“Be careful with this one,” the ferryman said as they approached the bank.
Wilom had grown to hate that phrase. He took two deep, calming breaths, and got out of the boat.
Calm, he told himself. Kind. Courteous.
He had never seen a child look as terrified as the boy waiting on the bank did.
“Hello,” he said, kneeling so he was eye level with the boy. “What’s your name?”
“M … M…”
Wilom waited, trying to figure out whether to look the boy directly in the eyes or not. Was it intimidating, or encouraging? What had people done with him when he was scared as a kid?
Apparently he hadn’t been paying close enough attention. He got as close as he dared, so he could hear the boy’s tiny, soft voice.
“Marcus. That’s a good name. I’m Wilom. How old are you?”
“S … seven.”
“Wow, seven? Looks like something gave you a bit of a fright. Is that right, Marcus?”
Marcus glanced over to the right, along the bank. Wilom looked, but couldn’t see anything.
“Well, whatever it is, it’s gone now,” he said. He hesitated. What next? Congratulations, kid, you’re dead. Come with me? Even he wasn’t that stupid.
Perhaps he could start with a safe topic. “Will you tell me about your family?”
This, it seemed, was not a safe topic. Marcus’s lip started to quiver.
“It’s fine, we don’t have to talk about that,” Wilom said quickly.
Marcus looked down, sniffed, and shuffled his feet. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” he asked.
No sense lying, Wilom supposed. Actually, he was kind of relieved. “That’s right,” he said. “You’re dead. And I’m here to take you over there, to the boat. The ferryman’s there, and we’re both going to take you across the River.”
Marcus sniffed, and nodded, then with no warning whatsoever, launched himself at Wilom, almost knocking him down. Wilom patted the kid on the back and murmured something he hoped was soothing. Marcus wasn’t crying, but his tiny arms had a stronger grip than most adults, and Wilom could feel him shaking. After a couple of moments, he wondered whether he should pull himself away. They might be taking too long. On the other hand, that probably wasn’t kind or compassionate, so the ferryman wouldn’t approve.
Wait, what was that?
Wilom saw movement. He tried to turn his head without disturbing Marcus.
A lantern light was moving away from them, towards the lighthouse.
Marcus wasn’t letting go. Should Wilom pull away? Stay there until Marcus let go first?
Just pick him up and carry him to the boat?
He took a breath and gently unwrapped Marcus’s arms. The boy didn’t resist.
“Are you alright now?” Wilom asked.
“Shall we go? Are you ready?”
Wilom gently tugged Marcus’s hand, and the boy followed obediently, so he assumed it would probably be alright.
“There’s the boat,” Wilom said.
His arm was pulled behind his back as Marcus hid from the ferryman.
“It’s alright,” he said. “You know, I was terrified of him, too, when I first met him.”
Marcus looked dubious.
“No, really, I nearly sha- um, I nearly ran away. But I promise, he’s nice. Honest.”
“If he’s nice, why does he look so scary?”
That … was a bloody hard question to answer. “I think he’s shy.”
Marcus looked up at Wilom. Wilom might have been bad at kids, but he knew the expression of someone who was calling bullshit.
“Alright, that’s not the truth. I actually don’t know why he looks like that. But he’s not at all like he looks. He probably wouldn’t even be upset if you asked him that question, if you’re really curious.”
Marcus glanced at the ferryman, back at Wilom, and at the ferryman again.
“Here, I’ll help you up,” Wilom said. Whatever Marcus might have been thinking, he let Wilom lift him into the boat. As Wilom pulled himself over the gunwale, Marcus stole his seat.
The boat trip was one of the most awkward Wilom had yet experienced. Marcus fidgeted in the seat, and Wilom had no clue what to say to him.
“Hey,” he tried. “Feel the water.” He dipped his hand over the side.
Marcus’s expression was a delight to watch as he tried it himself: from scepticism to surprise to wonder to glee. He played with the water the entire rest of the way over. Maybe it wasn’t the most intelligent way to deal with a kid, Wilom supposed, but it was effective.
At the other side, Marcus looked around like he wasn’t quite sure what to do.
“You need to go that way,” Wilom said, pointing. “I can’t come. I’m stuck here for a little longer. But you need to go.”
Marcus took a breath and let it out again. He vaulted over the front of the boat and looked around on the other side.
“Straight ahead,” Wilom said. “Go on. Good luck.”
Marcus waved to him. “Thanks. I hope you get un-stuck soon.”
Wilom chuckled. “Oh, don’t worry. I don’t mind at all.” He waved back.
Marcus nodded, and started walking.
Once he was gone, Wilom turned around to look at the ferryman. The ferryman gave him a slow nod, and they turned back around.
“He asked a good question,” Wilom pointed out. “Why do you wear that robe?”
The hood turned to him. “Because I have grown used to it,” he said.
“Huh.” Wilom looked after Marcus, and asked, “What scared him, do you think?”
“He tried to run away,” the ferryman said.
“Us. But it was what he ran to that scared him. Down the bank, between the bright places on the River, there are things that have gotten lost there.”
“Yes, like souls.”
“Do you know what they are?”
“Yes. But the lighthouse keeper knows more about them. Remember to ask him, and he will tell you.”
“I think I saw the lighthouse keeper leaving …” Wilom started.
“His job is to fetch those who run in the wrong direction, and bring them back.”
“So, he watches both the living world and the River?”
“Yes. He likes to keep an eye on everything.”
“You … sound like you don’t approve?” Wilom guessed.
“I do not mind either way. It does not affect my job. I understand why he chooses to.”
“Why does he?”
“That is not a question for me to answer.”
“I forgive you.”
The bank approached again. Wilom looked down towards the lighthouse as far as he could, but the strange indistinctness cut off his vision long before he could see the lighthouse, and certainly before he could see anything beyond it. The bright parts of the River? He’d hate to see the dark parts.