I don’t know when I first realized something wasn’t right about James. Looking back, I’d like to think it was the first day: he showed up almost before the ad wanting a prep cook had been placed. Or when he politely declined every offer of a raise over the next two years. But the reality was three months ago when I arrived early to the kitchen and found him already prepping for the breakfast rush, entirely oblivious to the fact that the alarm code had been changed after we had to fire Sam. No one had been told the new code, and yet he had been in the kitchen and the alarm hadn’t gone off.
I was too frazzled to think much of it until later since everyone else called in sick with an ugly flu that was going around. Somehow, I managed to avoid it and my husband was out of town trying to score us new produce suppliers – even Kiwi was feeling under the weather, thouugh – so I was running all the tables and James was being the cook as well as prep cook and dishwasher, making sure the breakfast buffet was full and somehow had time to inform me that table four was trying to sneak out without paying.
Afterward, he looked as pale as I felt until I said a prayer of thanks – one of those non-generic ones you do after a crazy day at work. I actually saw colour return to his face and stared at him. “James?”
“Ma’am?” he said.
“You’re not even breathing hard.”
He blinked, and something like chagrin crossed his face. “Sorry.”
“I don’t –.” And I was so tired I began putting things together. “You prepped enough for the whole day, the whole rush, right down to the meals for staff at the end,” I said, waving to our breakfast hashes before I went into the fridge. He’d somehow found time to prep a bit for tomorrow as well. “Talk” I said as I came out. “Because, right now, gift horse or not, I’m feeling a little scared.”
He jerked back at that as if I’d struck him, took almost a minute to find his voice. He looked so young, then, when he told me what he was, when he allowed me to see something of it. There was light, warmth, and other things. Kiwi’s voice, and mine. Our needs, our desire for The Breakfast Buffet to succeed, the fact that we’d dumped our live savings and retirement plans into it. I think that Kiwi can’t have kids was part of it, though James didn’t say.
It turned out gods weren’t what I thought. They made themselves as much as they were made, tied to a business, a home, a place of some kind that had the right shape of need for them. The greater the need, sometimes, the more miracles he could do, though there were limits. He’d been able to keep the flu away from me, though not anyone else, and there were definite limits to how much energy he got from us, what he could do and when. Most of the time, he was just like any prep cook, busser and dishwasher, he explained, even if he wasn’t at all.
I told Kiwi, of course, because you don’t hide things like that from your husband. James offered proof, though clearly he was uncomfortable being so naked to us, and said he didn’t know about God, or anything like that. He was closer to a guardian spirit, Kiwi figured, and asked if this meant he’d work for free. James had said he couldn’t, almost apologetic until Kiwi offered up one of his wicked grins and left a god blushing and laughing weakly at falling for the joke.
Funny this was, it hadn’t changed anything. We didn’t make a point to pray more, though we did thank him more when we realized when he was using his nature. He’s mostly shy about it even now; most gods don’t have a working relationship with the people wh empower them in case it got awkward. Which is why I was shocked to arrive at the usual 6:30 Tuesday morning and find him crying in the kitchen, arms wrapped about himself and shaking all over. “James?”
He spun as if he hadn’t heard me enter at all, eyes wide. “Ma’am, I –.”
“It’s Brenda.” And I grabbed him by the right ear and dragged him into the front, shoving him firmly into a chair and forcing coffee into his hands. “What’s wrong?”
“Th-there’s a god eater in the Starbucks across the road,” he whispered.
I hadn’t even known James could stutter until that moment. I sat as well, and glared at him when he moved as if to stand. “We don’t open until 7:30. We can open late if we have to. Talk.”
“She eats gods. Destroys them, sometimes maybe moves them? I’ve only heard stories. There hasn’t been a god eater in a long time,” he whispered, staring down at his hands. “I’m not – I don’t know what she might do.”
“You think she would try and destroy you?”
“I don’t know!”
I started at the cry and stood slowly. “Do you know who it is?” He shook his head; I headed to the door and told him to wait, leaving and closing it behind me as I walked across the road.
I had no idea what a god-eater looked like, but the Starbucks was busy – it helped, since one woman was sitting by herself near the door and the two tables around her were empty. No one seems consciously aware of avoiding the tables/ It was a little like how James could weave between tables and people moved without thinking, maybe. I had no idea what I’d expected, but she couldn’t have been more than twenty.
I sat down across from her. “You’re the god-eater?”
She put her phone away and looked up, dark eyes staring into me for a long moment. It took an effort not to move back: she looked like her bite would be far worse than her back, and there was something about her that reminded me of the principal way back in high school. I’d never considered myself sensitive – Kiwi would laugh himself sick if someone called me that – but even a blind person would have realized there was power here. “And if I am?”
“I co-own the Breakfast Buffet across the road. You are terrifying our god and I rather need him top prep the breakfast rush.”
She blinked. “The god works for you?”
“He is paid staff, yes. And we don’t need you eating him, or whatever it is you do. Understood?”
“I am afraid not.” She stood. “You are?”
“I’m Charlie. And I am afraid I’m going to have to talk to your god, though I have no plan of hurting them.”
“And if I say no?”
Her eyes burned. For a second, something red and hungry stared out into a too-small world and then her eyes seemed human again. “I am afraid I would have to insist. I’d rather not do that.”
I hesitated, then nodded. I didn’t know what else to do: no one else would believe if I told them our restaurant had a god. I don’t know how many places do – James doesn’t know himself, but says the rare places that know they do keep quiet about it. She stood and brought her coffee across the road. James was in the back, doing prep work with quiet intensity, and set the knife down in a slow, careful movement. There was no colour in his face at all.
“What are you?” he whispered.
“A god-eater. My name is Charlie.”
“That’s not all you are,” James said, as though reluctant.”
Charlie shrugged. “I also know how to do exorcisms, and I have weird friends. You have a name?”
“James,” he said, barely over a whisper.
“A human name. And you’re paid as staff?”
“I work full time,” he said, meeting her gaze. “Minimum wage.”
“I didn’t know gods did that.” Charlie hesitated, and I liked her for the hesitation. “Can I ask what you do with the money?”
James licked his lips. “You – you – you don’t know?”
“Godnet. It’s a – a website. Funds are donated to it, and gods whose homes are in danger of failing can ask for funds. Each god can only ask once. We don’t know who runs it, or why. Every god who can puts money in. Most gods use tithes or favours for revenue. Not many work, I think, or would admit to it but I like it. I help more like this than I do with miracles, most of the time.”
“And it makes you stronger. The customers believe, the staff believe. Clever.”
“I didn’t do it to be clever,” James snapped, then shrunk back.
“I’m not going to bite you,” Charlie said.
“You could. Your bite is worse than your bark.”
To that Charlie made no reply, instead looking at me. “Do you have plans to expand?”
“All the locations will be yours, to work in and draw upon,” Charlie said to James.
The god opened his mouth, closes it. “You can do that?”
“Yes.” She grinned. “Tomorrow morning a magician and a blind boy will come for breakfast. Talk to them, and they’ll make sure no other gods try and eat you if they think you’re getting too big. Jay is very good with bindings.”
James just nodded, looking stunned as Charlie headed out the front and left. I locked the door behind her and walked back into the kitchen. “That turned out okay?”
“You were going to expand?”
“In a few years, if we’re able to. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up with you; I thought you might only be here?”
“I would have been. Now I’m not. Thank you,” he said.
“Your welcome,” I said dryly, and went to the front, not quite closing the door. I caught James’s whoop of joy, and wondered if this meant he’d accept a raise next month. I closed the door after that and began the process of getting the front ready for the first customers, half-dreading tomorrow and what a magician might bring to our restaurant, but not about to share that with the help. Even if they were a god.