“Thank you for keeping it safe for two whole days!” the woman says chipperly. “There must have been a lot of obstacles on the way.”
She is petite, and absolutely brilliantly happy. Her eyes glimmer in the sunlight shining through the branches of the tree in her yard. By the way she’s holding onto the porcelain doll I just delivered to her, I know it’s an important thing. Emotionally, at least.
That knowledge amplifies the great joy of bringing it safely to her.
“Do you want a cookie?” she asks when I say I have to go. “I just baked a fresh batch. Double chocochip.”
I think for a minute and then nod. “I’d love one, thank you, ma’am.”
Today is a sunny, warm day of late summer - perfect weather for a cookie or two.
After the (perfectly delicious) chocolate chip cookie and a gulp of milk, I go on to the next address on my list. The item was sent almost a week ago - during a bit of a busy time. It’s a Top 100 R&B CD from last year, still in mint condition, and for the whole week it’s been in our care, we’ve tried our best to keep it that way. Not a single mistake happened; truly a lucky little thing.
I park the van in the indicated spot and climb out. The house that bears the right number is a bit run down, maybe a year or two past its proper renovation date, but still gives out the cosy vibe of a happy place. There is a vacant chair on the porch that seems like something lovely grannies would totally adore, minus some colorful decorative pillows. I wouldn’t mind having one for myself either, I think while ringing the doorbell, it’s just that comfortable-looking.
After a minute or two without an answer, I ring the doorbell again, and politely ask, “Anyone home? Hello?”
I hear a cough from somewhere inside the house. Then the muffled rattling of a chair, a door bursting open like someone shoves it off hinge, and then a grunt and a thud.
“Do you need help?” I ask louder. “Sir? Ma’am?”
“Open the door,” someone says faintly.
I open the door. There is a person on the floor, bundled in a thick woolen blanket. Their hands are braced in front of them, trembling slightly the way very old people do, and yet from the look of their skin and (albeit thinning) black hair, they can’t be older than mid-thirty. The ankle protruding from under the blanket seems to be sprained.
The person looks up at me with wide, tired eyes. “Help me up,” they say, always out of breath.
I haul them up and put them into an armchair by their direction. After taking a deep breath, they relax a bit and seem ready to converse. They always do something with their face - scrunching it up, as if they want to make it smaller. I don’t know why. Maybe they find that relaxing instead of smiling. Everybody is different.
“You’re smiling,” the person croaks. “Brightly.”
“I find it appropriate to show my happiness,” I reply.
They bark out a breathy laugh. “Happiness!”
I don’t really know what to do next. This person doesn’t offer anything, even a conversation starter. I feel like I should just go back to work - if they want anything, they will ask for it, and I’ll be happy to oblige. Otherwise, their day is already perfect.
“I bring you the CD one of your friends sent four days ago,” I tell them, “a… Joanna Bellum?” They nod. “A Top 100 R&B 2015 CD. It’s in perfect condition.” I beam at the excellence with which we’ve carried out our work.
The person doesn’t comment anything on that fact. Just a grunt and a sigh, “Now it arrives.”
I don’t know how to react to that. I’ve never met that way of expressing oneself before. I think that, and then tell myself, well, never miss a chance to learn more!
So instead of handing the receipt for them to sign, I lean in closer. “Sir? Uh, Ma’am? How do you feel about our service?”
The person looks at me funny through their messy fringes; there is a very, very strange emotion in those eyes. Their jaw goes rigid, as if they’re chewing on something tough, and their fists ball up in the bundle of blanket in their lap. The intense stare goes on for a minute, but then they deflate, and another sigh escapes their mouth, followed by a string of coughs.
“Fuck, it hurts,” they mumble, then speak up a bit through ragged breaths, “and sorry. This is not your fault. None of this is your fault.”
This person is very bizarre. My mind blanks out on a word they say. It’s hard to catch it back.
“Sorry?” I ask as politely as I can. “Can I do anything for you, uh--”
“Katherine," they reply hastily. “Kate. And just get me a cup of water.” After a moment, a “please” is added quietly.
I bring Kate a cup of tap water from the sink in the kitchen, noticing on the way a burnt pan and some crushed eggs on the ground. She must be learning how to cook. “You are doing an excellent job, Kate,” I encourage her when I come back into the living room with the cup of water. Encouragement is important.
She seems about to yell, the strange emotion I see in her ready to explode, but then she coughs and subsides. She tries to drink some water, but throws it up before it can even travel the whole way down her throat, and then coughs even more violently. Her face scrunches up as if someone fed her a piece of lemon.
I really, really don’t know what to do. “Uh, Kate?” I try to ask again. “Do you need help?”
Kate almost blows up between wrenching coughs. She throws expletives at me, puts the cup down onto the wooden table in front of her and makes the glass crack a bit. “Fuck you!” She screams hoarsely with her definitely scratched throat. “Fuck you and your help! You come too late, fucker, and now you dare ask me! Swear to God I will– right here– I’ll–”
She flops back down and tries to control her breath - seems like she has great difficulty breathing. More grunting before she deflates again, this time without an apology.
This lady confuses me. I really have never seen someone like her before.
Recognising the look of confusion in my eyes, Kate sits up a bit and laughs without any joy (how is that possible?). “You’re really happy, aren’t you,” she says with false kindness.
“Yes,” I hesitate a bit before answering, “yes, I’m happy.”
“‘Ave you ever been sad?” she hiccups.
My mind blanks out on me again. I just stare at Kate, feeling like she’s speaking an unknown language. She laughs a trembling hush.
“Sad.” There’s the strange word. She’s repeating it. “Sad. You ever been sad? You know what that is?”
“Sad,” I repeat curiously. The word (it must be a word) sounds like a meaningless yelp of an animal. “No, I cannot say I do.”
Kate laughs again. She seems very… tired. On the outside, at least.
“Oh my fucking god,” she whispers, more to herself than to me, “I can never wrap my head around this.” Cough, cough. “This is fucking unreal. Do you even know what the opposite of ‘happy’ is?”
I think for a bit, and only come up with ‘not happy’. Clearly not the answer she’s waiting for. ‘Confused’ and ‘tired’ don’t cut it either.
“Is it the… word… you used earlier?” I take a wild stab. “‘Sad’? Was that it?”
“Sad. Hurt. Disappointed. Ever heard of those?”
I shake my head.
Kate looks even… less happy… than she did earlier. She looks like a pair of soggy socks. She reaches for the cup of water but can’t bring her hands up; I pick it up and help her take another sip. This time she coughs a bit less.
“I fucking hate this,” she mumbles. Another word from her sentence evades me. “Hate. Do not want this anywhere near me, least of all inflicted on me. Do you even know hate?” She gets her answer from my blank look. “Hell, ain’t this the cleanest job ever.”
Curiosity gets the better of me after an inner debate. “What job?” I ask Kate.
She turns to look at me with apparent surprise on her haggard face.
“Are you asking?”
“Am I not supposed to?” Her words make me hesitate again, but she chokes out a laugh like this is her name on a million dollar lottery ticket.
“No– yeah, well, yes,” excitement shines in her wide, sleepless eyes, “but– nobody’s ever asked before.” Her thready breaths hitch on some of the word. “It’s part of the de– the deal. Nobody’s supposed to notice. Or to dig into this.”
“Should I leave?” I am ready to do as she wishes, but I have the feeling that she doesn’t really want me to go.
“No,” she says. “No. Do you want the full story?”
There is a ‘please’ somewhere in there. I look at Kate’s bright, tired eyes, and nod.
She smiles, for the first time with true feelings. “Okay. Sit down, please. Have a drink– eat something– don’t, don’t leave, please. Hear me out. It’s fucked up and sounds so stupid, but it’s true. I swear to god it’s true. Please believe me.”
I don’t know what else to do other than sit down and nod. That’s enough to please Kate, apparently. Her smile widens a bit.
“So you don’t know what the opposite of ‘happiness’ is,” she starts her story immediately. “What do you feel when you don’t feel happy?”
I stare at her for a minute. I am not one to usually consider my emotions, but I do know that there’s nothing without happiness. Everyone is happy. If there isn’t that, there’ll only be just… “Emptiness.” I say. “I don’t think there should be anything outside that? No one is not a little bit happy.”
Kate looks at me with determination in her eyes. “There is. Something outside of happiness, that is.” She stifles a cough. Her voice grows more and more feeble. “The opposite of happiness is sadness and hurt.”
“Please explain,” I am a bit overwhelmed, but also intrigued. A feeling of completely no happiness? How is that even possible?
Kate sits up a bit straighter. “How do you feel when you’re sick?”
“I feel… woozy. And sleepy.”
“When someone else sustains an injury?”
“If they’re fine with it then I’m also fine with it.”
“When a pet dies?”
“They don’t know anything. They’re quiet, and then gone. I am happy that they’re as free as that.”
“When you’re in an accident?”
“If I inconvenience someone, or vice versa, then we work it out together; if that’s not the case, then nothing’s the matter.”
Kate looks at me, seemingly forgets to even breathe. She looks… lost. Like she doesn’t have an answer for this.
I try to stand up. “Well, if I can’t help you with this–”
“No!” She shouts with all her might, which is not very much, but she gets my attention. “No, please.” Her hand’s tugging weakly on my sleeve. “Please hear me out. There are other things than happiness. It’s real. They’re real.”
“I’m sorry that I cannot help you prove that,” I say politely, “but I think someone else can. I can try to ask around–”
“No one else can,” she cuts me off mid-sentence. There are tears in her eye. They just make the rest of her eyes look even drier. “I just– I need to get the story out.” She grunts, and takes her hand back to tear at her shoulder, nails biting into flesh. I think the action helps ground her. “I can’t take this anymore. It’s too much. Can’t even tell up from down. Can’t even see straight. What day is it?”
I try to give her a good answer. “I think you can call 911–”
“What day is it?” she hisses through her gritted teeth.
Tears well up in Kate’s eyes. She scratches her shoulder, her face scrunches up even further. Her mouth gapes open in a strange expression. “It’s only three days. God, only three days. I can’t do this anymore.”
“Ma’am,” I say. “Katherine.”
“Only three days!” She screeches between hiccups, her voice more and more faint. Her shoulder spots a new bruise; she holds it stiffly while crying. Not of joy. This isn’t like joy at all. “Three days since that fucking dream. Those cloaked men. Figures. I can’t even remember clearly.” She coughs; there’s blood on the blanket now. Her wrist is as stiff as her shoulder. “They bait me with my girl. They know she’s in the hospital. They know I’m weak. Fuck, what kind of human am I?”
“A good one, I suppose?” I try to say something helpful.
She laughs raggedly. “Damn right, a good human! An excellent mother, who can’t even pay for her little girl’s surgeries!” Her breaths come too fast now. “So they dangle her last days in front of me, they say if I can shoulder this then my girl’s gonna be happy, the whole damn world’s gonna be happy, and guess what! They’re right!”
She tries to inhale through her nose, and triggers another chain of coughs. I don’t know what to do. The coughs and the injuries seem to affect her greatly, and not in a way I can understand.
“What did you agree to do?” I ask her.
“Bear the whole world’s pain.” She grunts through strong emotions. Lets out a quiet cry when her left eye looks suddenly a lot glassier. “Take whatever is the opposite of happiness, dump it on me. Yours! My daughter’s! This whole damn country’s! The world’s!” She is tearing at her own shoulder. “Fuck! This hurts so fucking much. I can’t– can’t do it. I was a dumb, arrogant bitch. My little girl died, and this pain’s eating at me, and I am not allowed to let it end! It just can’t!”
I try again. “How can I help you?”
She cries out loudly. “Take it away! Take this back! You can have your goddamn sadness back. I don’t want it. I don’t deserve this.” Then she just sits there, arms circling herself as if she’s a bundle of dry branches that need to be pull together tightly.
I look at her, her strange words still echoing in my head, words never before heard of already slipping my mind. I don’t understand what she wants. I don’t even know what ‘sadness’ really is.
After a while, I say with care, “I’m sorry that I ca–”
And then Kate looks at me. Her wide, bloodshot eyes are wild and… I can’t describe them. The emotion behind them is strong. It pushes me to stand up and take a step back.
It grates on some unknown parts of my mind, how great the pressure from that gaze is.
“Get the fuck out!” Kate hollers, her voice breaking, and I comply even though the confusion and curiosity still urges me to stay. From outside the door, I can hear loud, broken sobs.
A neighbour peers out from behind the white fence. “What happened?” he asks.
I shrug. “I don’t really know. Ms. Katherine says a lot of strange things.”
“She really needs help,” he says. “I can’t help her though.”
“Someone will be able to,” I reply, and he nods and goes back to whatever he was doing.
I climb back into the delivery van and drive it out of the parking spot. Once the curiosity subsides, memories of this whole thing will fade away with it. I still have eight other addresses on my list. This will be a busy and productive day.
I don’t see the car coming straight at me; it takes a sharp turn when we see each other, and crashes into a lightpole.
I exit the van and hurry to its front door. The driver of the car is conscious, but his ribcage is bashed in. He staggers out of his seat. He looks into the back seat, where his little baby lays with unseeing eyes and a large bruise on its temple.
“Do you need help?” I ask him. He looks back at me and offers a warm smile.
“No, no, don’t inconvenience yourself. I can go to the hospital from here.”
I look at his lopsided torso and his genuine smile, and say, “If that pleases you. Would you at least accept a cookie? Double chocochip, still fresh.”
He takes a cookie and then makes his way to the hospital in the opposite direction. I return to my van and continue my job.
It stays sunny until late afternoon. Today’s been a beautiful day indeed.