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“The Tear Collector” by Justin C. Key

For the first time in a hundred years, the Tear Collector feared for his job. It wasn’t for lack of ability. No other collector prepared like him. His background in the dark arts, alchemy, telepathy, and medicine gave him unparalleled gifts in altering the environments of his subjects. But emotions were cheap these days; it took more and more to satisfy the gods. The Guild responded with a call for quantity over quality.

The wait on this particularly muggy day was short, at least. The Rage Collector’s assistant called him in after only ten minutes. RC had been league president for three years now, but he looked like he’d aged three decades. He’d won control over the league running on excitement and vigor, but now, wearing that huge, mahogany desk like a belt, he just looked tired.

“Have a seat, old friend.” The Rage Collector gestured. He paused at the sight of him and sighed. “Out with it, then.”

“I know you’re going to fire me,” the Tear Collector said, choosing his words carefully. “I wanted to come to you first.”

“You’re quitting?”

“Quitting, sir?” The Tear Collector blinked. How could he consider such a thing? He hadn’t held a regular job in more than a century. Besides, he was already well past the expiration date for a human. If he quit the guild, mortality would be waiting with open arms. “No, of course not,” he said. “I want to stay. I want to help the Guild succeed.”

“I see that,” RC said. “I really do. But things aren’t like the days of Mosaic. Emotions are cheap. What’s the use of all that talent when the tears you harvest aren’t worth the vial you store them in?”

The Tear Collector cringed. The Rage Collector had spent much of his presidency trying to reverse the damage from the previous Greed Collector Administration. Their policies had precipitated the stock exchange collapse and encouraged selling excess emotions to Black Arts vendors. Once outside mages began counterfeiting sacraments, the market became saturated. The gods were less than happy. Still, it stung to hear the Guild president call emotions ‘cheap.’

The Tear Collector felt his skin warm, as if the office around him was suddenly ablaze. What did RC know, anyway? He had always been more politician than collector. He had no right to–

“That’s my fault,” the Rage Collector said. His expression was both apologetic and amused. He gestured towards the Tear Collector’s hands, which were balled into fists. “Sitting behind this desk, sometimes it’s easy to forget my own power.”

The moment passed. The fire abated as the Tear Collector’s heart slowed to normal. He relaxed his hands a little and sat back in his chair. “Tears have sorrow,” he began. “Sorrow is one of the oldest and purest–”

“And cheapest,” RC cut in. “Have you seen the streets? I have. Clean-up crews can hardly keep up with the jumpers. Twelve-year-olds with painted-on mustaches line up around the block for work. This Depression stuff, it’s bad for business.” RC shook his head. “People don’t have hope like they used to. That means sadness is cheap. The cheaper it is, the more we need.”

“Tears aren’t simply sadness. There’s pain, longing, failure…” The Tear Collector swallowed, collected his thoughts. “Meaningful sacraments take time.”

“The Board has my hands tied. Increased production is the priority.” The Rage Collector abruptly stood. His skinny legs handled his weight awkwardly. He plucked an empty purple vial off his shelf and placed it on the desk between them. “Get on board. Fill this and bring it back, quickly. That’s all I can offer right now, old friend.”

***

Though sleeping was the last thing on the Tear Collector’s mind as he closed the Rage Collector’s door behind him, he yawned. He stopped himself and turned around.

“I hate when you do that,” he said when he saw YC.

The Yawn Collector had been sitting against the wall, waiting. “How’d it go?” he said.

The Tear Collector shrugged. “Mosaic wouldn’t stand for this, that’s for sure.” He smiled in spite of himself. Though he’d initially joined to cheat death, he’d stayed because of artists like Mosaic. “You know, he started as a Tear Collector. He spent days learning about his subjects. He could fill three whole vials from one specimen, on one visit. Mosaic was so skilled he began collecting other sacraments because he could.”

The Tear Collector sharply turned to catch the Yawn Collector mimicking him. The smaller collector blushed and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“That was rude,” the Tear Collector said.

“I’m sorry,” the Yawn Collector said. “But honestly, you tell that story all the time and I can’t say I believe it all. Besides…” They walked to the end of the long line to collect their payments and care packages for the week. The Guild still held to the tradition of having a buffet table for the wait…sort of. Over the last year the selection had downgraded from gourmet meats to an array of cheeses to scant fruits and vegetables. YC tossed a bruised apple from hand to hand before putting it back. “Wasn’t he fired?”

“Replaced. And then he went crazy and…well…it’s not really important. The important part is he really made an art out of collecting, you know?” A group of collectors the Tear Collector had never seen before passed in front of them. He caught a whiff of their conversation; they each had multiple vials filled with stress merely from walking in and out of homes. “He’d find a way to increase our value without turning the Guild into a league of scavengers.”

Both collectors stopped to inspect the contents of their care packages on the way out. Usually the Tear Collector didn’t look at his until he got home, but the bag was undeniably lighter. He glanced around. Others were noticeably irate with the reduction.

“I like the art of it,” the Yawn Collector said, tilting his head as he peered into his bag, as if battling some optical illusion. “But there’s no room for art anymore. Work is…work. We have to survive.” He looked up and his eyes brightened. “Hey, SC! Another one for the case?”

The Tear Collector groaned. The Scream Collector walked over with a smile as big as the Most Valuable Collection trophy he carried so proudly. He wore a pin in the shape of a screaming skull on his jacket.

“You won that for Hoover’s inauguration, right?” the Yawn Collector said. “How?”

An impossible thing happened: the Scream Collector’s smile widened. He drew in a big breath like someone preparing to blow down a building.

“I went to RC and I said, ‘Hey, give me something big. Something that’ll ease the gods off our backs a little bit.’ So he gave me the prez. Boy, did I think I was done for. I thought I was going to be grave-digging like Fear Co. No one would imagine – not in a million, trillion years – that the Great Governor would ever, ever, ever scream like a girl at his freaking inauguration.”

He was enjoying this.

“‘Hey, SC, it’s just a scream,’ I told myself. ‘You do this all the time. When you take away the suit, money, and power, what do you have? Just another human, that’s what. And humans scream.’ I went to pour some whiskey into my thinking glass and low and behold a spider was under it. That’s when I got the idea. Spider. Inauguration. Podium. Boom.”

The Tear Collector couldn’t help himself. “You didn’t do any prep? How did you even know he was afraid of spiders?”

The Scream Collector shrugged. “Isn’t everybody afraid of spiders?”

“No,” the Tear Collector said. He tried not to look at the Scream Collector’s skull-shaped pin, which seemed to be laughing at him.

“Look. Would you use a chainsaw to slice bread? One well-placed jumping spider and bam! The gods get the juice, we get the dough. Screams are hard to counterfeit, you know. Unlike…well, unlike other things.”

“That’s nice,” the Tear Collector said. “I’m glad it works for you.”

“I collected three more screams after the inauguration. Three. Now RC is putting me on an assignment to end all…” The Scream Collector’s expression changed the way it might if he found an indelible blemish while polishing his beloved trophy. He glared at the Tear Collector, then turned away without another word. Within seconds he was preaching to the stress collectors, all eager to hear his sermon.

“You can get in trouble for that, you know,” YC said to the Tear Collector.

“I know. But sometimes it’s worth it.”

“What memory did you bring up?”

“I couldn’t tell,” the Tear Collector said as they exited to the street. He could sense humans passing by here and there. They were more like the wind than anything. He couldn’t really see them unless he was focusing. And he never, ever revealed himself to a human. “But it was an embarrassing one. What was that thing he said about the Fear Collector?”

The Yawn Collector pretended to look through his rations, though they had both done that thoroughly enough before leaving. “I don’t know. You know SC. Just talk.”

“You’re not looking in my eyes,” the Tear Collector said. “Eyes are my medium. I know eyes. Stop lying to me.”

“Shit. Okay, well, you asked for it. The Fear Collector: he’s been let go. He got a job with the city digging graves. Apparently those positions are in abundance.”

The Tear Collector froze. “I don’t believe it.”

“RC won’t admit to it. Says he’s out sick. But you know Fear Co. He never misses a meeting.”

“But he was the most creative out of all of us,” the Tear Collector said. “Who’s going to collect fears?”

“The gods don’t want fears,” the Yawn Collector. “You know they have these things now – film, I think they’re called, crazy stuff – where, sometimes, the whole point is to scare people? I swear, things just aren’t like they used to be.” He held up his care package. “The gods are unhappy all around. This proves it.”

They stopped at a divide in the road. The Tear Collector lived east, deeper into town, and the Yawn Collector lived across the bridge in Jersey. The Tear Collector often wondered how a man could keep his sanity while living among the trees, but he never asked.

A particularly thick wave of depression coming off the city made the Tear Collector shiver. A few decades ago he would have reveled in the scent before following it like a bloodhound. Now it only reminded him of his talk with RC.

“You ever think that we caused some of this?” the Tear Collector said.

“A world without joy?” YC said. The Tear Collector raised his brow, but his friend didn’t hesitate. “I think we caused all of it. Look, I know you. And I know you want to show the Guild what quality can do. Don’t.”

“But–”

“No buts. Fill your quota without trying. No research, no prep, no nothing.”

The Tear Collector laughed. “Tears don’t just come from nowhere. A shadow is a shadow. A scream is mostly a physical reaction. It’s the emotion that goes into the tears that make them.”

“Prove me wrong, then.”

“And what would you have me do? Chop onions under everyone’s noses? I’d like to see what the gods think of that!”

“They’d probably say it was pretty smart.”

The Tear Collector wanted to say his friend was wrong. But he wasn’t so sure.

***

Reluctantly, the Tear Collector skipped research for his next case: a Loss involving a middle-aged woman whose husband had shot himself in the head, leaving her to raise his three children. He applied his usual manipulations: a reduction in temperature to chill the skin, a perusal through her memories, bringing forth the most pertinent ones, but he felt clumsy and inefficient, having not scoped her out beforehand. He still got the tears.

During an Embarrassment case with a teen who’d botched his lines during a school performance of MacBeth, he left the temperature alone. Despite it being the height of summer, he still got the tears.

Did any of his skills matter?

When his next case came along – a laughable Disappointment where a man had lost in the third round of a chess tournament – he simply did…nothing. No ambiance. No instigated argument with the wife. No memories to connect the loss with a real tragedy from the man’s past. Harboring tears felt impossible in such a situation left cold, and the Tear Collector was about to intervene when he heard sobs.

With a full bottle and empty spirits, the Tear Collector sulked into the Rage Collector’s office. He didn’t have an appointment. He didn’t wait for the assistant. He needed to see the president now, before he lost it.

“How many do you…yes, I know…it just seems like you’d already have…yes, yes. I’ll send someone over.” RC glanced up at him with dancing eyes as he hung up the phone. “Damn Board, always wanting more. Sorry I’m late. Did we have a meeting scheduled? Take a seat.”

The Tear Collector did. He pulled out the vial and put it on the table.

The Rage Collector nodded. “I remember, now. You want to talk about your job. As you should, as you should. Let’s take a look.” The president picked up the vial and turned it in front of his eyes. Inside, a hazy brown liquid swirled and fell within itself.

“You’ve cut your procurement time in half,” RC said.

“It’s not quality, though,” the Tear Collector said. “Those tears were too easy.”

“Then take advantage. Fill up three vials. Hell, fill up ten.” The Rage Collector pushed back his rolling chair and reached for a drawer. “Do you want ten? I have ten.”

The Tear Collector shook his head. “Give me something hard. Something no one has ever done before.”

“You don’t want hard. Continuing producing like this and I can convince the Board to keep you on.”

“That’s not me. Give me a chance to collect quality tears and I’ll show you a sustainable way to please the gods.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” The Rage Collector sighed, closed the drawer he was opening, and pulled open another instead. When he rolled back to his desk he was holding out a piece of paper. “This just came down the pipe. Special request from the Board. If – and that’s a big if – you can get tears from this one, I’ll see what we can do. Fail, and…well, we’ll worry about that bridge when it floods.”

The Tear Collector stared at the card. On the back was an address.

“Is this a joke?”

“No. It’s an assignment.”

“Have you heard why he was exiled?”

The Rage Collector waved his arm. “Rumors, I suspect. Look on the bright side. If he kills you, you won’t have to worry about finding a job.” Despite his own joke, the Rage Collector sighed. “Look. You’re the best damn collector in this league. If I were you, I’d call it a good run, take my savings, and go somewhere nice and worry about life when it catches up with me. But if you can’t do that–”

“You know I can’t.”

“And if you can’t fall in line…right. Then…” The Rage Collector touched the edge of the paper. “This is what the gods want. Who knows? Maybe all you’ll have to do is talk about what the Guild has become. Tell him a rage collector is president. Maybe he’ll laugh until he cries.”

“No one laughs that hard anymore,” the Tear Collector said, still numb.

“It was a joke. Don’t be so serious all the time. A little laughter might do you some good.”

The Tear Collector didn’t smile. He only looked down at the piece of paper. He ran back the past few days in his mind. He should have never come to the Rage Collector. He should have just upped his production on his own terms and hoped for the best. Instead, he’d been stubborn and now he was out of time. Either he proved the worth of his abilities or he was out.

He pushed back his chair, stood, and turned to leave.

“TC.”

The Tear Collector stopped halfway out the door. He didn’t turn around.

“I’m sorry,” the Rage Collector said.

“Don’t be. I’ll be back.”

The Tear Collector paused outside the door. He looked down at the piece of paper that had changed his future.

A tingling energy started from where his fingertips touched the page, traveled up his arm, and melted into his shoulder. It was the tingle of the hunt, of the game. He whispered the one-word assignment, making it real.

Mosaic.”

***

The Tear Collector spent the next several days scouring the written histories in preparation. He could predict the criticism: he should just go for the jugular straight out of the gate. The time he’d save would make for an impressive presentation. But Mosaic’s upbringing, rise to power, and eventual exile presented a unique opportunity to harvest an unprecedented level of raw emotion. Besides, if he knew his subject as he purported, he’d only get one chance. A single slip up and the Rage Collector would be receiving his tears in a jar.

The thought pulled him from a passage detailing how Mosaic’s own father gave him fifty public lashes for stealing a coin from his purse. The Tear Collector wondered how much his own tears would be worth. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d shed any.

The Tear Collector rolled off his bed and went to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. He lived in a basement that was older than he was. He sometimes sensed the family upstairs, but their stuff was in their realm and his stuff was in his. He made a rule never to collect from them, and they never knew he was there.

The Tear Collector paused. There was a letter from YC on his table beneath the Incoming Mail chute. The tube right beside it let him upload the vials he collected directly, though he preferred to take them into the guild himself. He touched the letter. His friend was probably worried for him; it had been nearly a week since he’d shown his face and he hadn’t told him of his new assignment. He’d read the note after he was finished. There wasn’t time for distractions.

He dove back into the literature. Mosaic was the original collector. Before him, when humanity’s population was small and nomadic, people prayed properly to the gods in the form of sacrifices, temples, and passovers. With expansion and curiosity came questioning and disbelief. People became too busy with themselves to be busy with the gods. Mosaic, a troubled man excommunicated to the desert for killing his father, was chosen to gather people’s emotions through tears, else the world would suffer. Humanity was unknowingly saved from the wrath of the gods by a man they had shunned.

Mosaic stayed true to the gods but some say he took his job too seriously. His collections were valuable but lengthy. The population grew faster than his skills. Other collectors were initiated, and thus the Guild emerged. Somewhere along the line, Mosaic was exiled. Some say he killed two other collectors who had stolen one of his collections. Others say he’d displeased the gods by publicly criticizing their plan to expand the Guild, calling them greedy.

The Tear Collector closed the text and yawned, this time without the need of his best friend’s help. Whatever the case, Mosaic hadn’t collected for centuries. As sleep claimed him, the Tear Collector wondered what Mosaic had been up to for all those years.

***

The small front lawn was overgrown; weeds clawed at the weathered oak tiles. Though the Tear Collector spent the long walk shielding his eyes from the sun, clouds hung over the estate, casting it in shadow. The only other houses he’d seen on the winding road through the deserted countryside were either left to rot or destroyed by fire. The Tear Collector sighed. Anyone who lived in this place wouldn’t need help in the business of crying. Maybe this was the gods’ way of telling him that even tears from the Master of Tears came cheap. The Tear Collector considered turning back, but there was an unmistakable buzz emanating from the discolored walls. He frowned, as this was completely incongruous with the blueprint of the house. He went up to the door.

“Elation,” the Tear Collector said, tasting the word. Yes, that was here. Though he hadn’t sensed it in years, the smell was overwhelming. He had been wrong; anyone who could be happy in this place might be incapable of tears. He’d have to use all his skills to succeed. He imagined recounting the harrowing tale to his colleagues at the next Guild meeting, and smiled with anticipation.

The Tear Collector slipped through the oak and into the house. It was a costly piece of magic. He usually greased the hinges and used the door, or snuck in through a window. But Mosaic had ears like a bat, legend said.

The air was cold, nearly the ideal temperature he’d want for such a job. The house’s interior made its outside look luxurious. Floorboards were missing. Broken mirrors hung crookedly on the peeling walls. Several layers of dust coated everything; footprints decorated the entryway like tracks in the snow. The Tear Collector tilted his head and listened. There was something that sounded like a scream. He frowned. No; it was laughter. He headed upstairs, avoiding the holes, to find his victim.

He stopped outside the bedroom door. Humming came from the other side. The joy of it hit the Tear Collector with a wave of nausea. What if he couldn’t pull this off? Having ‘easy’ assignments was one thing, but completely failing would be unacceptable. He’d never be able to show his face again.

The only way to guarantee failure, he told himself, was to turn back now. Instead, he opened the door.

His subject sat in a small room, facing the far wall, thick arms working fervently on some project. The Tear Collector took in the space. The air was warmer here, and damp. Good. Happy thoughts floated around like sailboats. Slivers of nightmares clung to them, slowing them like anchors dragging in the sand. Something to work with. The lighting was particularly poor, as if the two windows and the day outside were in disagreement. Shadows reached from the corners; they moved when the Tear Collector wasn’t looking directly at them. He thought he heard a scream somewhere in the distance. He turned his attention to the man emitting these rays of joy.

His victim was short, almost as wide as he was tall. His head bobbed as he hummed, a ring of dirtied gray hair lining the base of his bald dome. The man manipulated some large object in the shadow of the wall. There was a loud crack and a vicious fear punched the Tear Collector in the gut, forcing him to stop and catch his breath. Was this how his victims felt when he walked into the room? The Tear Collector shook his head, stood upright, and pushed himself forward.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he noticed the shapes against the far wall. Four, maybe five, bodies were propped below the window. Their faces were dirtied and further covered in shadow, but something was familiar about their outlines. The scream, which had sounded so far away before, came again. From one of them, the Tear Collector realized. He unconsciously moved towards the screamer, forgetting why he’d come, drawn by a lick of color on the figure’s jacket. A pin, in the shape of a screaming skull. His eyes went back to the face. He recognized it now, but it wasn’t on the right body.

“You’ve arrived just in time.” The Tear Collector jumped from the fat man’s voice. “Your friends were getting lonely without a shoulder to…cry on.”

The man stood and turned to him. Over his arm, draped like a waiter’s towel, was the Fear Collector. His chest had been cracked open; an expired heart hung from it like a ball on a string. The sudden fear he’d felt had come from the essence released from his old colleague’s broken body. But the Tear Collector no longer needed help to be afraid.

Mosaic smiled at him, revealing hundreds of teeth, each the size of a grain of rice and razor sharp. His skin was the color and texture of a frog’s. The Nightmare Collector’s eyes gleamed from Mosaic’s sockets; the Tear Collector had looked upon them once at a Guild meeting and hadn’t slept for a week after.

Mosaic touched the Tear Collector’s shoulder with strong, thick hands. The Tear Collector tried to jerk away but found he could only shiver. Everyone had thought the Nerve Collector had retired when he’d suddenly stopped showing up to the meetings. The mystery was solved, because Mosaic was currently using the Nerve Collector’s hand to suck the autonomy from the Tear Collector’s body.

The Tear Collector could only move his eyes, but soon they, too, were useless. Tears clouded his vision; he was crying. Mosaic squealed and clapped his hands like a child. He pulled a small vial out of his pocket. The Tear Collector blinked, just enough to bear witness to the harvesting. Mosaic was surprisingly sloppy; most of the liquid smeared across his face. The Tear Collector never wasted tears.

Mosaic hummed as he opened a corner drawer and exchanged the vial for a long knife. With quick movements, he severed the Fear Collector’s heart and then laid his body next to the rest with gentle delicacy.

“I wonder,” Mosaic said as he sauntered back over, twirling his knife in the air. “Heart of fear, body of tears, and a head of screams. What would that make?” Mosaic paused and stared at him, as if he expected an answer. “I wonder, I wonder, I wonder…”

He closed the distance. The Tear Collector stayed still. As the cold knife pressed against his skin, the shadows in the room bouncing from wall to wall excitedly, the Tear Collector reached out the best way he knew how: with his mind. In a flash he was going through Mosaic’s memories. It was like swimming in shark-infested waters. He reached for the expulsion from the Guild, and pulled. Mosaic froze as he relived the nineteen lashes he had taken for causing the death of another collector, each one more painful than the combined fifty from his father. A warm itch traced a line from the Tear Collector’s jaw to clavicle as Mosaic’s arm fell slack. He wondered how close the knife was to making a fountain out of his neck.

The memory had worked, but it wouldn’t hold him for long. The Tear Collector was searching for the next attack, when Mosaic burst into laughter.

The Tear Collector panicked. His feeble attempt at sorrow had only amused. Not knowing what else to do, he pulled forth a horrific time from Mosaic’s childhood when his father had cut off his index finger to teach him that pointing at people was rude. Mosaic, who had begun to lift the knife back to the Tear Collector’s throat, stopped to examine his maimed hand. He laughed harder. The Tear Collector kept pulling. There had to be something here that could stick.

A sparkle of light, reflected from the corner of Mosaic’s eye, caught his attention. The Tear Collector had always been alert to it, like the smell of sweat to a predator. Whenever he saw it, he knew he had success. He’d never experienced it alongside laughter, but that made no difference: Mosaic was crying.

The Tear Collector pulled at more memories. Recordings of Mosaic’s many triumphs over unsuspecting collectors got chuckles, but memories of his own pain and suffering sent him into violent fits of laughter. Soon the rogue collector was on the floor, etching dust angels with his flapping limbs. His guffaws shook the floorboards.

At a memory of Mosaic being made a eunuch when he hadn’t lost his virginity by his seventeenth birthday, saliva burst from his mouth in a new wave of laughter. The Tear Collector raised his hands to shield his face, then stopped. He was free. He pulled at three more memories – each of them terrible enough to chip away a small part of the Tear Collector’s soul – and headed for the door.

He turned back, hand on the knob. Mosaic hardly made a sound now, his laughter so recurrent that he hadn’t been able to take in a breath. His face had gone from green to dark red.

There was no time for consideration. Mosaic had changed him forever; he might never find it in him to harvest another tear. The Tear Collector’s hand fell from the door, and he went to collect what he’d come for.

***

When the Tear Collector got home, he put two vials into the chute: the Collector of Collector’s tears, and his own. There was a ding in recognition of his submission. He imagined the gods wouldn’t be happy when they extracted the essence and found overwhelming joy. The Tear Collector doubted he’d find it in himself to care.

He had almost fallen into a deep sleep when he remembered YC’s note, which was still on the table. It read: “Something’s up at the Guild. Collectors have been disappearing left and right. Let me know you’re okay. Stay safe.” The Tear Collector turned the paper over and wrote on the back, “I’m fine. Just needed a break. See you at the next meeting.” He considered writing more, didn’t, and pushed the letter into the outbox chute.

He reported Mosaic to the Guild, which had been in a state of emergency over the disappearance of several of its key members. There had even been rumors that the Tear Collector, noticeably disgruntled, had gone rogue, killing collectors to become the next Mosaic. He could sense some disappointment from his peers when the true story came to light.

The Rage Collector, who had confessed to sacrificing their best collectors in order to help Mosaic regain his powers and ultimately return to the Guild, resigned. The idea of consolidating their best talent into a rejuvenated Mosaic had undoubtedly originated within the Board as a way to cut costs while sustainably appeasing the gods. When things blew up, they’d let RC take the fall. Any successor would make sure to distance the guild from Mosaic as much as possible. Despite this, whenever the Tear Collector tried to feel sorry for his old friend, he remembered the crack of the Fear Collector’s bones and SC’s undying scream.

The lost collectors were replaced, and sooner or later, business went on as usual. The Tear Collector ignored assignments, but continued to receive them. He figured the Guild was keeping him on the payroll out of courtesy for his role in exposing Mosaic, but, as YC told him in one of his letters, it turned out that Mosaic’s tears had greatly pleased the gods.

The Tear Collector originally thought this was for an obvious reason: Mosaic’s essence was worth that of a hundred men. As the days dragged on, he began to wonder. The elation he’d felt standing on Mosaic’s porch had excited him in the same way sadness used to, back when the world had a lot less of it. He spent his nights ruminating on this as he walked the city, adjusting his focus to expose himself to the fullness of the Depression. What if the gods didn’t care if sacraments came from Mosaic, the president, or a no-name boy begging for scraps outside a bakery? The Guild was built to deliver fringe emotions as replacement for religious ritual. The Tear Collector had assumed their success depended on their ability to delve ever deeper into human negativity. But what if that approach was wrong?

The conflicted collector returned to his basement to be in his thoughts. After a sleepless night the morning brought another call as the assignment alarm rang once, then twice. The Tear Collector, not completely sure why, went to answer. Rejection: a sixth grader hadn’t been picked for the basketball team. His mind automatically strategized ways to milk the negativity of her situation, but he stopped himself. What if…

Mosaic’s laughter had been an abnormal thing, he had to remember, one that thrived on what would emotionally cripple others. It was crazy to think he could get it to work again.

But what was crazy anymore, anyway?

He found her sitting on her front porch, her brightly colored bookbag still strapped to her back. Her sorrow hung on the air; the smell of it was still sweet to him. He stepped into her mind, saw the memories of all the other girls being chosen, every single one but her, and pushed them aside. The girl quickly filled the void with thoughts of the players high-fiving each other after successful drives to the basket. The Tear Collector gave them high heels; soon they were all tripping up and down the court. The girl on the porch sat up suddenly, eyes wide, no doubt surprised by what her imagination had conjured. Then she laughed. And laughed. The sound cut into the fog of depression gripping the city, and for a second the Tear Collector thought he could see the light of the gods shining through. And then, the tears came.

For the rest of his assignments, which he gladly accepted, the tears came.

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About the Author

Justin C. Key is a medical student living in Manhattan with his lovely wife and two sons. His speculative fiction has appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine, KYSO Flash, and The Colored Lens, among others. He will be attending the 2015 Clarion West Writers Workshop this summer. You can find more of his work at theinkroad.blogspot.com.

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