Wilom did not sleep, so he had difficulty telling how many days or weeks had passed. They crossed the River again and again. The ferryman left most people for Wilom to fetch, except for the very young.
Wilom composed several notes in his mind to his aunt and uncle, but he never had much luck trying to decide what to tell them.
“Wilom! What the bloody … what are you doing here?”
Wilom couldn’t speak for a minute, looking at the boy on the shore. “Tags?”
He’d grown since Wilom had seen him last. Tags had once been about half Wilom’s breadth, but was now both wider and taller, broader in the shoulders and in the arms. If Wilom didn’t know better, he’d have said it had been four or five years since he’d seen Tags last. The wide grin of recognition faded from Tags’s face.
“Oh, shit. Did you … what happened?”
Wilom waved a hand “It’s alright, Tags, I’m not dead. But …”
Tags cut him off. “But I am. I know.”
Wilom nodded. “That’s good. It’s … not easy news to break.”
Tags frowned. “Really? Mr ‘it’s-not-like-it’s-news-to-us’?”
Wilom made a face. He remembered that conversation, because his friends had done most of the remembering for him. Following a comment from someone in the town that their little group would all be dead before adulthood, he’d made a big speech about it not being the first time they’d heard it, and what did it matter to those people whether they died or not … lots of things like that, which had sounded so impressive in his fourteen-year-old mouth. It wasn’t until long after that he realised why Gloves had looked so amused. In fact, it may not even have been until after he’d come to the River.
Wilom shrugged. “You know me. I said a lot of things without really believing them.”
“Hah. If Gloves hadn’t been older, you’d have been the talker, I think.”
“I doubt it. Gloves had three times the confidence in his bottom ribs than I’ll ever have in my whole body. Are you ready to go? I need you to come with me.”
“Sure. You know how to get out?”
Wilom put a hand on Tags’s shoulder. “No, you can’t get out. You’re dead; that means you can’t go back.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Tags said. “I meant out-out. To wherever I need to go from here.”
“In that case, yes, that’s where we’re going. Sorry. I get the other question a lot.”
Tags and Wilom walked down the beach together.
“So … what happened?” Wilom asked.
“I, uh…” Tags trailed off. “It was an accident.”
Best not to ask, perhaps. “Do you know how everyone else is doing?”
“They’re … well, doing alright,” Tags said. “Gloves … well, he got a job, and he doesn’t speak to us much anymore. I think he’s embarrassed.”
“Even of you?”
Tags screwed up his face. “Especially of me. I may have said a few things to cause that. But Alph took it harder, I think. Other than that? My family moved away, so I don’t really know recent news.”
“Where’d you move? Were you sent away, too?”
“No, no. My parents decided to move to the Capital, and they took me and Gloves with them.”
“Family. I tried to find new friends there.”
Wilom had known a few people through here like them, from the city. He knew the general pattern. “I think I understand what kind of accident it was.”
Tags frowned. “How do you know?”
“I’ve been down here … a while,” Wilom said. “You meet all kinds of people.”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I forgot — it’s been a while since you disappeared, hasn’t it?”
Disappeared? He’d left a note … Did that mean his parents – not to mention Jali and Tanim – had just let his friends believe he had vanished, and was gone for good? He felt sick. “Yeah, it has. A long while.”
They reached the boat, and Wilom gestured for Tags to get in.
Tags shared with him what news was current when he had left the little town. There was a lot to catch up on. Birthdays, a couple of deaths in the town. New girlfriends and family troubles, and all that sort of thing. The list was so long – Tags must have started paying much more attention than they used to. Were they all growing up, then? Wilom realised there was a lump in his throat. The way Tags talked about their little group sounded so final, as if it was all far in the past.
Wilom shook hands with Tags as his friend departed for the shore, and then leaned back until he was nearly laying down in the boat, propped up by his elbows on the gunwale. That was it, then. The old group were scattered across two worlds now – perhaps three, depending on how you defined the River. It was all over.
The ferryman asked him nothing on the journey back, and Wilom didn’t feel particularly inclined to start up a conversation. Back at the other side, he got out and began to do his job, because, well, he wouldn’t feel right if he asked the ferryman to do it.
When the next person was away at the shore, the ferryman’s hood inclined to him. He nodded back, feeling like the ferryman had learned something from the exchange that Wilom hadn’t intended him to learn.
Wilom couldn’t help mulling over the conversation with Tags for the next few trips across the river. Had Jali and Tanim made the decision to let people think he’d disappeared, or had that been his parents’ idea?
He was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the shore approaching until they were nearly there. There was someone standing there, directly in front of where the ferryman would beach the boat. She seemed to be impatient – arms crossed, watching the boat intently. As soon as the ferryman pulled up, she hurried towards the boat.
“Thanks,” she said, pulling herself over the side. “Oh. Hey, are you …?”
“Just an apprentice,” Wilom said, guessing her question. “Not actually dead.”
She chuckled, leaving Wilom wondering what she’d found so funny. “Well, good luck, then. Vanda, by the way.”
“Wilom.” They shook hands. Vanda leaned back against the side of the boat as the ferryman pushed off.
“You’re very eager,” Wilom said.
“Well, I wasn’t going anywhere on the shore,” Vanda said. “Might as well get it over with.”
Wilom shrugged. “I suppose that makes sense.”
Vanda looked over at him. “How long have you been an apprentice?”
“I don’t know,” Wilom said. “A couple of months, perhaps?”
Vanda nodded. “Not too long, then.”
“No, not at all.”
“Is it a fun story?”
“Not really. I just sort of … talked myself into it.”
Vanda grinned at him. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I got pushed off a building and impaled on a fence spike.”
Wilom winced. “Why?”
Vanda shrugged. “Some rooftop dinner party or other, and someone’s elbow ended up in a different place than they expected.”
“Um … ouch?” Vanda’s blasé attitude was really throwing him off. What did you say to that?
“Talk about unlucky, right?” She grinned, and looked at him like she expected him to laugh with her.
Wilom hesitated, not sure he had it in him to laugh at that. He tried for honesty instead. “I’m not sure what to say.”
Her grin faded, but her expression remained good-natured. “Imagine how stupid I feel.”
Wilom couldn’t bring himself to laugh at that, either. Vanda gave him another look, this one a bit more sympathetic.
“It’s alright to laugh, you know,” she said. “I mean, if I’m laughing, you can, alright?”
Wilom nodded. “If you insist,” he said.
“I do insist! You’ll be no fun otherwise.”
Wilom put on his best serious face. “My sincere apologies. I was unaware that fun was part of my job description.”
Vanda’s cheeks puffed out and she slapped a hand to her mouth as she tried to contain a bubble of laughter that Wilom felt was entirely disproportionate to his joke. She glanced up at the ferryman, who gave no response.
“Oh, wow,” she said. “You’re distressingly good at that.”
She studied his face. “What? What’s that look for?”
“You … you talk very strangely.”
“Me? At least I don’t sound like I’m from last century, like you!”
“Distressingly good at that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use that word like that.”
“But you got the gist, right?”
“I got the what?”
“You understood what I meant.”
“Oh. I suppose I did.”
She glanced up at the ferryman again, and Wilom did, too, but the ferryman paid them no attention.
The boat pulled up to the other bank. Vanda grunted as she rolled to her feet and jumped out of the boat onto the shore.
“Well,” she said to the ferryman, then to Wilom, “Good luck, and all that.”
The ferryman’s hood inclined. Wilom stood up in the boat to shake the hand she offered him.
“Thank you,” he said. “Good luck to you, too.”
“No, thank you – for the company and the laugh,” she said. She waved, and walked away.
The ferryman turned and rowed away almost immediately, not watching her leave for a few moments like he usually did.
“How often does that happen?” Wilom asked.
“Every so often.”
“She didn’t seem afraid at all.”
The ferryman shrugged. “Some are, some are not.”
Wilom nodded slowly. “I suppose it’s the same as for the living.”
“Many things are.”