The last of the sunlight filtered through the bar’s grimy windows, projecting a shattered rainbow of tangerine, mauve and blood red. Taking a pull from my bottle, I turned back to the woman.
“That’s one wicked handle for such a pretty gal.” I didn’t have many intentions, but one might surface through the conversation.
“My name isn’t Death,” she said. “That’s just what they call me.”
“I ain’t known but a few reapers myself, but you’re one I wouldn’t run from.”
The smile on her face, closed-lipped and rueful, tugged her eyes from mine.
“Then you might never see it coming, hombre. Don’t let the veneer of beauty be the cause of your ending.”
Maybe a few of those intentions floated to the surface.
“Let’s have one more-on me, of course-and discuss this ending.”
“May not be a happy one.” Her eyes, so brown they faded into the pits of her pupils, locked onto mine. “But like the old spiritual says, be not afraid.”
“Maybe we don’t need that drink after all.” I stood, adjusting my vest, club colors proudly beckoning to the rest of the bar. “Hows about a ride? My hog can feel like flying when getting up to speed.”
“The road could feel good about now. Especially if the air has cooled any.”
We stood and left the bar, entering cobalt-colored twilight as the last of the daylight drifted into the Pacific Ocean some 150 miles due west. My ride, a ’68 shovelhead Harley chopped for extra comfort, was the only bike in the lot. She ran her fingers along the headlight.
“Sweet. Lots of firepower on this one.”
“You know you’re hogs, huh? Then hop aboard.”
She waited for me to saddle up then slipped behind me, her muscular body not trim but the right size for the bike. She clamped her cordy arms around my waist as I kicked the starter. With a roar and rumble, we drove into the Hemet night.
We hit the local highway, headed to the San Jacinto Mountains. When we were alone, not one piece of steel in sight, I felt a sudden drag, something slowing us down. I saw in the rear view a set of wings, black as the coming night, sprouting from my passenger. She flapped them in the headwind, cleaning out any molting feathers as a few graying strands tumbled into the air behind us.
I caught her face in the mirror, a look of pure pleasure so different from before. She looked free, let loose from worldly burden. Her grip tightened as we climbed.
In an hour, the air thinned, cooling with each foot of altitude. A rest stop was coming and I took the exit so we could stare from its vista. One eighteen wheeler wheezed on the high road, sitting still for a napping rider no doubt, but the rest of the place was quiet, especially after I killed the bike’s engine.
“That clears the head.” She shook her long, plank-straight hair as it fluttered in a slight breeze. The wings pulsed as she rolled her shoulders.
“Thought you said you weren’t Death.”
“I said it wasn’t my name. But I do transport souls.”
“Must be one helluva ride.”
“I can show you. We don’t need to go all the way for you to get a taste.”
I nodded. Live to ride wasn’t just my club’s motto, but everything I wanted while this heart kept beating.
She squatted to the ground, turning from dark angel to raven before my eyes. The change was effortless, but I saw nothing of the woman I’d just met in these new avian features. Yet this beast was still a beauty.
I climbed on her back, broad enough for a man my size. With a couple of quick hops, we were airborne, me feeling her shoulders working as we lifted towards the stars.
Out here in the high desert way away from the blinding street lamps of Los Angeles, the stars swirled in an ocean of lights. The moon was halfway out now, illuminating us enough to see the undulating mountains below.
My grip was tight, but even a speed demon like me felt way beyond my kin, hair slapping my neck and beard vibrating in the wind.
We began a descent, her wings set as we lowered, the decrepit shoreline of the Salton Sea dead ahead. The air filled with rotting fish smell, but she skimmed down to a few feet above water, mist spraying as she dragged her talons.
Winging around, we came back to the shoreline, then back up to my bike. My body weary from hanging on so tight, I rolled off the bird and lay on the concrete taking in the star shine. In a minute, she curled up against me, all woman now.
“You’re one in a million, caballero.”
“Meaning what?” I opened my arm to her, she resting her head in the crook.
“Meaning no one gets to come back from a ride like that.” Her arm wrapped around my waist. “But it’s my night off. And that was some fun.”
“Don’t know if you could feel it, but there were a few moments there where I wasn’t sure I was gonna stay hanging on.”
“See, that’s where the fun was. First, you got to be in control. Then it was my turn.” Pushing against my hip, she got up on her knees. “You weren’t gonna fall. I wouldn’t let it happen.”
“You know I live to ride.”
“And ride to live. I know all the clichés.” She stood, stretching her arms to the sky, her silhouette all I could see in the dark. “It’ll be a while, cowboy. Maybe it will be me, maybe another one of us. But now you get back to living and I’ll get back to the dying.”
Her shadow turned to wings then floated off, gone from sight.
“I do hope it’s you,” I called out. “I’ll take that ride for my life every time.”
Charlie Brown is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he received his Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. He has made two feature films: Angels Die Slowly and Never A Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band. His fiction has appeared in Conium Review, Oddville Press, Writing Disorder, Jersey Devil Press, The Menacing Hedge, and Aethlon, plus the anthologies “Dimensional Abscesses” and “Nocturnal Natures.” He is also managing editor for the academic speculative media journal Vex Mosaic and teaches composition and journalism at a variety of community colleges.