Wilom leaned over the side of the boat, unsure whether it was safe to trail a hand in the water. The ferryman’s pole barely left any ripples. The eerie twilight non-sky tinged everything blue and black.
Wilom looked around the boat. Should he …? If the ferryman wasn’t talking, was that …?
“Where are we going?” Wilom asked, finally. Worse came to worst, he’d be told not to speak.
“Someone needs to be picked up.”
“How do you know?”
The hood turned to look at him.
“I suppose that was a stupid question.” Wilom looked out along the bank, trying to catch a glimpse of the person who might be there.
“So, um … where do they go?”
“Across the River.”
“I meant, what is there across the River?”
“I am not allowed to know.”
The hood said nothing.
“I suppose you get asked that all the time.”
“More than you can imagine.”
Wilom glanced over the River, but he couldn’t see the other side. Now he was a little more used to the light here, he realised at least part of the reason it was so hard to see was a pale fog, waist-deep above the water
The boat stopped.
The ferryman turned back. “Come with me,” he said.
Wilom got out of the boat and followed the Ferryman down.
Against the cliffs on the bank, a boy was pacing. He couldn’t have been much younger than Wilom, or perhaps only by a year or two.
He looked up as they approached, and stopped walking.
“So, it finally happened, did it?”
The boy stretched out. His sleeves flapped loose on his twig-thin arms.
“The boat is this way,” the ferryman said.
“Can’t I just move around a little longer? It’s been months.”
“If you like.”
He took a deep breath, turned and sprinted away down the beach. He spun, cartwheeled, picked up handfuls of non-sand and threw them into the water, and ran back.
“Alright,” he said, leaning on his legs and sucking in deep breaths. “Alright, that’s good.”
The ferryman led the way back to the boat, and the boy seemed to finally notice Wilom.
“I’m Trey,” he said, holding out his hand to shake.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you die of?”
“Me? I’m not actually dead.”
“That’s right. I’m just … well, I’m an apprentice.”
“Oh. That’s either very fascinating, or very unfortunate.”
“I hope it’s fascinating.”
The boy seemed to be taking this so well, his cheer was infectious. Wilom realised it was true – he was optimistic about this apprenticeship, despite not really having any idea what was going on yet, or what he’d agreed to.
They got into the boat. Wilom sat at the head again, and Trey sat a little way back. He seemed to have no qualms about dipping his hands in the water, and Wilom watched the water flow between his fingers. The texture reminded him of half-set custard.
“So, what did you die of?” Wilom asked.
“One of my friends had pneumonia once. He got better, though.”
Wilom looked away quickly, out across the river. The boy still seemed cheerful, but he wondered if that had been an insensitive thing to say. He glanced up at the ferryman, but the hood was focused on the river ahead, and the ferryman made no indication that he had heard or noticed.
“Do you know what’s on the other side?”
“No, the ferryman and I aren’t allowed over there.”
“I suppose that makes sense. I wonder if I can find my grandpa.”
Wilom hesitated to work up the courage, and then said, “You’re taking being dead very well.”
Trey chuckled. “I haven’t gotten out of bed in a month. A few hours ago, it hurt to breathe, and I was bringing everything I ate back up with blood in it. I’m not thrilled to be dead, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little glad. How did you get an apprenticeship here?”
Wilom shrugged. “I met an old man who put in a good word for me.”
“Right.” Trey didn’t say anything else about it. Wilom realised he’d made the boy feel awkward, but he didn’t know how to fix it, so instead he tried to act as casually as possible, to reassure him.
The River was wider than Wilom had expected. He didn’t even notice the other bank as it came up. It was nearly too misty to be … no, there was no mist. The other bank was just … indistinct.
Trey jumped out of the boat and stood somewhere between the darkness and the water on ground Wilom couldn’t see.
“Thanks,” Trey said to the ferryman, and then to Wilom, “Good luck. I hope your apprenticeship goes well.”
Wilom nodded. “I hope you find your grandpa.”
And then Trey was gone, running. Wilom saw his head go down and his legs up as he cartwheeled, and then he couldn’t be seen any longer.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Wilom said.
“He was not upset to be here,” the ferryman said, pushing the boat away from the bank with his oar. “You should not expect everyone to be like that.”
“I know that,” Wilom said, indignant. “I’m not an idiot.” A sudden thought occurred, and he asked, “Who was the worst person you’ve ever had to ferry over?”
“There is no such thing.”
“I mean the person who made it the hardest to do your job.”
“There is still no such thing.”
“There has to be someone.”
“I have seen every possible reaction to death, and I have seen them more than once. There is no worst person.”
The hood didn’t reply. Wilom got the distinct feeling he’d said something very wrong.