WARNING: CONTAINS DISTRESSING THEMES
The evening was already growing late when I came to call upon the mortal known as Agatha Casper. She had already changed into her nightgown, and was in the kitchen pouring herself a hot cup of decaffeinated tea - presumably, her bedtime drink of choice.
Needless to say, when she stepped out into the living room and found me there waiting for her, she damn near dropped it onto the floor.
"You!" she stammered, aghast. "You're... you're the Grim -"
"Your time has come."
One has found that shock can make mortals act in bizarre ways. Agatha took the news of her impeding death very calmly - merely responding with a sigh, and looking wistfully down into her cup.
"I've just made a drink," she muttered, with a pang of irritation.
I was quite unsure how to react myself.
"You... you do have a few minutes more," I explained. "Perhaps you could sit down and finish it before we go."
"Thank you. Would you like one? I brewed a full pot."
"I have no need for refreshment."
"Then, perhaps you would care to sit down?"
She gestured towards an armchair. Out of all the souls I had ever reaped, Agatha Casper was the first one ever to offer me a seat. The Grim Reaper wasn't exactly a welcome visitor in anyone's home, after all.
Still... there was no need to be impolite, was there?
As I settled myself down into the chair, Agatha lowered herself onto the sofa, sipping from her cup and relishing the liquid within. Savouring the taste one last time, I suppose.
"How am I to die?" she asked, matter-of-factly.
I glanced over the case notes on my tablet.
"A stroke," I explained. "Sudden. Practically painless. You will go swiftly."
As Agatha processed this information, she nodded with a sense of contentment.
"Good," she said. "I was hoping it wouldn't be too drawn out."
"Pardon me for saying this," I told her, "but you seem to be dealing with this entire situation very well, given the circumstances."
"At my age, you get used to the idea of your impending mortality," she replied. "Besides, everyone I love is on that side on the veil, not this one."
"Such as?" I asked.
Putting her cup on the table, she placed her hands together in her lap - smiling as she began to recall her fondest memories.
The day I married Wilbur Casper - "Willy" - was the happiest one I ever knew. He was my soulmate, the love of my life. We moved to Forgotten Hollow and into this house shortly after our wedding, eager and ready to start a long and happy life together.
Of course, our plans included starting a family.
Even considering the fact that we were passionate newlyweds, I fell pregnant with Willy's child rather quickly. We hadn't even finished decorating the house by the time the morning sickness started. Still, despite that, the mood swings and other little ups and downs, the pregnancy went swimmingly. Everything seemed utterly perfect.
That was, until our baby boy was born.
We never heard him cry.
We named him "Jack".
The doctors wanted to just usher him away somewhere, but I wouldn't let them. I wanted to give him a decent burial - to know where he lay, to be able to go and visit him. I had to fight tooth and nail to get my way, but in the end, they backed down.
The week after we buried him, I could barely get out of bed. It felt so pointless. My life had just fallen apart. My future had been lost with our little boy.
Willy, God bless his heart, was so supportive - constantly telling me that these things happened, it wasn't my fault, I'd done nothing wrong... but his words did little to ease my overwhelming feelings of guilt.
And then, when I finally did start to recover... when I started to move on whilst still remembering and cherishing the memory of my precious child, when I began to feel that I could live life again... fate dealt me another cruel blow.
Willy got sick.
I hardly left his side as he lay on that hospital bed. I was with him when they did every test, every treatment... anything they could think of to try and save him.
I saw the illness conquering his weakened body. I saw that shining glimmer in his eyes slowly fading day by day. Still, I stayed with him. He had been strong for me. Now, I had to be strong for him.
I loved him. On the day we were wed, I had made the vow, with hesitation, to care for him in faithfulness forever - in sickness and in health.
Until death do us part.
All too soon... it did.
Until the day they buried Willy, I hadn't known that a person could feel such pain. As I placed flowers on his resting place beside our son, praying that they had now been reunited, I thought that this flood of agony, this overwhelming grief, would be enough to kill me, too.
But it wasn't. I lived. For years, I had lived, in loneliness and misery - too afraid to let love back into my heart in case I lost it again.
When that Livingstone woman moved in over the road and began to build up her brood, bearing child after child before my eyes, it felt like Fate was twisting the dagger it had plunged into my heart long ago. Even then, I still lived - hatred and jealousy filling the gap that the loss of my husband and child had left behind.
But now, it was over. The peace of death would finally come. If there was any justice at all in the universe, I would soon be with Willy and Jack once more - and this time, nothing in existence would ever part us.
Then again, with the hand that Life had dealt me... who was to say there was any guarantee I'd get my wish?
Agatha was interrupted from her reminiscing by the arrival of my apprentice. As she walked in through the walls of the house - her powers now well-practised - and approached us, I could see the shock swiftly spreading across the old woman's face.
"I know you!" she cried. "You're one of those Livingstone children!"
"That's right, Mrs. Casper." Adelaide confirmed. "The first born."
"What on Earth are doing here? How did you come in through that wall?"
"Adelaide here is a protégé of mine," I explained. "A Reaper in training. One of the alphabet of apprentices that Ms. Livingstone agreed to bring into the world for me, in exchange for prolonging her originally much shorter life."
Mrs. Casper's eyes widened. Stunned, she gasped, bringing her hands to her mouth.
"So that's why she has so many children," she said, the realisation dawning on her. "My God. And to think how badly I treated her..."
Jumping to her feet, she ran to a nearby drawer in search of a stationery set.
"It's not too late to make amends, is it?" she asked me, genuinely concerned.
"You must hurry."
As quickly as she could, Mrs. Casper jotted down a letter, addressed the envelope to Ms. Livingstone, and sealed it away - leaving it on a side table to be found by whoever discovered her body.
"I am sorry," she said to Adelaide, with true sincerity. "I was just an jealous old hag, twisted by sadness, and I took it out on your mother - and you and your siblings besides. I see now how wrong I was. Please... forgive me."
"I do, Mrs. Casper," came the reply. "And please, forgive me for being the one who must reap your soul."
"Not at all," Mrs. Casper said in warm tones. "You are doing me a great honour."
She turned her head as she heard her old nickname being called... her eyes swiftly flooding with happy tears as they fell on yet another unearthly visitor.
"Willy!" she rasped. "Oh, darling, you're here!"
"Of course I am," he replied.
"I've missed you so much."
"And we've missed you, Aggie. Me and Jack. For such a long time. You were with us both when we passed over. Now, I'm going to be here for you. As for your little one, he's waiting for us on the other side."
"Please, Willy.... don't leave me again. Not now."
"Don't worry, Aggie. I'm not going anywhere. Not without you."
With a nod to Adelaide, I indicated that now was the time.
With a grand ceremonial air, my apprentice raised the scythe, and swung.
As I sat at the glass table in Gregory's garden, having been invited over for a drink once we'd heard the news about Mrs. Casper, I put down the letter from her that the police had handed to me - gazing absently at the flowers as I took in what she had written.
She seemed very sincere. It was apparent that the Reaper had told her about our arrangement, and it had changed her view of me in those final moments. From what she had told me about her life, I could now understand her hatred, but I still wished she could have been more kind to me - and, dare I say it, myself to her. She could have been like a grandmother to my children. That might have brought some joy into her twilight years.
Now, alas, it was too late.
The shaking of ice-filled glasses being carried on a tray pulled me out of my thoughts. As Gregory set the drinks down before us, taking a seat beside me, I tucked the letter back into the envelope.
"So... what did she write?" he asked me.
I couldn't give specifics. Gregory didn't know about my mission. It wasn't that I didn't trust him - far from it. If I could trust him with my children, I could trust him with anything. I simply wasn't sure he'd believe me even if I told him.
After all, Mrs. Casper probably wouldn't have... until she heard it from the Reaper herself.
"She just wanted to apologise," I said to Gregory. "For the way she acted towards me."
"A nice gesture," he agreed. "I think, deep down, she was probably just a sad and lonely woman. Perhaps something about you reminded her of her past... maybe something that caused her pain later on. Not that it gives her any excuse for her behaviour."
"I think you're right."
As we enjoyed our drinks, I noticed that Gregory seemed a little nervous. As I watched him awkwardly sip from his glass, he spotted me looking at him, and cleared his throat.
"I... I was wondering if... if, maybe... you would like to stay for dinner?"
Somewhat surprised by this - although pleasantly so - I drummed up a weak smile.
"Oh, Gregory, I would, but... I'm afraid I'm meeting someone this evening."
"I see," he said, rather crestfallen. "For a date, I assume?"
I said nothing, but I could feel myself blushing. My outings with men weren't exactly "dates" in the conventional sense, and I suspect that Gregory knew that. He was just trying to be tactful. Still, he was civil enough not to pry.
"It's fine," he said sincerely - smiling at me in an understanding way, no hint of falsehood. "I hope you enjoy yourself. He's a lucky guy, whoever he is."
"Thanks," I told him, grateful for his graciousness. "Not that I don't appreciate your invitation. Another time, maybe."
"Yes, perhaps. Oh - do you need someone to watch the kids?"
"No, it's fine. Ianto is going to look after them. He's grounded, anyway. He tried to sneak into a dance club in Windenburg the other night with a fake ID."
"The little rogue!"
As I looked at him laughing, I couldn't help but wish that I had kept my evening free. All the same, I had my reservations. In the years since I'd moved here, I'd come to care for Gregory a great deal. He was my best friend, my confidant, and - I had to admit it - very charming.
And I was terrified of losing him.
As a rule, I made sure I never got too emotionally close to the men who fathered my children. A little romance, maybe, but never love. It made it so much easier to move on to the next suitor once that little plus sign appeared on the pregnancy test.
But Gregory was different. If I was ever going to be with him, I wanted it to be the real deal. But I still had a mission to fulfil - one I didn't feel I could tell him about. Not yet, at least.
Assuming he believed me, perhaps he'd understand. Then again, he might not. I wasn't willing to risk ruining what we had. My baby fathers might be like ships passing in the night, but he was the mooring in my life's harbour.
Gregory wasn't like the others.
Gregory was... special.
"A shame about Mrs. Casper," he went on. "I hope she's at peace now."
"Yes," I agreed, resting my hand on the envelope gently. "So do I."