“So, you delivered singing telegrams?” Bess asked, lifting the bread to examine the contents of her sandwich before taking a bite.
“That’s right,” Val said, swallowing quickly to answer the question without a mouth full of food. “It paid the bills.”
“How’d you end up in that line of work?” Bess asked curiously.
“My friend Bunny got me into it,” Val said, deciding that sticking as close to the truth as possible was her best option if Bess was going to keep asking her about the things on her resume.
“Did you like it?” Bess continued.
“It was okay,” Val said, looking at Bess with a pensive expression on her face. Bess was interested enough in her past that she was asking questions, which meant she wanted to know, but just how much could Val share with her? The simple fact of the matter was, she needed someone other than Piper and Bunny to talk to about her recent troubles, and there was something kind about Bess that made Val want to open up.
“Just ‘okay’?” Bess asked. “You did it for three years, so at one point it had to be more than ‘okay’,” she pressed.
“Honestly? It was fantastic at first,” Val said, thinking about her life as a cherub. “Being a part – even a small part – of people’s lives and loves. Getting to see firsthand the kind of love and devotion that …” Val paused, wondering how she could finish that thought without revealing what she was really talking about. “… that would send a singing telegram of all things. I mean, how corny is that?” she asked lightly, taking a bite of her sandwich.
“So what changed?” Bess asked.
“I don’t know,” Val said seriously, putting her sandwich down and looking at the table. “I really don’t. It’s just … recently it felt like no matter how goofily romantic or completely in love these people were, it just … things fell apart and their relationships didn’t work out, and it got very depressing very fast.”
“Yikes,” Bess said, putting down her sandwich as well and making a face. “So you decided to try writing copy? I don’t mean to pry,” Bess said. “It just seems like kind of a big change.”
“Well, yeah, but I was looking for a change,” Val said, shrugging her shoulders. “And this job just kind of fell into my lap.”
“So writing ads to sell something overly expensive to people who don’t really need it isn’t your first choice of careers?” Bess asked, a small smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eye as she gently mocked her own job.
“Not exactly,” Val said. “Honestly, I have no idea what I want to do with my life. It just all seems so pointless, you know?” she asked, then promptly wanted to kick herself. Her existential crisis really wasn’t something she should be inflicting on other people.
“Actually, I do know what you mean,” Bess said. “I mean, I wonder sometimes if I’m completely wasting my life on a job that just isn’t important. But then I remember that we can’t all be firefighters or cops or something. Not everyone gets to save lives, or be a hero, or do something really important to the whole world. We just get to muddle through as best we can, earn an honest living, and try to be nice to the other kids.”
“That’s it exactly!” Val said, nodding her agreement. “Sometimes I think that what I do isn’t really important, and …”
“And so you wonder why you do it,” Bess said. “I wonder that all the time, especially on a day like today. That stupid Christmas campaign is driving me nuts! Please don’t tell anyone I said that,” Bess added quickly in a lowered tone, looking around the room for a familiar face and letting out a relived breath when she saw none.
“I won’t – I promise,” Val said, making an ‘X’ over her heart with her index finger.
“Oh, good,” Bess said. “Then allow me a moment to vent and say that planning a Christmas campaign to start before Thanksgiving is unnatural and wrong.”
“Really? You think so?” Val asked, unable to hide the surprise in her voice, but charmed by Bess’ strong opinion on the subject and the scowl on her face.
“Of course I do!” Bess said. “Don’t you?”
“I guess I never really thought about it,” Val said. And she hadn’t. Despite the fact that this Christmas campaign was the very thing she was meant to prevent, she’d only been thinking about the thing in terms of Piper and her creepy tooth-fairy girlfriend.
“It’s like … it’s like Oreo cookies without milk! Or wearing white after Labor Day!” Bess said. “So wrong … oh, so wrong,” she went on, shaking her head dramatically.
“You and Piper would get along,” Val said with a faint grin. And it was true, though Bess didn’t have the over-the-top continual cheeriness that Piper did, they probably agreed on a lot of things.
“She’s a Christmas Elf,” Val responded automatically, internally wincing. “That is, she’s the one who got me the work as a Christmas elf. She has very strong opinions about Christmas and when it should start.”
“Well, what would she say about Christmas ads running before Thanksgiving?” Bess asked.
“She’d say that it was so wrong … oh, so wrong,” Val said, mimicking Bess’ earlier statement.
“See?” Bess said, slapping the table lightly. “And she’s the expert! I told you it was wrong.”
“You’re different outside of the office,” Val noted with an easy smile.
“Uhh … thanks?” Bess asked, smiling uncertainly back, a faintly puzzled look on her face.
“No, it’s a good thing. You’re more animated. And fun. And interesting,” Val said easily, waving a hand. “I guess those are traits that people don’t generally look for in an administrative assistant.”
“Pretty much,” Bess said, wrinkling her nose and nodding her agreement. “People want ‘reliable’ in an administrative assistant, and an office environment isn’t really the place for silliness. At least, not working for Ms. Leighton.”
“So how long have you worked for Ms. Leighton?” Val asked casually, her ears perking up. She’d enjoyed just chatting with Bess, and had actually forgotten about her job for awhile, but now that Bess had raised the subject, it was like a splash of cold water in the face after a nice dreaVal eventually went home, where she sat in the dark and waited, and did not, at any time, pick up her telephone when Piper and Bunny called.
She also refused to answer the door.
Whatever it was she was thinking, it wasn’t strong enough for me to pick up on when I watched, so I really have no idea what it was.
I suspect that she wasn’t thinking much at all, but was mostly just existing. When she finally drifted off, she went through the next morning much the same way, and it wasn’t until around lunchtime at work the next day that she snapped out of her funk.
And Todd from Accounting asked Claire, a friend who lived in his building and was being hunted by a murderous ghost, to go with him to his office Halloween party so he would have a date.
Val shuffled into work, barely grunting a response to anyone who spoke to her, taking the long way around the room to her cubicle to avoid going by Bess’ desk.
She sent her work from the previous day to Miriam, and then started in on her next assignment, conveniently being away from her desk whenever Bess stopped by.
Lunchtime rolled around, and Val watched Susan and Bess leave the office with tired eyes.
“Valerie Valentine,” Miriam said, leaning against the entryway of Val’s cubicle, also watching Bess and Susan leave the office together. “Come with me,” she said, looking down at Val.
Val waited a moment until Susan and Bess had disappeared from view before standing up and silently following Miriam to her office.
“Sit,” Miriam said, before shutting the door.
Val sat, and watched Miriam walk past her to lean against her desk.
“Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?” Miriam asked, her voice deceptively mild as she glared at Val, leaning against her desk with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Huh?” Val asked.
“You and Bess go to lunch every day for a week, and suddenly, you’re avoiding Bess entirely, and then Bess goes to lunch with Susan? Bess and Susan have never gone to lunch. Not in five years. What the hell is going on?” Miriam asked.
“Nothing,” Val said, her voice short and harsh.
“Don’t give me that load of crap,” Miriam said coldly. “You did something to Bess. You did something very stupid to Bess, and she’s going to pay for it.”
“I didn’t do anything to Bess,” Val said, her voice low as she stood up and turned to leave. “I’m going back to my desk.”
“Yes, you did,” Miriam said, pushing off from the desk and following Val. “And no, you’re not,” she said, plucking one of the feathers form Val’s wing.
“Ow!” Val said, spinning back around. “What the hell did you do that for?” she asked.
“Did you shoot her?” she asked, waving the feather in Val’s face. “Did you shoot Susan so she’d go for Bess? So she can do to Bess what she does to all the women in her life?” she demanded.
“Oh, shit,” Val said, her eyes following the feather back and forth as the blood drained form her face.
“Yes. Oh, shit,” Miriam said, glaring at Val.
“Who are you?” Val asked warily.
“I’m a Senior Copywriter,” Miriam said. “Sit back down,” she went on, going back to leaning against her desk and retrieving a framed picture from behind her. “Here,” she said, handing over the picture. “That’s my daughter and her partner, my daughter-in-law.”
“Oh,” Val said softly, seeing very clearly a woman who resembled Miriam gazing adoringly at a cherub who was gazing adoringly back. Val didn’t know her, because cherubs tended to work alone, but she had heard about several cherubs settling down with humans over the past ten years or so. It was rare, but certainly not unheard of.
“I’ve been after my daughter-in-law for years to help out Bess. She’s a sweet girl, and she deserves to be happy,” Miriam said, her lips pressed together. “And then you showed up, and I think ‘finally they’re doing something.’ Even better, you and Bess really seemed to hit it off. So what happened?”
“Look,” Val said, pausing a moment to collect her thoughts. “I really don’t want to talk about it,” she said on a sigh.
“That’s tough,” Miriam said flatly. “I just got off the phone with my daughter-in-law, and you’re not on an official job and, in fact, are currently on suspension. She’s not going to do anything about it just yet, because I want to hear your side first. What are you up to?”
“I’m not ‘up to’ anything,” Val said, shaking her head, her eyes unfocused as she looked blankly at some point in the room. “I’m just doing a favor for a friend.”
“What kind of favor?” Miriam pushed.
“It all started with a harebrained scheme cooked up by one of Santa’s Elves and the Easter Bunny,” Val said, looking at Miriam.
“You’re pulling my leg,” Miriam said flatly.
Val just shot her a look, and then told her everything.
“That,” Miriam said, shaking her head slowly, digesting everything she’d just heard. “That has got to be the sweetest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You agreed to help out a lovesick elf and her tooth fairy girlfriend by stopping the Christmas season from starting before Thanksgiving, and did this by giving Bess a shot with Susan, who has barely noticed that Bess existed for the past five years?”
“Right,” Val said simply. “So that’s what’s going on. Bess finally has a real chance with Susan.”
“Which you arranged because you’re in love with Bess,” Miriam continued.
“What? No!” Val said, shaking her head vehemently, the action slowing steadily before coming to a complete stop. “Shit. Yes. I’m dumb.”
“And selfless,” Miriam pointed out. “So maybe you’re not so bad,” she said, her tone thoughtful. She paused. “Does Bess know she has a choice?” Miriam asked after a long moment.
“Huh?” Val asked.
“You’re a little slow on the uptake, aren’t you?” Miriam asked.
“Funny,” Val said. “I’ve had a rough few months. And I really wasn’t expecting to fall in love with anyone. How could I fall in love with someone? I’m not even sure I’m real!”
“You’re real enough to be in a relationship,” Miriam said, leaning her head towards the picture on her desk. “So does Bess know she has a choice? That she can choose between you and Susan?”
“She made that choice five years ago,” Val said, shaking her head. “She’s been pining for Susan.”
“Five years ago, she didn’t know you,” Miriam said. “And Bess usually has lunch by herself. She’s nice, she’s professional, she’s funny, but she doesn’t really make friends with her coworkers.”
“Did anyone ask her to lunch?” Val asked dryly. “Because that’s all I did.”
“I bet it’s not,” Miriam said. “I bet you talked to her and connected with her. Did she tell you about her life?”
“Well, yeah,” Val said with a shrug. “We talked.”
“I know that Bess is a nice girl. I know that Bess is smart, good at her job, reliable, and I’ve gathered that she isn’t seeing anyone. I like Bess, but I don’t really know her. That’s it,” Miriam said. “And we’ve worked together for five years.”
“Oh,” Val said softly. “So …”
“Bess has a choice,” Miriam said. “And so do you.”
Now this – this indicates that, yes, the whole point of shooting Susan really was to give Bess a chance with her. I still find that completely and utterly confusing.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I always thought that humanity’s reaction to a romantic rival was hatred, anger, and violence, or some combination thereof. I was not aware that people ever created their own romantic rivals on purpose in order to give the object of their affection a chance to be with someone else.
Maybe it’s because Val is a cherub, so, technically, not actually human.
Maybe love isn’t what I think it is.
Maybe all the “maybe” can wait until later. I’ve been over all of this again and again, and I still just don’t get it.
“So, uhh … Bess?” Val said, standing by Bess’ desk and fidgeting slightly. Bess was absorbed in her work, her eyes intent on her computer screen, and it took a moment for her to register that she was being addressed.
“Val!” Bess said, looking up with a slightly guilty expression on her face.
Val almost chickened out right there, but memories of Miriam’s mothering presence stayed with her, and she felt well and truly scolded. The only other person in existence who could make her feel like this was Cupid himself.
“What are you working on so late?” Val asked casually. And it was fairly late, especially for a Friday.
“Actually,” Bess said, glancing around, though at 6pm, everyone had gone home for the day. Even Susan had left promptly at 5pm, because she had a business dinner to attend. “I was just replying to an email from my mom,” she said with a sheepish look and a little shrug.
While technically, it wasn’t allowed, everyone used their work computers and their work phones for the occasional piece of personal business, but everyone also tried to be as subtle about it as possible, and tried to keep it to an absolute minimum.
“How is she?” Val asked.
Val let out a breath, somewhat relieved to have Bess take over the conversation. She was still feeling a little out of her depth from her recent revelations, and she suddenly felt shy and nervous around Bess, which wasn’t a natural state for Val at all.
“Because you have a thing for Susan, I was working late when you two made your lunch date, and I was jealous and upset,” Val said, holding her breath as she waited for a response and watched a myriad of expressions flit across Bess’ face, finally settling on surprise as her eyes got wider and wider.
Val didn’t have very much personal experience with love, but she’d certainly witnessed more than her fair share of it, and she’d always found that honesty was the best policy.
Maybe that had been a little too honest.
“Really?” Bess finally asked.
Val just nodded.
“Oh,” Bess said softly, her lips twitching at one corner before a slight half-smile crept across her face.
“I was, umm … wondering if you were free this evening, and would, maybe, like to have dinner with me?” Val asked, her voice equally soft in the still and quiet office.
The ringing of Bess’ desk phone was jarring, and they both jumped a little.
“It’s Susan,” Bess said, frowning slightly at the phone, but making no move to pick up.
“You’d better answer it,” Val said, her voice low and her gaze dropping to the nearest edge of Bess’ desk. “It might be important.”
“This is Bess,” Bess said, answering the phone. Val waited with her heart in her throat as she listened to Bess’ side of the conversation. “Actually, I can’t tonight,” Bess said. “I have other plans. I’m about to leave.”
Val let out a breath. It sounded like Bess wouldn’t be joining her for dinner, but she wasn’t doing anything with Susan, either.
That was … good?
“I’m busy,” Bess said.
Val frowned. She guessed Susan was probably pushing for Bess to break her plans, and Val wondered just what it was Bess saw in Susan. Sure, Susan was really, really good-looking, but she was pushy, and mean, and self-centered, and …
“Yeah, I think I am,” Bess said, letting out a long breath and piquing Val’s curiosity. Bess was what? “I’ll see you Monday,” Bess said firmly, saying her goodbyes and hanging up the phone gently.
“So I … guess I’ll see you Monday, too?” Val said, barely stopping herself from scuffing her foot like a little kid.
“We’re not going to dinner?” Bess asked.
“You said you had plans …” Val said, her brow furrowing.
“I do. With you,” Bess said, shutting down her computer, collecting her purse, and standing up.
“Oh!” Val said, smiling brightly. “Let me just … grab my stuff,” she said, dashing back to her cubicle and collecting her bow and her quiver, which appeared as an umbrella and a backpack to anyone who wasn’t a product of the collective human consciousness.
Val took a moment to duck down and pump her fist in triumph. Bess turned down Susan. Bess was going to dinner with her.
Bess was waiting.
Celebration complete, Val hurried back to Bess’ desk, and they walked out together, turning off the lights as they left.
“So where would you like to go?” Val asked, holding the door as they left the building to stand underneath the overhang.
“I’m actually pretty fond of the corner diner, if that’s okay,” Bess said with a little smile, pulling her coat around her tightly and glancing up at the rain.
“That’s perfect,” Val said, grinning like an idiot. It wasn’t the most romantic place in the world. In fact, it was probably somewhere near the bottom of the list of romantic places, but it’s where they went to lunch together, and Val thought of it as their place.
“You gonna’ use that?” Bess asked, her tone amused as she nodded her head at Val’s bow.
“Oh,” Val said, mentally kicking herself. The bow, she knew, looked like an umbrella, and a quick glance showed that Bess certainly wasn’t carrying one, and it was really, really raining. “Forgot I had that,” she said, shrugging a little and shooting Bess a sheepish look.
Val held out her bow, pantomiming opening an umbrella, then swung it up as she lifted one wing up and over Bess’ head to block the rain.
“You ready?” Val asked, looking over at Bess.
Bess took Val’s hand and stepped closer. “Now I’m ready,” she said, and they started walking.
Val just couldn’t stop smiling. It was raining, her wing was getting cramped, she felt like an idiot holding up her bow like it was an umbrella, and a toga wasn’t really good rain-gear, but Bess’ hand was warm in hers, and they kept sharing shy, sweet glances that made her heart skip.
Bess stepped ahead when they reached the diner and held the door this time, giving Val a moment to pretend to close and shake out her “umbrella” and surreptitiously stretch out her wings.
“Thank you,” Val said, stepping inside.
The diner had a few tables, along with the counter and obligatory shiny chrome diner booths with the vinyl seats. Usually, Val managed to finagle one of the tables, which was much easier on her wings, but Bess had requested a booth tucked out of the way in the back, and Val had agreed.
At least Bess had taken a seat across from Val. Her right wing had just started to relax after the awkward position she’d held it in during the walk, and now her left wing was starting to cramp up, but she’d manage.
“So, is this a date?” Bess asked bluntly as she looked over the menu once they’d been seated and placed their drink orders.
Val briefly considered giving Bess an out and saying something like ‘if you want it to be’. Screw that, she decided. “Yes,” Val said firmly, also not looking up from her menu.
This was completely and totally a date.
“Good,” Bess said, her gaze flickering up briefly to meet Val’s as she blushed.
“Glad that’s settled,” Val said.
They had dinner and talked, avoiding the topics of work and Susan by unspoken agreement. Instead, they talked about movies and books, and their hobbies.
Bess liked action movies and cheesy romance novels, which were a guilty pleasure. She went hiking whenever she could wrangle someone into going with her, and read Supreme Court decisions for fun.
“He just might be ruining the country, but Scalia cracks me up,” Bess confessed with a laugh.
“How so?” Val asked curiously.
“Well,” Bess said, wrinkling her nose up. “When I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, I try to laugh,” she said dryly.
Val liked romantic comedies and sci-fi novels, and she refused to feel guilty about either. She found people fascinating, and she had a very unusual hobby.
“Archery,” Val said.
“Archery?” Bess asked, her head cocked to one side. “You continually surprise me, you know that?”
“Good surprise?” Val asked.
“Yeah,” Bess said with a soft smile. “So how does one get involved in archery?”
Both of them thought dinner was over too soon, and after a little wrangling, they split the check, Val arguing that she had invited Bess to dinner so she should pay, and Bess arguing that since she had picked the place she should pay.
“Okay, so next time, whoever asks picks up half the check, and whoever picks the place picks up half the check, so if one of us asks and picks the place, they get to pay entirely,” Bess said.
“Deal,” Val said, doing a little internal happy dance at Bess’ presumption that there would be a next time.
“So, there’s a midnight showing of The Princess Bride tomorrow night. Wanna’ go?” Bess asked with an impish grin.
“Fink,” Val said.
“Is that a yes?” Bess asked with a laugh.
“Yes, it is,” Val grumbled good-naturedly. “I love that movie.”
“I figured,” Bess said with a smile.
They made arrangement to meet at the diner at 10pm the following day and have dinner before heading out to the movie.
Val walked Bess to her car and accepted a ride home, despite how awkward and uncomfortable sitting in a car was for her and her wings.
Because Bess held her hand the whole way there.
Human perception is pretty funny, if you’ve got a sense of humor. Most Grim Reapers don’t.
The idea that we, the products of the collective human consciousness, are created by the sum total of the human imagination, and yet humans don’t think we exist is funny.
Or maybe it’s ironic. I’m not sure. I’m a little fuzzy on irony as a concept.
My point is, that when we interact with humanity, we can decide that they’ll see us as one of them, instead of what we actually are. It’s commonly accepted amongst humanity that we don’t exist, so they don’t see us.
There are three kinds of people who can’t be fooled into seeing us as ordinary humans, though: children, whose sense of reality hasn’t fully developed yet, the mentally ill whose particular type of illness makes their grasp on reality tenuous, and the overly sane, who have a better understanding than most people of how real imaginary beings can be.
Well-adjusted people don’t see us. Well-adjusted people think we’re one of them. Well-adjusted people don’t believe in the power of billions of human minds thinking and dreaming the same things.
Well-adjusted people don’t know shit.
“Yes, mom, that’s her real name,” Bess said with a giddy little laugh. “She’s a copywriter from work.”
Bess twirled with the phone cord around her finger and smiled as she listened to her mother’s excitement on her behalf about her date the night before.
“We’re going out again tonight, actually,” Bess said, then chuckled at her mother’s response.
Bess rolled her eyes.
“Mom, I’ve told you: ‘The Rules’ don’t apply to lesbians.”
Bess’ eyebrows shot up and she let out a noise of objection, blushing hotly and scrubbing her face with one hand.
“Didn’t I ask you nicely not to watch ‘The L Word’ anymore?” Bess asked in a plaintive voice. “Because I did not need to hear that from my mother.”
Bess pulled the receiver away from her ear and tapped it against her forehead, closing her eyes tightly and wishing she could scrub her brain.
“Okay, I need to go,” Bess said. “I have to figure out what I’m going to wear … I love you, too, and I’ll call you later.”
Bess hung up the phone, then looked at the clock, pulling a face when she saw it was only 3pm. She was sitting around in sweatpants, a t-shirt and her gym socks, having already finished cleaning her apartment and doing all of her laundry for the next week.
She turned on the TV and flipped through the channels for a few minutes before letting out a sigh.
Of course, there was nothing on when she needed to kill some time.
Bess sprawled on her couch, throwing on arm over her eyes and just sitting quietly for a moment, trying to decide what to do for the next six hours.
She could always head into the office, but that would probably mean running into Susan, and she really didn’t want to do that after that very awkward moment where Susan had grabbed her and kissed her in her office.
Bess let out a little laugh.
If that had happened even a month ago, Bess would have been thrilled. For just a moment, she’d kissed Susan back, but then Val had popped into her head and she had pulled away. Susan had been a hopeless crush for five years, and Bess knew that, and had never seriously entertained the idea that something would come of it. Susan was older and worldly and impossibly sexy, and way out of Bess’ league, she’d always assumed. Why would someone like that ever notice Bess?
But still, she’d hoped, and then when it had finally happened …
Well, Susan had had five years to notice she was alive, and Val was smart and funny and gorgeous, and had seemed like she’d really noticed Bess within five minutes. The way Val had looked into her eyes when they first met had been just … wow. Intense.
Really, Bess considered, Susan had always been a fantasy. There was just something about Val that was real. And right.
Even with that ridiculous name. She’d have to ask Val what had possessed her parents to do that, and how long she’d used the nickname ‘Val’.
Bess smiled and then drifted off to sleep.
I have to admit that I’ve watched all these scenes over and over, but it wasn’t until I’d watched everything about fifteen times that I looked in on Bess here. I was focused on Val, because Val is the one who caused this whole thing. Bess wasn’t important to me. She wasn’t the significant one.
The more I watched, the more puzzled I got. I didn’t understand why Bess, who had apparently spent five years hung up on Susan, was more interested in trying with Val, who she had known for such a short time.
But more importantly, I didn’t understand why someone who had spent five years being rejected would open themselves up to the risk of more.
Then I found this.
And I still don’t get how Bess didn’t understand that love is something to fear. Fear is a survival mechanism. It’s healthy.
So why did Bess have no fear? Did she not realize the destructive power of love?
**“Good … she’s good,” Bess said, typing something quickly then hitting ‘send’. “So … what can I do for you?” she asked, turning her full attention to Val.
“I was … well, I …” Val said.
“Why have you been avoiding me?” Bess asked in a rush, interrupting Val’s stammering.
“How about this?” Piper said, flipping the laptop around on the coffee table to show her newest suggestion to Val.
“Really?” Val asked, tilting her head sideways and looking at the screen. “Maybe we should wait for Bunny.”
“But this is perfect!” Piper gushed.
“It’s … very glittery,” Val said slowly. “And … is that tulle?”
“This is the outfit! This is what you should project for your date tonight!” Piper insisted.
“I’m not … I’m not a ‘tulle’ kind of girl,” Val said.
“But you’ll look like a princess! And you’re going to see The Princess Bride! See?” Piper said, as if this was the most perfectly logical and natural thing in the world.
“I’m … really not a ‘princess’ kind of girl,” Val tried again.
“Oh,” Piper said, deflating visibly, the bell on her hat giving a dejected tink. “Well … how about something pirate-y?” Piper asked, perking up.
“How about something … normal?” Val asked slowly.
“Like your toga? You’ll stick out like a sore thumb!” Piper protested.
“No,” Val said, looking up when there was a knock on the door. “No, I mean normal human clothes,” Val went on, rushing up to answer the door, hoping that Bunny could inject some sanity into the proceedings.
Then again, Bunny might try to push her towards three-inch pumps, hot pants, and a leather bra.
“Bunny, save me!” Val said in a low voice, as she swung the door open.
Bess looked back at her with a confused expression on her face, Val’s bow and quiver in her hands.
“You, umm … you left these in my car,” Bess said, holding them in her clenched fists. “I think.”
“I, uhh …” Val said, her eyes widening as she realized she hadn’t projected a normal outfit before she opened the door, expecting to find Bunny.
“Is that … a costume?” Bess asked, her voice hesitant.
“A … yes!” Val said. “It’s my old singing telegram costume,” she went on, holding her wings as still as she could. “I was trying it on for Halloween.”
Bess looked at the items in her hands, and then up at Val. “So, I wanted to return your … umbrella and … backpack?” Bess said. “Except, I picked them up, and … can I come in?” Bess said.
“Umm … it’s not really a good time. My place really isn’t clean enough for company, so …”
“Bunny?” Piper asked, appearing in the doorway. “It’s about time you got … oh.”
Bess looked at Piper, and then at Val, and raised both eyebrows. “Bad time for company?” she asked, a hurt look flashing across her face.
“Oh … ummm,” Piper said, her eyes widening, and an alarmed expression on her face. “I’m not company,” Piper said quickly. “In fact, I’m not even a guest. I’m … I don’t have an invitation at all because I’m … a burglar! I broke in! I better go before someone calls the fuzz,” she said, her face scrunching up at how lame her words sounded to her own ears and disappearing as quickly as she came.
“Okay,” Bess said, pushing past Val and into the apartment. “This is weird,” she said, storming into the living room, and starting to pace. “This is … completely weird, and has to be some kind of a dream,” she continued, muttering to herself. “I … I must’ve fallen asleep on my couch, and this is a dream, because this,” she said, holding up the quiver and bow. “This isn’t possible.”
“What’s not possible?” Val asked slowly.
“This is not an umbrella, which I saw you toss in the back seat!” Bess said, tossing Val’s bow at her. “And this! This is not a backpack! This is a quiver full of arrows!” she said, her voice rising, as she tossed the quiver at Val, too. Val fumbled it slightly and nearly dumped the whole thing on the floor.
“I, uhh …” Val said, looking over at Piper for help, but Piper just let out a small ‘eep’ noise and disappeared into the kitchen.
“But they were. When I picked them up to bring them to you, they were, but when I touched them, they weren’t anymore, and … how stupid do you think I am?” Bess asked, her face furious as she stopped her pacing and rounded on Val. “No freaking Halloween costume has wings that look that good!” she blurted out.
“And they’re attached to your back! Very visibly!” Bess said, after she grabbed Val and spun her around.
Bess poked Val in the back where her wings met her shoulder. Hard.
“Ow!” Val said, tucking her wings tightly against herself and pulling away from Bess. “Would everyone please stop messing with my wings! They’re very sensitive!”
“I’m crazy,” Bess said, running a hand through her hair and resuming her pacing. “That’s the only explanation. I must be crazy,” she said, laughing hollowly.
“I can explain,” Val said quickly.
“Can you?” Bess demanded. “Can you explain why all evidence points to you being Cupid?”
“I am not Cupid!” Val said, growling her frustration. “He’s my boss!”
“Susan is your boss!” Bess shot back, stopping her pacing once again. “Susan is my boss! Susan is our boss, so …“ her voice trailed off. “Oh.”
Puzzlement, disbelief, and finally understanding and hurt spread achingly slow across Bess’ expressive face.
“Oh,” Bess said, again, one arm crossed over her stomach, and one shaky hand rising up to her face. “You … you were trying to get Susan and me together?” she asked, her voice rough.
“No!” Val denied automatically, then pursed her lips together and winced. “Yes,” she said, waggling her head back and forth. “It’s complicated.”
“So … what was this?” Bess asked, motioning between the two of them. “You … wanted to make Susan jealous or something? I don’t …”
“It’s complicated,” Val said again, her voice barely a whisper.
“I wasn’t looking for you, but there you were,” Bess said slowly, her gaze distant as she crossed both arms over her midsection. “I wasn’t looking for anyone, because I was … “
“Hung up on Susan?” Val asked, her own hurt evident in her voice.
“No,” Bess said, shaking her head. “Susan was an excuse to keep people away.”
“And now?” Val asked, taking a hesitant step closer.
“Now?” Bess asked, letting out a short, brittle laugh. “Now I wish I’d held on to that excuse. Because I’ve either completely lost my mind, or …”
“You haven’t lost your mind,” Val said. “I’m … I’m not really human. I’m a cherub. I run around and help people find love. You’re not crazy.”
“Then I guess I lost you,” Bess said, her voice thick with disappointment. “But I guess I never had you, did I?” she asked, rushing out of Val’s apartment before Val could muster a response.
Val blinked, and Bess was gone, and she looked around at her quiet, empty apartment and wondered what the hell just happened.
“Aren’t you going to go after her?” Piper asked peeking around the corner warily.
Val wasn’t sure she could move. She felt rooted to the spot.
“Hey, honeys,” Bunny said, walking into the apartment. “What’d I miss?”
Val just looked at her blankly then sat down heavily on the couch, burying her head in her hands.
See that right there? That’s fear.
Val, at least, is beginning to understand the awesome power of love, in all of its terrible glory.
Fear of further hurt left Val in her apartment for four more days. She didn’t go to work that Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
Piper and Bunny stuck around, stayed quiet and out of Val’s way, but they were there.
It was Wednesday morning, though, that the real terror took hold of Val.
It was Wednesday morning that Val finally realized that, yes, she was real, because nothing could feel as bad as she did and not be real.
And it was Wednesday morning that Val started wondering what the rest of her existence would be like if she spent it wondering about whether or not she and Bess could have worked things out if she’d only given it one more shot.
That particular Wednesday was Halloween, and work ended at 2pm for the office Halloween party.
Todd from accounting was there with his date, Claire.
And so was I.
MJ stood in the corner, and watched.
The decorations were … predictable: black and orange streamers, hanging bats and cardboard pumpkins and ghosts and witches.
People flitted about, laughing and talking, making stops at the punch bowl that had a chunk of dry ice in it and was spilling mist into the room.
The costumes, too, were typical. Ghosts, witches, men dressed as cheerleaders … a few nurses and pirates.
MJ gave them all only a cursory glance. She had a job to do, and there was nothing here out of the ordinary to attract her attention.
That situation changed abruptly when a cherub, an elf, and Bunny walked into the room. They were projecting costume versions of their normal selves, but MJ could see them with no trouble.
MJ raised an eyebrow.
I do, on occasion, wish that the rules regarding Time and Space didn’t apply to Grim Reapers at all, and that we were, in fact, able to go back and change things.
But I can’t. I can only watch, again and again.
“… and the moral to the story is, Wheaties beats Cornflakes two to one,” Miriam said triumphantly, accepting the laughs and groans with a broad grin.
“I don’t get it,” Todd said, his brow furrowing.
“It’s … I’ll explain later,” Claire said, chuckling and patting Todd on the back.
“Excuse me,” Miriam said, noticing Val standing in the doorway and hurrying over.
“Miriam!” Val said, her voice low. “Is she here?”
“Yeah, she’s here,” Miriam said. “What the hell happened? Who the heck are they?” she asked, looking at Bunny and Piper.
“Bunny, Piper, this is Miriam,” Val said quickly. “Miriam, this is Piper. She’s an elf. And Bunny is … “
“Pleased to meet you,” Bunny said, taking Miriam’s hand and smiling devilishly at her.
“The worst flirt who ever lived,” Val finished. “Where’s Bess?”
“But what happened?” Miriam asked again. “I’ve been covering for you for three days, but Susan wants to fire you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Val said, shaking her head. “Bess found out I was a cherub, and figured out that Susan hitting on her was my doing.”
“God, no wonder she’s been looking like her puppy died,” Miriam said, glancing over to one corner of the room where Bess was sitting alone, a cup of punch in her hand.
Miriam and Val both watched with narrowed eyes as Susan started making her way over to Bess.
“Go get the girl!” Miriam said, pushing Val into the room, though the gesture was unnecessary as Val was already on her way.
Miriam shivered as something cold and sinister seemed to make its way up her spine as Val dashed across the room. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end, and she looked around the room uneasily, but she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“ … why don’t we … “ Susan was saying, when Val reached Bess.
“Bess!” Val said.
“What are you doing here?” Bess asked coldly.
“Good question,” Susan said, frowning at Val. “You couldn’t make it in to work, but you made it to the party?” she asked, a disapproving look on her face.
“I quit,” Val said, waving a dismissive hand in Susan’s direction and not even sparing her a glance. “Bess, I need to talk to you.”
“I don’t think we have anything to talk about,” Bess said, standing up and pushing past Val to the center of the room.
“Wait,” Val pleaded, following her, the drama unfolding in their midst starting to draw the attention of the people around them.
“I said I don’t want to talk,” Bess said, stopping and lowering her voice, glancing around at her coworkers, who eventually went back to their conversations.
“She said she didn’t want to talk,” Susan said, following the pair and glaring at Val, placing a hand on Bess’ shoulder. “And since you quit, you’re not supposed to be at this party. It’s for the company.”
“Is that really what you want?” Val asked after a moment, her gaze darting to Susan’s hand.
“I …” Bess said looking at the floor, her eyes filled with hurt when she looked back at Val.
“You don’t have to talk. Just listen,” Val said softly.
“I said you’re not welcome,” Susan interrupted. “I’ll call security,” She threatened.
“Butt out,” Val said.
Susan pulled her cell phone off her belt and smirked, flipping it open and starting to dial.
“I’m here legitimately. I’m making a delivery!” Val said, thinking fast, and thanking … whatever … that her brain was finally starting to work again. “Singing telegram for Bess!” she called out.
Sure, that wasn’t planned, and she couldn’t really sing, but it would buy her a few precious moments to try to get Bess to see her side of things.
“What are you doing?” Bess hissed.
“What choice do I have?” Val whispered back. “Singing telegram for Bess!” she called out again. “If everyone could … please step back,” she said, looking directly at Susan as she said the last three words.
Happy partygoers stepped back and started forming a circle, pulling Susan back with them.
“What was a supposed to do?” Val asked quietly, her voice intense as the people around her shuffled about, jockeying for position in the front of the circle. “Say ‘Hi, I’m a cherub’? You wouldn’t have believed me,” Val went on.
“Well …” Bess started to say, her voice huffy, before she stopped and realized that, yes, she wouldn’t have believed her. “What about Susan?”
“What about Susan?” Val shot back.
“Did you shoot her with the … arrows?” Bess asked, indicating the quiver hanging from Val’s belt.
“Yes, but … dammit,” Val said, then went on in a rush, trying to get her explanation out before the partygoers had organized themselves. “I think I fell for you the minute I saw you, but I was too stupid to see it, and when I did see it, it was too late, because I’d already shot Susan, but then I hoped it wasn’t too late, so I asked you out, okay?”
“I don’t hear any singing!” Susan said from the circle, her eyes narrowing at the intense conversation Bess and Val seemed to be having. Susan picked up her cell phone and started to dial again.
“I love you so much, I’m about to make an ass of myself because I really can’t sing,” Val said quickly. “Hit it, Bunny!” Val yelled, pointing at Bunny, who was standing in the front with Piper, trying valiantly not to laugh at her.
It only took two notes for Val to identify the unmistakable opening of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.
“Bunny!” Val said, eyes wide as she looked over at Bunny, who just looked back at her innocently. “Bess, please ignore the insane woman in the fishnet stockings,” Val said, looking into Bess’ eyes.
They were standing so close together that it wasn’t very far to go to lean in and brush her lips against Bess’, and by the time the thought crossed her mind, she’d closed the distance, her eyes drifting shut at the soft touch.
Val’s eyes popped open wide when Bess took Val’s face in her hands and kissed her back.
Then the lights went out.
So I was a little distracted.
It’s not every day that a Grim Reaper sees what I just saw, and I’m not talking about the kissing.
It was Bunny, Miriam … and Piper … singing “Let’s Get It On” that caught my attention. Elves just don’t do that.
So I missed it when the ghost came in and went straight for Claire.
MJ cursed, and stepped out of Time and Space, then back in on the other side of the room, meeting the ghost’s rush towards Claire head on.
Recognizing a Hunter when he saw one, the ghost stopped short, backpedaling away from the flashing edge of the scythe and the glowing eyes.
“Damn you,” he hissed, moving through the empty space of the circle formed when Val had announced her singing telegram.
MJ made no answer, merely advancing on the ghost.
He turned and ran, running right through Bess, both MJ and the ghost ignoring it when Bess fell to the floor behind them and Val cried out.
The concerns of the living weren’t theirs.
Except one of them was dying, and as MJ chased the ghost across the room, she felt the pull of that death, and broke off her pursuit with another curse when the ghost made it to the door.
As the ghost crossed the threshold, the lights came back on.
Some things we don’t get to choose. If I’d had any choice in the matter, I would have chased down that ghost and ignored what was happening in the room, but it doesn’t work that way.
I wanted to complete my mission, and return that angry soul to where it belonged, but a Gathering must always take precedent over a Hunting, because the souls of the newly dead must pass over as soon as possible.
I didn’t understand why until later.
And that’s why I stopped, and turned, and started walking back in to take Bess’ soul.
“No!” Val said, kneeling next to Bess, and trying to feel for a pulse with shaking fingers.
“What the hell just happened?” Susan demanded.
“Oh, my God,” Miriam said, fumbling her cell phone open to call 911.
“Get back,” Claire said, rushing to Bess’ side and kneeling down. “I’m a nurse,” she said, trying to move Val out of her way.
“Bess? Come on, Bess,” Val pleaded, the enormity of the situation not entirely sinking in. Val shrugged off Claire’s hands, her attention totally focused on Bess, and the fact that Bess wasn’t moving.
“Val!” Bunny yelled, rushing to Val’s side and grabbing her arm to get her attention.
“What?” Val growled. Why wouldn’t everyone leave her alone? Didn’t they see she had to wake up Bess?
“Reaper,” Bunny said, nodding her head in MJ’s direction.
MJ walked towards them, scythe in hand, long robes covering her body, and her hood leaving her face shadowed and unreadable. Only Val, Bunny and Piper saw anything other than a person in a grim reaper Halloween costume.
“Stay away from her,” Val said, her voice full of warning as she looked directly at MJ. Val leaned over Bess, her wings spread. “Don’t come any closer.”
“You need to move! Now!” Claire said to Val, trying to physically shoulder the cherub out of the way. Val would not be shoved, and shoved back, sending Claire back several feet, her eyes never leaving MJ. On some level, she knew that Claire was trying to help, but on another, more important level, she knew that with a Grim Reaper advancing, there was nothing Claire could possibly do.
Val was pretty sure she couldn’t do anything, either, but that wouldn’t stop her form trying.
“I have to,” MJ said, spinning her scythe in her hands. “It’s the way of things.”
“Not one more step,” Val said, pulling her bow off of her belt and an arrow from her quiver.
“You can’t kill a Reaper,” MJ pointed out.
“Try me,” Val said, nocking the arrow and pulling it back in one smooth motion, still kneeling protectively over Bess’ fallen form. “Not one more step.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Claire asked, looking up at Val in alarm, her attention pulled from figuring out a way to get to Bess by the sudden appearance of a weapon.
MJ paused a moment, a sense of tension in the air so palpable that even she detected it, and it made her hesitate.
Shaking her head roughly from side to side just once, MJ took a step.
Val let the arrow loose, and it struck MJ square in the chest, dropping her where she stood.
“Oh, God,” Claire said, looking back and forth between Bess and MJ. It was Todd who solved her dilemma.
“I got this,” Todd said, kneeling beside Bess but away from Val. While he and Claire had lived in the same apartment building for years, it was when he had taken a CPR certification course from her that they had become friends. “I’m checking for breathing and a pulse,” he said to Val, his voice low and calm.
“He’s trying to help,” Bunny said, laying a soothing hand on Val’s shoulder.
Val moved back wordlessly, watching every move that Todd made with intent, unblinking eyes.
Claire nodded at Todd and moved to MJ’s side, running her hands over MJ’s robes and trying to find the arrow she had seen hit. She found nothing. “Can you hear me?” she said, two fingers going to MJ’s neck, searching for a pulse, and not finding one of those, either.
“She’s breathing,” Todd said, relief evident in his voice. He was glad he knew CPR, but he really didn’t want to ever have to use it. “She’s got a pulse.”
Claire pulled her hand away and flexed her fingers, though she doubted it would help, and tried again, pressing her fingers to MJ’s neck.
There it was. A heartbeat. Claire laid a hand on MJ’s chest, and felt it rising and falling steadily.
“Hello? Can you hear me?” she asked again, pushing back MJ’s hood, and finding two blue eyes looking back at her.
“Yes,” MJ said, looking up at Claire.
I’m not sure language can describe what happened to me in that moment. Nothing like it had ever happened to a Grim Reaper before, and, very possibly, nothing like it will ever happen again.
Grim Reapers aren’t supposed to feel.
In that moment, I felt.
The souls of the dead don’t belong in the world of the living. It is the solemn duty of the Grim Reapers to harvest the souls of the departed and send them on.
I’ve witnessed a great deal of human history. I’ve seen the ends of old lives, young lives, famous lives, and forgotten lives.
I’ve watched over the passing of those who were surrounded by loved ones, and whose departure caused a wellspring of grief, and I’ve watched over the passing of those who had no other witness but me.
In all that time, I felt nothing, but I saw. I saw humanity in all of its ugly murdering viciousness, and in all of its compassionate, merciful glory. I saw kingdoms rise and fall, and families woven together or torn apart.
The arrows of the cherubs open the mind and the heart to love when they strike a human. But when that arrow hit me, and I looked into Claire’s eyes, I saw humanity as if for the first time. Everything I’d been witness to passed through my mind, as my heart took its first beat and my lungs their first breath.
I saw her, and she was human, and perfectly imperfect.
And I loved her.
I Loved Her.
And I learned that the Gathering of souls took precedent over a Hunting because a soul that was not Gathered would return to its body and revive it.
“Bess?” Val said, her voice breaking with relief as Bess’ eyes fluttered open.
“What hit me?” Bess asked, her voice groggy.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Val said, pulling Bess up into a sitting position and into her arms. “Did you pass out or something?” Val asked, looking anxiously over at MJ.
But MJ wasn’t watching Bess, and Val let out a sigh of relief.
“Is everyone all right?” Miriam asked loudly, looking at MJ and Bess, and all around the room.
“I’m fine,” Bess said, waving away the helping hands other than Val’s. Awkwardly, Val stood up and helped Bess to her feet at the same time.
“I’m fine, too,” MJ said, retrieving her scythe and clambering to her feet, dusting off her robes.
“What the hell just happened?” Claire demanded, looking back and forth between MJ and Bess. Confused murmurs from the crowd followed her question, and Bunny stepped forward.
“I have no idea,” Bunny said. “Did someone spike the punch? Isn’t this supposed to be a party?” she asked, dance music with a heavy beat filling the room at her words.
“Bess, are you all right?” Susan asked, as everyone but Bess, Val, Bunny, Piper, MJ and Miriam started to drift away, the party starting up again.
Even Claire wandered off, her confusion melting away to laughs and smiles as the party regained its momentum and the particulars of the events that had just occurred melted away.
Such was the magic of Bunny.
“Yeah,” Bess said, waving Susan off. “I’m all right.”
“Maybe we should go to the hospital,” Val said, looking at Bess with concerned eyes, subtly shifting to place herself between Bess and MJ.
“That’s a good idea. I’ll take her,” Susan volunteered.
“Susan, I’m not going to the hospital,” Bess said, wrapping an arm around Val’s waist. “In fact, unless it’s work related, I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Oh,” Susan said, pursing her lips. “I see,” she finished, spinning on her heel and storming off.
“I’m going to go … elsewhere,” Miriam said, looking at Val and Bess standing together with a pleased little smile before also making her scarce.
“Piper, sugar,” Bunny said. “I think we should go, too.”
“Yeah,” Piper said, a beaming smile on her face. “I’m going to go meet up with Mitzy.”
“Shit. The Christmas campaign,” Val said.
“What about it?” Bess asked, a confused look on her face.
“I was sort of … supposed to put a stop to it? Because it’s unnatural and wrong for Christmas to start that early?” Val offered with a sheepish shrug.
“Really?” Bess asked. “Why would a cherub get involved in that?”
Val nodded at Piper, who gave Bess a little wave when Bess looked at her.
“You were here doing a favor for a friend?” Bess asked.
“Yeah,” Val said, nodding. “Listen, why don’t you and Piper chat about it for a bit and I’ll catch up with you. I need to talk to … “ Val said, looking over at MJ.
“MJ,” she introduced herself.
“Right. MJ,” Val said with a nod.
“Is this …?” Bess asked, looking at MJ with a confused expression that shifted into one of growing alarm.
“It’s okay,” Val said, leaning in and giving Bess a quick kiss. “We’re just clearing up a misunderstanding, and then, if you want, we could go have dinner? At the diner?”
“How about my place?” Bess asked. “We have a lot to talk about.”
“Sounds perfect,” Val said. She’d figure out how to explain this whole mess to Cupid later.
She had a love life to meddle with, and this time, it was her own.
Val and I had a little chat. I explained what happened, she explained that if I thought she and Bess were going to pay the price for my inattention, I had another think coming.
But honestly? I wasn’t paying much attention to that conversation. I was a little preoccupied trying to sort through the heaping mess I’d managed to land in.
You see, for all things that live, Death is the end. For me, for Death itself, love is the end. How could I take the souls of the living now that I feel love? And if I do not take the souls of the living, how can I continue to exist, when that is the purpose for which I was created?
We Grim Reapers aren’t equipped to handle love.
I’m on suspension, and so I’ve watched these things over and over, trying to make sense of it all. I still don’t have a handle on it. Maybe if I watch it one more time, it will make sense. Maybe the next viewing will be the one to wipe the fear away and I’ll be able to figure out what to do.
Maybe one last time, and I’ll be ready to rejoin Time and Space and see what happens next.
As for Val and Bess, Death considered reaping Bess’ soul even though she is clearly of the living, but the cherubs banded together in support of Val and Bess, and threatened to shoot love arrows at all the Grim Reapers. Death caved and decided to leave Bess alone.
In the face of love, Death and all it commands trembles, because nothing is scarier than love.
Maybe after this next viewing, I’ll work up the nerve to go see Claire.