A/N: I wasn't sure how to label this, so I hope you won't be too disappointed if it turns out to be another genre than you were going for. This story was written as a challenge sometime back in the spring, and I think it's the first time ever that I write anything without a romance in it. Enjoy!
The Not-So-Grim Reaper
The old woman is asleep in her hospital bed, when I come to get her. A monitor next to the bed tells me that her heartrate is low and even, and to be honest, this is the way I prefer it. No drama, no fighting it, no sad goodbyes. Just a peaceful sleep, and one, last, peaceful breath. That's it. Or that's how it's supposed to be, anyway.
Next to the bed sits a woman, probably in her thirties or maybe fourties, with her dark blonde hair in a ponytail, and dark circles under her eyes. She, too, is asleep, which makes my job so much easier. I won't have to see the pain, when I take her mother with me. She has probably been in that armchair for days, judging by the rumble in her stomach and her ability to sleep sitting up. Or up is a bit of an exaggeration. She is more or less hanging over the armrest in her sleep, but hey, I don't judge.
"Who are you?" a voice startles me, and I look around the room. I see no one but the old lady and her - presumed - daughter. Is it the lady's soul? Sometimes they leave the body a little early, waiting for me to take them away. On the other hand, the voice is much too soft and high-pitched to belong to a grown up. I look around again and feel something tug at my trouser leg. Well, my cloak...leg. Whatever. I look down into two incredibly blue, innocent eyes belonging to a child with golden curls and a soft rose pyjamas. How can she even see me?
"Ehm..." I try, my voice a little rusty. I don't use it very often. "I'm... I'm Grim." That's not my real name, but I refuse to let anyone know that my real name is Bertram. That's just so not sexy or mysterious at all.
"Do you stutter? My friend, Joel, stutters, but Mama says I'm not supposed to tease him about it, even if it sounds funny."
"No, I..." I try and realise I'm about to stutter again. "...don't usually stutter, no."
"Hm. I'm Melody."
"Hi Melody." And I'm already deeper into a conversation with an actual child than I have ever been before.
"You smell funny." Oh? Well, I guess years and years of wearing the same old rags will do that to you. "Like matches." Oh.
"Well, I did just make a delivery to someone who likes to play with fire," I say with a shrug and look at the old lady again. I assume she's the girl's grandmother, but as heartbreaking as it may sound, I can't make exceptions. Not even for little girls.
"What's a delivwy?"
"Uhm." I look at the girl again. "It's when someone has ordered something, and then I...bring it to them."
"Like the man who brings the pizzas?"
"Something like that," I mumble and take a step towards the bed. The old lady is still peacefully asleep. I hate to have to take her away in front of her grandchild, but if I'm smooth, she won't notice anything. Except she can see me! They usually can't!
"I bet your friend will pee the bed tonight." Ehm, what? I look at the girl again, raising an eyebrow. I don't have any friends. And my... business aquaintances most certainly won't pee their bed. I doubt they ever sleep.
"Why is that?" My curiosity takes over. It has, after all, been decades since I had any kind of chat with anyone, except for the screaming and the shouting right before I harvest people. Why is it that I don't have any friends, again?
"Duh! Because he plays with fire, of course!"
"What makes you so sure that my friend is a he?"
"It's a girl?" Her eyes widen, and she opens her mouth, before turning it into a huge smile. "You have a girlfriend?"
"Oh. No. No! I certainly don't. My...friend is a...boy."
"Oh. Okay. Is he your boyfriend? Mama says that men can have boyfriends. My Ken doll has a girlfriend, but if I had another Ken doll, maybe they would be boyfriends."
"No," I stop her. "He's not my boyfriend. He's not even a friend. He's just someone I know. And I'm not even a man, so..."
"You're not?" She opens her eyes up wide again. "Are you a girl?"
"No." I sigh, and for a moment I've forgotten about her grandmother. "No. I'm not a girl, either. It's complicated."
"I don't know what that means." She looks at me with those huge, innocent, blue eyes, and something feels weird inside. She's not afraid of me. Why is she not afraid of me? "But who's your best friend, then?"
Uh... Who's my best friend? Among the two I see regularly?
"I don't know," I say and bend down a little. I don't know why, but somehow I feel like she will be able to hear me better if I do. "I mean, there are these two...persons...I know. One is kind and fair. He's always in a good mood, and he always does everything right. Like, all the time. Sometimes I can't help thinking if he's for real, you know?" She nods, so I continue. "But the other one... He's just so much fun! Yeah, he's a bit of a bully sometimes, but things are never boring whenever he's around. He has some flaws, but..."
"Like when my friend, Joel, put glue on our nursery teacher's chair, and she sat down and couldn't get up without taking off her trousers, and she scolded him and I should've thought it was wrong, but instead I thought it was funny?"
"Yeah, like that. On another level, but still."
"Is he the one who likes to play with fire?"
"I think I like them both." Hm. I'm not sure that an angelic, little girl should like both, but I keep it to myself. "Is that your favourite toy?" She looks up at the scythe over my shoulder. I'm still bending down, and when she reaches up to touch it, she almost can.
"Careful with that," I say and take it from my shoulder. "It's not a toy." I show it to her, and when she reaches out to touch it again, I withdraw it a little. "It's very sharp. And just one cut can be lethal."
"Ehm..." I better not make it too graphic for her young brain. I don't want to scare her and give her nightmares. "Back when your great grandparents, or maybe even your great great grandparents were alive, they used one of these to harvest the fields. It's called a scythe." It's not the explanation she was asking for, but it is an explanation.
"So leethl means extra sharp?"
"Let's go with that one, yeah."
"Don't you have any real toys? Ones that you can actually play with?"
"No, I suppose I don't."
"That's really sad. You look sad. Come on, you can borrow some of mine." And then, without further warning, she grabs my hand. A hand, that hasn't been touched by a human since... I can't really remember. Has it ever? "Your hand is cold." She looks up at me and tugs at my hand again. "You should wear mittens. Or do finger ex... exxer... things to warm them up."
"Maybe I should." She pulls me towards the door, but I stop and turn to look at her grandmother and then at her mother. "Don't you think you should stay with your mum?"
"That's not my mum." She giggles and pulls harder on my hand. "Come on. My toys are in the next room."
I follow her reluctantly into the corridor, looking back over my shoulder at the old lady, who is not her grandmother. I was supposed to have come and gone a long time ago, and she was supposed to have died calmly and peacefully without even noticing. Now there's a chance she might wake up, and I'll make a mess of it, but this little girl, who treats me like...a friend...wants me to follow. And how can I say no to that? The old lady can wait. She probably won't mind a few more minutes on Earth. Unless she's in pain, of course, but she didn't seem like it just now.
"You walk funny." I hadn't even realised, because I haven't walked for years. Decades. Not with my feet actually taking one step at a time. I sort of just slide over the floor, barely touching it, and it makes the little girl - Melody - laugh out loud. I try to take a few regular steps, and somehow it feels good. I can still walk properly. I've still got that mojo. Who knows, I may even still have a few moves up my sleeve?
I turn around and keep up with her while walking backwards. Then I get cocky and do my once renowned Michael Jackson impression, though it has been years. My ability to moonwalk is not what it used to be, but it makes Melody giggle again, and a moment later she tries it herself. She turns around and slides her little feet over the floor in a much better Michael Jackson impression than the one I just did, even though she has probably never heard of him, nor seen the moonwalking.
"Very good!" I'm feeling it right now, so I raise my hand to do a high five, only to realise that 1) She has no idea what I'm doing, and 2) there's no way she will ever be able to reach my hand high above in the air like that.
"You're tall!" she exclaims, still giggling, and I have to admit that she's right. I'm not sure how old she is, but her nose reaches right around my knees, and if I had been a regular height, that probably would've made her a newborn. A standing newborn, but who cares about tiny details like that? Anyway, she's definitely not a newborn, but she probably also isn't in school yet.
"You're a bastard!" We both look up at the angry voice, and an old lady walking with crutches looks as if she's about to spit in my direction. Instead, she raises one of the crutches and points it at me. "Such a young girl! She should have her whole life ahead of her. Don't you dare!"
"What does she mean?" Melody asks me and pulls on my hand again. We're right outside the door to the next room. Behind us, the old lady falls, and immediately nurses and doctors come running. They don't see me, but the old lady did. She's had a heart attack, and it's crying out for me, pulling on all my senses, but she's not ready yet. I'm not ready. "Do you know her? Is she your friend?"
"Don't worry about it," I tell Melody and encourage her to enter the room instead of looking at the commotion in the corridor. "She was just confused."
The second we enter the room, I know. I'm not here for the old lady in the next room. I'm not even here for the old lady outside the room. I'm here for the little girl, who is so happily running to grab a toy of some sort - a purple plastic pony, I think - from the hospital bed. In the bed she lies peacefully asleep. The best way to go. In the armchair next to the bed is a man. He's hunched over, but it's not because he's sleeping. He's crying, the tears streaming down his face, his hand holding on to sleeping Melody's little hand.
"This is so cool!" Melody says and hands me the pony. "I can be in two places at the same time. Have you ever been in two places at the same time?"
Somehow, I feel like I've always got one foot in the grave, though not my own.
"Uh..." My voice fails me. It has, afterall, not been used much lately. "No, I haven't." I'm just really fast. Most of the time, anyway. Just not today.
"You know what the really cool thing is?" She's excited, even though she should be scared to death. I make a mental roll of my eyes at the word choice. Not funny. "I can do whatever I want. No one stops me, or scolds me, or tells me what to do. But my dad's a little sad. I don't know why, but he didn't hear me when I asked him about it. I guess he's just pretending to be listening, when he's really not. Like when he's reading his newspaper and watching the TV at the same time, and Mama tells him something. He never really hears that, either, even though he answers her."
I look at the plastic pony in my hand and realise it's the first time a child has ever shared their toys with me. I don't even remember being a child. Did I have toys? And did I have a father crying for me, when I became what I am? Did I die to become what I am? Or have I always been like this? I don't remember anymore. It was so long ago, and I don't keep track of the days. They all sort of just blend in together.
"You know what's wrong with you?" I ask as softly as possible, though I'm not sure anyone would ever consider my voice soft. I don't know why I ask, but I need to know.
"Is something wrong with me?" Melody asks, tears suddenly in her eyes. "You don't like me?"
"Oh, yes...sweetheart..." Man, that was hard to say, but somehow it also felt like the right thing to do. "Of course I like you. You're the best friend I've ever had." And the only one.
"Really?" Her face brightens up again, and she throws her little arms around my legs. "You're the funniest friend I've ever had." Oh, darling, I'm not your friend! That's what's makes it all the more sad. She's my friend, but I can never be hers.
"Do you know why you're in that bed?" I ask, trying to phrase it so she won't think anything's wrong with her. Though something clearly is.
"Well, I wasn't feeling so well a couple of nights ago, and I was coughing a lot, and Mama told me to stay in bed. But I feel fine now, so I didn't listen."
"How did you get out of it?"
"Duh! I crawled." Of course. I roll my eyes at myself. How could I be so stupid?
"How is she?" a voice makes both of us turn around to face the door. It's a woman in her thirties, and she bears a striking resemblance to Melody. "Anything yet?"
Melody's father looks up at her and shakes his head. The woman looks disappointed and...what's that other thing? Fear-stricken? I'm a little rusty interpreting the emotions from anyone but my...clients. I always try not to look at anyone else. It becomes too ugly, if I do. The woman hands Melody's father one of the two cups of coffee in her hand, but none of them drink.
"Mama!" Melody runs over to the woman and throws her arms around her legs, but her mother doesn't notice her. "Mama, you should meet my new friend. You'll like him." She still doesn't respond, and Melody looks disappointed. Then she clearly decides not to worry about it, and she comes back to me and tugs at my hand again. "Come say hi to my Mama."
"Sweetheart, I don't think your parents will like me," I try, even though I have no way of explaining to her why. "I'm here to take you away from them." I actually feel like I'm tearing up a little, though I didn't know I could. I probably just got something in my eyes. Yeah. That must be the explanation.
"To take me away?" Melody lets go of my hand and looks up at me with those big, blue eyes. Do they grow bigger by the minute? "Why would you take me away? I thought we were friends."
"I don't really have friends." I admit it, even though I expect it will scare her.
"Can't I be your friend?" She has tears in her eyes now, but she still doesn't look scared. She should. I sigh and open my mouth to say something, but she beats me to it. "Please? Please, please, please, pleeeaaaseee? You can borrow another toy, if you don't like the pony."
I take a step towards her, and the pain in my foot is acute. Did I accidentally stab myself with the scythe?
"Ow." I lift my foot to have a look, but there's no sign of injury. It does hurt, though.
"You stepped on my Legos," Melody says, and even though she has tears in her eyes, something tells me that she thinks it's funny. I look down with a frown and see a red and a blue plastic brick on the floor next to a box full of them in different colours. I'm not really sure what they are. I've never seen them before. "You wanna play with them?"
My curiosity takes over. "Can I?" I may never get the chance again.
"Sure." Melody shifts her weight from one foot to the other, and then back again. "If you'll be my friend." I look at her, and then I look at her sleeping. Her father's still crying, and her mother's expression is completely blank. I know I shouldn't, but...
"Oh, what the heck!" I say and get down on my knees. Melody widens her eyes, and I realise I probably wasn't supposed to use that language around her, but hey, I didn't exactly go to parent school, nor did I ever have to raise a child. I'll never be any parent's first choice of friend for their kid, but right now I'm Melody's only friend. And she's mine. And she's young and innocent, and I have no doubt where she'll go from this life. She'll make new friends up there easily. But right now we're friends. And they always say to live in the moment, right?
We play with Legos for a while, and even though I've never even touched a Lego brick before (not counting a moment ago when I accidentally hurt my foot - it still hurts, by the way), I sort of manage to build something that may or may not resemble a house. I mean, it has four walls. No windows, no doors - but I usually don't need those, anyway.
"I'm tired," Melody says with a yawn and looks up at herself asleep in the bed. "How can I be tired, when I'm also sleeping?"
"Would you like to go back to bed?" I stop building my house, even though I haven't had this much fun since... Since forever, probably.
"I can't get up there by myself." She looks incredibly sad like all of a sudden. She doesn't look at me, her eyes focused on her feet, when she stands up.
"I'll help you," I offer and get up myself. Even though I'm much taller than her, my arms are equally longer, so when she reaches up her little arms for me to lift her up, I can easily reach her.
"What is it?" she asks when I hesitate. "I can't reach myself." Yeah, that's not it. I feel it stronger than ever. The little tugging at my subconscious that hasn't left me even once since I met her. The little notion of something telling me to make a delivery. And soon. It's growing stronger, and I don't like it. I never did. It's why I usually just get it over with.
"It's... It's nothing," I lie and swoop her up into my arms. She weighs next to nothing. It takes me by surprise, so I accidentally pick her up faster than I meant to, and it makes her giggle.
"Do it again!" The smile is back on her face, and all signs of tears are long gone. "It feels funny in my tummy."
I roll my eyes a little, but I do it again. Or, to be more exact, I throw her a little into the air, careful not to drop her on the floor. No need to cause her any more pain than necessary.
"I thought you were tired?" I say and put her down on the bed next to her mortal body.
"This is more fun." She giggles again, but then she looks at her parents. "Why are they so sad?"
"I think they just want you to go back to sleep, sweetheart." I can't look her in the eye. I just can't. "Why don't you lie down again for a while? Go to sleep."
"You're a good friend." She throws her little arms around my neck, and I freeze. No one has ever done that to me before. Ever!
"So are you." I didn't even know I could whisper, but it turns out, I can.
Melody lets go of me again, and she lays down next to her already sleeping body. I bend over her and brush a hand over her hair, and she's already almost gone. "Sweet dreams."
A moment later her soul-body merges with her real body, and I know it's time. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, reaching for the scythe on my shoulder only to realise it's not there. I open my eyes again and look around the room. Oh, yeah. That's right. I put it on the floor, leaning against the bed frame, when I sat down to play with Legos before. I go get it, my hands shaking more than usual (actually, they don't usually shake at all), and I look at Melody one last time. She's peacefully asleep - the way I prefer it. Except, I don't. Screaming, shouting, beating me, or peacefully - it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter at all. I don't want to.
I grab my scythe, and I hurry back into the corridor. The old lady with the heart attack - the one who called me a bastard? She was right. And she's still there. Not on the floor, but she's still there. Nurses have helped her up into a bed, and she's unconscious. I thought I had been with Melody for longer than that, but someone is only just about to move the bed away, when I find her.
"Sorry, but you were right," I mumble and reap the old lady's life. I don't get to talk to her. She's peacefully asleep. But I do feel her soul thanking me on the way, and then I'm off to the next room. I don't even stay to check if the porter notices. He probably doesn't.
I know it's not what either of my business acquaintances asked for, but two old ladies must be worth more to them than one little girl, right? I mean, He-Who-Likes-to-Play-with-Fire, probably wouldn't mind a young soul, but the other one would. But they're both bad friends for Melody, and she has had enough of bad, fake friends in her short life. From now on, she will have only real friends.
"Sorry, grandma," I say and take the soul of the old lady in the bed. Immediately, the monitor goes crazy, and there's a lot of beeping. The woman next to the bed wakes up, but I leave before I can see the pain on her face. While nurses rush down the corridor to both old ladies, I slide silently back to Melody's room. No moonwalking, no regular walking, just sliding. From somewhere far away a new sound mixes with the beeping from the old lady's room. Music. Someone has a radio on. I only hear a few words - Now I've had the time of my life, No I never felt this way before - but they sort of stick with me when I go back into Melody's room. I know that song. She sits up - her mortal body sits up - and there's no sign of her soul body. The one that only I can see. I watch from the doorway, leaning against the frame, not expecting her to see me. It's okay. That's not why I'm here.
"Mama!" Both parents look up, and they both immediately bend over the bed to hug Melody. Her mother is also crying now. Someone should probably pull the string next to the bed, but they don't. Well, I suppose they need a moment. I don't give it to them, but it's okay. They have no idea I'm watching, anyway.
"I had a strange dream," Melody says and looks straight at me. Or through me. I know it's the last one, but for a split second I tell myself it's the first. "I made a new friend. His name was Grim, and he was old, and he carried a thing over his shoulder. Like a really old thing you use when you harvest the field? I don't really know what it means, but that's what he told me." Both parents look terrified, but Melody continues. "He was really sweet, but also a little sad. He didn't have any friends."
"It was just a dream, sweetheart," her mother says and lets go of her. "James, would you please pull the string?"
Melody's father finally pulls the string next to the bed, but it takes a moment before the nurse arrives. I've gotten so used to not looking at the family that when I watch Melody's parents for a moment, I'm surprised to see feelings that I don't recall seeing before. I'm not really sure how to interpret them. Happiness? But they're still crying, so that can't be it, right?
A nurse finally enters the room, and surprise (that one I do know) is written all over her face. Apparently, no one had expected Melody to live. Well, I'm used to trashing people's expectations, so...
"Well, look at that," the female nurse says with what I think is a genuine smile. "Looks like someone's watching over this little one."
Yeah. Someone is. But not the one she thinks.
"Can I play with Legos now?" Melody tries to crawl off the bed, but then the drip in her hand stops her. "I didn't have that before." She looks at her hand with a frown and then up at her mother.
"Yes, sweetheart, you've had that in your hand for a few days now."
"Let me just check her vitals, okay?" The nurse looks at both parents, and Melody's mother nods. I watch how the nurse struggles to make the girl sit still while checking her vitals. I could've done that for her. I already know what they are. I know anyone in the room's vitals, and stats, and...level of innocence.
When the nurse is done, another new emotion flickers across her face. Is she impressed?
"Well, everything seems perfectly fine. Like a miraculous recovery." Both parents sigh, and I know that one. It's relief. I've seen it on a client every now and then.
"So, can I go play with Legos?" Melody's light voice asks again, and all three adults look at her for a moment. It's the nurse who breaks the silence.
"I don't see why not."
Melody smiles and wants to crawl off the bed again, and the nurse pulls the IV out of her hand, before her father helps her down on the floor. She's perfectly capable of climbing herself, but they haven't seen that, of course. When she's back on the floor, she runs to the box of Legos and takes out one brick after the other, as if she's searching for something. When she finds it, her face lights up in a smile. "Look!" She holds up my so-called house for her parents to see. "It wasn't a dream. Grim was here. This is his house!" For a split second I waver. Can she still see me? She shouldn't be able to see my Lego house. It's not supposed to be there.
"That man..." Her mother looks at her, the fear slowly returning to her face. "He was actually here? James, did you see anyone?"
Melody's father shakes his head. I'm not really sure how awake he is. His vitals are fine. He's relaxed. Melody's mother is not. "Honey, did you see where that man went?" She's not happy.
"No. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, he was gone." She looks incredibly sad. That I can tell. "You think I'll ever see him again?"
Yeah, sweetheart, you will see me again. I can't tell her that, of course, but I'm also not sure I'd want to. But we will meet again someday. Hopefully, she will have led a long and fulfilling life, and it will be peaceful. And maybe, just maybe, she will remember me. And then she'll know.
I leave Melody and her parents to themselves and slide down the corridor. I can still hear the music playing from far away, and I do a little dance. Man, it feels good. I haven't done that for years. Well, I'm not sure I've ever done it, to be honest. An old lady in a wheelchair gasps when she sees me, but I tip my hat... I mean, I tip my hood... to her and blow her a kiss. It's not her time yet, even though for a moment it is close. But I'm not in the mood. Maybe I'll go pick a flower and stick it in my hair instead. Let down the hood. I deserve a little time off. I mean, I've worked full-time - and in my case full-time means FULL-time - as long as I can remember. It's time for a break.
"And I owe it all to youuuu..." I hear myself sing along to the last line of the song from the radio. It's long over, but I know it by heart. It's the only melody I have ever known. Until now, that is.
A/N: Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Thanks. :)