That week started off different from most. For one, the mailman keeled over on our porch.
It all happened so suddenly, and without any of us knowing what to do. One moment, he was strolling up the walk with a handful of letters, the next there was a loud THUMP on our doorstep. My mother didn’t rush to answer at first, thinking it odd that we would receive such a large package today. She only approached and cautiously opened the door when it was made clear that the doorbell was not about to be rung.
She screamed when she saw him. A loud, high-pitched squeal that I associated with the antics of my younger brother, Jeffrey. Like the time he led a family of ants into the house with a trail of sugar and a pile of sand at the end.
But instead of ants on our doorstep, it was Tim, the mailman. Letters tossed around the path below him. I watched from the window as my mother stifled her sobs in an attempt to follow the directions of the 911 dispatch. She only managed to feel for a pulse and check for breath by the time the ambulance arrived, but there was no hope for Tim.
The second incident happened on my way to school a few days after. I was walking down the same old path, taking in the same old trees, when a bird fell out of the sky right in front of me. Straight down, no stopping or struggling. I leaned over it as my mother had leaned over Tim, but there was no hope for it. I dug a hole near the path and kicked it in, looking around behind me once the deed was done.
There was no one there. No one at all. Just me. I looked down at my hands. I looked up at the tree above me. I considered what I was thinking about just before the bird fell. Nothing.
But the mind of a the 13-year-old girl isn’t often satisfied with that. Something was happening and I was suspicious of my involvement. I had never seen a dead thing in my life before Saturday. Things were racking up.
The next day at school, my best friend Sally was in tears. Her grandmother had passed away. My mind trailed back and thought about how I had visited Sally after school the other day. I had to go home at 5 p.m. so that she could go visit her grandmother.
I thought about this further on my usual walk home, where my mind liked to wander. I was worried about the deaths. What if there were more and I did nothing? Now that my suspicion was raised, anything that happened now would be done with my knowing.
These dark thoughts brought to mind the time my cousin, Cheryl, showed me her Ouija board. I was too scared to do anything but watch as her and her friends asked questions about boys.
Cheryl also had a deck of tarot cards. They were the two closest things to the occult that I had ever encountered in my life. I knew, now, what to do. I had to ask Cheryl.
“So…you think you’re making things die…just by being around them…or around people who are around them,” Cheryl asked.
“Yes,” I said quite seriously. My legs were crossed and I sat across from Cheryl on her bed. Her legs were not crossed by dangling over her bed. She fiddled with the many bracelets on her wrist as she talked. The Ouija board was between us.
She stared at me for a few seconds after I answered. Perhaps trying to figure out if I was joking, or trying to trick her. But Cheryl knew me. Knew how I shied away from the Ouija. She would help.
“Well…what do you think we should ask it?”
“I think…we should ask…why death is following me.” I fumbled in reply.
She nodded and we both reached for the token.
“Okay. Now ask,” she instructed.
“WHY IS DEATH FOLLOWING ME AROUND?” I boomed, faltering near the end as I hoped my aunt wouldn’t hear.
It started to move. My eyes darted at Cheryl and hers pierced into me.
“M….Y….C….H….I….L….D,” we read in unison.
It took a long time to extract those letters. Cheryl looked shocked.
“What?? Why would you say that?” she gave me a cock-eyed stare. “Did you take someone’s child?”
“NO. Of course not!” I shouted.
“Whelp. That’s what the board says.”
Her response was so nonchalant that I doubted her true devotion to this project. Minutes later she was already picking up a magazine.
I walked home from Cheryl’s and contemplated the board. The answer it gave made no sense, and who knows who would die next. I hoped it spared Cheryl. She had tried to help, at least.
I was looking down and so focused on my thoughts that I didn’t see the person sitting on a log on the path ahead until I was quite close to them. They were wearing a thick black trench coat with the hood covering their face. It was startling. The coat looked faded and rough like they’d been sleeping in it, and their hands were in their pockets as they sat in a slump on the log.
“Oh. You can see me, can’t you?” They said as I approached.
“Uhhhhhhhhh…yes,” I replied hesitantly.
“I’m sorry for following you around like this. It’s just…you look very much like someone I knew.”
“Oh. Okay. …who’s that?” I asked.
“My daughter. She was 12 when I took this all on. Not old enough to have me leave her.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Why did you…what did you take on?”
“Oh, this whole grim business,” she sighed.
I could tell by now that she was a woman. Her black heeled shoes poked out of the trench as she shifted. Black stockings to match, with a dark, netted pattern on them. Her face remained hidden and her hands were delicately gloved. She didn’t belong here, in my pokey little town, she belonged in another time. From another place.
“What do you mean, ‘grim business’?”
“The grimmest of all grim,” she assured me.
“Wait…you’re the grim reaper? Is that why so many people have died?” my mind leaped towards the answer with satisfaction. She had been on my mind of late, to be sure.
“People die all the time, my dear. It’s not MY fault.”
She sighed. Shifted feet again. The movement of her body was soft and delicate, not fearful.
“I’m sorry about your daughter. You must miss her.”
“Thank you, I do. But she’s gone now…she must be. The world is much different from when I started. It takes a long time to get your bearings. I don’t think I even remembered that I’d had a daughter until recently.”
We paused in silence for a moment. Then I sat on the log next to her, not ready to leave just yet.
“You know. You’re not nearly as scary as I thought you’d be. It almost calming.”
“You know, I do get that a lot. People are often afraid of death, but they do seem to accept it when it comes. I’m just a shepherd, you know. Guiding them back to the flock. They are all lost out here without me.”
“That’s a lovely way of thinking about it. It makes me feel better about all that I’ve seen this week.”
She sighed next to me. Perhaps this wasn’t helping.
“Is there anything I can do? …to…help?”
“I don’t know. I just feel DONE with it all, you know? I think I need to move on.”
“So….how do you move on?”
“Well, I’ll need to find another grim to start. That’s how I got roped into this business to begin with… The last man really knew how to rope you into it when you’re on the brink of death. Perhaps I’m just too kind to them. It’s hard, you know?”
“I can imagine.”
“I don’t suppose you’d be interested?”
“Me? But I’m just a girl! I have my whole LIFE ahead of me.”
“Hm. That’s what they all say. Not everyone gets the WHOLE life, you know…or at least what you’d expect to be whole.”
“What exactly do you have to do? As the grim?”
“It’s sort of like you’re a nurse. Soothing your patients before giving them a big needle. You need to talk to people. You need to listen. Sometimes, they need to tell you their story. They won’t rest until they do.”
“That does sound sort of interesting…now that I’m accustomed to the dead.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
Silence again. Then she sighed, again.
“I suppose I should tell you the truth. It has to come eventually.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the truth, my dear, is that I came here for you. I’ve been putting it off and avoiding it…taking on other jobs that weren’t quite due yet…because you remind me of her. I don’t want to have to see her go, again. I don’t even remember it happening the first time.”
“M-me? I’m dying? But why! I’m only 13!”
“Dead, I’m afraid. Couldn’t hold off much longer. You’ve seen me, it’s happened. It’s done.”
“Brain aneurysm. Quite rare.”
“Huh. So nothing to be done, then.”
“…but I could take your job if I want?”
“Yes, I suppose you could. Though I don’t think I’ve sold you on that idea.”
“I don’t know. It does sound interesting. …and I’d get to hang around here for a while? See what happens?”
“I suppose. In a manner of speaking.”
“Then…I’ll do it. I’ll take the job. I can stay and you can see your daughter. We both get what we want.”
“Yes, I suppose that is true. Well! If you’re certain, I am most eager to get out of this dreadful black…”
She leaned over, then, to give me a kiss on my cheek, like an affectionate and proud mother. Her gloved hand reaching into my hair in a stroke of comfort. I must have seen her face at the moment of contact, but thinking back on it now, it seems I can’t quite remember just what she looked like.
Angela Caravan lives in Vancouver, BC, and writes poetry, fiction, and essays. She is the author of the micro-chapbook Landing (post ghost press) and was 2nd runner-up for Pulp Literature’s 2018 Magpie Poetry Award. Her work has also appeared in Longleaf Review, Reel Honey Mag, and Screen Queens. You can find her on Twitter at @a_caravan.