By Hannah Sears
This Story Won Second Prize in Our Contest
Enjoying the distant shrieks of the underworld, Bertha chewed the tip of her quill between ink-stained lips. She spent her days logging deaths and processing souls—all the while ensuring that Grim wore his shoes on the correct feet.
Bertha’s forty years as the Grim Reaper’s secretary had been comfortable, happy even. But she couldn’t help thinking that, if she were in charge, the operation might run a little more smoothly. Take the First World War. If Grim had done as she’d suggested and given in to wearing spectacles, he would have severed the right soul in the first place and left Franz Ferdinand to rule Austria in peace.
Grim careened into her office dragging a bulging suitcase behind him. The underworld was a dreary place, one not accustomed to bright splashes of color. It was surprising, then, to see the lurid pink flamingos adorning his button-up.
“Right, I’m off,” he said, slinging her his scythe and hooded cape. “Thanks again for talking me into this—are you sure you can handle everything?”
Bertha hid her smile behind wrinkled fingers. “Yes, quite sure.”
Grim hurried off—cutting it fine for Charon’s ferry—and at last, she donned his cloak.
Bertha reckoned there were three rules Grim really ought to work by, and she scribbled them onto a spare bit of parchment.
Rule one: Always arrive fifteen minutes early to a death-day appointment.
At quarter to three that afternoon, Bertha rang the doorbell of 22 Ingleby Way. Mr. Hickman opened the door, and Bertha was greeted with the rather urgent smell of ammonia. Not wanting to judge, she bustled inside.
“Try not to be alarmed.” She made her way to a lavish settee in the front room. “We’ll be off shortly. If you have any questions, now’s the time.” She smiled, revealing a handful of sweets from the folds of her cloak. “Butterscotch?”
Mr. Hickman shrieked.
His red face deepened to purple, the veins on his neck threatening to rupture. He shrieked for the entire fifteen minutes she’d allocated for answering questions.
Bertha raised her eyebrows and sniffed, trying to control her temper. “Do you smell gas?”
Mr. Hickman was saved the hassle of replying by a sudden explosion.
Rule two: Always keep a low profile.
Bertha climbed the steps from the underworld once again. At midnight, she arrived outside an abandoned factory, somewhere in the middle of Surrey.
She scurried inside, wanting to get out of the rain, and stopped short. The room was filled with people wearing identical hooded cloaks. Apparently, she’d walked in on a satanic ritual—complete with a human sacrifice squirming in the middle of a crude pentagram. One of the cloaked figures loomed above the victim. The blade of his dagger glinted in the candlelight. Say what you like about satanists, but they care an awful lot about aesthetics.
Bertha meandered through the crowd. She knelt by the blindfolded girl and loosened her bonds.
“Uh…‘scuse me, mate. Do you mind?”
Bertha met the disgruntled stare of the lead satanist.
“Get back in line.” He waved her away with the ceremonial knife. “You’ll have your turn.”
“You can see me?” Bertha straightened.
“Well…yeah? You’re standing right in front of me.”
Bother. Now they’d all run amok shouting about judgment day. “Humans aren’t able to see the Grim Reaper.”
The group tittered, and the lead satanist broke into a grin. “Grim Reaper, you say? A bird?” He yanked Bertha’s hood, and the candlelight shone on her face. “An old bird?”
The laughter grew.
Bertha frowned, her head cocked. Ah, of course. Believers can see.
“No, really, I am the Grim Reaper—well, I’m filling in for him—and I’m here to escort this human to eternal damnation.” She gestured to the girl at her feet.
“Sure, love,” the satanist wheezed.
Bertha stiffened. “Oh, bugger it.” She raised her scythe and took the lot.
Rule three: Don’t get attached.
Bertha arrived at the hospital in a thoroughly bad mood. Nurses strode past—thankfully oblivious to her presence. She rubbed her aching temples and opened the door to the children’s ward.
The girl wore an oversized hospital gown, a sunflower bandana veiling a shaved head. Two weeping parents clasped hands over her frail body.
Bertha faltered in the doorway. Her insides were leaden, sinking, dragging her down.
How curious. Was she feeling sorry for a human? No, that couldn’t be it. Regret for a life barely lived? Also no. Humans are told early on that their existence is temporary. They make the most of life. Live, laugh, love, and all that crap. The girl’s time was up, simple as that.
Bertha took a steadying breath and pulled herself together. Her shadow fell over the bed as she drew near. She raised her scythe…and fled.
Bertha kept her head down after that. She collected a few miscreants from above, but mostly she left them to it. She’d hung the cloak on the back of her office door, propped the scythe against the wall.
Bertha glanced at the parchment on her desk. The three rules were emblazoned on it in crimson ink. She sighed, crumpling it into a ball. Perhaps Grim knew what he was doing after all.
She pulled a stack of paperwork toward her, settling into the familiar routine. This she could do, and she did it well.
Grim burst in, back from his holiday three days early.
“I’ve received…complaints,” Grim said. “There are corpses wandering around above—you do realize you’ve started the zombie apocalypse?”
“Yes,” she said, patting him on the shoulder as she slipped by to put on the kettle. Even after his vacation, he looked positively dreadful. “How about a nice spot of tea before you head out?”
Once Grim was fortified, the zombies wouldn’t stand a chance.