The voice materialised from nowhere, distinctly female and practically dripping with an Latin-American accent that set Linden's skin on edge. Its owner sounded more frustrated than upset by the carnage she stood amongst as she went on, talking seemingly to herself with rising angst. "How many years have you done this, Merry, how many years?" she grumbled with noticeable exasperation. "You'd think you'd be better than this by now, but no."
She paused, then added, "Idiot. Idiot."
Besides the crackle of the blaze, it had been unnaturally quiet until this woman spoke up, and her voice penetrated the serenity of the afternoon like the clarion of a trumpet. It was a crude, unwelcome intrusion to what had been shaping up to be a tranquil end to Linden Ferris’ life, and had he been able to, he would have promptly sat up and given the owner a piece of his mind. He didn’t need some obnoxious fool tormenting him as he watched the clouds trace their way across the turquoise swathe of sky above where he waited to die. It was a beautiful sight. He'd been set up for a picturesque ending, and he'd made his peace with that fact - what gave her the right to take that from him?
Footsteps, drawing closer.
A plump, elderly face appeared above his own, staring down at him with a look of blatant irritation visible behind a pair of unwieldy spectacles. They perched precariously on the tip of her nose as if to mock him, as if they were leaning in close to laugh at how they’d cut off his view. The woman herself had clearly waved goodbye to her best years long ago; her face was lined with an innumerable amount of wrinkles and lines, none of which implied a lifetime of laughter. A thin, ropey scar stretched from the corner of her mouth all the way down to her chin, and as he watched it went white, contorting into a razor-sharp bolt of lightning as she frowned.
What the hell do you think you’re doing, you old bat? Linden mentally sighed. Congratulations, you’re the exception to the bystander effect. I’m still going to be dead in a minute and there’s fuck all you can do about it.
“Come on. Get up.” She looked down at him impatiently, as if the fact his body currently resembled broken china was of personal inconvenience to her. She spoke flawless English, although her accent was very pronounced.
And how do you propose I do that, exactly? I’m dying, you stupid cow.
Mentally gritting what was left of his teeth to hold back a scream he wasn't capable of screaming, Linden tried to will his body off the ground so he could physically push her out of the way. What did she even think she could do for him? A blind man could see he was too broken to move from his asphalt deathbed. Was she really going to steal the peace of his final moments from him? If he could move, even just a fraction, he could force the issue, and...
Apparently it was too much to ask though, because his body didn’t so much as twitch in response. His newfound anger clearly wasn’t enough motivation for his spinal cord to spontaneously start doing its job again. Christ, if the last thing he ever saw was the cleaning lady from Family Guy, he was going to have to put in a harsh word with the big man himself once he was introduced. This was unacceptable.
The lines on her face tightened as he brooded beneath her, as if she had somehow overheard his internal outrage. Her scar practically vanished. She placed her hands on her hips and to his disbelief then began to berate him, literally scolding him for not dragging his mutilated body to its feet.
“For the love of God, get up,” she exclaimed, exasperated. “There are the ones who die with dignity, and then there’s the drama queens. Guess which category you fall into, Princess? Sweet Jesus, you would have made Freddie himself proud. Who wants to live forever indeed, hmm?”
Shaking her head and muttering to herself all the while, she reached down and roughly hauled Linden to his feet.
“There we go,” she sighed. “Death on two legs. Good as new.”
Linden begged to differ. Good as new? He couldn't even talk, let alone stand upright. The incredulous soon-to-be corpse tottered unsteadily as he was assaulted with vertigo, swaying from side to side with the grace of a drunk camel. What the hell was this woman thinking? Even if you didn't realise it was too late to help, you still didn't try to move someone with obvious spinal problems, because you could very easily make it so much worse. You left that to the paramedics. That was just common sense, wasn't it?
But the inevitable fall never came...
...and unless he was very much mistaken, his pain had suddenly vanished, too.
Something wasn't adding up. Curious, he glanced down to take inventory of himself...which was the wrong thing to do. A moment later, he was shrieking uncontrollably.
Linden was seeing his surroundings for the first time since he’d been thrown through the front windscreen of his Toyota Camry, but that was all as he had expected it to be; behind him, the flaming wreck of his car was still merrily blazing away without inhibition, the flattened skeleton squished like a bug beneath the boot that was the Woolworth’s delivery truck that had rear-ended him while he waited for the lights to change. The inferno was licking the tires of the larger vehicle, and Linden noted through the rising smoke and the ruins of the windscreen that there was a motionless body hunched behind the truck’s wheel. Clearly, the truckie had fared even worse than he himself had.
Gruesome, horrific stuff, but that wasn’t what had shocked him.
At his feet, beside himself and his confounding companion, was…well, himself.
Spread eagled across the scorching asphalt of the road (for it was a blistering October day in the middle of Spring, and the roads were little more than glorified grill tops on such days when the temperature climbed above thirty five) was something that simply couldn’t be his body. It couldn’t be his body...but sure enough, there before him were the remnants of Linden Ferris, post-apocalyptic-car-crash. Before he realised it was happening, Linden broke out into a cold sweat and his legs abruptly turned to jelly. He hadn’t had time to be afraid when the truck appeared in his rear-vision mirror, but right now, the horror of the day crashed down him just like the truck had upon his car. He was dead. That was his body he was looking at, and he was dead.
He forced himself to tear his gaze away from the double of his own and met the eyes of his companion. It couldn’t be a coincidence that she had appeared at precisely the right (wrong?) moment. “Who are you?” he asked weakly, fearfully. He was vaguely aware that his cheeks were wet with tears. “Am I dead? God damn you, am I dead?”
A bright flare of scarlet rose to this strange lady’s pale cheeks, and Linden realised that he had a clear view of her body for the first time. She was dressed in a long, shapeless black dress that clung to her body so loosely that the billowing wind reduced her physicality to that of shimmering water. It eddied and swirled in the clutches of the gusts, hiding any hint of shape beneath it. Her hair was tied into an orderly bun upon her head, and she held a blue clipboard in her hands. Linden noticed with a frantic, irrational interest that she was clenching it so tightly that her knuckles were turning a virgin shade of white.
“You’d do best to mind your manners with me, Princess,” she growled. Her accent became noticeably thicker as her irritation deepened. “Many a child has growled at me in the past, and every last one of them has regretted it later. You’re lucky you’re in the situation you’re in, or I’d sentence you to damnation for all eternity regardless of what Fate tells me to do!”
A moment later, she added in a much gentler tone, “My name is Meredith Grim, and yes, you’re dead. For now.”
Even though he had long looked away, he could still the tattered remains of his own face before him - the image had been etched into his retinas with the clarity of fire. Oh he was dead, alright. She was right about that much.
You have a twisted idea of ‘luck’ though, lady.
“Grim?” he asked uncertainly. “As in – ”
“Yes yes yes,” she said impatiently. She waved the clipboard in front his face, and as she did so it caught the reflection of the fire behind them. It shimmered like a kaleidoscope. “Grim as in the Grim Reaper. The Harvester of Souls, the Angel of Death, Sheppard of the Damned, the Doorkeeper, whatever. My fame proceeds me. Marvellous.”
She rapped him on the head with her clipboard. It didn’t hurt, but it was enough to startled him and make him flinch. “You’re in two places at one, and all you’re interested in is little old me? Christ, Princess.”
To be fair, the fact that the Grim Reaper was actually the maid from Family Guy was pretty interesting. “Stop calling me that,” he sighed, though, stepping back from her and letting the matter drop. He pressed his fingertips into his temples. Really, it was all too much. He was dead?
He jabbed a finger in the general direction of his feet, being careful not to actually look down. Once was enough. “Explain that to me, then” he said. “If that’s me…than what am I?”
Her frustration seemed to temporarily abate, and for a second he thought he saw a pang of guilt flash across her face. Before he could confirm that, though, it vanished. “You’re your soul,” she said simply. “Your essence, your spirit, whatever it is that you people refer to it. It has as many silly names as I do. You’re dead, Princess, and your spirit is ready to move on to wherever it goes afterwards. Hence the two places at once.”
He ignored the continued use of his new title. “And you’re here to…?”
The guilt was back, and this time it stayed firmly put. He hadn’t imagined it – her entire face blushed red, and she actually bit her bottom lip. “Well now,” she began, suddenly uncomfortable. “I’m here on business, although there may or may not have been a little bit of…ahem, confusion on my behalf.”
At that, she turned the clipboard around and held it up to his face. To his amazement, he saw it was covered in millions – literally millions – of what appeared to be names, neatly arranged into seven or eight orderly columns. It was only a small piece of paper, and the font was so miniscule and indecipherable that he instantly found himself wondering how she could read it at all. They were written in a flowery, delicate font and were mostly done in black ink, although there were a handful done in red. These were far less common and stood out in stark contrast to the rest. The entire page seemed to shimmer and flicker, as if viewed from underwater.
“This,” she went on, hugging the board against her chest. “Is my to-do list, if you follow me, right up until the Horsemen come knocking. The black ones are the ones I help Move Along to the next world; the red ones are people I help back into their bodies so they can carry on their merry way. Those are near-death experiences – real near-death experiences, mind you, not the oh-that-inbred-almost-hit-me-while-I-tried-to-save-my-pet-badger type. The ones bad enough to fling the soul from the body, but before it's actually meant to happen. Get it?”
Sure. Why not?
He nodded, figuring it was probably in his best interests to hold his tongue. She clearly wasn’t in the mood for interruptions, and he was already realising that he was well and truly out of his depth anyway.
“So if Fate says you're meant to stay in your body, and circumstances conspire to take you out of your body, I put you back in,” she elaborated. “And if Fate says you Move Along, you Move Along. Lots of red tape when it comes to Fate, you see. Everyone has a time and place when their number is called. You don’t get a smoke break in the green room till that number comes up.”
Cue polite nod.
“And that’s exactly where the issue lies, Princess!” she went on. She was turning her clipboard over endlessly in her hands now, as if the perpetual rotation would absolve her of whatever guilt she was feeling. “I may – or may not, mind you – have just mistaken a red name for a black name. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, being many millions of years old, you understand, so – ”
Was he really having a conversation with the Grim Reaper about the dos and donts of undeath?
“Wait,” Linden interrupted, holding his hands up in front of him to physically motion for her to pause. He was doing his best to follow along, he really was, but it just wasn’t happening. He wasn’t sure whether to attribute it to the shock of the accident or her explanation being terrible. “You killed someone you weren’t supposed to?”
He saw it coming, but was too slow to dance out of the way. Meredith rapped him over the head with the clipboard again, eliciting an indignant squawk of protest in response. “You’re not the brightest one, are you Princess?” she exclaimed. “Come on, we don’t have time for this. If they notice that there’s a discrepancy in the Wheel, they’ll have my head!”
“Is that a yes, then?” he asked sharply, rubbing his head where she’d hit him. That one had hurt.
“I don’t kill people, they’re already dead when I get to them,” was the exasperated answer. “I just guide their soul the right way, only this time, I may have guided the wrong soul the wrong way.”
“And that’s my problem how?”
She stared at him, unable to comprehend how any one person could have the stupidity of ten. “How’s it your problem, Princess?” she sighed. “I’ll tell you how it’s your problem. Let’s see if you’re any good with puzzles. Person A on my list is meant to be returned to their body, only they’re unfortunately Moved Along due to an incredibly regrettable and unforeseeable mistake by a sweet, elderly lady. Person B is meant to die and leave their body for the Beyond - what’s the logical thing to do if one person has to stay and one person has to go?”
You’re asking me?
“Precisely!” she crowed sarcastically when it became clear he didn’t have the slightest idea. “Precisely! Truly a bright one you are, Princess!”
“Will you stop calling me that?”
“The answer,” she went on as if she’d never heard him. “Is to shove Person B into Person A’s body. That way, Fate is perfectly happy. Hopefully. In theory.”
She shook her head. “Person A gets up and goes on as if nothing happened. Person B doesn’t. The body that's meant to be moving is moving, the body that isn't...isn't. All is well and the Wheel keeps turning. Both of your bodies are doing the right thing, even if the wrong person is in them.”
“And your boss is perfectly fine with that?” he asked. He was perfectly aware that he must look like a deer in headlights, but he was beginning to think that it probably didn’t matter. He was beginning to realise that he must still be somewhat alive – alive enough to hallucinate this bizarre conversation in his final moments, at least. This wasn’t real, it couldn’t be. There was no way the Grim Reaper was real, for one, and even if he/she was...well, there was no chance that he/she was a character as ridiculous as this. "And what if I say no?”
She shrugged. “I can’t say this has happened before, in all my years of Reaping,” she answered. She didn’t appear worried in the slightest by the fact she’d apparently screwed up royally. “I have no idea what Fate is going to say about it, but I don't exactly have much choice. This is all I can think of. Better to half-fuck the Wheel than smash it to bits, don’t you think?”
She paused, and laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “And on you saying no,” she continued gently. “I don’t think you get a say in it.”
Her hand felt awfully real...but no. No. There was no Meredith Grim, there was no Moving Along, there was no afterlife. None of this made sense; None of this was possible. He must be hallucinating, he had to be. He was actually still lying on his back in the middle of the road, moments from death, and his mind was going out in a blaze of glory, trying to rationalise its coming demise the only way it could. Any second now, his brain would officially shut down and the worms would be free eat him.
It was plausible, at the very least.
A small smile crossed Meredith’s face.
“Oh, I’m real alright,” she assured him softly. She cocked her head to the side. “It won’t be so bad, you know. You’ll be well cared for, although I’m sure you’ll hate it at first. You’ll learn to accept it.”
“Alright,” he agreed, wanting the hallucination to be over with so he could be on his way to serving the worms. They say the human brain is the most complex thing known to man, he mused to himself thoughtfully. But if this proves anything, it’s that the human brain is really a window-licking moron.
He was totally convinced this wasn’t real, by this point.
If she had been wanting a more in depth answer, she didn’t show it. She just shrugged. “Suit yourself,” was the retort. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I get all of one day a year off, and that would be tomorrow. I want to enjoy my twenty-four hours away from mouth breathers such as yourself, Princess, and unfortunately I have a few more of them to Move Along before I can do that.” She gestured towards the truck, still burning cheerfully behind them. “Truckie over there has a date with ol’ Lucifer himself, bless his black heart...and by that, I mean he’ll be explaining the contents of his external hard drive while staked over a pit of hot coals, you see.”
Before he could do anything but give a polite, bewildered nod, Meredith had taken his hand in her own. Her skin was horrifically cold and crinkled beneath his touch like cellophane – he shuddered and instantly tried to squirm away from that terrible sensation, but she held him tight. “Close your eyes, Princess,” she said. “It’ll be over before you know it.” She paused, and then added thoughtfully, “I might even see you again, you know. Angel Bay might be a nice place to spend Halloween.”
She shook her head. “Never mind that now, though. Come on, close your eyes.”
He hesitated for a moment...then shrugged. What can it hurt? He sighed to himself. She’s not real. What does it matter if you close your eyes? Maybe this is your brain’s way of breaking it to you gently that it’s time to go to sleep...permanently.
His skin was still crawling from the texture of Meredith’s hand, but he forced himself to ignore it. He gave her one last bemused stare...and slowly closed his eyes.
“See you next time, Princess,” he heard her say in what could only be amusement...and then his world melted away like snow on a Summer’s day.
Continued in Part 2: Afterlife