(Content Warning: death, mentions of death, strong language, and dark humor)
It went against every fiber of his being (if you could call him a being that is), but GR really liked malls. He liked how wastefully bright the lights were, illuminating even the corners that no one could possibly get to. He liked the edge in people’s voices as they shopped for their holiday gifts, barely holding back the scorn as they addressed their families. He liked the loud, unnecessarily noises from random, inanimate, children’s toys that blared inane instructions at a moment's notice - one particular toy startling a passerby so thoroughly, they dropped their cup of tea.
GR chuckled to himself as he watched the chaos unfold. A very, merry holiday season indeed.
Just as GR was relishing human beings' multi-dimensional insanity, a woman wearing a Santa hat passed by on his right, a soft pretzel clutched in her hand. The smell wafted towards the slits in GR’s angular face, and he paused. He really liked the smell of soft pretzels, too. He was so distracted by the sight of something so buttery and delicious, he almost didn’t notice that the woman almost grazed against him, and GR leaned back out of an abundance of caution. He had gotten written up the last time he had triggered an accidental heart attack. He didn’t know why Management was so worked up about it - the person had survived after all.
GR’s thoughts were put on pause as a particularly loud, shrill sound filled the stale mall air. A young boy’s body hit the floor so loudly GR could hear it from the second floor ledge he was perched on. The boy's arms flailed every which way as he wailed about some toy he couldn’t acquire.
Yes, GR really liked malls. But he really, truly, HATED children. Nasty, loud, unmindful children. He held his scythe tightly as he looked at this particularly appalling young boy who was midway through a meltdown. How on Earth could such a small humanly creature make such loud, repulsive noises? Just one little snap of his finger, and bam! Such an annoying soul would be gone from this world. GR’s long, bony fingers twitched with temptation. Oh, but he mustn’t. GR got in trouble with Management the last time he Took a soul before their time. Apparently there was a delicate balance the Earth must maintain, or whatever. Mother Earth was a bit too particular at times if you asked him, but she did have seniority, so GR had to oblige.
GR tried to refocus on the task at hand. The holidays were, in fact, the Grim Reaper’s busiest time.
And he would get written up if he didn’t meet his quota this year. Quota, he scoffed. As if what GR did wasn’t an art that couldn’t be rushed. Dreadful business, really.
He tightened his fingers around his scythe again as he peered through the crowded halls, and he caught sight of a nearby martial arts supply shop’s window display. Oh, it was a lovely sight to behold - the window featured an array of intriguing human objects including some peculiar wooden hitting objects and a naked torso of a man whose tag simply proclaimed BOB. GR craned his skull to get a better look.
What were those shiny, sharp things? Were those swords?
With GR’s interest now peaked, he longingly looked at the glistening objects and was strongly reminded of his companion, Father Time. You see, Father Time had a propensity to steal GR’s scythe when he needed it, a habit that GR wasn’t too fond of. GR started to concoct a plan. If he was able to get the Father Time something better than the scythe, maybe the old man would keep his sandy hands to himself. GR had appearances to keep up after all, and he couldn’t have Father Time ruining it with his whims. Yes, yes, GR thought, one sharp, spirit-grey, blade should do the trick. If GR hurried, he might have time to pop into the shops for a quick gift before the next Passing.
Before this new plan could fully form, he saw a flash of badly cut brown hair in the distance as a gentleman ducked under a string of holiday lights and hurried toward the shops at the north side of the mall. GR congratulated himself for such excellent detective work as he finally identified the Client.
GR gathered his smoky cloak around him and glided quickly after the man, glaring at random children as he moved. GR glanced down at the provided docket.
Herbert Clemens, 64, approximately 6’4” in height.
Time of Death: 14 minutes 32 seconds from now.
The docket flashed. The time of death updated: 12 minutes and 52 seconds from now. Management even added a personalized note, “Get a move on it, Mr. Reaper.” Even the tiny scrawl gave off an air of stern impatience.
Fine, fine, GR thought, as he attempted to glide a little faster trying to avoid accidentally murdering passing humans the best he could as he navigated the crowded mall. He was a bit behind schedule, but Management tended to be okay with GR’s natural meandering tendencies if he completed the Passing by the stated deadline. There was only a short moment of time for the soul to cross, and the last time GR was late, the soul wandered aimlessly in the Inbetween for a half century, annoying the stuffing out of GR as he crossed between realms. The soul was constantly reminiscing about their family, the smell after it rained, and the taste of butterscotch candies. GR was convinced the soul had run out of things to mourn about as no one liked the taste of butterscotch candies that much.
With the looming deadline, GR felt his irritation peak as he rounded another corner. He was a spectral entity, Deathdamn it. He shouldn’t have to go the long way round just because the necessary technology to pass through walls was too expensive and required too much maintenance according to Management. It didn’t help that Father Time was cleared for the Transcendence™ technology, and passed through every surface he could, gleefully mocking GR all the while.
Herbert paused at a stand selling festive sunglasses, and GR rasped out a sigh of relief. He would be able to make it to the Client in time, after all. It was barely passed 4 and as dark as Death’s cloak outside, but Herbert's inane choices were GR’s gain. But just as GR swiftly moved forward with 6 minutes to spare, an ornate wooden train set caught his eye in a nearby shop’s window.
Oh, it was a magnificent set, sweeping elegantly through a field of faux trees and mountains. It reminded him of his last visit to the Alps, one of his crown accomplishments to date. That was the time he knocked out 42 Clients in one go, and he was able to take a break from the hustle as his monthly quota was met. There was a queue to complete the Passing, and Management had actually congratulated him on such a feat. GR had celebrated by having the most lovely, delicate chocolate croissant afterward and if he focused hard enough he could taste the bittersweetness on his tongue. Well, metaphorical tongue that is. He had traded one of his handy hour-glasses with the Five Senses in exchange for Taste and Smell, and he never regretted that decision despite occasionally being a bit behind on things.
GR looked back at the whistling train set and he longed to add it to his personal museum of human objects, But just at that moment, the docket burned redhot and GR reckoned with the fact that his deadline was fast approaching.
Herbert was still mindlessly pursuing the sunglasses, and he had exactly 1 minute and 52 minutes to successfully complete today’s Passing, but GR was nothing if not a quick thinker. He assessed the landscape before him and reared his scythe back, calculating the distance it would need to travel. He swiftly hurled the scythe through the air and the scythe spun dramatically. Taking several sweeping turns on its way to the Client, it swerved to avoid the clutter of mortals in the midst. The scythe hit Herbert gently on his left shoulder, and loyally returned back to GR’s outstretched hand. GR felt pleased as he internally awarded himself some style points. His work here was done, he thought, as the man crumpled to the ground.
The north end of the mall erupted in screams and panic ensued, but GR had already moved on.
The soul of Herbert stirred and an eerie light filled the already brightly lit mall. It was showtime. He swiveled the scythe around in his bony grip, feeling pleased he finished the task in the knick of time.
“Out of the jaws of Death, aye?” Soul Herbert said as he emerged from his lifeless body, and observed the scene before him with a keen eye. “Just in time to miss the holidays. I’ve always hated them.”
“I don’t quite have jaws, More of a hinge,” GR countered, stretching his angular face to demonstrate. “And there was nothing ‘near’ about this death experience.”
Soul Herbert glanced again at his prone body. A nearby woman was losing it, clutching her face as she shrilly screamed. There was a growing crowd surrounding Herbert’s body, but GR couldn’t be fussed. He wasn’t responsible for the cleanup. The pair stepped to the side to shelter themselves from the growing chaos.
“I suppose you’re right,” Soul Herbert said. He scratched his head idly and looked around until he spotted the eerily light where the Passage was starting to grow. “What happens now?”
“Well,” GR huffed. He thought it seemed quite obvious. But it was his job to guide new souls for the Passing. “Just pop right on over there,” he said, poking Soul Herbert forward with the dull end of his scythe.
Soul Herbert moved closer to the Passage, examining it curiously.
“You know, I was starting to feel like my time was coming.”
GR nodded encouragingly, but stayed silent. It seemed rude to refute the soul, but humans had an odd habit of claiming they could feel Death coming. GR thought he was pretty stealthy, so the idea of that brought him great offense.
Soul Herbert turned to say something, no doubt, in an attempt to be profound. But the Passage ensnared him - pulling him into its orbit. Soul Herbert looked startled. GR waved. The Passage flashed and blinked closed. Soul Herbert had successfully Passed, and GR congratulated himself on another job well done.
GR clasped his long fingers together and watched the lighting return to normal, feeling pleased with himself. He had plenty of time to do a bit of shopping before the next Passing.
GR turned and headed back toward the martial art supply shop at the south end of the mall. He remembered seeing a beautiful sword with a curved metal blade. It had a good glint to it that would really bring out the silver of Father Time’s beard. He was feeling giddy about the idea of engaging in a little gift-giving, especially a gift that would keep Father Time’s wisened hands off GR’s precious scythe. GR knew Father Time would also be delighted at the fact that he was presented with a gift in this season, even if the holidays were a distinctly mortal endeavor. He tended to be fond of gestures like that.
Yes, this was a masterful plan. GR was full of them.
As GR approached his destination, he reckoned with the oddity of the martial arts shop. It was silent and still - a sharp contrast to the scene GR had just left. Apparently martial arts gear was not a popular holiday gift, although GR couldn’t fathom why. The robes looked so stylish, he thought as he admired them. Maybe he could swap out his cloak for a shorter one that would be great for the summertime. It looked like the shop had a black one in his size.
GR pulled himself away from the robes. The news of Herbert’s death had not traveled to this end of the mall which meant GR probably had 10 minutes to finish his shopping, give or take. Despite the Clerk being the only living soul in sight, she moved fretfully around the store, sighing at increasingly frenetic intervals. Her half eaten lunch was still sitting behind the counter. GR looked on interestedly. Was that a chicken salad sandwich?
He could hear the noises build in the hallway, creeping closer to the store. He was running out of time. But just then, GR caught a glint of the swords at the back end of the store. They sure did look alluring, GR mused, as he glided closer to the shelves.
GR looked over his options, occasionally pausing to stroke a sharp blade here and there. Aha! He spotted the perfect sword wedged toward the bottom of the shelf - its handle embellished with large grey jewels. It was just gaudy enough to appeal to Father Time, who was well known for liking shiny things, and especially things that matched the ridiculously large hourglass he always lugged around. The perfect gift, GR thought smugly.
GR leaned down to grab the sword, but in doing so, he accidentally knocked down the shelf of swords. The swords clanged loudly as they hit the ground, the noise echoing in the quiet store. For the love of Death, GR cursed. He often underestimated his size as the mortal world was often too delicate for his tall skeletal frame. GR tried again. This time he used his scythe’s blade to gently hook the sword’s handle. As GR carefully moved the scythe, finally his prize inched closer to GR’s crouched frame. What success, GR thought, as he glided back to the counter, the sword still swinging from the end of his scythe.
GR assessed the cash register and pondered his next move. This was the tricky part, you see. GR had the ability to present his corporeal form when he truly wanted to, but some humans had the pesky habit of being frightened to death when they laid eyes on his ghastly form. It put Management in a sour mood whenever this happened, and GR was forced to spend eons filling out accident reports.
GR looked at the Clerk who was currently cursing at a pile of fallen shirts. She looked fed up enough that she might not even blink an eye at GR’s, ahem, curious appearance. GR focused on shifting his energy until he could feel the indoor heating skitter across his skeleton. He caught a glimpse of himself in the nearby mirror. GR was looking as ghastly and defined as ever, if he didn’t say so himself. He paused admiring himself so he could slam his free hand against the Clerk’s bell. She was still looking forlornly at the pile of fallen shirts. He slammed his hand down on the bell again. And again.
Finally, the Clerk moved.
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” she bit out. She continued muttering under her breath. “The way he is ringing that bell, I tell you. You’d think it was a matter of life or death.”
As the Clerk finally reached the counter, she looked up at him for the first time and hesitated. GR could see a question forming on her lips. But the Clerk shook her head, ridding her mind of the question.
“It’s a bit late for Halloween,” said the Clerk, looking up at GR’s hooded figure.
“Tell that to the Ghouls,” GR retorted truthfully. “They like to celebrate Halloween year-round.”
The Clerk ignored him and looked at the sword dangling from his scythe’s blade, and sighed for the hundredth time. GR chuckled awkwardly and placed it gently on the counter so she could scan it.
“That would be $49.50,” The Clerk said, already looking bored with the interaction.
GR reached into his cloak and patted around inside of the smoky pockets. A growing panic filled GR as he realized he had left his pouch of mortal tokens back in his abyss. GR looked at the grumpy Clerk and realized she likely wouldn’t allow him to leave with the sword without the exchange of tokens. These strange flesh creatures tended to be a bit strict about things like this.
The Clerk looked at GR impatiently, but before GR could think of an excuse, the backroom’s door creaked open, and out walked a smiling older woman. As the older woman’s gaze landed upon GR’s eerie figure, the smile slipped off her face. She contorted suddenly, and before he could process what was happening her body limply dropped to the floor.
The Clerk screamed. GR really couldn’t understand why this was humans' primary way to demonstrate fright. There were quieter ways to convey their fear, GR was sure of it. GR glided over to immobile woman and poked her unmoving body with the bottom of his scythe. If it was another accidental heart attack, Management was definitely going to have his skull for this. He poked the older woman’s body again. Finally, she stirred. GR rasped out some relief. Management never requested paperwork for a mere fainting.
But at that very moment, the shop started to grow a little louder and a little less still. It seemed that the chaos from the north end of the mall had finally caught up with them. It was definitely time for GR to go. GR shifted his energy again, morphing his frame back into incognito mode.
He looked sadly down at the gilded sword. The holiday gift would have to wait for another time.
Just as GR turned to leave, his eyes rested on the woman’s half-eaten chicken salad sandwich, moving quickly to take it. It was a long journey to the other realm, but at least he could have a snack for the way.