Twelve Steps to Styx

twelve steps cover 2

The cloaked figure surveyed the room with unseen eyes, while bony hands clutched a long scythe. He stood  over seven feet tall, with jet black robes spilling onto the floor around him. He regarded each of the men and women gathered around him in turn, and took in their gazes an equal mix of bewilderment and terror. At first, he said nothing. Mere presence spoke volumes. After a moment, he finally spoke, in a hollow baritone that echoed in every corner of the room.

“I am the Grim Reaper.” Half the room shuddered at the introduction, while the rest pretended not to hear it. “I stand before you today for one reason alone.” The group froze, not one daring to so much as breathe until he finished.

“I have an addiction to Krispy Kreme Donuts.” With that, he sank back into his chair.

“Hi, Grim.” Even in unison, the group lacked its usual enthusiasm.

“So, um, how long have you had this problem?”

The Reaper turned his attention to Sandy. On a typical day, the young blonde spouted self helps screeds with a politician’s poise and the charm of a movie star. Today, she fidgeted in her chair, as if unable to find a comfortable position. One finger twirled around a lock of hair, and her eyes darted in every direction, save toward the group’s newest member.

The Reaper leaned toward her. “Do you still smoke, Sandy?”

“N-no.”

“A pity.” He stopped and waved one hand in the air. “Er. I mean, good for you. Nasty habit.”

Sandy threw a piece of nicotine gum into her mouth, her fourth since the session began, and attacked it with the ferocity of a lion on the Serengeti. Her hands rubbed against one another. “Well, Mr. Reaper–”

She almost jumped out of her seat as she felt an ice-cold hand rest against hers.

“Please,” the Reaper said. “Call me Grim.”

Sandy pulled her hand away and shoved it into a pocket. “Okay… Grim. We’re all glad that you’ve joined us, but… well, this group is usually reserved for people with more serious addictions, such as drugs or alcohol or even food in general–”

“What’s wrong with those?” The Reaper leapt to his feet. “Those are great. Drugs and alcohol, those are not unlike your Black Fridays sales when it comes to mortality enforcement. I believe more people should start. Fifty years ago, cartoon characters sold cigarettes to children. Now the only commercials allowed on TV warn about the dangers of smoking. Do you know what that does to our work flow?”

“We are all entitled to our opinions–” Sandy began.

“The truth dot com, my ass!” he roared, and everyone cowered. The Reaper took a step back, then fell back into the chair and tugged at the hem on his hood.

“My apologies. We had a meeting about this only a few days ago, so I am a little on edge. There might be cutbacks, and no one wants a transfer.”

“I understand, I think.” Sandy found it easier to concentrate by focusing most of her attention on a large stain on the linoleum, and busied herself trying to figure out what made it. That let her pepper The Reaper with the usual well rehearsed self help mantra. “How did you struggle with addiction begin?”

The Reaper reached into his robe and produced a small box. Most of the group pulled away at first, but let out a sigh of relief as he produced a box of Krispy Kreme, sat them on the corner table and popped them open. Before he could reach into it, a hand slapped onto the top and pushed it shut.

“We don’t indulge in our addictions in the middle of a session.”

The Reaper knew the man well. Only a year earlier, Tommy Drayson came within an inch of his scythe during a battle with addiction to pain killers and alcohol. The powerfully built young man put himself between the box and its owner, determined to pass on his own sobriety to The Reaper.

“I need them,” the Reaper said, without a hint of emotion in his words.

“I know,” Tommy said with a saccharine tone. “That’s what we’re going to help you with.”

Grim set his hand on Tommy’s shoulder and pulled him level with the empty hood. “Thomas, I am quite pleased that you have found a source of confidence in your life. I’m terribly happy that you have garnered more time on the mortal coil. But I also find it prudent to remind you that you stand between me and my beloved confections, whilst I hold a tool that can cut the thread of your life.” He patted the weapon’s handle. “I do hope I’ve made myself clear.”

Tommy retreated back to his seat, but not before he pulled the box open. With a nod of thanks, the Reaper pointed at a cruller smothered in chocolate. His fingers closed around it and drew it to front of his hood. He regarded it as one might a fine wine, until a piece of the donut vanished, leaving behind only a contented sigh.

“How did it start, Grim?” Sandy asked once again.

The Reaper vanished another piece before he answered. “I got a call at five thirty in the morning. Dispatch told me some poor soul was circling the drain–”

“Circling the drain?” Tommy asked.

“Mortality enforcement lingo. It means one is in the act of dying.” The last of the donut disappeared, followed by the traces of chocolate it left on the skeletal fingers. “Truly, there is no food like this, in your world or the next. Everyone must enjoy them.”

Leon Alvarez took that as an invitation. Though now only a thin wisp of a man, Grim knew him when he tipped the scales at four hundred pounds. He could finish multiple fast food meals in a single setting, and kept nothing but junk food in his cupboards. The Reaper saw him that night in the hospital, the night his heart almost quit on him.

But it had not been his time.

Since then, he’d managed his diet and lost more than half of that weight. But the old Leon still appeared from time to time. A fast food run after work, perhaps, or a pint of ice cream at the grocery store. This time, it led him to steal from the Reaper.

Before he could bite into the contraband, the Reaper pointed a single skeletal finger. Leon dropped it and wrapped both hands around his throat, gasping for air. The lost donut floated in the air a moment, before it drifted back into the box. Sandy looked at Leon, then back to Grim. Another piece of nicotine gum flew into her mouth.

“Grim, we support one another here. We do not kill one another.”

The Reaper responded with a theatrical sigh, and Leon fell to the ground and sucked in air as quick as he could manage.

That’s it, he thought. No more sugar, ever.

“Anyway, as I was saying, the call actually took me to a Krispy Kreme. I started to bring the scythe down when I partook of that wonderful aroma for the first time. Freshly baked pastries, with just the right amount of sugary glaze. Nothing short of a heavenly smell, pardon the expression. I made my way to the manager. He seemed quite impressed to have a celebrity of my magnitude in his store and offered me a sample. I have been a regular ever since, though I sometimes fear I might be leading the staff to an early grave.”

Grim laughed. He was the only one.

“And when did you realize you had a problem?”

“The Big B, as he likes us to call himself, summoned me into a meeting.” The Reaper noticed a few confused looks. “Beelzebub, right hand of the Big Boss himself, and Vice Devil of Soul Reclamation? Do you people know nothing of your own afterlife?”

“I’ve read Dante’s Inferno,” Leon offered.

“Please, do not mention Alieghri. The Malebranche are still on probation over that debacle. But, back to Beelzebub. He can be a handful to deal with, but he offers the most comprehensive benefits package in all of the afterlife. He assaulted me with charts and graphs, all of which led to one inescapable conclusion. My productivity dropped drastically in the last quarter. Reports of miraculous recoveries rose seventeen percent. I’d… outright ignored calls to pick up Krispy Kreme.”

For the first time, Sandy smiled without any fear behind it. “So this isn’t that different from what I’ve dealt with before. You realized your addiction affected your ability to perform at your job, and so you decided to seek help. That’s a big part of recovery you managed, all by yourself.”

“It is quite kind of you to say that, Sandy, but I am afraid I only sought help when Beelzebub threatened to demote me to ferry patrol. Ferry patrol. Feh. Three hour trips of whining souls telling me how good they’d been, that they didn’t deserve to die and would make everything right if given a second chance. It might be amusing the first or second time, but eventually it drains you. Then you get the ones who look forward to it all, because they read about it in the Inferno or saw it on an album cover and thought it would be a grand adventure. Insufferable. They take all joy out of dangling mortality over your heads. I’ve thrown a few into Styx, I don’t mind telling you.”

By now, Sandy had begun to sway back and forth in her chair, and helped herself to more nicotine gum. “Well, that was… quite a story. Does anyone have advice for Grim?”

A skinny man in the corner raised his hand. Grim knew him, though not as extensively as the rest, perhaps because Maxwell Doctors had no ‘struggle with addiction’ to speak of. He’d faked alcoholism to join the group in a desperate bid for companionship. He’d already decided to pronounce himself cured. Maybe he’d join a reading group at the bookstore down the way. Still, he saw no harm in trying to earn brownie points on the way out.

“Mr. Reaper, I think your addiction is a manifestation of your dislike with your current line of work.”

“Oh?” Two pinpoints of blue fire burned deep within the shadows of Grim’s hood, illuminating the skull within.

Maxwell cowered back into his chair. “I think maybe so. Possibly. sir.”

The Reaper tapped the side of his hood. “Perhaps you have a point. I have enjoyed the whimpering, cowering and pleading. They do wonders for one’s self esteem. But the hours are too long, and certainly never predictable. I do like Beelzebub, but the shadow wraiths from Standards and Practices can burn in the eternal fire! They think they’re special because they have non-corporeal bodies they can meld into any shape, and–”

The sound of Taps filled the room, and brought an end to his rant. Once more the room fell silent, none sure of what to make of this latest development. They eyed one another, each guessing whose alloted time had come to an end. The Reaper slowly rose, and every soul in the room pushed their chairs away.

Then Grim produced a bright pink cell phone from the folds of his robe. “Sorry, I need to take this,” he said, and flipped the phone open.

“Reaper here… Yes? Okay… okay… okay. Cause of death?” He pulled the phone away from his hood. “…yes. Yes. I see. Are you serious? Left handed scissors? How is that even– oh, I suppose I shall see it for myself shortly. Thank you, Charon. …what was that? No. No. No. I shall not collect Scarlett Johannson, no matter how empty your social calendar is at this point. Goodbye.”

He closed the phone, tucked it away and scooped up the box of donuts. “My apologies, but work must be my first priority. Shall we meet the same time next week?”

“Um, sure,” Sandy replied, and wondered how many would show up.

“Excellent. Then I shall see you all then.” He moved out of the circle of chairs, then paused by a heavy set man near the doorway and patted him on the shoulder. “Except for you, Frank. I shall be seeing you… sooner.”

Frank DiGiacomo paled, pulled a pack of smokeless tobacco from his pocket and flung it into the trash without a second look. The Reaper’s deep laugh followed, bellowing through the room.

“I do love mortal humor. And it has helped you to quit your addiction. I feel as though I have already earned my place in this… family.” And with a puff of black smoke he vanished, leaving only the odor of brimstone behind.

“Anyone else have anything to share?” Sandy asked. No one answered. In fact, they stood up in unison and filed wordlessly out of the room. It reminded Sandy of a funeral procession, only less cheery. She looked into her purse and saw only one piece of nicotine gum left. She helped herself to it, forgetting to remove the wrapper.

“It’s going to be a long six weeks.”