad my battles with sorrow could be or share any information about my specific assignments. When I finished, Rita looked delighted.
“Get Victor down here. I want to see you go poof!” Rita was taking this all surprisingly well.