Mingus rode north and Death rode with him. Mingus was, or had been, a canary. Death was this Swedish kid named Niclas he’d picked up hitchhiking outside Billings. Kind of a strange kid, truth be told. Did a lot of drugs.
“Stop here,” urged Niclas as they approached a Petro-Canada. “I need smokes.”
Mingus angled the Malibu toward a spot out front, but gave his passenger a dubious look. “You should let me go in.”
The skull looked at him intently. Mingus could see the back of its eye sockets, which wasn’t something you often saw when you looked at someone. “So what now, I never can talk to another human being?”
“That’s just it,” Mingus gently argued, “you don’t seem to be human exactly anymore.”
“I have a body, man. Look, it’s human.”
“It’s a human skeleton, yes. Walking and talking and smoking.”
“Yeah, like I say.” Niclas looked out the tinted window with dissatisfaction. “Fine, you go. But then we stop at a rest area or some place.”
“Okay.” Mingus got out. In Canada, it seemed, even the gas stations had beautiful views – mountains, a lake with a dock. Some boats down there. He felt refreshed, like maybe things would work out for the best after all. They’d find somewhere without any people, and spend their days chopping wood and carrying water and such. It was all admittedly a little vague, but it felt worth pursuing.
Inside the forty-something clerk was watching a television on the counter. Her gaze barely left the screen as she retrieved the cigarettes. Bizarre creatures were loping and flying and squirming down city streets, buildings burning, policemen in riot gear. “What do you think?” she said, jerking her chin absently at the TV.
He glanced at it nervously. “Oh, I don’t know. Probably good to stay away for now.”
“But what do you think it is? Look, this cop just turned into a walking refrigerator.”
“Well, if I had to guess… I’d say that probably a scientist was researching interdimensional phase changes using planar crystals in a lab in Denver. Then, probably, she found out she’d succeeded when her canary, which she kept around partly to warn of dangerous dimensional fluctuations, suddenly turned into a middle-aged man in a blue suit.
“Then, probably, she made the mistake of touching him, which initiated another phase change, turning her into an octopus. It’s like how very pure water won’t freeze until you introduce a little impurity, and then it freezes instantaneously.”
Her eyes narrowed. “But what about all this shit?”
“Oh, well, turns out it’s communicable. Just by touching. So… might want to stay at home for a little while. Or just not worry about it. It’s not so bad.”
She backed away. “I think you should go now.”
He nodded. “No worries.” He was hearing shouting anyway.
Outside a big red-bearded guy was backing away from his motorcycle, which Niclas had come out to admire. “You’re not taking me!” the biker was yelling, ducking around the pumps toward Mingus. “I’m not ready to go!”
“I’m not really Death, man,” said Niclas. “It’s just how I look. I can’t help that, you know?”
Mr. Redbeard seized a window-washer from a plastic well and waved it in front of him.
“Back off! I’ll use this!” Washing fluid sprayed the concrete.
“Excuse me,” Mingus said, and tapped the fellow on the neck. With his bare finger.
There was a crackling noise and a brilliant fragmented alteration of the space around the biker, as though he’d been suddenly encased in a sparkling glass mosaic. When it dissipated, there stood a short, exceptionally ugly gray-green demon thingie. Sharp, curving horns, flesh like rock, remarkably large triangular teeth, flaming orange eyes.
This squat devil looked down at itself, gasped, and made a rush for the motorcycle, deciding death was preferable to staying put, but unfortunately the keys had disappeared in the transformation along with his clothes. Also, his short legs couldn’t reach the chopper’s pegs. He raised his hideous visage to the sky and howled.
“Calm down, man,” said Niclas. “It’s okay, you’re just a little different now.”
The biker’s name was Fred. After a lot of reassurance, they all sat on the curb and contemplated their changed existences. “Listen,” Mingus said finally, “I’m sick of driving anyway. What say we walk down to that dock, steal a boat, and look around for a nice cabin on the lake?”
Fred shrugged in defeat. “Sure. I mean, I was going to meet my buddy in Prince George, but now he wouldn’t even recognize me.”
“Hey, everybody changes, man,” said Niclas breezily. “Can I take your helmet?”
Out on the water the air was crisp and fresh. As a canary, he’d been kept in a cage. This new life was confusing, but the mountains offered grand vistas of possibility.
Mingus rode north, and Death and the Devil rode with him.