Grim

A short story about the quest to save a man's soul.

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1. Grim

  “My name is Callum. I’m twenty four. And I’m in Hell,” I mutter.

 That’s all I know. I can’t remember anything else. But Hell is nothing like I imagined it. No fiery demons or eternal pain greeted me upon my awakening. Just silence. And loneliness. I woke beneath a blossom tree, grass tickling my neck as I lay there, with no idea why or how I got here. But I know one thing for certain. I’m dead.

 It’s a sunny day. I’ve been here for some time, though I don’t know how long. I have no concept of time and there is only day, never night. I sit on a fork in the tree’s branches, picking blossom petals and throwing them to the soft wind. If I wasn’t so lonely, I could enjoy having the sun on my back and wind through my hair. But suddenly, the sky begins to cloud over. The blue sky turns grey, and the wind howls like a wolf. I jump down from the tree, landing clumsily on my side and watching the sky split with thunder. My face crumples in fear as lightning struck, illuminating the sky.

 And then the crows come. Ten in total. They flock at once towards the tree, squawking as they fly. The wind blows all the petals off the branches of the blossom tree, until it’s completely bare. The murder of crows watches me with black beady eyes from the branches of the tree, piercing me with their gaze. I’m so used to silence, and their sudden squawking begins to bother me. I clasp my hands over my ears, but the sound of the crows still penetrates my head.

 “Callum.”

  I whip around in terror. A cloaked figure stands ominously, thunder clapping behind it. I shrink backwards into the trunk of the tree.

 “The Grim Reaper,” I whisper. The Reaper raises his hands to his hood and lets it down. The thunder dies down and the crows cease to cry. Silence falls once more. I’m so busy being terrified, it take me a moment to realise that the Grim Reaper is a woman.

 “Huh?” I find myself exclaiming.

 “Yes, I’m a woman. And I’d prefer you to call me Grim. Just Grim. None of this Reaper nonsense. Now get up, Callum, we need to talk.”

 “About what?” I ask, not trusting her.

 “You. We need to talk about you. And we don’t have much time.”

 Reluctantly I stand. Everyone knows you can’t trust the Grim Reaper.

 “Don’t judge a book by its cover, Callum,” Grim says wearily, reaching her hand to stroke the feathers of one of the crows “I’m not the way they present me in stories. I don’t want to steal your soul. I want to save it. Do you know where we are?”

 “Hell,” I reply with certainty. She smiles.

 “No. Not Hell. But not Heaven either. Purgatory.”

 I consider it. Perhaps the place isn’t designed to torture me. Just contain me.

 “Why am I here?”

 “A good question,” Grim says softly “And one I don’t know the answer to. All I know is that unless we find out, you’ll never leave this place. There’s only one thing I know, Callum. And that is that your death was no accident.”

 “I don’t understand.”

 “You were murdered. I don’t know when it happened, why someone wanted to kill you or who did it. And I know you don’t remember either. Until we find out, you’re stuck here. The trouble is, if we don’t find out soon…you’ll have to stay here. Forever.”

 “I don’t believe you,” I hiss. Grim looks pained, reaching once again to touch the feathers of a crow. All of a sudden, the bird falls from the tree, landing on the floor with a thud. I jump, confused. And then I feel a burning sensation on my arm. I watch as a single black line etches itself into my skin, marking the death of the bird. Grim looks almost sad as she picks the bird up and caresses its feathers morbidly.

 “Every time a crow falls, your murderer takes another step towards getting away with it. You will never be avenged, and you’ll be stuck here for eternity. Is that what you want?”

 I don’t reply. Just stare at Grim. She sighs.

 “Look. I need to take you back in time. We need to know what happened and why.”

 “No. I’m staying right here. I don’t trust you,” I snarl. Grim bows her head, her blonde hair falling forward around her face.

 “I can’t force you. But you’re making a mistake” she says softly. She begins to walk away, mist suddenly shrouding her ankles. But fear creeps into my heart as she leaves and another bird falls. Two down. Eight to go.

 “Grim! Wait!” I cry involuntarily. She was back within moments, her hood pulled over her face again. Beneath the hood, I could see her grinning mischievously.

 “Why do you wear that cloak?” I ask. It’s the least of my worries, but I want to know. She smiles, letting the hood down again. I try to ignore another mark etching on my skin.

 “I have a reputation to keep up,” she says “Come. Take my hand.”

 My hand slips into hers. Her hands are strangely delicate and small, but her skin is cold to the touch, as though she’s just had her hand in a bucket of ice.

 “Close your eyes,” she says. As I do, I feel a sickening sensation and we’re sucked into a tunnel.

 I’m glad when the feeling ceases. I open my eyes slowly. We’re stood in a small American diner, the bustle of the kitchen and the chatter in the restaurant foreign to my ears. The aroma of fresh food and cheap perfume is a welcome prospect, though. I’ve missed being able to smell. It’s as though my senses have been numbed in Purgatory, and they’ve been reawakened. But something doesn’t feel right. My arm tingles and another mark appears. Time is moving fast.

 “How do you feel?” Grim asks.

 “I don’t know. Something isn’t right,” I say, staring around the diner. Grim nods.

 “We’re in the right place. It’s the 21st of April 2012. The day that you died,” she says quietly. I look around the diner, dread filling my heart.

 “Over here,” Grim says, leading me to a table. There, four friends sit, digging into burgers. There’s a man with his arm around a pretty blonde protectively, a man in a suit and glasses, and an attractive black man, who’s in the middle of telling a story.

 “Can’t they see us?” I ask.

 “No. This is the past, remember? The most they’ll be able to do is sense our presence.”

 The man in the glasses sits awkwardly, sipping his milkshake tentatively and looking like he’d rather be elsewhere.

 “Who are these people?” I ask. Grim looks puzzled.

 “Don’t you recognize him?” she asks, gesturing at the man with glasses. I stare at him, trying to make a connection.

 “Who is he?” I ask giving up.

 “He’s you, Callum. He’s you,” Grim says sadly. How can you forget yourself? I stare at the woman with her boyfriend, wondering why she looks so uncomfortable. I watch as she steals secret glances in my direction, but I never look up from my drink. The story being told by the black man seemingly comes to an end and an awkward silence ensues. I sense there’s something we’re missing.

 “We need to know more,” Grim says, reading my thoughts “There is another key event in this situation, I know it. We need to go back further.”

 I feel another mark etch itself on my shoulder “Fine. But we’re five crows down…”

 “We have time,” Grim insists. I close my eyes again and we’re sucked back into the time stream. This time, when I open my eyes, I’m in a gloomy flat. The lights are turned off and the only light in the room is provided by the television screen. On the couch, I see myself, touching the cheek of the blonde from the restaurant. Grim raises an eyebrow. Something’s clicked.

 “Callum, I can’t do this anymore,” the blonde whispers “He’s going to find out.”

 “Which is why this has to be our last night together,” my former self whispers.

 “What? No!” the woman cries, eyes widening.

 “I’m serious, Jenny. He loves you, and I know that deep down, you love him.”

 “I’ll don’t,” Jenny says coldly “I want you.” She leans forward, passionately kissing my former self. I feel guilty, somehow. I guess she’s with the man we saw in the restaurant. She’s cheating on him. Grim perches on a chair, discretely averting her eyes.

 “We don’t have to stay here,” I say, uncomfortable with Grim watching my past.

 “We do. There’s something going to happen here, I know it. I just don’t feel like watching you devour poor old Jenny,” Grim says snidely. I crouch beside her awkwardly.

 “Do you think I loved her?”

 “How should I know? This is your past, not mine,” she grumbles.

 “Have you ever been in love?”

 “No. Love isn’t an emotion I can feel,” Grim says.

 “Then why are you showing me such compassion? Why are you helping me?” I ask. She smiles sadly.

 “It’s my job,” she says. She jumps as the scene changes. The door to the flat swings open, and Jenny and I jump apart. The man from the restaurant stands in the doorway. He switches the light on and drops his keys on a small table. It’s clear what assumptions he’s making. Correct ones, at that.

 “Jenny,” he says with a cold nod. She tries for a smile. Her lipstick’s smudged in the corners.

 “Isaac, darling,” she acknowledges. He’s glaring at me steadily, eyes blazing.

 “Isn’t it time you left?” he says to his girlfriend “I see you’re getting a little cosy. Unless you plan on staying the night?” Isaac sneers. Jenny trembles.

 “No. No, I’ll go now,” she says. She shakes in her high heels as she walks, grabbing her coat and heading for the door.

 “Don’t I get a goodnight kiss?” Isaac growls. My heart aches as Jenny reluctantly pecks Isaac’s lips and leaves without another word. I hold my breath. I’m alone with Isaac. He plonks himself on the sofa next to me, cracking open a beer and grabbing a handful of popcorn from the table, chewing it noisily.

 “Say, a nice little evening you had set up here. Dimmed lights, popcorn, a romantic movie. If she wasn’t mine, I’d say it looked like a perfect little date,” Isaac says. I flinch, both in the past and in my present. My former self forces a laugh.

 “Everyone knows she’s crazy for you,” I insist.

 “I like to hear that. Because you know what? Anyone who touches my girl…I’ll kill  ‘em with my bare hands.”

***

“Is it him?” I ask in horror, staring at the man just threatened me. Isaac’s eyes turn to the television screen and don’t leave again, as though nothing happened.

 “I don’t know. Maybe,” Grim says, but she doesn’t sound sure. “We cannot assume. There is one more place we have to visit.”

 “Where?”

 “I don’t know when it is, but I can feel a major event in your time line. We need to go there. I think it’s significant.”

 I resent Grim’s vague comments, and hate having to put my faith in her. But as another mark engraves itself on my arm, I reluctantly take her hand and allowed her to take me further back in time. This time, we sit in the backseat of a battered Ford, a black man at the steering wheel. Rain patters on the windscreen, and the wipers on the car are going crazy. Grim gulps, reaching for a seatbelt.

 “Bloody rain,” I mutter to the friend in the car.

 “We’ll never make it to Jay’s on time,” the man says, squinting to see through the rain. I can hear the wind howling over the sound of the car engine, a few stray leaves blowing in front of the window.

 “You’re gonna want to hold on tight, Callum,” Grim whispers. I click my seatbelt into place.

 “What’s going to ha-” I begin, but suddenly, the car crashes with tremendous force, sending our car spinning wildly off the road. I struggle for breath as I see the blood on my forehead and the body of the black man being crushed. Grim undoes her seatbelt and hastily clambers through a broken window. I follow her, watching the scene in horror from the outside of the car. My companion and I are unconscious. The black man has a shard of glass driven through his face.

 Several cars stop and someone calls for an ambulance. Grim closes her eyes until the ambulance arrives.  The medical staff retrieve us from the car, along with casualties from the others in the crash, piling them into the vehicle. Grim and I climb in the van too, and it sets off, the sirens wailing. I feel nauseous, surrounded by blood and people crying out in pain.

 “Can we leave? Please?” I say uncomfortably.

 Grim sighs “OK. I can see this isn’t solving anything. But I think it’s time we found out how you died. Are you sure you want to leave right now?”

 “Positive,” I growl. Grim nods, reaching over a body to grab my hand.

 “So be it,” she says. Once more, I find myself in the American diner, watching as I get up to leave.

 “Won’t you stay?” Jenny says.

 “No, no. I…have things to do,” I insist nervously. The three people at the table watch as I leave, Grim and my later self on my tail.

 I watch as I straighten my jacket and head home. It’s a path I assume I must have once been familiar with, my former self walking quickly and certainly. But I’m aware that I was uncomfortable. Forever looking over my shoulder and speeding up. Suddenly, a pair of strong hands appear from in an alleyway and drag my former self over. Grim and I exchange a glance. Another mark forms on my arm. Two crows left. In the alley, I’m being pinned to the wall by the black man from the restaurant. Confused, I get a little closer, watching myself shiver in fear.

 “Toby,” I whimper “What are you doing? I thought…I was expecting to see Isaac.”

 Toby’s face is devoid of emotion. It’s hard to believe that only minutes ago he’d been telling a story to make everyone laugh. Who’s laughing now? Toby’s hand lingers on my throat threateningly.

 “This isn’t about you and Jenny. I don’t care about that. But you deserve this. You still deserve this,” Toby says, his voice cracking.

 “What did I do, Toby? I can mend it, I can mend-”

 “No you can’t!” Toby wails, finally breaking down “Austin died in that car with you! It should have been you! It should have been you!”

 The pieces finally click. The black man in the car knew Toby. He must have known him well.

 “Toby? This is about your brother? Toby, listen, it wasn’t my-”

 My final words are cut off as Toby slams my head against the wall with a sickening crack. I scream in terror as my body falls limp to the ground and another crow falls. Nine down. Toby’s eyes widen.

 “No,” he whispers “No, I didn’t mean-” His face is streaked with tears, eyes bloodshot. He sits down beside my body and begins to rock slowly back and forth like a child. Grim bends down, closing my eyes carefully. I’m shaking uncontrollably.

 “That’s why you don’t remember. The damage to your brain when he killed you meant you never remembered what happened during your life,” Grim says, her voice emotional. I can’t stop staring at Toby, his eyes vacant as he cries.

 “I feel sorry for him,” I say, touching Toby’s head softly.

 “I know. This man isn’t a murderer. He has a good heart. It just…”

 “Went wrong,” I say quietly.

 “Yeah,” she says, biting her lip. I swear I can see a tear on her cheek. She takes my hand silently.

 “Time to go,” she says softly.

 And now we’re back where it all began. Underneath the blossom tree. One crow still stands, its feet clinging onto the branch hopefully. As we arrive, it falls. My soul is saved, but the crow is still condemned to death, lying with the others in the graveyard of crows. I think of Toby. I wonder what will become of him. Somehow, I’m praying he’ll be OK. Even though he’s the reason I’m dead.

 The sky is clear and bright again, but I’m ready to leave Purgatory for good. Grim senses my eagerness to leave, and reaches to shake my hand.

 “I never thought I’d shake hands with the Grim Reaper,” I say, almost sad that we’re parting “Will I see you again, Grim?”

 She smiles “No, Callum. We shan’t meet again. But remember. I’m always here. I saved your soul. I’ll never leave you. If you should ever feel lonely or scared, call upon the memories we have shared together. You may not have your past, but you have your present and future to look forward to. And I will always be a part of that,” she says.

 “You know…you’re not like I expected,” I say. She laughs, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. Her lips are warmer than her hands, at least.

 “People always seem to say that,” she says. She smiles “Your soul is free to go. I wish you all the luck in the world,” she says.

 I feel like I’m floating. I rise and rise, up into the blue sky. I smile, and move towards the light.

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