CHAPTER 1: The Pastor
One across. Ten letter word. Rendered nonexistent.
Jaalam penned their answer carefully, being sure not to let any ink drip out of place.
The pen they stole (strikethrough) borrowed from the Library hovered over the next riddle.
Two across. Six letter word. A building for public worship.
A thin wiry smile cracked across Jaalam’s emaciated face. They just might finish this puzzle before the funeral ends after all. Jaalam wished they had an early start to the puzzle but the last crosswords puzzle they tackled took all night (and many cups of coffee) to figure out. Who writes “scary thirteen” for a clue? No matter. They had dispensed with that game as soon as the word floated into their mindscape – just as a cloud floats across the surface of a cup of tea. However, by that time the answer came to Jaalam he was already late for his first assignment of the day.
Many Grim Reapers take their job very seriously — performing the solemn duty of guiding souls to their destined Hereafter. These Grims remain impartial, silent, stoic … (or robotic) on their daily jaunts through the Mortal Plane. Meanwhile, other Grims act as Angels of Death, walking the newly dead through the process of grieving for themselves, helping them come to terms with death and the existence of an afterlife. These types are more hands-on, preferring to not be a background character to others lives. They could also be described as nosy, busybodies who have nothing better to do than talk to dead people going from point A to B.
Then there was Jaalam.
Jaalam sat cross legged on the stage of Shepherd’s Flock Church, ignoring the humans as they walked through their existence and ignoring ghostly shakes of the spirit Jaalam was supposed to be escorting to his Hereafter.
Grim Reaper Number 365, Jaalam, can be described as arrogant, selfish, lazy, cantankerous, bitter, curmudgeonly, or simply an old bag of bones. Jaalam had been a Grim longer than many. Not the longest serving Grim by far, after all Jaalam still remembered their name and they prided themselves on still having some of their original juniper-colored skin, but long enough that none of the living remembered them. None of their deeds were spoken of, nothing they made stood the test of time, and not one piece of their former body remained among the living. All their family and friends, the few that existed, were in their designated Hereafters. Not even their gender remained. It was one of the first things Jaalam lost to time and neglect. Some Grims clinged to their former genders, the way the dying clinged to life. But Jaalam knew they didn’t make much use of that part of themselves while alive, so it made no difference to them now. No, all that was left of Jaalam was themselves (what parts they wished to keep) and their love of puzzles.
Word puzzles, specifically. Sator Squares were his favorite until a clever newspaper writer and violinist from Liverpool created crosswords in 1913. Grims were not supposed to have favorites but out of all the humans they had come across, that one held a special spot in the crevast that was once Jaalam’s heart. They found crosswords more portable and engaging than sator squares, especially because of the myriad riddles involved. They took great pleasure in solving riddles and making new ones to stump the younger Grims. At times they would sneak into the Universal Library of Existence and find an obscure word that was lost to antiquity and whose meaning would allude even the most learned of the new Grims. Persiflage. Obdurate. Floccinaucinihilipilification. These were just some of the words most beloved to Jaalam from the English language (partly because they saw themselves reflected in their syllables).
Today, they were working on a crossword puzzle from their copy of The Everything Ever Crossword Book (2022 Edition), published by Fates Inc. Jaalam could have borrowed a copy from the Library but they had already gotten fined this year for “defacement of Library property,” and they were so close to paying off last century’s fines.They can’t risk being barred from the Library indefinitely. If they were banned from the Library, where would they go to learn new words? Jaalam shuddered underneath their robes at the thought, their bones rattling underneath thin skin. Jaalam would never let themselves be banned from the Library.
The Library was where all the words that ever were or will ever be are kept safe and sound under the watchful eyes of the Librarians. Often they would appear as middle-age women in thick wool cardigans and thicker rimmed glasses. They enjoyed this charade – popping in and out of existence as a pack of quintessential English librarians, circa 1950s to the 1960s; perfectly punctual puritanical puppets. However, if a patron upset the Librarians in any way, such as filling in the answers to all crossword puzzles from 1913 to 2020 in ink from the Librarians’ private stash of inkwells, then that patron would be faced with a horde of horrors the likes of which Hell wishes it could conjure up. Even a glimpse at their shadows when they are in such a state could turn the most stoic human alive into a babbling idiot within seconds.
Luckily for Jaalam, they were not human and so were able to negotiate a payment system for the damages dealt to the Library.
So, instead of borrowing a crosswords book, Jaalam bought theirs from the bookstore outside of the Department of Death. It cost them 1429 obols, which, compared to their debt to the Library was nothing, but it still annoyed them that they had to go. It was out of their way to their next job, the orc that minded the cash register smelled of stall vinegar, Jaalam was already late and so their pay would be cut, and a pigeon had defecated on Jaalam’s hood.
And on top of it all, they lost precious puzzle time to the public transit commute. Still frustrated, Jaalam scratched at their forehead. Their long nails opened up their dry skin for barely a moment before closing shut like distributed sand.
Next time I’ll take a cab.
Jaalam’s mind was not on their current assignment (to be fair it never was). At this moment, Jaalam was supposed to be paying attention to the funeral of Mark Shepherd. Yet, as the living wailed and hollered and sobbed around them, Jaalam was engrossed in his new book.
Three across. A five letter word for extravagantly bright or showy.
They chewed on the end of their pen, their bleach white teeth fitting neatly into the chew marks they had made earlier.
Ostentatious? Too long.
Mark Shepherd’s funeral was well attended — the whole congregation of Shepherd’s Herd Church was there, along with several pastors from other churches, the local news station reporters, the state news station reporters, several prominent politicians from both political parties, pop cultural idols (musicians mostly), and a visiting group of singing (sobbing) nuns from out-of-state. Jaalam looked towards them and could not tell if they were sobbing for joy or for grief. Either way it appeared they were stuck in a loop of tears and snot — when one nun was almost to the point of calming down, another would begin wailing anew and the whole audience would be drowned out by their sounds of sorrow. It was all too … performative.
GAUDY. Yes Gaundy.
Jaalam wrote it in.
Grief, Jaalam reason, real deep seeded grief, was silent and slow and stinging. It grips every fiber of a living beings waking and dreaming existence. Even after the tendrils have loosen their grip due to time and age, grief remains – draping a soul in a shroud of sorrow.
How do I know this?
Jaalam shook their head.
Next word, four across, six letters, a trick.
There were presenters from five different Christian denominations, musical and circus performers, a short movie of Mark’s life projected on a iMax size screen, and even an intermission that included a traditional thanksgiving turkey dinner (Mark’s favorite holiday was Thanksgiving). At center stage was Mark Shepherd’s coffin, a Sterling Deluxe Stainless Steel casket, covered in a layer of powdered blue polish and complete with white velvet interior. Jaalam sat right next to it so they could easily reach their charge once the funeral ended. Mark’s body lay, seemingly peaceful there on stage, surrounded by several species of white flowers (ranging from domestic roses to exotic orchids cultivated in China) and blazing white candles. His body had been embalmed to his strict specifications on site at the Shepherd’s Family Mortuary, two city blocks west of the church complex. Mark wanted his body to be immaculate when presented before his congregation, as if decomposition had never set in and he was simply sleeping. His funeral, much like his life, was an extensively choreographed affair from beginning to end.
As Jaalam finished filling in the answer, they heard a scream coming from inside the opulent casket. The screams came and went throughout the funeral but this particular one was ear piercing.
“LET ME OUT! LET ME OUT! STOP THE FUNERAL AND LET ME OUT, YOU IDIOTS.”
Jaalam did not look up from their book (five across, nine letters, vehement protests or demands).
“In a moment. I’ll be done soon.”
“WAIT, WHO SAID THAT? HELLO!”
Jaalam tapped their book with the pen. More than humans, the noise spirits conjured up annoyed Jaalam.
“Quiet! Just enjoy the show.”
“DID YOU JUST TELL ME TO BE QUIET!? DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE SPEAKING TO?”
Jaalam sighed and wrote in “clamorous.”
“Yes, yes, you’re Mark Shepherd, former pastor of Shepherd’s Herd Church, the second largest megachurch in the state of West Virginia. You died of a heart attack at The Greenbrier. Your body was found, face down butt up, on the bathroom floor. You had no pants on,” said Jaalam.
Mark said nothing in reply.
Six across. Eight letters. Embarrassment.
Of course, Jaalam knew all about Mark. All Reapers receive both a mental download of their clients lives and a physical copy with the most important aspects of their lives – the things that pertain to what their Hereafters will be. Jaalam usually just leaves that particular document on his desk back at HQ. The download is instant and frankly annoying – how is a Reaper supposed to finish their crossword puzzles when they are interrupted with random scenes of tragic love affairs, harrowing misadventures … or a montage of 50 years spent in front of various monitors.
For a heart beat there was silence between the two while all around them the living carried on their public display of grief. Mark’s download had been long (Mark died at the ripe old age of 82 and 4 months), and showcased images of Mark lying, cheating, and scheming his way out from the role of a poor pastor’s son to the leader of a wealthy world-wide congregation.
So, Reaper Jaalam was not surprised by the pageantry of Mark’s funeral, nor the lavish display of wealth and idol worship. He turned his father’s humble single-story church into the second largest megachurch in the state of West Virginia by the time he was 25 using a mix of father’s mountain preaching, his mother’s business sense, and a heaping spoonful of his own brand of “truth.” Michael Shepherd knew how to etch the glorious image of God into the hearts of his neighbors. He spread the fear of Hell’s fire throughout Appalachian, spewing forth smoke and brimstone from his lips, and chasing sinners into the arms of his wife. His wife in turn would kindly whisper the secret to salvation: almsgiving. Not wanting to be seen as sinful, they actually believed every word that they spoke to their flock, all the alms went into the Church upkeep and into raising the Shepherd’s large family of 10 boys. Mark was the youngest and keenest when it came to finances and, much like his father, he was a talker.
“Are you God?” Mark said, still trapped inside his embalmed body within the garish casket.
“No,” said Jaalam.
Seven across. Nine letters. Given to prosy, rambling, or tedious loquacity.
The casket shifted ever so slightly.
“Oh dear Lord. You’re the Devil! You’re the reason why I’ve been stuck in this damned body! This is my eternal punishment. Begone Satan! I rebuke thee!”
Mark continued screaming at Jaalam. At first it was Bible verses, then actual curses (most of them words a pastor should never say let alone know), and finally pleads to God for forgiveness. Jaalam couldn’t stand it. Grims cannot hear the living unless they focus on them. But the dead, oh they all heard the dead. Souls that have not passed onto their Hereafter are heard by anyone in the In-Between, regardless if the listener wants to or not. The sounds the dead make follow the same principle as the sounds of the Mortal Realm – they can be muffled, they can be drowned out, and they can die out due to distance. Yet the dead cannot be silenced by anyone other than deities or themselves.
“Shut up!” said Jaalam.
They slammed their book shut.
“I’m trying to concentrate.”
“On what, demon?” said Mark, “My eternal torment? Well then, I’ll have you kno–”
“No, you idiot, on my crossword! I’m trying to figure out seven across and I can’t think with you carrying on like this,” said Jaalam. They took a deep breath in and exhaled, their ribs rattled inside them like porcelain wind chimes. “Just stay silent for the remainder of your funeral and then we will go. Okay?”
“Go where?” said Mark.
Jaalam was already opening up their book. What was Given to prosy, rambling, or tedious loquacity?
“GO WHERE?!?” said Mark.
“Your afterlife. Now be quiet,” said Jaalam.
“Isn’t this my afterlife?”
“No, this is the Mortal Plane.”
“But I’m dead.”
“And I’ve been stuck in my body ever since I died…”
Jaalam was staring at seven across.
“I was running late…” they mumbled.
“What? I couldn’t hear you.”
“I was running late! Now please be quiet.”
“Late! To what?”
Seven across… Nine letters…
“To what?” repeated Mark.
“Picking you up! Alright!? I was supposed to pick you up when you died last month. I’m sorry.” They apologized in a softer tone, in barely a whisper but they said it all the same. Jaalam turned away from the casket and looked down at their bare feet. “But these things happen.”
These “things” happen only to Jaalam and new Grims. Being late to a pick up often results in the deceased stuck inside their bodies, experiencing everything that happens to their body as it decays or as it lays underneath tons of soil embalmed to perfection. Mark had experienced his own embalming, unable to scream or to protest.
“You’ll be fine until the end of your…” Jaalam struggled with the word. “Show. I’ll get you out before they begin placing you into the ground.” It was difficult to remove souls trapped underground, it is a task Jaalam had to do once and they swore never to do again. “So just lie there and be quiet,” said Jaalam, “Now what is given to tedious loquacity…”
Jaalam paced back and forth on the stage, their thin sandals slapping against the polished marble.
“Garrulous,” said Mark.
“What did I say about–”
“The answer is Garrulous,” said Mark.
Jaalam looked down at the puzzle and wrote in “Garrulous.” It fit. They turned back to the casket.
“Thank you,” mumbled Jaalam.
“What?” said Mark.
“Thank you!” said Jaalam.
“You’re welcome Mr… or Ms…”
“Jaalam. No Mr. or Ms.”
“–lam. Jaalam. Or if it is easier, you can call me Grim Reaper 365.”
“365. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
“YOU’RE A GRIM REAPER!?! AND YOU LEFT ME IN MY BODY!”
Eight across. Eleven letters. An intense emotional state induced by displeasure.
“It was only for a month,” said Jaalam.
“A month of pure torment! Do you know what it’s like to be embalmed!?”
“Can’t say I ever had the pleasure,” said Jaalam.
Ten across. Nine letters. Preserving human remains –
Embalming. A convenient coincidence.
“Thank you,” mumbled Jaalam.
“What?” said Mark.
Jaalam sighed. “Nevermind.”
While they spoke, the funeral continued around them. Hymns were sung lead by the choir clad in gold and white. In-between each hymn, a speaker (who had been hand picked by Mark before his death) would give a passionate speech on Mark’s virtues. Mark’s lawyers, his secretaries, his successor to the pastor title (Pastor John Marshall was thirty years Mark’s junior and was as close to a son as Mark ever allowed himself to have), his allies in law enforcement, his allies among both political parties, and a myriad of admirers stood in line to speak on the life and times of Mark. His own family, however, was not present. Mark was the last of the Shepherd family, having never wed nor sired a child. He had lovers, many of whom were in attendance and all were blond with blue eyes. Yet he could never commit to just one.
A wild scream, somewhere between a wet sob and a windy bellow, erupted from the front row of the audience. It came from a thin wispy woman in a skin-tight black dress and large brim black hat. She looked as if she was an umbrella’s shadow that had come to life, screeching and waving her long pale arms into the sky. Jaalam, of course, took no notice of her. They could not hear the living and they were too overjoyed to find that they were halfway through their puzzle. Mark, however, could still hear the living.
“Who the hell– is that Karen? Can you shut her up?”
One down. Seven letters.
“That screaming bitch! Make her stop!”
Carrying away property without the consent of its owner.
“And why the hell not?”
Jaalam could have used this time to explain the complex laws of time, space, death, life, and everything in between. They could have tried to convince Mark that every human grieves in their own way and it is not the place of a Grim to have opinions on the matter. Jaalam could have also simply said “I can’t” again and leave it at that. But instead, Jaalam looked up from their book, stood in between the casket and the wailing woman and said, “Watch”
Jaalam was standing close enough to the casket that Mark could clearly seem them in all of their grimm glory – the drab robe of office they wore, the gaunt features of their head and neck, and the sunken eyes that looked down at a large book just out of of Mark’s sight. What Mark didn’t see was how fast Karen had gotten up and ran in staggered steps towards the casket. At full tilt, Karen flung herself through Jaalam, not acknowledging them in the slightest. She fell face-first into the casket and clung onto Mark’s lifeless (if not soulless) body.
“Mark, baby, why?!?!” said Karen as she sobbed into his chest.
“She went straight through you!” said Mark from inside his body.
“It happens,” said Jaalam.
Jaalam was watching Karen now, as her right hand grasped onto Mark bejeweled fingers. Mark had wanted to be buried with his ten favorite golden rings, each set with a large precious gemstone. The red ruby ring that sat on his pinkie was a particular favorite and it was this ring that Karen now took off Mark’s dead hand and hid inside her fist.
Jaalam penned in the word as two large security guards dragged Karen off Mark’s body.
“Thief!” Mark shouted, “Thief! Grave robber! That was my favorite ring! It cost more than the botox in that bitch’s skin.”
“You won’t need it anyway,” said Jaalam.
Karen was ushered to her seat where two other women gave her tissues and shoulders to cry on. As she composed herself, she deftly placed the ring into her black purse and cast her eyes downward. If Jaalam had looked closely, they would have seen a wiry smile on her face.
Yet, Jaalam did not.
CHAPTER 1: TO BE CONTINUED