I woke to the sound of a wet cough and vomit odor beneath my nose. Rolling onto my back, damp cobblestones kneaded into my bare shoulder blades.
Somehow I’d been able to keep my lower body clothed through the night, even if it was a pair of bell bottom corduroys that went out of style thirty years ago. Liquid warmth trickled from my shoulder. And my chest. And my lower belly.
Pain swooped in with a falcon’s talons and I curled into myself, moaning in agony. Footsteps on the nearby street neither hurried to avoid me nor slowed to see if I needed help.
I tried lifting my head to get a sense of what damp alley I’d found myself in this time. The effort encouraged more blood to flee my body and graffiti the street.
“Hel-“ I hoarsed, then dropped my head back to the ground.
When my eyes blinked open for a second time, there was a black hole where the sun should have been shining. As my eyes focused, I realized a dark hooded figure stood over me, blocking the light.
“Who-“ I tried to ask.
“Let’s go.” His gravel throated demand left no room for questions, like how I could stand when I couldn’t even lift my head.
“I can’t,” I muttered. I tried lifting my body to prove him wrong, only to be startled at the weightlessness I felt while sitting up and away from the cold stone. My hands searched for blood and finding none I gently rolled onto all fours. My legs wobbled beneath me as I regained balance on my feet.
Taking in my surroundings, I recognized the sewage smell and drip-drip of brick walls spitting water into the the street. I had stumbled into this alley last night because even the thugs chasing me wouldn’t risk wandering into the End of the Tunnel, as the neighborhood referred to it.
A light shone at the dead end side of the street and the hooded figure beckoned me toward him.
“No, no!” I cried, “I’m not ready.”
“People usually aren’t,” he groused. “Come on. Time to go.”
“Please. Mr. Grimm. Is that what you like to be called?” I clasped my hands together in pleading prayer, “One more chance.”
“I know you,” he marched toward me with an accusing finger aimed at my heart. “I know the life you lived Mr. Herald Shaw. You had second and third chances. Let’s go.” He wrapped bony fingers around my arm.
“Lovely nails,” I chuckled nervously, “You do them yourself?”
He growled and the longest nails I’d ever seen dug into my flesh as he guided me toward the light.
My feet scraped against the cobblestones. “No. Not yet.” I turned my head toward the busy street behind us, “Help!” I called. No one heard or no one cared. Then, I stopped resisting.
“Okay, okay.” I held up a conciliatory hand. “How about a dying wish? Come on man. You know no one will miss me or mourn me. Could you just give me one last wish before I go with you?”
He took another step toward the light as if he hadn’t heard my pleas.
“I just want. I just think.” I stuttered. “Let’s go to Disneyland.”
The Grimmer Reaper halted and turned his head toward me.
My voice small and meek, I repeated the asinine thing I’d just said, “Let’s go to Disneyland?”
“Hm. I’ve never granted a final wish before. Except once, but that was Mother Theresa.”
“Do you escort everyone to their final resting place?”
He laughed. “About two people die every second and I’ve been with you for 40. You do the math.”
“So,” I paused, “You don’t escort everyone to death?”
“No. There’s a few of us.”
We took a step closer to the portal, but his gusto had slowed and I’d learned from a plethora of crime shows to keep the abductor talking.
“That means you’d have time to go to Disneyland?” I asked hopefully.
His gray lips rolled in thought. “Are you really inviting me, a prince of death, to Disneyland?”
“Mm-hmm.” I squeaked.
The Reaper lifted his chin and looked at me through hooded cyanotic eyelids.
If I hadn’t already been dead, I’d have had a heart attack when he nodded.
“Alright. Take me to Disneyland.”
I coughed away my shock and he whisked us out of the alley.
We reappeared on Disneyland Drive outside the gates of America’s most beloved theme park.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Now, you buy us tickets to get in.”
“I haven’t got any money,” I said pulling out the empty white linen within my corduroy pants. “I also haven’t got a shirt. Isn’t that something you can manage? Couldn’t you have place us inside the park?”
The growl I heard from deep within his throat sounded like a bear being awoken too soon.
“Fine,” he assented. I looked down to find we were wearing matching Mickey Mouse shirts. Mine looked halfway decent even though I still wore the outdated beige pants.
His shirt fitted loosely over his long black robe, forcing the sleeves to scrunch awkwardly around his arms.
“Come now. You can’t go in looking like that,” I said.
“I can.” And, that was the last word on that. “Check your pocket.”
He had somehow placed two day passes for the parks in my pocket. “That’s more like it,” I grinned.
Turning toward the entrance gates, I scanned the crowd for my first mark. The habit had been ingrained into my psyche over a decade ago and I often forgot I was even plotting to steal from someone until my hand reached out for the wallet. But, the thought that my death was only hours away sobered me and even the challenge of uncuffing a Rolex lost some of its spark. No matter, I thought, the Reaper seemed more than capable of conjuring the things we needed for a fun day at the park.
“Where do you want to start?”
The Grimmer Reaper shrugged.
“Do you know anything about Disneyland?”
He shook his head.
“Do you watch Disney shows?”
“Occasionally, when I’m assisting someone who is watching a cartoon or movie.”
I shuddered to think of the sickly children he’d met. “You mean. Kids?”
He nodded, “Sometimes.”
“So, why did you allow me to come here today?” I asked.
“No one’s ever invited me to do something with them before.”
He might have been undead, grey, and creepy, but apparently he had feelings as well.
I started walking and waved him on, “Let’s go then.”
We passed through the ticket booth with a number of fearful stares, but except for a threatening growl from the Reaper everyone remained unscathed.
“What are they doing?” he asked, pointing toward a young man and woman standing near the Mickey Mouse flower bed.
“That couple?” I assumed he was referring to a young man and woman standing near the Mickey Mouse flower bed.
“Mm,” he clipped.
“Well, they’re probably on a honeymoon. She’s wearing bridal Minnie Mouse ears and he has on his Mickey groom ears. And, they’re taking a selfie with the flowers. It’s just something happy people like to do here.” Is that the answer he wanted? I wasn’t sure.
“I hope they enjoy it. He won’t be around for the anniversary trip.” The Reaper walked away leaving me frozen in shock. I ran to catch up with him, looking over my shoulder at the happily ignorant couple.
“Why did you say that?” I grabbed his arm, but my hand just passed through without touching him. He turned around away, “Because, it’s true.”
“Is he going to get sick? Can’t you warn him or something?”
The Reaper shook his head, “No. That’s not my job. Warnings and Whispers fall under the Angel Department.”
We were swept into the cacophony of a family reunion marching their way through the entrance tunnel. We all spilled out together onto Main Street and the pizzazz of the makeshift town caused us all to marvel with childlike wonder. Even the Grimm Reaper turned the corners of his lips upward into a smile.
We explored the park like children, hurrying to and fro between ice cream shops, candy shops, rides, and the train. The Grimm Reaper almost laughed when we plummeted down the log flume on Splash Mountain.
The sun warmed my skin and I munched on a Tigger Tail while relaxing in Pooh Corner. The Reaper walked toward an elderly man reclining on a nearby bench. My jaw dropped with the Tigger Tail halfway in my mouth, surely he wasn’t about to do what I suspected. Gulping down the Tigger Tail, I ran toward them when I saw the Reaper place a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Excuse me,” they both looked at me in surprise. “This probably isn’t the best time for that, is it?”
“It’s exactly the right time,” he said. The elderly man’s eyes misted and I followed his gaze toward three children and their parents waving at him from the honey bucket cart on the Winnie the Pooh ride.
The man shook his head furiously. “No. I’m not ready. I need to say goodbye.” The light portal open in front of us. I looked to the Reaper with pleading eyes, but the set of his jaw was firm. He wouldn’t be making two exceptions in one day.
“You can escort him in, if you’d like,” he offered – or rather, threatened.
I took a deep breath. Then, I turned to the man. “Tell me, what are you most proud of in your life?”
“That boy over there. He became a better man and father than me. That’s all I ever wanted. If I go now, it’ll ruin their special day,” he said.
“If you could tell them one last thing, what would it be? I can tell them for you.” I grabbed his hand in a promise.
He nodded. Choking back tears he said, “Tell them it was my time. Tell them, there’s nowhere else I would’ve rather been than here with them. Tell them I love all them more than life itself.”
Wrapping an arm around him, I said, “I’ll tell them.”
Grimm Reaper held out a spiritual hand and the man’s soul reached out to grab it. They walked into the light together and I felt the man’s physical body slouch into me.
It wasn’t but a moment and the Reaper was back with me.
“You made a promise. Are you going to keep it?”
Before I could answer, the joyous sounds of happy children approached me. “Who’s that Mom?”
While the crying wife called 911, I relayed the man’s message to his grown son.
The Reaper guided me to our own private bench as the medics guided the family and the man’s body out of the park.
“Those children are going to have some serious trauma with the park after this. You couldn’t have waited until the old man was back home?” I asked.
The Reaper shook his head, but didn’t offer an explanation as to why he allowed me to be the exception for the day. “But, your assistance did make for a much more pleasant crossing for the man. Thank you.”
I realized with shame that was kindest thing I’d ever done for anyone in my entire life.
“The gates are closing Mr. Shaw. Time to go.”
We walked past Cars Land and the portal of light open again. “You had your final wish. Now come along.”
I dragged my feet. I still wasn’t ready. There was more to be done, more that I could do. Facing the light, I realized I hadn’t done anything for anybody during my life. The most I had done on behalf of someone else was guide the Grimm Reaper through Disneyland for a day.
I snapped my fingers, “Hold on. I have a great idea.”
“You need some assistance. You’re too good at your job and too busy. I could help you.”
“How could you help me?” he forced back a condescending laugh.
“Call it, bedside manner. I can make the people you escort feel more comfortable, ready to go. I could go in advance, butter them up so by the time you arrive, it’s an easy job done.”
The twisting features of his face told me he was considering it, but needed an extra push.
“If it doesn’t work out. I’ll step into the light. No questions asked. I’ll leave you alone and be on my way. I didn’t help anyone while I was alive. Maybe I can help a few before I die.”
His breath deepened into a sigh. “Fine. One week trial basis.”
And so began my life as the Grimmer Reaper’s assistant.