“I’m trying, one moment, please.”
It sounds like you’re begging and you suppose you are. It’s festival time and even your small cart where you make caramel apples is busy. The fire that the small pot sits upon, keeping the caramel warm, is making you sweat as you force a smile.
“You want to make people happy, don’t you? Get moving, I’m in a hurry.”
You can’t tell if the man’s words are meant to be a threat or what, but it hits you hard and you can feel moisture on your cheeks. You hope it’s sweat but you know it’s tears as you finally push the stick into the apple and coat it with caramel.
“I do, I’m sorry. Here you are, sir.”
Out of the corner of your eye, you see a flash of purple and gold, but you wipe away the tears and go back to your work.
There’s not much left for you to pack up at the day’s end. All the apples and various other treats you had made have been sold. Not for much, sadly. Too many times a costumer would haggle and you’ve never been good at telling people ‘no’. You want them to be happy and so you give in. It always happens that way. With a sigh, you close the small cart.
Jumping, you look up and around before spotting the source of the voice. A tiefling with lavender skin and a gaudy coat is leaning against the wall opposite where you had set up.
“No, it’s fine! Everything is fine,” you say in a voice that is just a little too cheery, too obviously forced. “Can I help you?”
“Are you sure? Because I know a lie when I hear one.” The words themselves might have seemed like an accusation had it not been for the light tone and easy smile.
“It was a busy day, that’s all.”
He pushes off from the wall, the light that is left making the gold on his horns shine, and rests one arm on your cart, chin propped up to look at you.
“I just… There were a lot of customers…”
He raises an eyebrow. You fidget, trying to avoid his intent gaze.
“... and some of them were upset and I couldn’t help,” you finish.
“I saw that man earlier yelling at you. My companions were in a rush or I would’ve stopped then.”
When he mentions the incident from earlier, you feel your chest tighten. You hate even thinking about someone being angry at you but you remember the flash of color and suddenly the tiefling’s presence makes a little more sense.
“You don’t have to worry, honestly. This happens.” You can’t help but sniffle. It’s always like this: someone is angry at you and you spend the next few days worrying over it, wondering what you could have done to make them happy, as if that was your job and not selling apples.
“I worry about people,” he says, pointing a finger in your direction. “It’s part of my charm, among other things.”
“I don’t want people to worry, I just want to make them happy.” You don’t even know this man’s name but the idea he might worry about you is like a weight on your shoulders. People aren’t supposed to worry about you, you’re supposed to worry about them. It’s why you’ve gotten so good at faking a smile and making those around you happy. You ball your fists in your apron, knowing only a blind man couldn’t see the tears.
“Shh, shh,” he says, straightening and rounding the cart. Without warning, he wraps you up in a hug, smoothing your hair. “There’s no need for that. You don’t have to make every person who wanders through your life happy.”
“I don’t know what else I’m good at.” It might be the first time that you’ve admitted that to anyone and it’s to a complete stranger, hugging you in the almost empty marketplace.
“Plenty of things, I’m sure. Listen, I am not the man you want to take advice from but I can tell you this: there’s nothing wrong with trying to make people happy unless you hurt yourself in the process. You deserve happiness as much as anyone else.”
“I don’t know…” You feel like a broken record but the voice in the back of your head is shouting ‘don’t burden him with your shit’ even as you finally return the hug.
“Take it from me. Someone might as well learn from my mistakes. Gods know I won’t. It’s easy to make people happy in place of your own, I know that very well. You make others happy and that emptiness inside disappears for awhile but it’s still there.”
You nod, not able to find the right words but he’s finding them for you.
“But that’s not all you are. Worth is not marked by giving all of you and keeping none for yourself. Be a little selfish with your happiness.”
Awkwardly, you try to wipe away your tears on your shoulder before looking up at him.
“That’s going to be hard.”
“Oh, it always is,” he says, letting go of you to ruffle your hair, free hand gesturing widely. “You’ll manage. Give what you can, take what’s offered, believe you deserve it, and try to leave people better than you found them. I know it sounds like a lot but you can do it.”
You stand there in silence for a bit and he waits for your response. That smile is still on his face but you think you see a look of understanding in his red eyes. You nod again, an odd feeling in your chest. It’s not the crushing feeling of knowing you disappointed someone but the knowledge that at least one person believes you deserve to be happy, just as much as anyone else. That someone understands filling the emptiness with other people’s smiles.
He reaches out to pat your check before pulling you closer and kissing your forehead.
“That’ll be enough, to be okay. Trust me, I may not know much but I do know that,” he says.
With a wink, he spins, coat trailing behind him, and disappears into the night. You stand there until the last glint of gold-decorated horns is swallowed by night.
You smile and to yourself, say, “It’ll be enough.”
And you think that it will be.