A different and creepy take on the Grim Reaper, this story first appeared in Azure Keep Quarterly (3/2013). Part of Life After: Stories of Life, Death, and the Places in Between
When Mister Grim came calling he always presented his card: a crisp white rectangle with just the two words, “Mister Grim,” in bold black letters. He kept them in a slim sliver case with a monogrammed “G” on the lid. He was frightening: tall and gaunt; white hair and clothes; pale, almost translucent skin; and long bony fingers.
The first time I met Mister Grim was after I had a heart attack, he was standing over me in my hospital bed. “Who are you!?” I asked, shocked by his presence and his visage.
“I am Mister Grim,” he answered with a rictus grin, handing me his card, “I will be your guide, when the time comes, for the journey.” He talked slowly, spacing each word out, with a dry crackling rasp of a voice.
“I was just next door taking care of another pilgrim and thought I would pop by. It wasn’t clear if you would be traveling today. I thought we could get to know each other.” His manner was oddly formal and incongruent with his appearance.
We talked for a time. It was very uncomfortable for me, but Mister Grim seemed oblivious to my reaction to him. He was interested in my past, my childhood particularly. He wanted to know if I had ever seen ghosts, or fairies, or other “spiritual” beings. I answered his queries using as few words as I could, like a child trying to get away from the interrogation of a parent.
He eventually left, or I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew I awoke with a tube down my throat surrounded by my family. I dismissed it as a dream until I came across that card underneath me in the bed. When I touched it, a shiver ran down my spine, and I thought I could hear that rasping voice echoing down the hallway.
After I got home from the hospital I had a dream, well more of a memory, about my father — he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 37, two years younger than I was at the time. My mother and I stayed by his bedside in the hospital for days on end. One night when she was out, he woke up briefly, with eyes wide, and grunted something unintelligible — in my dream it sounded like “gggrrrriiiimmmmm.” That was the last sound he uttered, he died less than an hour later.
I woke up in a cold sweat, crying and incoherent; my wife thought I was having another heart attack. After that I was driven, haunted even, by my Dad’s last word and the image of Mister Grim standing over me. I taped Mister Grim’s card to my treadmill and got busy getting healthy: I gave up smoking, lost 40 pounds, starting eating better, and paid more attention to my wife and kids. I even told my wife the whole story. At first she thought I was crazy, but when she saw the changes I was making she became my most enthusiastic supporter.
The second time I met Mister Grim, I was on an expedition climbing Mount Rainier. My new fitness level and zest for life had transformed me into an adventurer. He appeared inside my tent at base camp, his skeletal form haloed in the dawn light. In that now familiar rasping voice he said, “Are you ready for that trip yet? It is best to plan in advance when embarking on an extended journey.”
“No!” I shouted. I struggled to get out of my sleeping bag, but couldn’t — I only managed to extract one arm. The zipper was stuck and I was locked in there like a mummy while Mister Grim hovered over me.
“Everyone makes the journey sooner or later,” he said, his bony hand slowly reaching towards me as he placed his card in my one free hand.
I woke up screaming with that damned card clutched in my hand. I told everyone in the expedition that I had a gallstone getting ready to pass and got off that mountain as quickly as I could. Later that day an avalanche buried half the expedition, killing two — if not for Mister Grim visiting me, it might have been three.
When I got home, I put that second card on the refrigerator and redoubled my efforts: I got even more fit, ate better, took up meditation, worked harder on my marriage, and started researching and investing anti-aging technologies. I also focused on accumulating wealth, reasoning that the more money I had, the better my chances were of survival. I didn’t know where Mister Grim wanted to take me, but I knew I didn’t want to go.
The third time we met, I was 87 years old and in a clinic waiting to get my first life extension treatment. One of the companies I had invested in had finally figured out how to extend the human life span, and not a moment too soon for me. I was torn about going through with it; my wife hadn’t made it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on without her. However, my resolve hardened as soon as I saw him standing there.
“I am beginning to get the feeling you don’t like me,” Mister Grim said handing me his card, his voice sounding like the rustling of autumn leaves.
I screamed, and it was not a dignified scream — I screamed like a little girl. Seeing him, yet again, caused an instant panic attack; not at all good for a man of my advanced age. Mister Grim, though, seemed completely unfazed by my outburst. “Please don’t be offended,” I said, when I had recovered from my initial fright. Wanting to placate him I added, “Actually, I owe you my gratitude.”
“You don’t say?” He said, raising one thin white eyebrow on his emaciated face.
“Without your visits I would have been dead long ago, you are an effective…,” I said struggling to find the right word, “ahh… motivator.”
“My pleasure, I have enjoyed our little chats, as not many can see me before their time comes.”
“Can I ask you something?” I asked, finally working up my nerve after all these visits.
“Please.” He seemed delighted at the opportunity; his face forming a stiff grimace that I think was meant to be a smile.
“Where is it that you want to take me?”
“Why, on your journey to the other side of course.”
“But what, exactly, is on the ‘other side’?” After all my running from him, I had to know.
“So sorry, but I don’t know.” He frowned, an expression that fit more naturally on his face, unlike his previous attempt at a smile.
“You don’t know? How can you not know?”
“I am but a ferryman, if you will, guiding souls across the river Styx. I don’t go with them, I just make sure they get to the other side, it is up to them from there.”
“But… Is there heaven? Hell? Reincarnation? Oblivion?” I asked, my voice breaking in desperation. “You must know. You must!”
“I am afraid I don’t, I only catch a glimpse of them as they move on. I can tell you this though: everyone seems to have a different experience once they get to where they are going.”
I survived the extension treatment, barely, and thankfully. His words were no comfort at all. That third card I pasted to the bathroom mirror. To palliate my worry, I started researching and investing in companies working on extending human consciousness beyond the body.
The last time we met was one evening about 90 years later in my study.
“Are you ready to take the journey yet?” he asked, handing me his card. “You have run the course with your medical interventions.”
His appearance was not a great shock this time, I had been expecting him. “No,” I answered as I stood up, “I won’t be going!”
“Oh?” His tone was surprisingly even; my defiance did nothing to ruffle his grim composure.
“Technology now exists to transfer my neural pattern into an artificial life form; I am going in for the transfer in the morning.”
“You assume that your soul and your mind are the same thing. They are not, one is eternal, the other finite.”
His words stopped me short, “But if a soul can attach to a biological body, why can’t it attach to a technological one?”
“Perhaps it can, I don’t know, but whatever kind of body you have, it is not eternal. The journey must be taken.”
“No. The artificial body will have a much longer life span, and by the time that is ending, I will be able to switch to another body.”
“You fear the unknown, believe me, I understand. But your fear will not stop the inevitable. Alas, the point is moot,” he gestured to the chair I had just been sitting in.
I looked down at my body, limp and lifeless, “No!” I cried. All this time, all this effort, and still I had not escaped. I fell to my knees weeping and in desperation I asked, “Some way, there must be some way out of this. Please!”
“There is one way, put the price is extreme.”
There was a way? I was shocked, intrigued and repelled all at once. “What… What is it?”
Mister Grim proceeded to tell me the tale of how he became Mister Grim. He had been a British infantryman in the American Revolutionary War, and crossed paths with the previous Mister Grim many times on the battlefield. Like me, he could see his Mister Grim before it was his time, and attributed his long survival to those sightings. He had hoped to escape the war with his life, but was injured in the Siege of Yorktown, and died several days after Cornwallis’ surrender. In the end he was made the same offer Mister Grim made me.
“I tire of being the ferryman and long to continue on my journey, I am ready for what is next. You can take my place by taking this.” He extended his silver case to me and in my desperation I grabbed it. The case felt cold and heavy in my hand, oddly substantial.
Mister Grim smiled and said, “At last…” He let out a long exhale that reminded me of a spring wind, as the color returned to his skin, hair and clothes, and his face and form filled out. When the transformation was complete he looked like a young man dressed in a British military uniform. “Thank you. Your first task will be to guide me to the other side.”
At the same time he was being restored, I felt myself transform into the albino, emaciated form of Mister Grim. Without thinking I handed him a card from the silver case and said, “I am Mister Grim, I will be your guide,” my voice a hollow rattle. I took his hand and escorted him to the other side. I have been doing the same for souls just like you ever since.
It was so kind of you to inquire about me, but now that you know who I am, we must be about our business. Here is my card. I am Mister Grim, and I will be your guide.