A Business of Misery | Tip #1 Don’t Fall in Love with a Human

This story is part of a compilation of “Stories that go well with lofi hip-hop,” so if you’re interested, here is the stream I listened to while writing:

Being a grim reaper is pretty simple work. We watch over the human world, waiting for someone’s time to come. Then, when someone’s clock finally stops, we swoop down to guide them into the endless abyss of death.

Yes, unfortunately we bring them to neither Heaven nor Hell; we drop them off in an endless void of darkness where their bodies wander aimlessly as they exist in whatever happy reality their minds can create. I think Purgatory is the closest thing humans believe to this. As for us, reapers, we reside in a plane perpendicular to that of Earth and Purgatory; it’s our own little world where not a lot happens. We socialize and go to work like humans do, but we certainly don’t have the diversity of things in our world.

Our existence is one that revolves around humans, so we don’t need to have as much stuff to do. We’re constantly running around reaping the souls of those who pass, and the little time we do spend in our world is usually spent at a metaphorical office receiving instructions on our next task. Guiding human souls to the afterlife isn’t the only thing reapers do, but it is the main thing. And despite being so interwoven with the human world, we stay surprisingly disconnected.

Our organizational heads handle most of the details of how and when a human dies, so reapers just have to go get the soul when it happens. We try not to interact with humans very much outside of their last moments. Even then, we have to be careful not to make ourselves known to anyone else around. Reapers have a few different ways of interacting with the human world: we can become physical in some sense and actually appear in the human world for all to see, but that’s a very uncommon method.

We’re able to make ourselves known only to those at death’s door, but often still detectable by other humans through a sudden chill or their sixth sense of knowing when someone is around and/or watching them — quite advanced creatures they are, really. Finally, sometimes it’s best not to appear to the dying human at all and instead only act as a loose thread which the soul can use to find its own way to Purgatory. All of these are valid techniques, just depending on whatever feels most comforting to the soul.

As for visual appearances, reapers can take on any form they like, really. Most of us choose to appear human; it seems to make the most sense in the minds of the average person and leaves room for any religious belief to think of us as a representation of an angel, a past life, God, whatever. Most of us have a favorite human to look like, probably someone we helped guide in the past, but we could also use a relative of whoever we’re guiding, or a close friend. Animals work, too: pets, spiritual beings, you get it.

Reapers do have a set of rules to abide by, of course, though they’re quite simple and kind of common sense. “Don’t interact with humans,” “Leave life and death to the natural order,” “Don’t do anything to alter human reality,” that sort of stuff. We, reapers, don’t really have to worry about a lot of it since we don’t have many emotions to speak of, at least not in the same sense that humans do, but sometimes the unexpected can occur. I always thought of myself as a pretty ideal example of a reaper, but then I saw…her.

I was in Japan to guide the soul of some poor sap who overdosed on something in an alley somewhere; classic big city stuff. The guy was a mess; wrinkled clothes, a droopy face, a needle still stuck in his arm. That was just his appearance though; reapers can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their face for a while. His suicide was accidental, but the dude didn’t seem to care about his life at that point anyway. Something about being kicked out of school, fired from multiple jobs, his parents disowning him; it’s a cruel world, this one…sometimes.

I spotted her from the alley as I made peace for the dead man a few yards away. I could tell she was a tourist — you always can — and she was strolling through the city taking pictures of every damn thing she saw. I thought it was so silly, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. It was only when she disappeared from my limited view from the alley that I realized what had happened. I wasn’t sure what to do about it, so I decided it was best to ignore it and move on. After all, what were the odds that I’d ever see her again, anyway?

A long time went by; I don’t know how long, maybe a few years in human time. I was in Australia, in another big city, making peace for a woman caught in the crossfire of some minor gang violence. She was pregnant at the time, too, which was pretty sad. Unborn babies are always weird to deal with, or anyone under the age of three or so, really. Most of the time, we might guide their soul to Purgatory with the mother just as a comfort for her, but once she’s set to rest, we’ll probably disperse the baby’s soul.

Dispersion is one of very few exceptions reapers can make if we decide that a soul is not fit for the afterlife. In the case of a very young human, they usually haven’t experienced enough of life to be able to create a reality in their mind while in Purgatory, so they’d more or less be an empty husk wandering the abyss for no reason. Heck, babies wouldn’t even get to wander; they’d just be lying there forever, not thinking a damn thing in their heads.

In the case in Australia, however, I decided it would be best to disperse the unborn soul before guiding the mother to Purgatory. She hadn’t decided on a name for the infant yet, anyway, despite it only being a few short weeks from birth, so I figured she wouldn’t be too attached to it. But as I made peace for her, again, I saw…her. I recognized her immediately and felt my stomach drop as my heartrate increased — which was weird because a reaper’s internal organs have no real function anymore.

We’re all immortal; we only have internal organs when we take on the form of a being which does. I was quite flustered; understandably, I think. I tried not to think about it much after that first time in Japan, but when it happened again, I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t sure what it was at first. Again, reapers don’t experience emotion, at least not in the same way humans do. It would be a while before I could put a word to it: it was love.

I felt it, that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when looking at the source of infatuation; that never ending desire to be with that person, to hold them, to… I had to find out why. What made this human so special to be able to make me — a being whose sole purpose was to guide souls away from their physical bodies and to a realm of nothingness — become so unfocused, so utterly out of control of my own mind.

So, I decided to study her. Whenever I could, I observed her from my world. I quickly learned that she lived in the United States, but she loved traveling. She seemed lonely, though. She didn’t go out much in her own town, she was single, and she always took vacations by herself. Both of her parents were recently deceased and she had no siblings or cousins. I found out through my observation that she was a veterinarian.

She was very friendly and loved animals, but she didn’t have any pets. She talked with her coworkers while at work, even hung out with them maybe once a month, but was otherwise rather reserved and lived a solitary existence. She really lived quite a boring life, but I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it. Everything she did seemed like an exciting new adventure, even if it was just a trip to the grocery store for more shampoo and Natrol gummies.

I even started taking trips down to the human world in my limited free time. I never actually made myself part of the physical world, of course, but I got as close as I could to be able to watch her live her natural life in her little townhome. She liked reading and watching TV, typical things for an introverted lifestyle, I suppose. It was kind of fun, actually, hanging around and seeing her enjoy her time alone.

Most of the time when I observed a lonely human, it was near the end of their life, whether they were old and had no one left to call a friend, or because they felt out of place in the world and were disconnecting themselves from everyone around them before killing themselves. But this woman found a way to turn her loneliness into recreation. She played games on her tablet, studied interesting articles she found online, bought crossword puzzles every week, and even dabbled in painting a little bit one summer, but she didn’t seem to like it very much.

There was one time when I watched her lying in bed, reading a book before going to sleep, and she did something unexpected. She slowly put her book down and turned to look out the window. She stared directly at me across the street. I felt the heart of my human form pound within my chest, but there was no way she could have actually seen me; I wasn’t part of the human world at the time. But her eyes looked deeply into mine.

After that, it became impossible to ignore her. I spent all of my free time observing her both from the comfort of my own world, and from the human world. I still didn’t dare make myself physical, however, but taking on a human form while I watched her made me feel somehow more a part of her life. She could never have known I was there, yet I felt that she could sense the presence of someone watching over her.

Eventually, a frightening thought crossed my mind: why don’t I just kill her and keep her with me in the afterlife, I thought. I’m sure I could figure out how.

But no, I reminded myself, it was against the rules. Reapers do have the power to kill, but it’s something I had never heard about anyone using. Maybe that was because they all kept it a well-guarded secret, much like I had with my feelings toward this woman. But I knew so much about her, I could be the last thing she needed in life. I convinced myself it wasn’t a good idea. I continued watching from a safe distance; that way my work never interfered with her life, and her life never interfered with my work.

I watched her for months, learned more and more about her, read all of her reports, but… I never dared to read the end. I didn’t want to know how or when she would die. It didn’t feel right. I think I was worried that if I knew that information, I would suddenly stop caring about her. In hindsight, that would have been for the better, but I was blinded by Her Lady Love’s wicked curse. It wasn’t long until I started making appearances in the human world, for real this time.

I used my typical human disguise, wearing something presentable that normally put the dying at ease. I found it was also appealing to those far from death, as well. I tried not to make my stalking too obvious, but she seemed to catch glances of me from time to time. I think she believed me to just be another local resident and she never made much of it. Hell, sometimes it was quite easy to get close.

I stood across the street one afternoon, hands in my pockets as she cleaned her home. She was vacuuming the carpet while listening to music with her headphones in. She always made the most mundane tasks enjoyable, both for her to do and for me to watch. She danced and sang as she cleaned. I wasn’t visible to her that time, only to the one I was really there to see. The door to the townhome I stood in front of opened with a creak.

The neighbor, an old woman, bent over to pick up a small package that rested on her doorstep.

“Oh, hello there,” she said in her fragile voice.

I turned and mirrored her smiling expression. I appeared to her as one of the many helpers that visited her each day to perform the more grueling tasks around her home. My visit was only brief; she suffered a stroke and I cradled her in my arms as the light faded from her eyes. This woman was also alone; no family, no friends, nothing. So many people lived lonely lives in the human world, and I couldn’t help but start to feel sorry for the one I fell so deeply for.

Perhaps she simply didn’t know what life was like with intimate relationships. If I just made myself known to her more personally, maybe I could bring her even more joy. If only she knew. Still, I convinced myself that she didn’t need a lover; she didn’t need someone else in her life. She was a grown woman who had lived long enough to know what she needed. She made her own happiness… But that’s when he appeared.

I went back to observing her after only a short time away during a particularly ferocious period of civil unrest in Europe and Asia, but suddenly there he was. He appeared in her townhome almost every day. They laughed and played games together. He took her out to places she never went on her own. They appeared to make each other happier than I had ever seen her be by herself; they cuddled, shared intimate moments that I hated watching, but I couldn’t stop.

I needed to know what went on in her life. Soon, it felt like the only times they weren’t together was when she was at work. She still wasn’t alone; she was always either with her coworkers or a client, but she was never too friendly with any of them. I listened in on her conversations with them sometimes, just to find out what she cared about enough to share with others.

“My neighbor passed away,” she said one day. “It was a little while ago, but I just heard about it.”

Her coworkers offered condolences, but she wasn’t very upset. She didn’t know the old woman very well. Of course, the new man in her life was told the night before, when she found out. It felt like the man was some sort of punishment to me for falling in love with that woman. I was forced to watch as she found true happiness with someone else. Even when they weren’t together, I could tell she was thinking of him, excited for the next time they would be together.

It was only when the man made an idiotic mistake and she broke up with him that I felt fate was on my side, but of course that couldn’t be true. It took some time, but she eventually found another man. It was a cycle I had observed in other humans before, but part of me was hoping this woman was an exception somehow. She entered and exited relationships of varying lengths, and I began to wonder if she, too, was being punished.

I began to wonder if my feelings for her were preventing her from finding true love with another human. I don’t know, perhaps it was wishful thinking, that the only person she could truly be happy with was me. Eventually, I was given a sign, at least that how I interpreted it. After a particularly heartbreaking separation with one partner who’d she spent almost five years of her life with, the woman fell into a terrible depression.

It was obvious to me that she was suicidal; I had witnessed the motions before. Those thoughts from years prior crept back into my head.

Just kill her yourself, put her out of her misery and show her how much you truly love her. I have to admit that I probably would have done it at the time, but she beat me to the punch. I found her at the top of a tall building one evening. The sun was setting; a beautiful last view.

She was in a big city yet again, her favorite places to visit, and I was terribly conflicted. I wanted her to do it so that I could be the one to guide her to Purgatory, or do whatever it was I was going to do to keep her with me, but at the same time, I felt anguish at the idea that this woman’s life would be over. There was the likely chance that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with her soul and would just be forced to lay her to rest, and lose the opportunity to continue observing her.

I gained the courage to read the penultimate section of her report, the part that states how long a person has left to live. Part of me was relieved, but again, part of me was angry. She wouldn’t die that night. Yet, to my surprise, she jumped. She survived, of course, if only barely. Unfortunately, her pain didn’t end. Her suffering continued from a hospital bed, probably more consuming than it was before.

As all things, however, her sadness did not last forever. She got out of the hospital in relatively good shape and returned home where she continued living her life as before. From then on, though, I noticed that her loneliness was not as cheerful. She no longer danced and sang while doing chores, she read less often and watched TV with a blank expression. She went out with coworkers even more rarely than before, and she stopped feeling anything close to joy on a regular basis.

She was no longer suicidal, but she also seemed to lose her purpose in life, like she wished to go to sleep and never wake up, but couldn’t bring herself to be her own killer. I wanted so desperately to be the one to show her how sweet existence can be, neither living nor dead, just existing. Getting to go wherever you please, whenever you please, in any form you choose. But it was impossible. It wasn’t meant to be.

Fast forward some years. In that time, she slowly regained herself and began behaving like the spry young woman I had fallen in love with again. She moved to a knew home, found a new job…met a new man. The man was nice enough, I suppose. He made her happy, as all the others had before tearing her heart out. It was different that time, though, I had felt. I couldn’t tell at first, but eventually it hit when they had been together for almost seven years and he popped the question.

I thought at the time that she was a little old to marry, but then again, her age didn’t matter to an immortal being like myself, so I don’t know what I was thinking. The two of them bought a larger residence together and before I knew it, two young humans were running around their home to form a complete unit. I watched on and on as the children grew and achieved greatness of their own, but my focus was still entirely on her. I cared not for the other humans in her life.

She continued loving the man, and he her. Each little argument they got into gave hope to that part of me that, even after such a long time, wanted to take the woman for myself. I still couldn’t do it. There was someone who could, though. The human I was in love with was not far from death by then. I had become so accustomed to watching her live day to day for years, showing no signs of slowing down, that I had forgotten entirely about the number I saw in her report.

Her time was almost up. She was comparatively young to other humans who died of “natural causes.” There was nothing I could do but watch as she and the man she spent her time with played on unaware of her approaching death. After a while, I felt that I couldn’t take it any longer; I had to know what was going to take her from that world. The suspense was almost consuming my mind more than my love for her, but my fear of knowing prevented me from checking. It wasn’t long until I found out, though. Cancer.

How original, my Lord, I thought. You couldn’t have made it something quick and painless, could you? No, you’re punishing me further for my failures. You’re making me watch the woman I love suffer a slow death, one that she is completely aware of and has no way of preventing. How cruel.

Yet, that wasn’t the worst of it still. What I thought I wanted for so long would soon come to pass, but it was only then that I realized what I wanted was not to take the woman from her world. But fate is unforgiving and often presents itself in ways that contradict the desires of those at its fingertips. I was made responsible for the guidance of her soul to Purgatory. After everything, I would be the one to reap her from her body and taker her away from the happiness she had suffered so much to create.

I thought it would be harder than it was, but it was quite easy. Just like any other job I’d done before. Only that time, I took a slightly different approach. I made myself visible to her at her bedside as she drifted off into her forever sleep. She didn’t say anything, but I saw her gaze shift from her husband and children to me. Clad in what I had learned was pleasing to the eyes of humans, I hoped that seeing me brought her comfort.

I rested my hand on hers and spoke softly to her. I told her that all would be all right and that I would make sure she would live on in the memories of those around her, and that they would live on in her mind, as well. I kissed her forehead and watched the light disappear from her eyes as I had seen in countless others. I made peace for her as her family mourned around me, totally unaware of my existence.

Then, I brought her to the void. Nothing ceremonious, nothing flashy, just my usual routine. You’d think a reaper’s last reaping would be more of a bang, but just as humans typically go, reapers disappear with a whimper. No acknowledgement is made of our deaths, we just vanish. Not every reaper disappears like that, but the ones with secrets can only hide them for so long.

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Alex Morgan

Alex Morgan

Writing is my passion. I love the challenge of trying to subvert expectations and create unique worlds with their own distinct atmospheres. I hope you enjoy!