This little flash fiction piece, written almost ten years ago for a now defunct online literary journal, was the first of what has become a series of Billy Bob stories. Some things have stayed the same, like Billy Bob’s dogs, Skip and Clem. Other things, like the theory of how the splinter incarnations of the angels of death take form and what sorts of powers they have while corporeal, have evolved over time. I choose not to go back to this root story and edit out any early inconsistencies simply because I like this story the way it is. Billy Bob is a fairly reliable narrator, but not even angels are perfect.
The Angel William Robert Travis
The Angel of Death had many guises. Of all them, Death liked the form of William Robert Travis best. William Robert Travis or Billy Bob, as he was known to his friends, was a lanky fellow with hair bleached platinum by the Texas sun. His eyes were the color of spring frost on bluebells, and he never went anywhere without his two hound dogs, Skip and Clem.
Billy Bob was born of a particular combination of myth and expectation during the winter of the Texas Revolution. Texians were dying and previous incarnations of the angel weren’t quite getting the job done. These brave, doomed souls needed one of their own to take them home. And so, ever since a certain chilly night alongside the river at La Bahia, there had been Billy Bob. He thought it was a good thing, but some of the other incarnations didn’t like him much. They thought Billy Bob might be becoming too singular, too distinct and separate from the host that was the Angel of Death. Only time would tell if this accusation were true, but in the meantime, he had work to do.
Billy Bob hopped into his pristine white Ford F150 with optional fog lamps and Confederate flag rear-window decal. The truck also had a myriad of bumper stickers. They were all profound messages that no mortal eye could bear to read. It was better for folks that way. No point in distressing them prematurely. He only had them because a truck with no bumper stickers was a sad thing.
The F150 was his pride and joy, a gas-guzzling monstrosity that had a personality all its own, or at least it seemed that way to its proud owner. Once someone had asked him if it ran on hellfire. It took regular unleaded. He could make it run on ethereal power if he had to, but the effort was exhausting even in pure archangel form, never mind what it did to a splinter incarnation like himself.
Sometimes, in homage to his younger days and because he had a strong streak of nostalgia, he rode a cream stallion with eyes that matched his own. He had come complete with horse all those years ago, and no modern convenience could ever replace an old friend.
But for this night, for Luke Campbell, the F150 was more appropriate. Poor Luke. He was a young one to be meeting his maker. He could have had a longer and more productive stay in this life, if he had only made less bad choices and had made better friends. It was all done now, though, and there was only one last thing for poor Luke Campbell to do. Die.
Skip and Clem ambled up into the crew seats behind the main bench. Billy Bob turned up the music, revved the gargantuan engine, and then he was off, zipping through Austin’s traffic with little regard for life or limb.
Practically speaking, he had nothing to fear but damage to the F150’s paint job. Most other drivers had enough sense to stay out of his way and no one so far had suffered an accidental encounter with death on his watch. His record was spotless in that regard and he wanted to keep it that way. The power of the big engine was hard to resist, though, and modern driving too much like a gladiatorial sport. Billy Bob seized the off-ramp, cutting off a Lexus that was gunning for the same lane.
The guy in the Lexus shouted and gesticulated. Billy Bob grinned and shook his head. “Not your night, man. I’ll be back for you in 5 years, 2 days, 18 hours and 36 minutes.”
The man didn’t hear him; that would be cheating. Billy Bob never cheated, except sometimes at cards and only if he was playing for beer, not money. He figured that his honesty was one of the reasons why he had lasted so long. Only a few other incarnations had his longevity. Most were fleeting thoughts that perished with the generation that dreamed them into being. Honesty and adaptability had got him far.
City streets lined with sulfur yellow lights gave way to darker county road. Farm to market lanes marked by black and white signs led miles from the city center and led to even older road, true country road marked by the blue and gold signs of the old republic.
He’d followed some of these same tracks through the hill country on horseback in earlier eras. It was still the same in many ways; twisting, potholed and overhung by trees. When the county road finally ran to dirt it was time to go cross-country. Billy Bob called up enough ethereal power to levitate the truck across the last bit of the journey. No point in scaring the deer bedded down for the night, nor in getting too much mud on the fenders.
A couple hundred yards off the pitted and scarred track that was labeled CR 1602, Luke Campbell lay under a twisted Live Oak. Billy Bob leaned on his horn, letting loose a blast of Dixie. The truck’s tires touched down, kicking up a spray of mud. The ground was softer than he thought. He threw open the truck door and stood on the running board. Luke looked worse than expected in the glare of the halogen headlights. Billy shut them off for pity’s sake and killed the engine. The sounds of the night eased into the sudden silence; crickets, locusts, a low rumble that might have been a stream, or a whisper of traffic from some far-off main road, and Luke’s tortured breathing rattling from under his tree.
“Oh man, Sorry about that, didn’t mean to get you muddy on top of everything else,” Billy Bob said as he dismounted. He shoved his grimy John Deere gimmie cap down to his ears and surveyed the scene again from ground level. Skip and Clem bugled their greetings from the back. “Stay,” Billy Bob ordered.
He wouldn’t need the dogs’ services. This man’s soul wouldn’t run. Angels couldn’t read minds, but Billy Bob knew these things in his heart. He knew them like he knew the kiss of frost on bluebells, a knowing that was almost physical and yet was something else entirely.
“William Robert Travis,” he said, offering his hand as he knelt on the damp earth next to Luke Campbell. Luke grasped it ineffectually, his hand cold, muddy and limp.
“Nice to meet you Billy Bob.”
Luke blinked up at him as his eyes focused and refocused in the gloom. His voice gained a thread of strength as he continued. “Oh man, I thought I was a goner. How’d you get over here? My friends took the ATVs. They almost got stuck in the mud on the way out.”
“It ain’t much of a road, but I got a good truck,” Billy Bob replied, with a fond glance back at the F150.
“She’s a beauty,” Luke agreed. “Got them fancy treads too, I expect.”
“You look like you’re in quite a fix here. You want a ride? I can carry you over to the truck.”
“Hey! I ain’t no wimp. I can walk that little bit, sure I can,” Luke said, twitching feebly in his bed of bloodied earth. “I’m just a little banged up. . .” his voice trailed off and his eyes closed for a moment, but his raspy breathing still rang out in the darkness.
“What happened here?” Billy Bob asked. “Why didn’t one of your friends stay with you?”
Sometimes a man needed to talk before he could go. Billy Bob was made to be a gentleman, he’d let the man have his say. Luke looked at him again, meeting his eyes in a stare that saw everything, and still didn’t see enough.
“Rick was going to the county firehouse, Simon was going back into town. They’re going to get the LifeFlight in. My best chance. Nobody’s phone works out here.”
He held up his other hand, clasped into a fist around his brand new cell phone. It landed with a squelchy plop in the mud beside him. Luke laughed, hoarse and long, until his laughter dwindled into thin coughing. Billy Bob squeezed his other hand in wordless sympathy.
“My best chance woulda been not to go hunting when we was all drunk. Ah Rick, ‘course I’m not a deer. I ain’t got no horns, no sir, no horns.” His face screwed in upon itself as he accepted the truth at last. “They left me. They left me to die! They left me to die alone. How could they do that? They were my best friends.”
“Even friends get scared,” Billy Bob said as Luke’s sobbing faded into hiccups.
Luke nodded and looked up into the canopy of the tree overhead. Billy looked up with him, black tangled branches sketched against the midnight blue sky.
It’s time to go, Luke,” Billy Bob said. “My truck’s real comfortable, and I got that good Shania CD on the player.”
“That sounds nice, Billy Bob. Real nice. But I wouldn’t want to mess up your upholstery,” he wheezed, and I got an appointment with death tonight.”
“I know Luke. I know you do.”
“Ma always said Death was a pretty lady who’d carry me up to God.” Luke’s pale lips twisted into a smile. “I guess death is just lying in the mud bleeding to death ’cause that sumbitch Rick couldn’t tell me apart from a twelve pointer. Don’t tell my Ma. Don’t tell her she was wrong. Don’t tell her I died drunk and shot up, down in the mud, Billy.”
Billy Bob sighed. Perhaps he had miscalculated. He took off his gimmie cap and ran his fingers through his hair, refiguring his plan for Luke Campbell.
“Luke. Open your eyes. Am I pretty enough for your mama, Luke?” the angel asked, having slipped into her Dallas Cowboys cheerleader guise. Maybe Billy Bob didn’t know as much about men as he thought he did. He thought it was a job for Billy Bob, but here Luke was, needing her instead.
“Oh girl, I ain’t never seen none prettier!” Luke looked up, awe-struck.
Her platinum curls fell across Luke’s grimy cheeks as she knelt and kissed the life out of him. Tenderly she disentangled his bloody fingers from her hair and stood and stretched. The sky was starting to lighten as the night breathed its last.
“Hey, where’d everybody go?” Luke asked as he freed himself from the wreck of his body to join her. “How am I gonna get back to town?”
Luke was muddled. Ah well, that happened to most everyone who got kissed by death.
“I’ll give you a ride, Luke, let’s go,” she offered, tossing her hair and grinning back at him as she picked her way through the mud. “Do you like Fabulous Thunderbirds? I got a five-CD changer last week.”
“Yeah, who don’t like the T-birds?” He caught up with her and took her offered hand.
She smiled her most dazzling smile at him, and watched the last of his fear melt away. But something was still not quite right for him, and she couldn’t quite figure what it was.
“I wonder where your brother Billy Bob got off to.” He grinned uneasily as he strolled to the truck with her, hand in hand. “Wouldn’t want to strand him out here, or have him punch me out for makin’ eyes at his sister. . .”
Billy Bob put his gimmie cap back on and opened the passenger door with a flourish.
Luke looked around and scratched his head. “Where’d your sister go?”
“She took the ATV to the firehouse, remember?”
“Oh yeah. I’m sure glad to have met you, Billy Bob.”
Luke climbed into the passenger side of the truck, calling a soft greeting to the dogs. Clem put his stubby feet on the seat and licked the back of Luke’s neck in reply. The angel William Robert Travis shifted his truck into four-wheel drive low, cranked the stereo and drove off with Luke Campbell, straight into the crack of dawn.
Angel William Robert Travis by T.L. Ryder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.