DEATH RIDES SHOTGUN

Michael Haynes has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and a number of anthologies. This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

*****

Joseph took it as a bad sign when he exited the office of the motel he’d stayed in just outside Scipio, Utah, and found Death sitting in the passenger seat of his midnight black convertible Corvette.

He didn’t want to get in the car but there wasn’t anything for it. He was halfway from Butte to Barstow, and he’d be damned if he’d miss seeing his new granddaughter. Though, on reflection, he suspected that wasn’t quite the turn of phrase he ought to be contemplating just then.

Joseph sighed, hitched his pants up, and walked over to his ‘Vette.

“I think you got the wrong car,” he told Death as he settled behind the wheel. Death turned and looked in Joseph’s direction. Not at him exactly, more like through him.

“Shit,” Joseph breathed with a shudder. He fired the car up, turned on some AC/DC (again wondering about the wisdom of that choice), and soon they were doing ninety-five down the freeway under the blazing July sun.

They were nearly an hour down the road, just past the western end of I-70, when Death first spoke.

“That ‘looking through you’ thing usually rattles folks more,” he said.

“Well…guess I’ve been expecting you a while.”

Death gave a little hmm but didn’t say anything more.

Joseph stopped to fuel up the car before they left Utah. Pumping the gas, a wave of coughing overtook him, so fierce that his head ached and his vision dimmed. Carefully, braced against the car and resolutely not looking Death in the eye, he caught his breath.

On Joseph’s way into the store to get water, Death hollered, “Get some snacks!”

It turns out Death is fond of Cheetos. Joseph noticed the orange stuff didn’t stick to Death’s fingers and supposed that was a benefit of the whole immortal thing.

Crossing into California, Joseph shut off the stereo.

“You do this often?” he asked.

“Not really.”

“So what’s happening with other folks? No one dying today?”

“It doesn’t work like that. I am many places.”

“And one of them is the front seat of my Corvette?”

“Rather obviously, yes?”

Joseph thought about other questions he wanted to ask, decided he wasn’t sure he’d like hearing the answers, and turned the music back on.

The sun was getting low as they drove through the outskirts of Barstow and pulled onto Marla’s road. He hadn’t seen her in a decade—not since she’d left Montana—and they hadn’t been on good terms for years before that. But she’d had a daughter in May and even though Joseph’s doctor said he shouldn’t be taxing himself, he’d decided he was going to meet Caroline while he still could.

Dogs barked as the Corvette turned into the driveway.

“I’ll wait out here,” Death said.

“Good call.”

Joseph went to the door and knocked, hoping Marla was home. He hadn’t called ahead.

She came to the door, Caroline in her arms. Her eyes grew wide.

“Jesus, Dad…” she said. He knew he looked rough.

“Hey, baby. Can I come in?”

She hesitated, surely just a second but it felt longer, then pulled the door open wide.

“What about your friend? Don’t he want out of the heat?”

“Yeah, I don’t think it bothers him much.”

“He from up in the Valley?”

Joseph coughed out a laugh as he stepped inside. “Death Valley? Something like that.”

Marla took a long look outside before closing the door behind Joseph.

He held Caroline as Marla fixed a frozen pizza for them to share and kept holding her as he ate a couple slices of the pepperoni pie.

They talked more than in the last ten years put together, but soon it was getting dark and Joseph felt a weariness creeping into his bones.

“I gotta go, Marla,” he said, handing Caroline carefully to his daughter.

“You sure? You could stay on the couch…”

Joseph looked out at Death waiting patiently in his car and knew he couldn’t stay. “Yeah, I’m sure. I gotta roll. But thanks, babe.” They stood there a long moment then stepped together for a tentative hug.

Back in the car, he started it up and headed back toward the highway.

“Good visit?” Death asked after a few minutes.

“Yeah. Not long enough, though.” He heard the bitterness that had crept into his voice, but figured it didn’t much matter now anyway.

“You could have stayed longer.”

“Kinda hard to feel good about sitting in your daughter and granddaughter’s home with Death out in the driveway.”

Death gave another little hmm and then silence filled the car.

They hadn’t gotten too far north on the highway when Joseph needed a pit stop so he pulled off at a rest area.

When he came back from using the facilities, Death was behind the wheel.

“You’re not looking so good,” Death said. “Let me drive a bit.”

“Doesn’t sound like the best idea to me.”

Death just looked at him. Not through him, at him.

“If it’s all the same to you,” Joseph said, “I’ll keep driving.”

Slowly, Death nodded. “Alright then, but if you’re going to be the one driving, make sure you’re taking the road you want to travel,” he said, getting out from behind the wheel. “See you in a couple weeks.” And he was gone.

Joseph sat behind the wheel and rubbed the stubble on his chin, thinking for a long minute. Then he got the ‘Vette going, turned the music up loud and hit the road, looking for the first exit where he could turn around and head back south to Barstow.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael Haynes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *