A Grimm Life is a short story in a set of short stories I’m writing as a “First Draft Collection.” I’m writing them merely for the satisfying act of finishing something. There are a handful of short stories I’ve started over the years, and I am forcing myself to just complete them: beginning, middle, end. All of these stories need heavy rewrites and editing if I am ever to make them actually good. But the “First Draft Collection” is not about being good. It’s about being DONE.
Grimm never really understood death. He knew what to do when he saw the dead as they approached him, and he knew where to lead them. But he never understood why he had to do it, and he always wondered about the whole thing in general: What were their last moments like? What had they done to deserve peace in the afterlife…or torment?
Suddenly, Grimm was called out of his musings with the predictable cacophony of wailing shrieks and pleading, desperate screams. God, I hate this job. He’d lost a game of cards ages ago that landed him in this very spot, on this very path that led the sinfully dead across the vast divide between life and death to their final doom. He spread his bone-white fingers across his pale forehead like a cruel, rusty vice and rubbed his temples. How much longer do I have on this beat?
“Sir…SIR! You’re mistaken. I’m not supposed to be here…”
“You’ve got the wrong guy…”
“You don’t understand. I have a family…”
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. But reacting or engaging with the dead in any way was against the rules. With this particular group, it felt like eons of trudging ever forward through cold, ankle-deep water and a misty void before they finally reached the other side. (A commendable feat as Grimm was hopelessly eternal.) But they finally reached it, as all souls do, and as each one was compelled forward onto a menacing shore by an invisible force, Grimm quickly glanced at the watch on his wrist to mark the time. Two more hours, then a break. He sighed inaudibly as the souls continued their pleas. When there was no one left trailing behind him, when everyone was accounted for on that ominous shore, Grim turned his back on their screams and walked away once more back along the shallow, watery path.
He was going back into the mist-filled void he had to traverse each time he brought fresh souls to their inevitable hell. Before the mist completely enveloped him, Grimm glanced back at the desperate scene: bodies lying prostrate clawing at the hard soil beneath them, bodies kneeling and rocking, hands clasped and arms raised in supplication to his retreating form. They were still clinging to the edge of the other side, reaching into the darkness in which they could see Grimm melting. Their last hope. They had yet to notice the gaggle of demonic goblins rushing towards them, salivating and eager to drag their prey away into darkness, never-ending death and meticulous torture. Grimm felt his throat tighten. He clenched his teeth and pressed his thin, cracked lips into a hard line and began walking again.
Very soon, he found himself in that blissful, misty 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 in the hell they were and how they got there. (Grimm giggled cynically at the passing thought.) The meeting place was coming into view slowly but surely, and as he neared the all-too familiar shore, he was confused when he didn’t hear anything at all. That was when he saw her.
She was a young girl, probably in her early twenties. Grimm could see 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 viciously 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 only one soul to be there waiting for him to lead across the void, but it did happen from time to time. 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. She didn’t look afraid or confused. She didn’t look resolved. Rather, the girl seemed utterly and inconceivably complacent, taking everything in with the same enthusiasm people had waiting in line at the bank. She didn’t waver or hesitate as Grimm began leading her to the other side. It was clear that she knew what was happening, she knew where she was going and she had nothing to say about any of it. She didn’t make a sound or even bother to look at Grimm. She simply began walking towards him with her arms crossed and shoulders hunched.
Everyone without fail walked behind Grimm when he led them over the great divide. 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, keeping them from getting away. It was the only power Grimm could exercise, a silent 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. He felt his bony white fingers curling into his hands, making hard fists as they walked silently along through the mist. I’ve got to break the rules, just this one time.
Suddenly, Grimm stopped leading, and the girl kept walking on. That was new. Someone walking towards the other side without him using compulsion. “What’s wrong with you?” he hissed, waiting impatiently for the girl to stop. He needed answers. After a moment, she stopped walking, his power finally working to keep her from continuing on without him. And he felt it. Not a push to go back to the other side, but a pull to keep moving forward to the end. Brows furrowed, he finally felt the resistance loosen like a rubber band returning to its original form, and he knew she was walking back to him.
“Seriously, man, can we just get on with it?”
“Is this your first day?” she mocked, “I know the deal. Let’s just go.”
Grimm crossed his arms over his chest and waited. The girl hung her head back in a dramatic arc and exhaled loudly. 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 looking down at her feet, she kicked them in rough bursts through the dark water until she finally conceded. She dropped her arms to her side emphatically and resumed her post and stood passively next to Grimm, looking forward into the dark mist, contemplating.
“My life was nothing. Sometimes good, but mostly just shit. I’ve got nothing back there.”
“So, you’re happy to be dead?”
“No…I don’t know…I just don’t care, really. About anything.”
He didn’t know what to say to that, but he knew for certain that she was lying. So Grim gave her a curt nod, and 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 he’d get in trouble for taking too long. Before this girl, 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 what she had to say about it. He needed more time.
Grimm could hear the demons waiting on the other side. Soon he and the girl would reach the shore, and this young woman would be dragged off to her fate. Or perhaps this one would simply keep walking towards her demons and nonchalantly follow them into the darkness. Grimm giggled at the thought.
“Never expected to hear laughter down here.”
With that remark, Grimm suddenly understood what he needed to do. He grabbed hold of the girl’s arm, forcing her to stop in her tracks.
“What’s your prob—”
“Just shut up for a second,” Grim whispered harshly. He couldn’t believe what he was about to do. But he needed a minute to think, and the void was the best place for doing that. Once they got to the other side, there would be no more chances. The demons would take over, and Grimm’s powers could never trump a demon’s.
“Where are we going?”
“Just give me a minute,” Grimm answered.
He had no idea what he was doing. He was in uncharted waters. Where was he going? He made the choice to break the rule, and that’s as far as he got. He was flimsily holding on to the conclusion that if there were two points going forward and backward between the shores of the recently dead and the endless torture, there had to be some kind of end moving side to side through the void. So, on a whim, he decided to veer to the left, away from the shore they were supposed to have reached by then, and continued a quick march in the void. He would move them along until they hit a new shore or something, anything. Just as long as it was nowhere near the place where he knew demons were angrily writhing at his disobedience and their lack of a new dead person to torture. He didn’t know if or how they would retaliate.
“This is insane, man,” the girl kept saying. She couldn’t believe what was happening. By now, she had imagined she’d be neck-deep in some form of torture, living her eternity they way she deserved, the way she wanted. She didn’t want to think about the past. She didn’t want to think about her, and with fresh fear rising to the surface, she knew Grimm wasn’t going to let her just get on with being dead and in hell. But she had as much of a plan as the creature towing her along on how to act, so instead of resisting, she let Grimm drag her along.
To the relief of both, Grimm and the girl reached a quiet shore. He stopped them short, just inside the mist clouding them from view. He waited and watched. The girl held her breath. Nothing came, nothing changed. Each sighed in relief for their own reasons and walked towards the shore, sitting down unceremoniously on the hard, gray ground.
“What do you want from me?” she asked.
“I need to know.”
“The truth,” Grimm said, and he shifted his lean body and moved around the uncomfortable, billowing robes he was required to wear in order to face her directly.
The girl refused for what felt like eternity. Still Grimm sat patiently, waiting. For some reason, she couldn’t move, though she knew it was not the power he’d used before but her own rising need to give in that kept her right there, sitting across from a Grim Reaper.
He knew at some point he’d have to bring her back. He was also almost positive that he’d be punished for his disobedience, but he didn’t care. If he was going to suffer the consequences, he wanted to make sure it was worth it. He needed to know how this girl had lived. He needed to know why she was so different from the others he’d led to their eternal torture. This was the first time he had ever felt anything, ever wanted anything in his entire existence, and he was going to see it through.
The girl continued to refuse, though less adamantly, but as time remained oppressively still in their soul-crushing immobility, she realized that there would be nothing but time in front of her. There would be nothing but endless time between them until she accepted her new reality. Even though she knew she deserved hell, that she was getting exactly what was coming to her in the afterlife, she never once expected that she would still have to repent for all of it. She thought she had at least that much control left to her, even after death. And for the first time since she had died, she was left with nothing but the scathing truth of it all. Of everything that led her here to this very point in her afterlife. Of everything that she chose to be when she was alive, and with everything that suffered because of those choices. She would have to repent after all.
She recalled the moments before her death. Everything was her fault. She heard her parents arguing wildly in their bedroom, forgetting that she was home in their fits of anger. She saw her sister lying quietly in her coffin and heard everyone cry. She reread the newspapers and saw the news programs talking about the accident. She remembered all of the problems, everything that in one way or another always traced back to her. And then she saw all the bottles, all of the pills. She remembered how numb she had become after her sister died in the accident, a numbness that had covered her long before the drugs had taken hold in these last moments of her life. A numbness that was now dissipating from the depths of her, waking her to the pain she tried all of her life to avoid feeling. She had intended to die numb and go to her eternal death just the same.
When she met Grimm’s expectant eyes, there were finally tears in her own. He’d broken through her completely, and for the first time, she had no avenues to escape. For the first time in a long while, she felt her heartache. She felt each broken piece of it firmly set in its place and knew that she had to acknowledge each one. There was no more running away. There was only death to deal with now.
“I wish I had been as good to my sister as she had been to me before she died,” the girl began as the tears started to fall. Grimm reached out instinctively and held the only human hand he would ever touch.