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To Meet the Death Carriage

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at bethcato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

The old storybook from the attic had said the only way a living person could intercept the death carriage was to stand where three roads met beneath a full moon after a day that held a rainbow. Janey had waited months for the perfect moment to come, and used that time to write more letters to Mama. Janey now clutched them in one fist, her plush horse Welkin in the other, as she waited at the crossroads.
"I hope Papa doesn't wake up and find us gone," she whispered. "But he'd understand why we're out, right, Welkin?"
Her fingers twitched as she helped the furry brown horse to nod. One of his big button eyes drooped by threads. Papa was good at lots of things, but he couldn't sew like Mama had.
Janey heard a rumble. Uphill, a vehicle appeared--an automobile of translucent black, bouncing along the rutted road.
It rolled and puttered to a stop beside her. The driver leaned a forearm on the open window to stare at her through goggles. A wool gray cap sat atop his silver hair. "What're you about at this late hour, little girl?"
"I am not a little girl. I am nine years old. Where are your horses, sir?" she blurted. How sad this machine looked compared to the four bold horses pulling the ornate carriage in her book. Welkin expressed a huff of disappointment, too. "This is the death carriage, isn't it?"
"Yes, this is the death carriage, but it's a thing that changes with the times, unfortunately." He motioned to the automobile with a deep sigh as he fanned away a lingering waft of acrid exhaust. Such a strangely normal odor for a conveyance for souls of the recently dead.
Her gaze went to the curtained window at the back of the cab. Did he have passengers even now? Welkin recognized her sudden nervousness and nudged her hand with his muzzle. He was right. She needed to press on with her most necessary business.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but could you please deliver these letters to the land of the dead?" She held up her bundle.
The driver didn't budge. "Usually you breathing sorts plead for a loved one back or want a shortcut to your own judgment."
"I don't like being judged, sir, and I'm not asking for Mama back, though we miss her fiercely. She was hurting an awful lot before she went." Janey blinked back tears. Welkin snuggled close in support. "Please?" She extended the letters again, but the driver remained immobile.
"I don't do anything for free," he growled. "Not even haul them." He gestured his thumb over his shoulder.
"Oh." So he did have passengers.
To her surprise, the driver's face creased in a tiny smile. He looked older than any old person she had ever seen. "They won't bother you a bit. They have a lot to think about right now."
She supposed they did. "I don't have money."
"The pay I require isn't necessarily money, though I once accepted all the funds in a banker's vault. I've also had people offer me their happiest memory, or their jewels, or their eyes."
Welkin cringed but Janey calmed him with a finger-scratch on the forelock. "Everything you're paid means a lot to the person." He nodded. She looked between him and the automobile. "Do you miss your horses?"
"Why... yes. I do." He gazed away, expression wistful.
"My papa is cranky a lot these days because he's more lonesome." She brought Welkin up near her face. "I hate to ask you this, but--you're thinking the same? You're sure? I see." Her lip wobbled. She looked to the driver again. "Welkin means more to me than anything. Mama made him. He's my best friend. We both think you might be in need of a friend, too, with your horses gone and your passengers quiet." She held out the plush horse as tears slipped down her cheeks.
This time, he accepted what she offered. "Welkin is indeed priceless," he said somberly. "He's a fine horse and a loyal friend. I'm honored to accept him, and your letters."
"Thank you." Janey sniffled as he took her envelopes. "You'll take good care of him?"
"The best. When I deliver these, your mother can fix that eye of his, too."
"Welkin will very much like seeing Mama again," Janey said, rubbing her own eyes with her empty hands.
The driver set Welkin beside him, then paused. "What you have given me is worth so much, I will deliver letters for you thrice more."
Janey's wet face brightened. "Oh, really? Thank you!"
"And I thank you," said the man with a tip of his cap. "Welkin wants me to remind you that you must take care of yourself. You are to only visit the carriage in the coming years, not to ride in it for a very long time."
"Oh yes! I'll take extra care!" Janey backed away, waving. The automobile started with a sputter and rolled onward. "Good-bye, sir! Good-bye, Welkin!" She could barely speak through her sobs.
Out the driver's side window, she saw an elongated head emerge, a small hoof raised in farewell. Janey waved all the more frantically. "I'll write you, too, Welkin!" she cried, her eyes and heart as full as the moon as the death carriage faded into the black.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 24th, 2022


Author Comments

Readers may wonder about whether or not Welkin is "real" or alive. That doesn't matter. He's still a friend. He's still loved. That's what really matters, isn't it?

- Beth Cato
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