The center of the country was still cold, although they were definitely heading south. By mid-afternoon they had left the suburbs of the city behind, and were heading through the rural heartland of the country. William had driven across the country, long ago, when he was young, but it was easy to forget how varied different parts of the United States were. The MG rolled along past farmland, which, while barren during the winter, was nonetheless impressive, and majestic to look at. William reflected how, much like New York, Illinois was dominated by a very different landscape once you left it’s principle city behind. It was late in the afternoon when he and Death crossed the Mississippi.
If you’re an American, there is nothing in this world like crossing the mighty Mississippi. By the time he got there, Will was a man in his late fifties. His hair was no longer white, but salt and pepper, and his hands were strong. The grip of the wheel felt good underneath his palm and his back was hurting less than the day before. Death looked better too. The two men pulled up to a respectable three star hotel in Saint Louis, tired but pleased with the progress they’d made.
“What do you do for fun?” William asked.
“Sometimes, I go find a poker a game and I convince some poor sap to play for his soul,” Death admitted.
“That’s terrible,” Will said, but he was laughing as he said it.
“I always let the guy win,” Death admitted. “He usually goes home and quits smoking afterwards.”
Saint Louis struck William as a grim and not entirely pleasant city. He and Death made the best of it by heading out to a pool hall and drinking cheap beer, while they tried trick shots and played a little nine ball. William discovered that once you were dead you didn’t care in the slightest who won or lost, but he had a good time anyway. In the morning, they found a bagel shop, and had sandwiches and coffee. After that they headed west, through the Ozarks.
Death had said he wanted to make good progress today, he’d grown a little tired of the cold weather, and was hoping to make it as far as Texas, perhaps even New Mexico. For the most part the trip went quickly, except that evening, somewhere near the Oklahoma-Kansas border, they got lost. In principle, even this would have been fine, except then something happened, and the car got a flat.
“Do you have triple A?” William asked.
“No,” Death admitted. “I don’t have a cell phone either, not that there would be any service out here.” This was clearly true. They hadn’t seen anything that even remotely resembled a town for quite some time.
“We can change a tire,” William said confidently. At this point he was definitely in late-middle age. His hair was receding, his body was barrel-chested, his skin lacked the grayish tone it had taken on in old age, and his back felt strong. It occurred to William that he’d had back surgery about ten years ago to relieve the pain from a slipped disc. He had a feeling that if he checked, the scar wouldn’t be there any longer.
When they got out of the car William took a deep breath. It felt like spring. Early spring maybe, but it was definitely above freezing. The air felt good against his face. He was glad that they’d gotten the chance to get out of the car again. “Jesus,” he said, tapping Death on the shoulder. “Look at the stars.”
The car was so low to the road that William hadn’t really hadn’t gotten a chance to look up at the sky. They were in a stretch of rural Kansas, in what an Astronomer might have referred to as a ‘dark sky’ area, but what most people would have called to as “the middle of nowhere.” It was a clear night, and the Milky Way covered the sky from one horizon to the next. The whole universe was crystal clear.
“Impressive,” Death admitted, although he didn’t sound all that impressed.
Suddenly William thought of something. “Do you go to those places?” he asked.
“What,” Death asked. “The stars?”
“The stars, other planets, other galaxies, whatever,” William clarified. “Is there life out there?”
“I go to a few,” Death admitted. “But not as many as you’d think. Most planets are dead. Mostly, they’re empty lumps of rock and gas orbiting around globes of fire. Even most of the ones I go to are mostly barren wastelands. This place,” he pointed at the ground. “This is special.”
“Show me one,” William said. “One that you’ve been to.”
Death pointed up to a constellation. “That one,” he said. “Saldabari, on the wings of Pegasus.”
“Really?” William asked. “There are aliens there?”
“There used to be,” Death said. “They’re gone now. It was a beautiful place though, oceans that were blood red and skies of a bright amber. There were creatures there that you wouldn’t believe. A world of brilliant minds and untamed possibilities.”
“Used to be?” William said, catching the sadness in Death’s voice. “What happened?”
“It didn’t last,” Death said.