Sunset Outside Detroit

Timmy had grown old. Death sat in the corner, drumming her fingers on the windowsill and turning the pages of an old issue of Time.

not today, then? She asked.

Timmy was too arthritic to shrug. He let a hand fall from his tattered paperback and gave a non-commital little wave.

Death let air rush gently through her lips. She looked outside. Mid-morning sun burned the earth and a quiet wind blew ash clouds in from the east. A shadow fell as one passed in front of the sun. Timmy looked up, frowning.

“Volcano again,” he said, “what was that, Yellowstone?”

rainier. Said Death. there are, like, five million volcanoes. you can’t just guess.

“I can do what I like.”

you cannot feel the comforting warmth of another living organism because they are all dead and you are alone.

“It’s not going to be another grumpy day, is it? Come on, Dee, cheer up. Have a jaffa cake.”

my life functions are a fruitless mimesis which exist only to facilitate your communication with me.

“They’re still soft. I just opened the packet.”

oh, go on then.

Death leaned forward and took one from the box. It moved to her mouth. Some event occurred and shortly afterwards the pattern of compounds which could be thought of as a ‘jaffa cake’ was destroyed.

“Do you have to be so dramatic?” asked Timmy.

it is in my nature, as I am in yours.

“I’m not having this argument again.”

there is nothing else to do.

“There’s an infinity of things to do,” said Timmy, leaning forward, “I could take a road trip. I could learn the piano. I could embark on a quest.”

what quest would you embark on?

“I could try and find that big pile of atari cartridges buried in New Mexico.”

they are crushed and encased in cement and you do not have a machine that will take them.

“I could read a book.”

you have read every book that still exists.

“Not this one.”

you read that book two hundred and six years ago, Timmy. they take the transmitter off the president’s heart and Schofield gets a medal for bravery. it hasn’t improved since last time.

“I’d forgotten how it ended!”

Death set her magazine down. of course you did, she said.

“You could bring me some books from Alexandria. I always thought that was a shame.”

I can’t break the rules, Timmy, I made that clear. one glitch is bad enough.

“Just a manuscript or two?”

I know your game. you think you can smuggle some living micro-organisms out of the past and restart the world with them? not today, sunshine.

“You really prefer it like this?” he asked. “Black skies and scorched earth? Decaying cities? It can’t be fun for you, nothing living wandering around.”

you are still living.

“Well yeah, but I’m not good company.”

I’ve had worse company. besides, I go where the work is.

“There’s no work for you here.”

so you keep saying.

“So there’s really no-one out there? No life on other worlds for you to harvest? Nobody else?”

just you, Timmy.

“Ugh.”

The cloud rolled out and the sun returned. It cast dim light over the lonely farmhouse with its creaky doors and its rusted old car parked neatly outside.

“Aren’t you bored? Wouldn’t you like some people to kill?”

I am not here to kill.

“Of course you are.”

I am not a killer, Timmy. I’m a shepherd. my job is to guide you through the end. to guide everything through the end. I was there when the first life began and I should be there when the last life is complete.

“You’re a bookend.”

and you are the final book. this is just the coda.

“You can’t trick me into dying with metaphors.”

I thought you liked metaphors.

The paperback slipped from Timmy’s grasp and splayed itself on the floor. “I don’t do that anymore. You know I don’t do that.”

maybe if you did you wouldn’t be so sad.

Timmy straightened up. “I’m not sad.”

Death steepled her fingers. you’re lonely in your pain and you fall into fictions to keep yourself alive. there is nothing you have that isn’t stitched from fantasy, and your world is empty of all but ghosts.

“Ghosts are real?”

it is a metaphor.

“I don’t write because there’s no-one around to read.” Timmy tried to stand, but hissed with pain and sat back down. “What’s the point? My books were always meant to help people. If they’re not helping anyone then I’m just mas-”

Death held up a bony hand. let us not go into this territory again, she said. that was an odd year.

“My point is- there’s nothing left to say. No- not that, it’s that there’s no-one who needs to hear what I can find to say. So I read instead.”

do you need to hear what they have to say?

“Always.”

They sat in silence for a while. Timmy didn’t bother bending down to pick up his book. Death worked her way through the jaffa cakes. She had almost emptied the box when they were disturbed by a sustained roar in the distance.

“Yellowstone?”

no, said Death, that is a glass storm coming in off the east coast. it is flattening the ruin of Montreal with a forest it picked up in Maine.

“We should have stayed in Minneapolis.”

minneapolis is currently on fire.

“Oh.”

…it wasn’t me.

“I know.”

ozone hole, phosphorous on the wind and refracted sunlight-

“Dee, I know. Don’t worry.” Timmy rubbed his forehead with a wrinkled hand. “Is the library-”

Death turned her eyes downward. most of downtown is gone, she said, it’s only a matter of time. like anything, really.

Timmy tried to steady his hand. He let out a shaky breath.

you should be used to this by now. Death gave him a concerned look.

“Easy for some,” Timmy sniffed, “you’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. Watching things…” he heaved himself out of the chair, “burn.”

don’t let it hurt you.

“How, eh?” he seized his stick and waved it at her. “How do you do it? Not caring?”

perspective, she said. thirteen-point-eight billion years of it. I have my role to play and I cope with it as best I can, but do not accuse me of carelessness. I break patterns – that is my function – but I appreciate them. Death rose from her chair. how could I not, seeing all I see? I hear galaxies colliding, I smell the collapse of planets and feel the spin of the universe above our heads. I see every masterpiece remaining on this world and I taste every morsel of flavour that persists in the cold places of the Earth.

Timmy frowned. “The fridge?”

er- there is a fragment of chocolate in the bottom compartment.

“…I’ll leave it for you.”

thank you. tea?

Death moved to Timmy’s side and slipped her arm through his.

“Careful,” he said.

I am always careful.

She helped him to the kitchen and let him turn on the makeshift kettle. The whirr of the generator outside increased in pitch, and the canister started to burble.

“Never thought I’d be grateful for all this plastic,” said Timmy.

humanity left its last child plenty of supplies.

“Couldn’t leave me a functioning airplane, though, could they? I’m stuck here, aren’t I? No decent bloody tea in this entire country.”

there is a box of Yorkshire Gold buried beneath a tree in Texas.

“It won’t taste right. The water here is too soft.”

your country was strange.

“Yes,” said Timmy, “I suppose it was.”

The kettle clicked off and Timmy busied himself with a couple of mismatched mugs and a box of teabags.

are you feeling better? asked Death.

“You think hurting is so pointless,” he said, his voice quiet.

everything is technically meaningless.

“I’m being serious.”

sorry. but there is no need for you to hurt.

“Ha.” Timmy poured boiling water over the bags, one after another. “No. There’s every need. No-one left to cry for humanity besides me. No feelings left, besides mine.”

you create your own-

“I know, you keep saying. ‘You create your own meaning. You don’t need to suffer anymore. You can make death meaningful.’”

well, you can. your ending can be a completion. a conclusion. like a good book.

“It can.”

why not, then?

Timmy tipped boiling tea into his mouth. As usual, it did no damage. He swallowed and his throat hurt.

“I have always liked feeling things,” he said, “and I would think it a terrible shame if I stopped after all this. I live in a very sad world. If no-one is around to lament it, then it becomes a normal world. I don’t like the lack of good tea. If I go, then a lack of good tea becomes acceptable.”

are you still being serious?

Timmy gave a very small laugh. “Maybe. Tell you what I do think. The time is long gone where I could enjoy a nice curry with my friends. No more love, as far as I can see. Very little industrious satisfaction. But… there are small pleasures. A good book. A good… conversation.”

Death cocked her head. she looked at him with coldly curious eyes.

“You might think of them as nice patterns. A pattern is better than nothing.” He gestured towards her mug. “Tea without milk is better than nothing. A trashy airport thriller-”

better than nothing?

“Significantly.”

I cannot allow things to persist, said Death, unsmiling. you know this.

Timmy pointed at her with his cane. “You have so far.”

Death paused. I cannot ignore the ending, she said, but I cannot allow a bad one.

“What’s bad?”

you should know. you write endings for a living.

“Wrote,” he corrected her, “but yes. Unsatisfying. Meaningless.”

you create your own meaning.

Timmy took a sip of tea. “As long as I don’t, you can’t take me.”

I wondered whether you had figured it out.

“A few months ago. Once I stopped-”

yes, okay, I understand.

“Well, yeah.”

so you’re still not ready to make your ending?

“Not quite. Can you wait?”

of course.

Timmy held the mug to his mouth for a moment.

“Thank you. Drink your tea.”

*

Death lay on the sofa, twirling her scythe idly.

bored, she echoed through the universe, bored bored bored.

She pushed a distant rock off a precipice on Mars and it smashed into pieces on the ground far below. It wasn’t the same.

boooooored.

“Dee?”

She turned around. Her eyes weren’t always on Timmy. The previous year had forced her to give him some privacy. It made their relationship much easier. Now she saw him, leaning on the doorframe to his bedroom.

“I… this is for you, if you want it.”

He held out a small object. Death looked at him, her brow knitted. She set her location to a point in front of him and inspected the object.

where did you get that? she asked. She didn’t inspect his past. She felt he wanted to answer the question himself.

“Minneapolis. It was… it was by a window. The radiation bleached it blank.”

removed all patterns, murmured Death.

“I… I put some of my own into it. It was too empty.”

you said you didn’t do that anymore.

“I say lots of things.”

Death took the book from his hands.

for me? she asked, her eyes as black as the end of everything.

“If you want it.”

…Thank you.

Death relocated to the sofa and opened to page one. Timmy smiled.

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