Jane had no reason to suspect Craig was the reason she was always sick. He was her joy. He cheered her up when she was down. He bought her flowers and turned them towards her saying she was the sunshine that they fed on. He noticed when she paused over a piece of art and bought it months later as a surprise. To be honest, she’d never had such a kind and considerate boyfriend her entire life.
He never minded that she was often cranky because of the pain. The chronic feeling of un-wellness kept her up at night, made it hard to spend time with friends. Often all she wanted at the end of the day was to curl up on the sofa with a book and let her mind escape into the pages. At least there she could forget the dull but ever-present pain that ruled her days.
She drank anti-inflammatory tea by the gallon, did everything her therapist suggested, and still she had no relief. She had come to believe that pain was part of who she was, just as much as her bunions and her curly hair. She could no longer remember a time she wasn’t at least a little achy, since a little had been a lot for so long.
It had started when she was in college, the year she met Craig. Under hypnotism much later she realized it was the very night she’d first seen him at a frat party that the aches had begun. They were mild at first, like the ache from being hung over. Then it continued, like she was getting a summer cold. Then it never left.
She had been dating someone else then, but Craig caught her eye and they had chatted. It was a few months later before she ran into him again, and by then she was single. The last relationship had left her a little sour on the idea of dating again anytime soon, and she had told Craig so when he inquired. He understood and respected her space. There had been no question about it, he honestly and sincerely accepted her feelings. There was no hidden agenda of pretending to wait just so he could date her later. It was the first time in her life she’d ever felt like a potential suitor actually cared about what she wanted.
She’d decided to date him after six months, after she’d had enough “me” time and wanted “we” time again. Maybe it was the lack of pressure. Maybe the pain was wearing her down. Or maybe the hex sign he’d sketched out between her shoulder blades had done it.
She’d never noticed at the time, how could she? That evening had been a little fuzzy, what with the kamikaze she’d consumed. It had tasted so good on that hot summer afternoon, sitting on the front porch of the frat house. Her friend Fish, a resident of the house, had mixed it for her and it was a little stronger than she liked. So when Craig offered to give her a back rub when she mentioned how her shoulders ached, she thought nothing about how he warmed up with some delicate tracery on the bare skin between her shoulder blades. She didn’t know he had traced a sigil. She didn’t know it was a sigil of marketing, of ownership. She didn’t know that his attitude of indifference was just an act. In that moment, she was tied to him for as long as he desired, and that was for as long as she was useful to him.
He had been born normal, like any other child of the Midwest. Nothing exceptional had happened that would have raised any red flags. No one would have ever suspected a thing until Bebhinn saw them together years later. She was a friend of a friend, really, not connected to either one. This made her objective, like a reporter. She was a curious about them as a couple since she’d noticed them at the Yule party three years ago. Sure, they had been at other parties before then, but this was the one where she had finally seen them, seeing the energy between them, and it wasn’t good.
Electric blue lines streamed from Jane to Craig, but none the other way. Bebhinn had seen that only once before, and it was in her native Ireland. A man had drained his wife’s life from her, bit by bit at first and then more and more as he grew hungrier and she grew weaker. The less she was able to give, the more he wanted until there was nothing left.
The town priest, quietly an exorcist even though the official church standing was that such things were fiction and not in keeping with the rites and canons of a post Vatican 2 faith, named the cause of the poor woman’s death, having seen it many times before in other guises in his native Nigeria.
The dire priest shortage in Ireland had meant that he’d had to transfer to this backwoods village a long decade ago. Bebhinn wasn’t pleased with the change in accent most of all, finding his heavily accented sing-song voice at odds with the native lyricism of her people, but what other option was there? So many parishes had closed or merged when their priest had finally died and not been replaced, so she should be grateful their doors were still open, even if the doorkeeper was almost unintelligible to them. For a while she decided to pretend that the mass was in Latin again, and just let it wash over her. After a few months she started to make some headway in understanding him and decided to try to befriend him, on the pretext of making him feel at home in this wild, wet land, so different from everything he knew.
It was during their weekly lunches together that he confided to her that he could see spirits. She was the only parishioner he’d told and the only one he would ever tell. He knew, with the same sort of knowing that had led him into this clandestine club, that she had the same ability. Over the years he taught her all he could – all that was safe to teach a layperson. It was these skills that Bebhinn used now.
Jane had stopped going to church when she entered college, the same as many young people. Unlike them, she still had an interest in God, but didn’t have the time. Most quit because they were finally free of their parents and no longer had to go as a prerequisite for free room and board. If she had continued to attend, her pastor might’ve seen the changes in her – the rings around her eyes, the light slowly leaving. There wasn’t a spring in her step or song in her heart anymore. The change had come on so slowly that it would’ve been impossible for anyone to have noticed if they’d seen her daily.
Craig had been draining Jane for years before Bebhinn noticed her at that party. He was sly about it, withdrawing only tiny bits of energy at a time. He had to be sly – otherwise she might notice and leave, and then he’d have to groom another donor. For that’s what she, and 100 other women before her were – donors. Unwilling, unwitting, but donors nonetheless. They’d not signed a card or registered with any agency, but their essence was being siphoned off nonetheless.