Featured image by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash
It began the way it always did.
James and I arrived in Penton, Alabama at nine in the morning, driving past the brick houses with perfectly manicured gardens, the shopkeepers who whistled as they swept the small spaces in front of their stores, and the quaint diners where elderly residents sat in booths, sipping cups of coffee that shook in their hands. As James drove past these sights, the same sights I had seen hundreds of times before in hundreds of towns, my phone buzzed continuously as the tweet announcing our arrival in Penton was liked and re-tweeted and replied to by the 250,000 people and bots following us.
I didn’t mind that our days looked so similar, that they all blended together until it was impossible to tell one from the other. Having so few distractions made it easier to focus on our work.
James hated when I called what we did “our work.” He said it gave too much weight to it. “It’s just a job. Just like any other,” he said.
I couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Sure. There’s basically no difference between us and a plumber.”
James pulled into a parking spot on the side of Penton’s Town Hall, a two-story building with gleaming Grecian columns. “Did you remember to print out more forms before we left the hotel?” James asked.
“Shit,” I said.
James shook his head. “You’re lucky I’m used to you forgetting everything. I brought extra.”
“My hero,” I said in my best Southern belle voice. James rolled his eyes.
We got out of the car, turned the corner, and ran right into a line of people waiting to get into Town Hall. When they saw us, a chorus of “there they ares” rippled through the line. A couple people took out their phones and tried to get some candid shots. James and I hurried past them and into the building. Inside, a sweaty bald man in a polyester suit was setting up two metal folding chairs behind a stained wooden table.
“Hello!” I said, and the man stopped moving. He walked over, grinning in a way that almost looked painful.
“Hello there! It’s a real pleasure to meet both of you.” He shook our hands, and I resisted the urge to wipe mine my jeans. “I’m Ed Duncan, the mayor of Penton. The word has spread, and the line to see you is already ʼround the block!”
I glanced through the front window and saw the line had gotten even longer in the two minutes we had been inside. A man peered into the window like we were on display in a zoo.
“We’re very eager to start seeing them,” James said in his usual monotone.
“And they sure are excited to see you too! No one can believe that James and Lia Aronson themselves really came to our little town. When we saw Penton on your tour schedule, we couldn’t stop talking about it. People have been saving up for months, but I know it will be worth it. I have a cousin in Montgomery, and he said that it’s like nothing you ever felt before. He said he’d never felt that good in his life.”
Ed clapped James on his shoulder. “Now, everything is set up and we’ll open the doors in about fifteen minutes. Is there anything I can get you?”
“Coffee, please,” I said as I fell into my seat.
“And remind everyone that we take cash only,” James added as he sat next to me.
Fifteen minutes later, Ed propped the front door open and beckoned the first two people in: a young woman wearing bright red lipstick and an elderly woman with wispy gray hair and a face that was folded in on itself. The elderly woman sat down in front of me. She stayed on the edge of the seat, gripping the armrests like she was in danger of taking flight.
“Hello, ma’am,” I said with a dimple-filled smile that was designed to calm down old ladies. “What’s your name?”
“Mae Hornby,” she muttered.
“Well, Mae, I’m really glad you’ve come to see me today. How can I help you?”
“I just want a couple of hours to forget.” She looked up at me with green eyes that held the sort of weight I had gotten used to seeing.
“I can’t make you forget, but I can help ease your pain for a little while.” I pulled a piece of paper out of my bag and put it on the table. “Here are our prices per hour.”
Mae slowly scanned the options. Next to me, James was already at work, his thumbs on his client’s forehead. The woman was young, maybe in her late twenties, not much older than me. Her eyes were closed and she barely breathed.
“I guess three hours would be good,” Mae said.
“Perfect.” I put away the list. “So this is how it’s going to work: I’m going to take your sadness right now. It won’t hurt at all—it will just feel like a little tickle. Once I have your sadness you’re on your own for the next three hours. You can do whatever you’d like in that time, but you have to be back in three hours to the minute. Okay?”
Mae nodded, pressing her fingers into her thighs.
“Are you ready?”
Mae shook her head.
I took Mae’s cool, papery hands in mine. “Mae, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to love it, I promise.”
“I just want a few hours of peace.” Mae’s voice cracked on the last word. She let go of my hands.
I smiled again, trying to think of other ways to ease her worries, wishing I was better at the whole comforting thing. I was much better at simply making the problem disappear. “You’re going to get it. Are you ready now?”
The seconds ticked by. Finally, she whispered, “Yes.”
I put my thumbs to her wrinkled forehead. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and gently pushed.
Stealing sadness always felt the same—like sorrow once-removed, the kind of sadness felt at the movies when a character tragically succumbs to illness while a sweeping score plays. I was grateful for that. I don’t know if I could have kept doing this if I had to feel real sadness, the kind that dug into your chest with its claws, leaving scratch marks and gouges.
The sadness-stealing lasted for just a few seconds, and then it was over, the sadness burrowed deep within me, in the place even I couldn’t touch. Mae’s eyes opened a second after mine. They darted around for a moment as she fought through the disorientation that always followed a sadness steal. Finally, her eyes landed back on me. She smiled.
“How are you feeling, Mae?” I asked.
“Quite all right,” she said. Her voice already sounded airier.
“Great, I just need you to fill out this little form and then I’ll see you back here in three hours, okay?”
Mae took the form and filled out her phone number and address. I did that in case she tried to skip out on getting her sadness back. There were at least two or three people who did that per town. I didn’t blame them— the feeling of joy was addictive. But I couldn’t hold onto everyone’s sadness forever.
Mae handed me the form and walked away. The next person came up, another older lady. I put on my best smile and prepared to do the same thing all over again.
The hours slipped by like they always did when I was stealing sadness. There were all types of sadness on display, from deep melancholy to fleeting jealousy to anger that turned into despair. I stored it all away, deep in the place within me that even I couldn’t touch. Around one o’clock, I went outside to take a break. To the left of Town Hall there was a concrete plaza with a few wooden benches. I grabbed the one free bench and glanced around. The plaza was filled with people whose sadness James and I had stolen. Some talked and laughed, the constant worries of life unmoored from their faces. Others simply sat with their eyes closed, faces tilted up toward the sun. Without any stress to make their mouths twitch or their hands grip their legs, they were completely still.
“Hey,” James said as he sat down next to me. He held a paper bag.
“Taking your break too?” I asked.
James nodded and opened the bag. He took out a turkey sandwich and passed me half. We ate in comfortable silence, which was how we spent most of our time. James was never one for small talk, or any talk. Besides, we were together so much we didn’t have anything left to say to each other. I don’t know if I could have kept sadness-stealing if it wasn’t for James. James was the organized one, the one who decided where we were going and how much we were charging and where we would stay. I agreed, because it was easier, because all I wanted to do was sit in that chair and take and take and take.
After we finished eating, we headed back into Town Hall to start giving everyone their sadness back.
The first person who shuffled up was a man who had been so nervous his forehead shook when I pressed my thumbs to it. I got his name and searched through my folder to find his form. “Did you have a good day?”
“I haven’t felt this free in years. I didn’t realize that when you took my sadness, you’d take my stress too.”
“It’s sort of a package deal. All of those emotions are tied together, so you take one, it’s like unraveling a sweater. All of the other worries come with it.”
Once I found his form, I checked the box that indicated that he had come back to get his sadness. Then I put my thumbs to his forehead, closed my eyes, and drew from that well of sorrow that now lay within me. When I had first started, I worried I wasn’t going to give people their right emotions back, since all of the sadness pooled together. But I soon realized that, at their core, everyone’s emotions were the same. We made them our own with our unique tragedies.
The next person came up, a middle-aged man with a bushy mustache that hung over his upper lip. Once I finished giving him his sadness back, he said in a low, conspiratorial voice, “So, tell me, did you really ‘steal’ my sadness? Or did you just perform some hypnosis or something?”
“Nope, no trickery here,” I said.
He nodded, but he didn’t look convinced. It wasn’t surprising. There were always people who asked me questions like this, who tried to sniff out the big secret that made me a big fake. But I didn’t care if no one believed me. There seemed to be a general consensus among the public that sure, maybe what James and I did wasn’t magic, but whatever it was, it did something. It made people feel better. So even those people who were convinced it was just an illusion accepted it—clearly, it was an illusion that worked.
After the man with the bushy mustache left, a woman in her thirties sat across from me, and on it went from there. The afternoon took on its own rhythm, and before I knew it the clock on the church across the street chimed five times. The day was over. Ed Duncan closed the door.
James and I grabbed our paperwork and went through it to make sure everyone had come back for their sadness. When I reached the bottom of the pile, I found just one form with an unchecked box: Mae Hornby’s. I sighed.
“Everything alright there?” Ed asked as he cleaned out the coffee pot.
“Yeah, fine, it’s just—someone didn’t come back for their sadness.”
Ed’s face turned bright red. “Shoot, I’m really sorry, I should have kept a closer eye on who was coming and going.”
“It’s okay, Ed,” I said before he could panic even more. “There’s always a runner. That’s why we have them write down their address.”
I stood and slung my purse over my shoulder. James stacked his forms and held them in the crook of his arm.
“Thank you for hosting us,” I said.
“It was my pleasure, darlin’.” We started walking towards the door, but then Ed said, “I have a question for you two, if you don’t mind. I’ve always wondered, why do you do it? Most young kids like you would want to focus on settling down, building their lives. Why do you travel to all these small towns, helping out strangers like us?”
James and I had been asked that question more times than I could count, by well-meaning town officials and matronly teachers and skeptical priests and everyone in between. I could have told them that my mom sat us down when we were seven and explained this strange thing we could do, this thing that shuffled around to various members of our family throughout history, landing as randomly as a set of dice. I could have said that I took someone’s sadness for the first time soon after that—a friend crying because she fell off her bike and skinned her knee—and for years after, I had nightmares about the frightened look my friend gave me when she realized her emotions weren’t hers anymore. I could have said that I didn’t take anyone’s sadness for years after that, but I flinched when I saw people cry, felt guilt when I overheard strangers talking about their losses. Until, finally, James sat me down one day and said, “Let’s find some way to use this thing we can do.”
I could have told Ed any of that. But in the end, I just said what I always say. “Because we like helping people.”
“Well, alright then,” Ed said, smiling in a vague way that told me he knew I was being evasive. “Thanks again for stopping by. Come back soon now.”
I nodded, knowing we would never come back. In just a few hours, this town would be reduced to nothing more than a memory.
Mae’s house was just a five minute drive from Town Hall. It had a lawn covered in weeds and a cracked sidewalk leading up to a front door with rusty hinges. The beige curtains on the dirty windows were drawn tightly. James and I shuffled up to the front door and I knocked, but no one came.
“Mae?” I called.
There was no answer. I turned the doorknob and the door creaked open, the hinges squealing. As I slowly opened the door wider, James’s phone started ringing, making me jump.
“I should take this, it’s that newspaper in Birmingham that wants to interview us,” James said. “Go in without me.”
“Okay,” I said, pushing my apprehension away.
James walked towards the street and I went into the house. The smell of mold and dust hit me immediately. In the dim light that came in through the cracks under the curtains, I saw Mae sitting on a couch that had springs hanging out of it.
“Mae, it’s Lia Aronson,” I said as I walked closer to her. She held a photo album on her lap, its pages yellow with age.
“I need to give you your sadness back, Mae.” I reached the couch and gently touched her thin shoulder. She didn’t look up.
“I haven’t looked at this album in years. Lord, look how young Benny was here.” She pointed at a faded picture of a little blond boy poking his head out from behind a huge oak tree, grinning at the camera. He was missing his two front teeth. Mae smiled down at the picture. “When Benny was a little boy, he loved playing hide-and-seek. He would find these hidden corners of the house and the backyard that he would squirm into. John and I would look for him for hours, and we wouldn’t find him. You wouldn’t think a boy that young would be able to keep so quiet and still, but Benny could do it. When we finally found him, he’d be so excited. He’d hug me and then climb onto John’s shoulders, and John would run with him through the house, making airplane noises. Benny would hold his arms out like wings, like he thought he really could fly. Lord, I haven’t thought about that in years. John loved that boy so much, and Benny loved him right back. We were a blissful little family, like the kind you see on TV.”
Tears streamed down Mae’s cheeks. She wiped them off and stared at her hand. “Happy tears! I haven’t cried happy tears in years. The last time I remember was Benny’s high school graduation. Benny came up to me after he got his diploma and said, ‘Ma, stop crying! This is a great day.’ Then he gave me this big, backbreaking hug, and I took a picture of him smiling like he won the lottery. This one right here.”
Mae pointed to a faded picture of a tall, muscular boy in a long black graduation gown with a cap set jauntily on his head. Mae turned the page, revealing a picture from the same day. Benny had his arm around a pretty girl also wearing a graduation gown. She smiled shyly at the camera while Benny looked at her, lovestruck and so, so young.
“That was Benny’s sweetheart, Jessie. She was a real nice girl. I always told Benny to hold out for a good girl, and he listened to his old mother’s advice. They were gonna get married when he came back from Vietnam. Everyday Benny was gone, she would come over here and sit on the front porch with me. We would knit and make wedding plans. Such a sweetheart, that girl. She and Benny would have been real happy. They would have made me some beautiful grandchildren.”
“Mae,” I said. “I have to give you your sadness back now.”
For the first time, she looked up at me. Her cataract-flecked eyes were wide. “Could you hold it for just a minute more?”
I thought about saying no, that she’d had enough time. But I could never bring myself to say that. “Sure,” I said, sitting down next to her. “Just one minute.”
We sat in silence for one minute, then two, then ten, the clock above our heads ticking off each second. Finally, I softly said, “Mae, are you ready?”
“Yes, I am.” Mae ran her fingers over the pictures of Benny and Jessie again. “It was nice to think about the good times for once. Feels like it’s the bad things always take up the most space in my head.” She closed the photo album. “All right, go ahead.”
I crouched down and put my thumbs on Mae’s forehead. The last of the sadness flowed from my fingers. When the well inside me was empty, I pulled away.
“How are you feeling, Mae?” I asked.
She blinked. “Just fine, dear. How much do I owe you?”
With all of the extra time I had held her sadness, she technically owed me three hundred dollars. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask for that much money from this frail old lady who was still clutching her photo album like it could bring her son and husband back to life. So I said, “We’re running a special today. You only owe me twenty.”
“Well, lucky me,” Mae said. She shuffled over to her dusty kitchen table and wrote a check with shaky hands. “Here you go. There’s a little extra in there for you. For being such a sweetheart.”
“Thanks,” I said, putting the check in my pocket. I also couldn’t bring myself to remind her about our cash-only policy.
I stood and brushed the dust off my jeans. “Take care.”
“You too, dear.”
I walked towards the front door, and when I reached it I turned to look at Mae one more time. She was touching the photo album as gently as a mother handling a newborn baby. I closed the door and walked outside into the bright sunshine.
As I walked toward the car, I kept thinking about Mae, stuck forever inside her grief. I wanted so badly to hold onto her sadness, cradle it and protect it, keep it for her until maybe she wanted it back, just for a moment, to see what she was missing. I wanted to hold everyone’s sadness, let it flow through my blood and fill my lungs, fill every crevice until it was me and I was it. But I couldn’t do it, couldn’t go beyond the limits of my fragile body. So I just did this: one town, one day without sadness, one time. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I had to give.
James leaned against the car, staring at his phone. When I reached him he said, “Everything good?”
“Yeah. Let’s stop at the bank on the way to the hotel. I need to deposit a check.”
James rolled his eyes. “You let her give you a check? And let me guess: you also gave her the runner’s discount.”
I unfolded the check and handed it to him. James shook his head. “You’re going to bankrupt us one day, you know that, right?”
I shrugged, staring down at the sidewalk, eyes burning.
“Hey,” James said, touching my shoulder. “It’s just a job.”
I repeated those words in my head, let them comfort me, the words James always said when it got too overwhelming, when the sadness stopped being abstract and attached itself to a real person with all of their real emotions.
It’s just a job, I thought, wishing it was true.
Penton wasn’t special. I couldn’t let it to be special, not with so many other places and so many other tragedies out there. And so I got into the car and looked up the directions to our next town.
But like always, as much as I tried to convince myself that I was leaving these towns behind, there was always one image that stayed with me. As we drove away from Penton, it was that last glimpse of Mae, silhouetted in her dark living room, the photo album clutched to her chest.
Rachel Shapiro is a freelance writer and editor, and has a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her story “The Convenience Store” was published in The Story Shack, and “Gorge” was published in Hickory Stump.