Life was pain. Emotional; physical. Right from the first moment you were squeezed out, screaming and bloody, pain was always there. It was the greatest teacher, and a lifelong friend.
It also tasted like heaven and had no excess calories. And humans were endless fountains of it. Jillian uncrossed and re-crossed her legs, shifting position at her desk. The waiting room was quiet, for the moment, the people sitting silently in the cushioned seats awaiting their call. Jill had met them all.
An older man, eyes and skin pale and yellowed like sun-yellowed paper, sat and stared blankly, lost in his own morbid thoughts. Professor Bernard Aniston, age sixty-seven. Renal carcinoma and liver disease, both in relatively early stages.
There, a young man sat awkwardly staring at the floor between his shoes, studiously avoiding looking at any of the other patients present. Michael Johnston, age seventeen. Not there for himself, but for his mother, who had already gone in to speak with the specialist.
She could have gone on and on. The amount of anguish that permeated the clinic drifted off its visitors like a heavenly stench, emotional and physical agony that sung through her veins, hotter than blood. And, well, if she sometimes gave those patients’ pain a little nudge here and there, who would know? It wasn’t like she was making them hurt; Jill just brought it a little closer to the surface. All the better to feed on, after all.
Others of her kind fell prey to their own natures. They became predators, forever lost in the thrill of the hunt, forever expending more energy to catch their game than they did from feasting; they drank too fast, too hard, and left nothing behind but a drooling, empty shell that felt – that could feel – nothing. Pathetic.
Jill, on the other hand, was positively humane. This was the 21st century, after all. Who needed to skulk in shadows, tormenting the sheep, when they could hide in plain sight, feeding on agony and getting thanked – and paid – for it? The fiery-haired receptionist laughed softly, drawing the curious eye of a few patients, whom she ignored and continued idly browsing the Internet.
She didn’t even prevent their recovery. The world was a big place, and more of the sheep would always come to her. It was the perfect setup. Safe, secure and discreet; far from her fellow parasites and well beneath the sheep’s radar. Beneath the radar of a few sheep in particular, ones she hadn’t seen in a long time. Since she had first been forcefully awakened to her true nature. A spirit, clothed in human flesh. The few sheep that knew called those like her psychovores: spirit-eaters. It wasn’t far from the truth.
“Doctor Vanderhaven’s Pain Management Clinic.” Her casually smiling lips began moving almost before the phone had reached her mouth, and the phone had only just begun to ring. She was good at what she did, and proud of it. “This is Jillian O’Reilly, how can I help you this afternoon?” Her employer, the clinic’s eponymous doctor, loved her. Efficient, energetic, always smiling and kind. Visitors and callers to the clinic could never speak of her highly enough.
The silence on the other end of the line stretched out for a few moments. “Gods, it’s good to hear you again, J.” Jill’s smile slipped a fraction of a centimetre, but her outwardly cheerful disposition remained in place through force of will alone.
“And a good afternoon to you, Gregory.” She nodded, mouthing a greeting to a newcomer at her desk, taking the woman’s health card with a smile that bared perhaps a little too much tooth. “Are you here to see Dr. Vanderhaven?” Jill moved the receiver from her mouth, pale green eyes looking out across the desk at the young woman from beneath long lashes. She nodded, launching into a nervous explanation and offering a referral form, which Jill took pleasantly.
“Spare me.” Gregory said. His voice was low, gravelley. He was tense. “I’m just calling to let you know that some old friends just might be passing your way, and they just might have heard of the whereabouts of a certain traitor.” He overrode her attempt to interrupt. “And if I can track you down, Jill, you know they can too.”
Long nails clicked out a stoccato rhythm on the keyboard as she completed inputting the newcomer’s data, then returned to her the old red and white health card with what she hoped was a welcoming smile. “I’m sorry, sir, but I think you may have the wrong clinic. Are you sure you called the right number?”
The voice on the other end grunted quietly. “Cute. Look, I said I owed you before you vanished last time. Now we’re even. Take my warning or leave it, J, but they won’t let that grudge go. Not until–” A sudden, but brief, pause. A heartbeat. “You still have it, right?”
Jillian tapped a few random keys and waited a second or two before answering. “No, sir, I’m afraid we don’t have that on file. You might want to contact your insurer, and ask-”
“You don’t have it? God damnit, J. Cut the act.” A pause; Jill knew he was running a hand through dark hair in frustration. She could see him like it was yesterday. “Look, meet me in High Park tonight. Please. Let’s get this over with, face to face, and I’ll never speak to you again. It’s important, Jillian. It’s life or death.”
She shook her head slightly. Jill had thought herself hidden. Safe. “I’m very sorry, sir, but the waiting list is quite long, you may have to wait several-”
“I know what you are.” The words came out in a rush, as if the speaker was afraid they’d get stuck if he held back. “And so do they.”
Jillian’s blood ran cold, her smile equally frozen. “How?” The receptionist couldn’t manage to keep up the act. Is he lying? Why would he say something like that unless…
“Tonight. High Park. Might’ve been five years, but you’ll recognize me. And if not, well…I reckon you’ll look no different, either.” He didn’t even say goodbye, and the line went dead.
“Very well, Gregory. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. Yes. Thank you for calling, and have a wonderful afternoon.” She spoke to dead air before hanging up with a little too much force.
The funny thing about feeding on pain is that it didn’t make you immune to it, and the human flesh that encased her was as real as it was for anyone else. Feelings, emotions, everything before she had been woken up by one of her fellows, it was all still there, clinging like mould. Some of them had managed to scrape most of it off, but Jill never could. Maybe that was why she could survive so well among them.
Would she go? The psychovore didn’t think it was a trap set by her old mortal kin associates. Gregory never had the balls. He’d loved the woman she used to be, maybe still was – and clearly he still did, or he wouldn’t have risked himself by calling her. But they were sheep, ignorant sheep. What could they do to her? I know what you are. The words made her shiver with an unaccountable sense of dread. Surely she had nothing to fear from sheep, but…
She would have to go. But she wouldn’t go alone or unprepared – she had allies, some of a most unusual nature.
A familiar young couple entered the clinic and made their way to her desk. Accident victims, suffering from fibromyalgia. They hurt; their pain sang to her. But that song was bitter.
After dealing with them, Jill dialled up the clinic’s other secretary, calling in some favours so she could take the rest of the day off. She needed time to prepare and, quite frankly, she had lost her appetite.