Grimor the Joyless by Cara Wylde

Chapter One

Faith Bell didn’t need more than five hours of sleep to wake up fresh in the morning, at six, take a shower, and drink her coffee while diligently cleaning her one-bedroom apartment. The furniture was old, the couch was in a sorry state, and she didn’t even have a TV, but that was okay because she didn’t need one. Faith had enough hobbies that even if she had a TV, she wouldn’t have had time to watch anything. In the diminutive bathroom, the tiles were old and chipped in the corners. Because of the humidity and lack of a window, there was always mold growing between the tiles, and once every two weeks, she’d have to mix baking soda with water to make a paste she spread over the moldy grout. She did this now, and while she waited for the paste to take effect, she went to fix herself a quick breakfast of milk and cereal.

All right, so her apartment was a dump, but the rent was low, and her landlord hadn’t upped it in a few years. As she ate her breakfast on the couch, she found herself staring at the old carpet. She’d had plans to change it, treat herself to a new one as a Christmas present, but that wasn’t going to happen. She set the bowl on the table, suddenly not feeling hungry anymore. There was this bitterness in her mouth that made it difficult to swallow. She went into the kitchen and poured herself more coffee. It was cold.

“No carpet for you, Faith,” she murmured to herself. “You don’t deserve it.” Before tears had a chance to start falling, she took her cup of coffee with her in the bathroom, grabbed an old, bristle brush, and punished the moldy grout for every mistake she’d made in the past month, for every stupid decision that had landed her in this pitiful situation where she could barely afford to eat and pay her rent. She’d had some money saved, and this Christmas was supposed to be a good one. But now the money was gone, and Faith would have to live with herself knowing that she’d been so unforgivably stupid.

At eight, she was out of the house to run some errands, and at nine she opened the delivery app and checked to see if there were any food orders she could fulfill in her area. Her car was old and beaten-up, the paint peeling on the doors, but it still did its job, and Faith was grateful that it had never abandoned her in the middle of the road. She delivered food to people who had better, brighter lives than her, then jumped behind the wheel and drove to her second job.

If delivering food in her spare time made her some cash, her second job was more like volunteering. She got paid when Gloria, the administrator of Eternal Sunshine Children’s Home, had a little money left at the end of the month and could afford to give it to Faith. But Faith didn’t mind it. She didn’t help at the orphanage for the money. She helped because that was where she felt like home, like she was making a difference, like she mattered to someone.

She was an orphan herself, having moved to Washington from Oregon years ago, running from her last foster placement. That was before the war, before orcs invaded the human dimension and wreaked havoc, forcing men that were too old and boys that were too young to fight, destroying cities and burning buildings to the ground. In all honesty, Faith was shocked she’d made it on her own in a new state. And when the peace treaty was signed and the war ended, the world went back to normal little by little. She could take odd jobs here and there, which allowed her to move from the streets to her current abode, but she still couldn’t afford to eat more than one meal a day. So, she went to the nearest children’s home and begged to be allowed to volunteer in exchange for a meal or two. She was surprised when it worked. Gloria was a lovely middle-aged lady who’d seen enough to know when someone was genuine and in need of a bit of grace.

But now Faith was fine. She owned a car, loved to teach the children, and could even save here and there. No, scratch that. Faith had been fine. A month ago. And then she’d made a mistake that promptly canceled everything she’d worked for with the literal sweat of her brow.

“That’s what you get for being naïve,” she whispered as she parked in front of the children’s home.

Before she exited the car, she took out her compact mirror and applied a bit of lip gloss. Her lips were naturally red, or that’s what she liked to think. In all fairness, they were red from how much she was biting and munching on them. It was a nervous tick. Her eyes were big and brown, and she applied some mascara to make them pop. This morning, she’d pulled her raven-black hair in a ponytail, as that was the most she could do when it was so short. The shorter strands of her fringe escaped it, and she tucked them behind her ears almost obsessively. Another nervous tick. She gave herself a forced smile. The last thing she wanted was for the kids to see her sad. To them, she was the happiest, most exuberant person. The younger ones called her Snow White because her hair was black and her skin was pale, and because she could sing all the Disney songs.

She dropped by the cafeteria first, knowing the children were at lunch. She waved at them, then quickly slipped into the kitchen. The cook, Gary, a tall, massive black man in his fifties, gave her a bright smile.

“Hello, hello, little bird! I hope you’re hungry. We have mashed potatoes, and... mashed potatoes.” He laughed. “No, I’m kidding. I saved one chicken strip for you.”

“Thank you, Gary, you’re the best.” She kissed him on the cheek. She loved it when he called her little bird, though little she was not. She’d always been on the curvy side. Curiously enough, that hadn’t been an impediment in her life like other things had been.

She ate as she chatted with him, then ran to class. She wasn’t a teacher per se, but she could hold simple classes, like reading, writing, and visual arts. Every day, she took over from Cassie, who was the real teacher and came to teach at Eternal Sunshine either in the morning or in the afternoon, depending on her schedule. Cassie was nice, but she had her own kids to feed at home, and Gloria couldn’t pay her enough. She had a teaching job at a school in town, and she came to teach at the children’s home more as a favor than anything.

Since the war ended, things had been looking gloomy for children’s homes all over North America and not only. With so many families destroyed, the foster care system barely worked at all. And the war had created even more orphans. Now, all the funds were going to the institutes for orc tributes which were key if the peace was to last. The children’s homes were mostly on their own, with minimal staff that almost never got paid, and volunteers that were fewer than ever.

That was why Faith wasn’t going to abandon Eternal Sunshine. Gloria, Gary, the kids... they all needed her. And even though she had no money, she didn’t need money. Their love and appreciation fueled her.

She found the kids in class, at their desks, except for Fiona, the five-year-old adorable rascal who always seemed to be in all the places at the same time. She was on the floor, playing with an old doll that Faith was surprised still had a head. There were only five children left at Eternal Sunshine, and they were of different ages and had different personalities. Masha, their social worker, had once said in a low, discreet voice that the reason they weren’t getting fostered or adopted was because they were all so difficult, each in his or her own way. As much as Faith hated that Masha had staid that, sometimes she found herself agreeing with her. But it didn’t matter. It was normal for these kids to be a little difficult. They’d been through a lot.

Gwen was fifteen and the oldest. She’d ran away from her last foster home, just like Faith had. Gwen was a beautiful Asian-American who only wore baggy clothes and liked to hide her face behind the curtain of her long black hair. Faith approached her desk.

“Hey! I brought you a new book.” She slipped her Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. “I think you’ll like it.”

“Science-fiction?” Her dark eyes lit up.

“Yep. And it’s a whole series, so after you finish this one, I’ll get the next from the library.” The library at Eternal Sunshine was small, and Gwen had read and re-read all the old, tattered books on its shelves.

Then Faith went to Fiona, hooked an arm around her tiny waist, and lifted her as the child giggled.

“Come on. Let’s get you to your desk, young lady. I brought you a coloring book.”

“Really?”

“And new crayons.” Actually the crayons weren’t new. They belonged to Faith, but she hadn’t used them much lately. She hadn’t had time to work on her children’s books since the mistake that was haunting her happened.

She set Fiona down and gave her a coloring book with puppies in a garden filled with flowers and fruit trees. Finally, after Gwen, the oldest, and Fiona, the youngest, were taken care of, Faith turned her attention to David, the ten-year-old black boy who lost his entire family in the war, and to Layla and Justin, the eleven-year-old twins who’d been abandoned by their mother when she chose her newborn baby over them. Without a husband and a family to help her, she couldn’t feed so many mouths, so she’d had to make a choice. That choice had been against Layla and Justin, who were inseparable and almost communicated telepathically.

For the next hour, Faith held a reading lesson for David, Layla, and Justin. Unfortunately, David got bored soon and started disrupting the class. Faith had trouble keeping him under control. The boy was smart and way ahead of the twins, who were struggling. Layla and Justin had always been shy, silent, almost afraid to move, let alone speak. Recently, Cassie, their teacher, had told Gloria and Faith that they were both dyslexic and that normally, they would need to employ other methods to teach them. But Cassie herself didn’t have time to teach them separately, and Faith had little knowledge about dyslexia. Sometimes she wondered whether what they were doing in class, especially since they were working with all the kids at the same time, might’ve done more harm than good. But such were the times. In this post-war world, no one cared about Eternal Sunshine. They worked with what they had.

They took a break after an hour. Fiona wanted to use the restroom, and when she didn’t come back, Faith went after her and had to chase her around the stalls. Finally, they all sat down for the art class. It lasted longer than intended when David insisted he absolutely had to finish his watercolor painting of a tree in winter, or he wouldn’t sleep that night. Another half hour, and the children went to their rooms. Faith was putting the painting materials away and cleaning the mess Fiona had made on her desk when Gloria knocked on the open door.

“Done for today?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How was it?”

“You know,” Faith shrugged. “Layla and Justin are struggling. I’m thinking I should make time in the evening to do some reading and writing in private. It’s so hard for them when they see David doing so well, and he’s one year younger.”

Gloria nodded. She was in her late fifties, her hair was almost entirely gray, and she didn’t dye it, which Faith found she kind of respected. She was wearing a dark blue pantsuit that fitted her short, stocky stature well enough, but which had seen better days. The kids here didn’t care about clothes, and they loved and respected Gloria. Faith was relieved because she herself had few clothes. It was hard to find second-hand garments that looked decent and fitted her wide hips and generous chest.

“How are you, bunny?” Gloria liked to call all her children bunny, and she considered Faith to be one of them. She walked into the classroom and leaned on one of the desks, arms crossed over her chest. She studied Faith with deep concern in her blue eyes. “You’ve been silent, you haven’t dropped by my office like you used to... How are you holding up?”

Faith looked down at her hands and shrugged. “You know... I’m fine.”

“Are you, really?”

“Yes. I mean, not right now, but I will be. It just... takes a while.”

Gloria nodded. “It takes a while, but it’s been a while. You have to go to the police, bunny. Stop postponing it, or you won’t have a case anymore.”

Faith shook her head vigorously. “No, I can’t do that.”

“You can.”

“I’m too embarrassed, Gloria. I can’t do it.”

“These things happen all the time!”

“I was stupid.”

“No. No, you weren’t. You were in love, and you trusted him. You wanted to have something real.”

Faith closed her eyes and held her breath for a moment. She didn’t want to talk about this. Not now, not ever. She’d told Gloria when it happened because she’d had no one else to go to, but that was it. Now Gloria had to let it go, so Faith could let it go as well.

“Gloria, please. I know you mean well, but I can’t. I was stupid, I deserved it...”

“No, bunny...”

Faith looked her straight in the eyes. “The police won’t be able to help me anyway. I read online. It’s done. It’s in the past, and I will heal, I’ll save money again. Just like you said, these things happen. I can’t let one mistake define me.” But that was what she was doing, wasn’t it?

Gloria nodded. She wanted to say more, try again, but she could tell Faith wasn’t in a good state of mind. Unfortunately, she had the same feeling that the police wouldn’t do a thing, not when there were much more pressing matters that needed their attention. She changed the subject.

“I actually wanted to talk to you about something else. I’ve been avoiding it for a while because it’s not good news, and to give you bad news on top of what you’re dealing with...”

Faith sighed. “It’s okay.”

“Eternal Sunshine is closing down. I don’t want to do it, but I have to. There are no funds left. It will probably happen before Christmas.”

“What?” Faith felt a jolt of pain in her chest. “N-no... I know money is tight, but we can’t close Eternal Sunshine. What about the children?”

Gloria shook her head. “I reached out to old friends and found three homes that are willing to take one or two children. They’re not doing any better than we are, and no one can take all five.”

“N-no. They can’t be separated. Gwen is so attached to David, and David to her... And the twins need Fiona to pull them out of their bubble. The five of them are good together. They’re family.”

“I’m sorry, Faith, but I don’t know what else to do. Masha can’t find families willing to foster them, adoptive parents are out of the question in this economy, and with so many widows, so many...” She took a deep breath and released it slowly, trying not to cry.

“They can’t be separated...”

“I’m sorry.”

Gloria left because seeing Faith so devastated made her feel horrible about closing the children’s home. But she had no choice. They could barely feed them, it was the end of October and it was getting colder, and they had no money to heat all the rooms, and they didn’t even have teachers anymore. Yes, the kids would be separated, but at least they’d have a chance at better food, better care, warmer beds.

Faith stayed for dinner, which she ate in the kitchen with Gary.

“If I had money,” she thought out loud. Gary nodded. “If I had a man... a proper man who would...” Gary nodded. “If I had anything going on for me!”

“It’s not your fault, you know. It’s no one’s fault.”

“I know! But we should still do better, try harder.”

It was a sad, gloomy dinner, but at least it was warm food in her stomach, and for that she was grateful.

“I could... Maybe I should...”

“What?”

“Offer myself as tribute. Join one of the institutes. Become an orc bride.”

Gary sighed at that. “Little bird, don’t think such nonsense. What can an orc mate give you?”

“I don’t know. I heard they have money. Their hordes mine gemstones, they work in wood, sell their fancy weapons... Maybe one of their captains will want me, and I also heard they’re loyal. If you do your part and give them babies, they take care of you. And if an orc captain takes care of me, then it means I can take care of Eternal Sunshine. I can become a patron.”

“Faith, that’s crazy talk! Those green-skinned bastards only care about their own. Don’t forget that Gwen and David are here because of them. Don’t forget that they widowed many women and orphaned many children.”

Faith bit her lip viciously. “That was before.”

“And does that mean we just forgive?”

“I... I don’t know.” She sighed. “My head’s all messed up today.”

She said goodbye to Gary and grabbed her coat. On her way out, she ran into Gloria.

“I just wanted to make sure you’re okay, bunny. Let me walk you to the car.”

“Okay.”

Faith opened the front door and a cold gust of wind hit her right in the face. It was dark outside, and she tripped over something that was on the front steps. Gloria caught her when she nearly lost her balance.

“What is this?”

A loud, sharp wail pierced their ears and their hearts. In a box, at their feet, there was a baby. It was small, maybe six months old, bundled up against the cold. Gloria picked him up, and he stopped crying for a moment. He looked up at her with big blue eyes, and then wailed again, harder than before.

“Oh my God,” Gloria whispered.

Faith saw a piece of paper poke out from the box. She took it and read it out loud.

“His name is Corey. Please take care of him. I’m sorry.”

“Oh my God, Faith... We can’t... Not now...”

Still, Gloria took the baby inside, and Faith followed her with the box. As they changed little Corey and Gary prepared the formula that had come with him in the box, Faith realized she’d made up her mind.