Grimm never really understood death. He knew what to do when he saw the dead as they approached him. He knew where to lead them. But he never understood why he did it, and he always wondered about the whole cycle. How had they gone? What were their last moments like? What happened after he left them on the other side, begging him to take them back to their former lives?
He had encountered so many people, seen so many faces and was amazed by the fact that they all reacted the same way when they finally understood what was happening. There were always excuses. They always had reasons why he was mistaken, why he must have confused them with somebody else. None of them realized, all the while, that they were wasting their breath. He wasn’t there to judge. He was only the porter.
It had been a long, grueling day for Grimm. Countless faces and countless mouths were all screaming at him to stop, trying to run back to the life they left. They were especially vocal with their pleas this day. It took most of them all a while longer than the norm to understand that there was no escape. Grimm wished he could do something, anything to shut them all up. Scream at them, scare them, hit them, something. Just to end the incessant and pointless babble: Please, you don’t understand, I have a family…I didn’t mean to cut that deep…I’m not ready to die. But reacting in any way was against the rules.
He had just finished dropping off the last load of passengers. They were all still clinging to the edge of the other side, pawing at the darkness Grimm was melting away into. After some moments, he was finally in that blissful divide between the two worlds. It was the only place where he was ever alone with his thoughts. No more criers, no more whiners, no more swindlers. He relished these moments of peace and dreaded each time he had to transport the next batch of souls separated from their bodies, wondering where the hell they were. The meeting place was coming into view slowly but surely, and Grimm was confused when he could hear no wails or piercing cries. That was when he saw her:
She was a young girl with the look of someone who had just reached adulthood. She had no visible marks on her body that would indicate suicide. She didn’t look sickly in any way that would point to death from natural causes. She had no visible bodily injuries from some random accident. Grimm could definitely tell she hadn’t been murdered, she didn’t look the part. If it hadn’t been for that slightly blue, slightly gray glow about her (as all souls have when fully separated from their physical bodies), he would’ve thought that she was completely alive and well.
It was unusual for there to be only one person for him to lead across the divide, but it did happen from time to time, so Grimm thought very little of it all. The girl stood quietly and patiently as Grimm made his way closer and closer to her. Their eyes met, and now he was even more perplexed by the girl. She didn’t look afraid or confused. She didn’t look resolved. She was rather complacent, taking everything in with the same enthusiasm one has waiting in line at the bank. She didn’t waver or hesitate as Grimm began leading her to the other side. She knew what happened, she knew where she was going, and she had nothing to say. He couldn’t understand what was happening.
Her odd behavior continued. Everyone walked behind Grimm when he began to lead them over the great divide, no exceptions. They would stand just far enough behind him to feel like they had a chance of escaping. They couldn’t understand the invisible force pulling them forward and keeping them from getting away. It was the only power Grimm could exercise, a silent power of compulsion. He was not nearly as amazed about it as they were. But this girl didn’t follow those same patterns. She walked side by side with Grimm, keeping pace. He could not, for the life of him, fathom this girl. There was no neat little category she fit into, and it frustrated him. I’ve got to do it, he thought to himself. He had to talk to her.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, stopping suddenly as the girl kept walking forward.
Even that was new. Someone walking towards the other side without him using his power of compulsion. He waited impatiently for the girl to stop. He needed answers. He needed to understand her odd behavior. After a moment, he saw her stopping, his power finally working and keeping her from continuing on without him. He was caught off guard by her again: did she just sigh in frustration?
“Seriously, man, can we just get on with it?” she said, clearly irritated.
“Is this your first day?” she retorted mockingly, “I know the deal. Let’s just go.”
Grimm crossed his arms over his chest and waited. The girl hung her head back and sighed again. For a moment they were at an impasse. She looked at him like a petulant child who was ready to go home. She crossed her arms too, not wanting to be upstaged, and tapped her toes impatiently, until she finally gave up. She dropped her arms to her side emphatically, showing her frustration, and walked back to where Grimm was waiting.
“It’s like this, okay,” she started. “My life on Earth was nothing really. Sometimes it was good, most times it was shit. There’s nothing I want to go back to. Happy now?”
Grimm was anything but.
“So, you’re happy to be dead?”
“No…I mean, I don’t know. It’s just I don’t think anything is going to be worse or better when I get over there, you know? Don’t want to go back, don’t care about what’s next,” she answered.
He didn’t know what to say to that. So they continued on in silence. She followed along with the same complacency as before, showing a little satisfaction in not having to talk anymore. He still had so many questions, but he knew the Judge would be wondering what was taking him so long. Grimm thought he’d seen it all. He never dreamed anyone would be like this going to the other side. But he finally met the exception, and he wasn’t satisfied with the answers she gave him. He had to know more about these strange people, find more people like her and understand what it was that made someone like her so apathetic about life and death. As he watched her on the other side, walking towards the Judge, he thought and thought.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he said aloud.
Grimm felt himself sprinting towards the Judge with wild abandon. He was pushing people aside, trying to get to him as fast as he could. He could see the Judge in the distance, mouthing words of kindness to those who were finally letting their deaths sink in. They walked on into the distance, to a place no one has ever seen before dying, bewildered at how simple the judgment really was. It was nothing like they were told in their former lives, if they were told anything at all. Just calm and reassuring words as they walked on towards finality.
As Grimm neared him, he realized that he had no idea what he was doing. What would he say? Would he be laughed off back to the great divide that separated the two worlds? Despite his insecurities, Grimm did not stop until he got to the Judge. He could feel the building confusion of people around him. Some even edged nearer to him, thinking that he was in fact able to take them back to their lives on Earth. When they realized that he was not there to see them, they slowly and begrudgingly made their way back to the flow of people walking past the Judge.
“Why are you here?” the Judge asked, equally confused but, surprisingly, not angry.
“I need a favor,” he replied, wavering a bit in resolve.
“A favor? What in the world could you need?”
“I need to go to Earth.”
As Grimm suspected, that wasn’t the end of their conversation. There was much debate as to the reasons why he would ever imagine that was possible. There was a lot of debate as to how it would be done, what he would do, when he would come back. There were others like him to fill in during his absence, of course, but he would not be permitted to stay on Earth permanently for any reason.
“And just what is it you want to accomplish, Grimm?” the Judge asked, bringing their discussion to a close.
“I want to understand how people live,” he stated plainly.
With that, the Judge gave a nod of approval, and Grimm was gone. His journey to Earth happened in a flash. There were no tunnels or black holes he had to travel through. No rushing sounds of wind. He didn’t even blink his eyes. He just was on Earth, like he’d been there the whole time, simply imagining his conversation with the Judge. Grimm had no idea what to expect. He could only work off of what countless people had said to him about their lives here. He could hear car horns, something he knew a little about, and he could see tall, gray buildings all around him. When he finally deigned to move, he promptly ran into the first alive person he’d ever encountered. It was not a great first experience.
“Watch where you’re going you dumbass,” she seethed, tramping on towards wherever it was she needed to get to in such a hurry.
Grimm was confused again. Why didn’t she look at him in fear, the way every person had ever looked at him? Granted, those people had been dead, and most unwillingly so, but his tall, dark and looming figure should have instilled just enough horror in anyone who ran into him in any world. As he turned to walk, in the opposite direction of the girl he had just briefly met, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a shop window. Only it wasn’t him. It couldn’t be him.
He was still tall, but his appearance was anything but terrifying. He had caramel colored skin, and his hair was thick, short and wavy. He was actually kind of scrawny in build. Of course no one would be afraid of this tall, lanky human. His large, chocolate brown eyes bore into the reflection, looking shocked, bewildered, incredulous. He couldn’t help himself as he brought his hands to his face, feeling the supple skin on his cheeks. He must have been at this for an uncomfortable amount of time because he could hear the bell of a shop door opening immediately to his left.
“Hey man, they’ve got places that can help you with your issues,” a young man’s voice said flatly.
“Excuse me?” he answered, turning towards the boy.
“Look, I’m not judging or anything. I’m just saying you can’t wig out here in front of our shop. Take your high somewhere else,” he stated, closing the door.
Grimm was starting to think maybe there was something to what that strange girl had said to him. Maybe lots of people here were like this boy who was clearly judging him, despite what he said, and that girl who had run into him and cursed at him. Maybe everything really was just shitty. He felt a pang of regret at the choice he’d made because he knew the Judge would not let him come back until he’d at least started trying to do what he said he would. He wanted to know how people lived, so he’d better get on with it and start learning.
It didn’t take long for Grimm to realize that he hadn’t thought his plan through very well. After his initial encounters with the young shop boy and the overly angry girl, he simply wandered around the city, trying desperately to think of what his next move would be. He needed something to do. A job, a hobby. He needed a place to sleep since he was now, more or less, human apparently. He needed friends.
There seemed to be no end to the city. Almost every corner was filled with unfamiliar noises and overly purposeful looking people. For the first time in his existence (For who could say Grimm had really had a life?), he was intimidated by everyone and everything. His one purpose was to lead people from one side to the other in the afterlife. He had no clue how to do this whole human thing. The noises and the hustle and bustle of the large crowds were soon getting to him, being nothing like the noises he knew and recognized in eternity. He was beginning to lose hope and composure when he happened upon a quiet pathway leading to large green spaces and shady trees. It looked quiet and serene, much like his beloved abyss between the living and the dead. He decided to find a place of solace there.
There were a few people peppered here and there around the vast open spaces of the park. Some were laying on the grassy hills, some sat on park benches, while others ran around on the pathways. All occupying the same space and yet altogether unconnected, Grimm observed. How strange these people were. Everyone kept to themselves, in pairs or small groups. Seemingly refusing to acknowledge others around them, no matter the proximity. For a while he was entranced by this old woman sitting on a bench just off of one of the paths on the other side of the park, almost opposite to where he was sitting. She was alone and clearly wanting companionship, even if just for a moment. He watched as a young man approached the woman on the bench, holding some object in his hand that seemed to occupy most of his attention. The woman watched hopefully as the boy sat on the same bench, still enthralled with his small, rectangular object.
At one point their eyes met briefly. She answered his gaze with a warm, inviting smile. He nodded and responded, weakly curving his lips upwards in response before immediately turning his attention back to his object. Though rejected, the woman could not help but glance every now and then at the boy, hoping for another chance at interaction. He noticed her hopefulness, and instead of offering kindness and a small conversation, he looked nervous and uncomfortable, eventually getting up and walking a little way down the path to find another empty bench. The woman took the final rejection with quiet, albeit somewhat embarrassed, grace and eventually got up herself to leave, with only the support of a small cane to carry her out of the park.
Surely they are not all like this, Grimm thought to himself.
He didn’t move for a while, and continued watching the people around him. To his relief, he did find that some people were kind and inviting to those around them. He noticed a group of young humans, who, based on how he now looked in the living world, would most likely be in his age group. To his luck, the group sat nearby to where he was on his small patch of grass. They were dressed rather darkly, not altogether differently from how he looked when he was the real Grimm. There were two boys and three young girls all wearing black from head to toe despite the heat of the day. There was one girl in particular who caught his attention. She had short, raven black hair that seemed to spike out in all directions, almost as if she had been electrocuted. She wore black lipstick and eyeliner that contrasted heavily with her porcelain looking skin. She wore a simple black tank top and black pants. Her black boots were dotted here and there with hot pink circles. Though she looked imposing when her features were less animated, she had an engaging smile and an inviting laugh.
Grimm drew up the courage to talk to the group of friends whom he felt he might make some connection with. Artificial though it might have been, it was a start at least. They soon noticed him approaching and quieted down their private conversation. Some looked rather intrigued by him, some looked skeptical, while one looked rather hostile. Despite the varied reactions, Grimm was determined to finally make contact with humans. How else was he going to learn about them? He stopped awkwardly a few feet from where they were sitting, not sure how to proceed.
“Um…hello?” the spiky-haired girl said, breaking the silence. The others sniggered amongst themselves, waiting to see how this stranger would respond.
“Hi, I’m…Josh.” (It was the first name he could think of.)
“And…?” the young girl continued and the rest continued their quiet and hurtful laughter.
“I was wondering if I could join you.”
“Oh, were you wondering just that, Josh?” the hostile one chimed.
Grimm ignored the raucous laughter that ensued with the hostile one’s response. He kept his gaze mostly on the girl he had noticed first. She didn’t seem uncomfortable with his long gazes. For a while, she looked intrigued, but when the laughter died down and the uncomfortable silence followed, her interest fell flat. She was bored or, at least, pretended to be. She looked around at her small group of friends, gave a quick nod towards something behind Grimm. Without a word, they all got up and walked past Grimm as if he were not there at all, though the hostile one did give him a good shove as he walked by after the spiky-haired girl.
So far, Grimm was failing miserably at living. He regretted not sitting next to that old lady he had seen earlier. Chances were, she would have been the only person to show kindness. He wondered if it had to do with her age. That dead girl he met was rather young looking, as was that boy with the rectangle and the group of people who had rejected him so pointedly. He slouched on a random bench, still in the park, and pondered long about age and its effect on human social behavior.
Suddenly, Grimm felt a light but persistent tapping on his shoulder. When he opened his eyes, it took him a long while to adjust to the change in light. He was still in the park, still sitting on the same bench, but the sun was no longer shining. There were only evenly spaced, tall lamp posts illuminating their florescence on the park pathways. He had happened to be sitting at a bench that did not have a light above it which is probably why he had slept through the change from day to night.
“C’mon, let’s get up now,” a man said.
The man speaking to him rather impatiently was wearing a long-sleeved, blue button-down shirt. He wore non-descript pants that were either dark blue or black, Grimm couldn’t tell in the dark. What stood out most to Grimm was the bright, metal badge on the man’s chest and the gun holster on his waist. Grimm recalled a man he helped cross over to the other side who looked just like this one; that man told Grimm he’d been shot when called in to investigate a domestic disturbance in a relatively safe neighborhood. (Or so he thought it was safe enough.) He was a cop, and so was this man; he must be. Grimm knew to take him seriously.
“Your parents are going to be worried about you, kid,” he said with an authoritative kindness.
“I don’t have parents,” Grimm replied.
“You got relatives here? Anyone to stay with?”
“No, I don’t.”
The cop sighed in frustration. To him, Grimm didn’t seem bad; he just looked like someone who needed help. He couldn’t smell any alcohol on the kid, and he couldn’t see any signs of drug use, but he had to deal with all runaways the same way. They were sent to temporary homes – a halfway house or something along those lines – until the minor was either reunited with parents, with relatives or taken in by a new family. The cop knew what kinds of places he would be sent to in this neighborhood, and he felt nothing but sympathy. He didn’t want this kid to be mixing in with the wrong crowds, getting out and making choices that were more terrifying than falling asleep in a park. His shift was nearly over, the kid didn’t seem too bad; he had a good feeling about that…
“Alright, come with me. You hungry?” the cop asked.
“Yes…” Grimm said with some uncertainty, feeling for the first time his stomach respond at the thought of food.
“I’m sure Sheila will be making something good tonight,” the cop said, “What’s your name, kid?”
“I’m Joe,” the cop responded, shaking Grimm’s hand while simultaneously lifting him up.
Grimm had no words or thoughts to convey how thankful he was in this moment. From the kindness of one stranger, he had a home, temporary as it may be, and a meal waiting for him in the near future. The rejection, unnecessary hate and judgment that he had both seen and experienced first-hand seemed altogether inconsequential in this moment. Finally, kindness. Perhaps this was what living was all about? And if it wasn’t entirely about kindness, he believed that it at least should be a part of the whole thing.
The ride to Joe’s house was silent but not uncomfortable. After about thirty minutes, Joe drove more slowly through a long street that was lined with tall, relatively clean looking brick buildings. Most of the windows were lit up, reflecting their glow on the pavement below. Some windows had the curtains up, and Grimm watched people living within their private spaces – people curled up on a couch watching TV, people eating dinner, people chatting on the phone. Joe pulled into an open space and looked over at Grimm.
“Don’t worry about having to sleep on the couch or anything, we’ve got a spare room,” Joe said, but Grimm noticed how Joe’s face contorted with small traces of pain, how his eyes glistened ever so slightly. He didn’t pry. The third floor apartment itself was simple, but inviting. Joe opened a front door that led straight into a small living room. There was a large, cream-colored and textured couch that divided the space between the living room and dining room. To Grimm’s left, immediately next to the front door that swung into the house was a window overlooking the street outside. Under the window was a smaller sofa, fit for one person, of the same color and texture as the couch. In the far left corner sat a huge television, and to Grimm’s immediate right was another large, black leather sofa that didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the décor of the relatively brightly lit house.
Beyond the living room space, Grimm could hear people scraping at dishes, and the smell of a warm, inviting meal indicated that they were late for dinner. He couldn’t quite see everyone at the table – a large plant was next to the black, leather couch blocking part of the dining room from his view from the front door. He had only caught the sound of two female voices, talking quietly before they opened the door, and could now only see one lady sitting at the table who was clearly Joe’s wife, Sheila. Before coming into the house, Joe motioned to Grimm to stand in the doorway. He understood: Joe needed to give his family a head’s up before bombarding them with a complete stranger who would be staying in their home for the night. There was no real protest when Joe told them about “Josh.” Grimm only heard a gruff sigh towards the end of Joe’s speech.
“Reagan, now don’t you start…” he began.
“He can’t sleep in her room,” she whispered quietly and intensely.
“It’s been almost a year, Reagan. We’ve got to start moving forward.”
With that, Joe walked back into Grimm’s view at the front door, motioning for him to enter. As Grimm walked into the dining room, he kept his gaze on the soft, gray carpet below him, feeling with that last statement that he was intruding on someone’s personal space. But he was hungry, and he couldn’t pass up on a free meal and a warm bed. As he came into view, he heard another gasp.
“What are you doing here?” a familiar voice asked, astonished.
Grimm looked up to meet the eyes of the spiky-haired girl from the park. Her eyes were incredulous though, not angry. She gazed at him, and he wondered at how he could have been led directly back to her, to Reagan. Was it a coincidence or was he meant to know her better? Was she a key in his goal to understanding how people lived? A quick glance at a picture hanging on the wall above Reagan’s head gave Grimm another shock – sitting next to Reagan in the photo, with Joe and Sheila standing behind the pair, was the girl who first sparked his interest in human life on Earth. The first and only soul he had ever spoken to in the eternal abyss of the afterlife. She still had that look of boredom in her eyes as she smirked lazily at the camera.
The meal was quiet and slightly awkward. Joe and Sheila seemed to take to Grimm quite easily, asking him questions about where he came from, where his parents were, what he was doing in Philadelphia. (A new piece of information for Grimm as he had no clue where he was in the world at this point.) He used an amalgam of stories that he had heard from people he’d met in the afterlife to create his backstory:
He was from New York. His mother and father had both passed, leaving him penniless and without family. He tried to stay in homes provided for kids like him, but they were full of bad influences. He had come to Philadelphia to escape a few close calls with some of the other, not so well-to-do kids who had been pressuring him into a lifestyle he didn’t want. Joe and Sheila seemed to appreciate his supposed integrity. Reagan just rolled her eyes.
Grimm ate to his fill and was soon off to bed. The room was not what he expected. If this was the girl’s room from the picture, the girl with more apathy about life – and perhaps also about death – how was this her room? Grimm couldn’t count the number of trophies, plaques and ribbons he saw in the room. Mostly, they were related to various writing awards and school contests. There were books piled in various places on the floor, on a desk and in a tall bookshelf, but Grimm was drawn to a pile of papers on the bedside table. Picking them up and flipping through different stacks, Grimm realized these were original works – plays, chapters for stories – done by the girl. It made no sense to him. She obviously cared about this and was extensively and openly rewarded for it at that. She had something she cared about that she should have wanted to come back for after death.
“Her name was Liza, short for Elizabeth,” Sheila said to Grimm from the doorway. “She was an amazing writer, a real talent.”
“It is impressive,” replied Grimm, “I wonder why she…” he stopped short.
“We all do, but that’s hardly your business,” came a sharp retort from behind Sheila.
No one had noticed Reagan’s presence, but they did notice her exit from the situation. In a huff and with an intentional middle finger pointed at the both of them, Reagan stalked away to her room at the end of the hall. Sheila made no effort to address the situation by reprimanding Reagan’s behavior. She only met Grimm’s eyes with a look of apology and sorrow. There was no helping the situation when they felt helpless themselves. The whole family behaved as if Liza’s death was a sinking ship, one that they all had to abandon. They were all tossing about in the tempestuous waves of sadness at her demise, with no help on the way and not even the comfort of being able to hold on to one another while they sunk to their own slow, terrible deaths. No, each one was alone, drifting further and further away from the wreckage and from one another. Left to the mercy of the waves, left to die alone.
Grimm awoke to a hard slap to the face. He opened his eyes wide in shock and met Reagan’s cold stare hovering above his face in the dark. Somehow, Reagan had this terrible hold over Grimm. He knew he couldn’t help her, but he knew he was should be in her life for some reason. It was obvious who was going to call the shots in their relationship as they stared at each other in the dark room. Or rather, as Reagan glared at Grimm while he lay there in the bed, gazing back tensely.
“What are you playing at?” she hissed. “Are you stalking me or something?”
“No, I jus-“
“Don’t think for a second that you’ll be playing house here for good.”
Looking over at the clock next to the bed, Grimm could see that it was just after four in the morning. How long had Reagan stood there before she decided to slap him awake? Why was she so angry with him? She hadn’t moved. She was in two places. Wanting to show Grimm who was boss, wanting to exert her anger in any way she could. But it was clear that she was also intrigued by him. She felt something about him from the very first time they’d encountered one another in the park. Suddenly, she flinched ever so slightly. The mask of rage was waning, and in her eyes, Grimm saw the regret and the pain.
“I’m sorry. I’m just…frustrated, you know?”
Grimm could only nod in consent.
“It’s just that. I miss her so goddam much. It was all so unfair. It should have been me.”
“What do you mean by that?” Grimm’s interest was piqued.
“Look at this fucking room. She was the smart one. She was the successful one. I’m just…like fucked up. Like a drifter who gets offed and no one ever knows or cares but it doesn’t matter…I don’t matter.”
Grimm couldn’t help it as he grunted at the irony. Reagan and Liza were the same person. He suddenly realized why he was there. They were the same. And he had to stop her from following her sister. She eyed him suspiciously as he ran through these thoughts, daring him to continue the laughter. He tensed his face again to appease her.
“Oh, sorry,” she replied, as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed. “I guess the hovering would make anyone uncomfortable.”
“You do, you know,” Grimm replied, sitting up in the bed.
“Yeah, yeah. You wanna get out of here?”