Road Like a River
"Hey, Charlie. You like the truck better? Than the boat, I mean?"
That’s what she said as she walked away from the last ride she should ever have taken. And this one was smart. Kharon, even if he went by the name of Charlie these days, knew she’d be okay.
But this one wasn’t just smart. She was different. Because this one came back.
Charlie's a trucker, an Independent. Meaner 'n snakes, he’s been there, done that and kicked its butt—twice. What Charlie picks up, he delivers. Now Charlie’s biggest customers want him to take on an extra little job—an investigation into missing deliveries. Charlie turns them down flat. Because when god an’ the devil (not God and the Devil—it’s a union thing) are both sounding scared, a smart trucker drives away.
Then Rosie comes back, scarred from a whipping she swears Charlie gave her. It’s not like she’s the first to try to kill him. But she damn near succeeds, and not even the idiot in the lion skin did that. And it’s soon clear that whoever’s stealing souls wants Charlie in the frame—so they can take what’s in his truck.
Now Rosie's pissed. And Charlie’s pissed-er. And someone’s going to pay. Pay a lot more than Charlie's penny. Because nobody— not god, not demon, not poly-dimensional trans-optical hyper-sentient autonomous non-organic entity—nobody touches his truck.
“How did I die, Charlie?”
Charlie smiled to himself. It wasn’t something he did often, and it felt strange. Rosie had been awake for a while, but she hadn’t moved. If he was a bettin’ man, or a bettin’ not-really-a-man, he’d have bet half the coins in the truck that would be the first question. He frowned. No. Not those coins. Never those. He didn’t need to think. He knew every one of them. Every coin, including hers. He could still hear Blair’s voice as it faded into the crackles.
“But...but I landed! At Midland! I remember!”
“Yup. You landed. Smack.”
“See, people…people don’t like dyin’. So they tries not to. Most, they make somethin’ up. Like landin’ at Midland.”
“Some remember. Some know. Those memories…they hold ‘em down. Y’all heard ghost stories, right? Haunted places?”
“But there’s no such things as ghosts, Char…” Rosie stopped.
“Right.” Charlie grinned in the dark. It felt a little less strange, as though he was getting used to it. He wondered if that was a good idea.
“But…I landed! There was…well, that guy, Charlie. He…” Rosie flushed. “Was that you, you bastard?”
“Sub-contractors?” Rosie probably thought Charlie couldn’t see the expression on her face saying he might as well have been talking Greek. Which he could, provided it weren’t the modern rubbish. Charlie shrugged. “See, in the old days, they was brung. Now…well, the damn fool got into technology. Bloody Al Gore. He didn’t invent nuthin’. Hermes should sue ‘im. Still, he don’t got no time for bringin’ souls no more. So I got to get ‘em myself. And the truck…well, a truck’s place is on the Road. So I sub-contracts. To get ‘em to the Road. To bring ‘em. Same as you was brung.”
“The Road?” Rosie had clearly heard the capital. Charlie wondered if he was slipping, or if he’d meant her to. He said nothing.
Rosie waited for an answer. It was clear one wasn’t coming. “So what now, Charlie? I still have my lily. It must be round here somewhere. I guess you take me back to the Gates? But…but I don’t have a penny.”
“You don’t?” Charlie’s voice was calm.
“No! See?” Rosie turned her pockets inside out, then reached into her back pockets. Charlie could see her face turn puzzled when her hand came out. In it was her penny.
“I have a penny, Charlie. How do I have a penny?” Charlie said nothing. “So. It’s the Gates.” For some reason, Rosie had a sad smile. She looked at the penny, then shook her head. “Hey, mister. I need a ride. Will this do?” Rosie held out the penny.
So, Charlie thought. There it was. “Ah. ‘Bout that. We need to talk.”
“Talk, Charlie? I don’t like the sound of that. Never got nothin’ good from those four words.”
“Guess them cuts an’ stuff mus’ hurt like hell, missie—um, Rosie?”
“Damn right, you son of a…” The anger was back in Rosie’s voice. She surged to her feet to hit him again. Or she would have if Cerberus hadn’t given three soft growls, and braced three heads in her lap so she couldn’t move. Charlie waited.
“Charlie?” Charlie said nothing. “Charlie? There’s…there’s no cuts, Charlie. And…and it doesn’t hurt. Even where you hit me, it doesn’t hurt.” Charlie said nothing. “Did I imagine it, Charlie? Like landing?”
“You don’t say much do you, Charlie? And even when you say somethin’, you still don’t say much, right?”
“Nope. Or yup. Take your pick, lady.”
“It’s Rosie, Charlie. Rosie. Why don’t it hurt, Charlie?”
“You know what they say, la… Rosie. An apple a day?”
“Know why they say it, Rosie?”
“Charlie. Talk sense. Or at least try. Why don’t it hurt?”
“I cain’t take you to the Gates, Rosie. See, you don’t qualify.”
“Charlie. I got my damn penny! And my lily—it’s here somewhere, Charlie. I know it is!”
“’Tain’t that, lady.” Charlie stared into the dark. “See, you cain’t die.”
“I know, Charlie. I’m dead already. Even though I… I killed…” Rosie’s voice choked, then she caught herself. “You told me. I landed. Smack. I get it. And it’s Rosie.”
“Right. But it don’t count. Not anymore.”
“Charlie. Please. Just for me. Just once. Make some sense?”
Sense. Right. Well, it had made sense to Charlie at the time. Now? Now there weren’t no easy way round it. “You’re immortal.”