Wilom would have known the kid’s type anywhere. He sat on the beach, arms crossed and resting on his folded legs, leaning back against the cliff face.
Wilom got out of the boat and walked over to the boy.
The boy was eerily reminiscent of Alph. Something about his round face, perhaps, or around the nose.
He stood beside the boy, and leaned back on the cliff face himself. “Hello,” he said.
The boy jerked his chin at Wilom, and Wilom waited next to him for him to speak.
They stood like that for a good long time, until the boy finally looked up at him and said, “What are you in for?”
In for. Maybe he should ask Vanda about that one. “I am the ferryman’s apprentice,” Wilom told him. “Are you ready to go?”
The boy scowled. “You don’t look the type.” He didn’t get up.
Wilom slid down the wall and sat, staring out at the water.
“What’re you doing?”
Wilom gave him an innocent, high-browed look. “Sitting here.”
“You and I need to head over that way,” Wilom pointed over to the other side of the River. “And I don’t get another assignment till we do. So as long as you’re going to sit and wait here, I might as well, too.”
The boy’s scowl deepened.
They sat in silence for a while. The boy started tapping his foot on the sand.
Wilom waited. There were no obvious marks on the boy, so it seemed like his death wasn’t a violent one, probably. But something told him it probably wasn’t disease. The way the boy was eyeing off the River, he started to wonder about drowning.
“You’re going to be waiting a bloody long time,” the boy said, giving him a grin that was obviously supposed to be more sarcasm than humour, and but actually conveyed precisely none of either. Wilom felt a small stab of embarrassment, knowing he’d tried that exact expression hundreds of times when he was younger. Had he failed that badly, too?
“That’s fine,” Wilom said. “I’ve got a bloody long time to wait.”
“Yeah?” the boy chuckled. “Your job must be boring as shit.”
“It has its advantages,” Wilom said mildly, trying to imitate the lighthouse keeper.
The boy also fell silent. He stopped tapping his foot, then a few minutes later, started again.
He stood up. “You can leave now,” he said.
“Unfortunately, that isn’t true,” Wilom said.
“No, I mean, I’ll find my own way across,” the boy said.
“That isn’t how it works,” Wilom said.
“Bullshit – the River’s right there, and it’s smooth as ice. Bet I could just swim across that.”
Wilom didn’t think he’d get in the water. “Would you like to try?” he asked.
The boy looked back. “What, you’re not going to stop me?”
Wilom shook his head. “I see no reason to,” he said. He put his hands behind his head and leaned back against the cliff. The more disinterested he was, the less attractive the prospect would seem to the boy.
The boy looked at the River, and walked up to the edge. Wilom wondered what would happen if he really did try to swim over.
The boy flicked water up with his foot, sending fat droplets everywhere. Then he walked back and dropped down next to Wilom.
Wilom didn’t say a word, and pretended he hadn’t noticed.
The boy fiddled with the sand, and finally said, “Hey, what’s your name?”
“Idde. So … you’re him, then?”
“No, just his apprentice,” Wilom said. “He’s over in the boat. When you’re ready, we’ll go.”
The boy shuddered. “Apprentice? Aren’t you too old?”
Wilom laughed. “There are different opinions on that. What did you do before you died?”
The boy picked up a handful of sand and threw it at the River. It fell short. “What would you know?”
“About you? Nothing at all, save what you tell me.”
The boy frowned at him and threw another handful of sand. “Fine,” he said, and stood up. “You win, alright? Happy?”
Wilom bit down a retort and led the way to the ferryman.
The boy refused his help into the boat, and sat at Wilom’s end. Wilom sat next to the ferryman’s legs and leaned on the side of the boat as they went.
The boy sulked. Wilom let him for a while, then decided to try and start a conversation.
“Are you comfortable?” Wilom asked.
“Like you care.”
He’d been wrong. The person the boy reminded him of was not Alph. It was himself.
He resisted the urge to make a face. Had he been this annoying, too?
Yes, he reminded himself, and he knew he was that annoying at the time. He knew full well why other people didn’t find him pleasant company, and he chose to be annoying anyway.
He opened his mouth to try again, but closed it. He didn’t think he could take another snippy retort without breaking his calm. If the boy really was anything like himself at that age, he’d probably be happier without conversation anyway.
The boy scowled out at the water like it was the River’s fault that he’d died. The ferryman nosed the boat far up onto the bank.
The boy got out of the boat, jumping off onto the sand. He looked over at the mist and hesitated.
Wilom waited for a moment. Then, when the boy didn’t move away, he said, “Hey,”
The boy turned around and folded his arms. “Yeah, what?”
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Life advice. Or, death advice, I guess.”
The boy at first looked affronted, then suspicious, then he shrugged and turned away and walked into the mist.
Wilom took his place again at the boat and let out a breath. The ferryman paid him no attention.
He wondered, as well as being annoying, did he ever realise how young he seemed? He tried to think of something else. He already knew he was an idiot back then, that wasn’t a revelation.
It had been a long time on the River. The faces flicked through his memory again. Vanda. He wondered when she’d be back. He wondered if they’d ever get to …
His stomach turned. He remembered the feeling he’d had when they went for their adventure on the River. It was the same one when he stole as a kid, when he snuck out, when he got drunk, when he got caught. That same impulse led him to run away with Vanda and explore the other bank of the River. Not to mention the one that led him to go with the lighthouse keeper. And … oh bloody hell, he’d just realised what the feeling was that was keeping him from committing to being a ferryman.
Knowing he used to be childish was one thing – realising he was still that childish was a punch to the gut.
He sat up and shifted positions to hide his discomfort. The River stretched out to either side.
He looked over at the ferryman. “Hey, I have a question,” he said.
“Do you ever get past that feeling … that you did something really stupid when you should have known better?”
“What have you done that is stupid?”
Wilom waved a hand. “Well, it was a while ago. But when Vanda and I …” he trailed off.
“I believe we had this conversation already,” the ferryman said. “You hurt nobody, and did not get hurt yourself. You learned from it, and you did not regret it.”
“But we could have been hurt.”
“Is that what you think?”
Wilom had a sudden image of the giant, wide-eyed figure hunching over the lighthouse keeper and shuddered. “We could have,” he said. “Besides, I did it because I wanted to do something stupid. I remember that feeling.”
“Because you wanted to do something stupid, or because you wanted to do something that made you feel excited?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Only words. Which one?”
“Something stupid,” Wilom said, with certainty.
The ferryman did not respond.
Wilom was thankful the bank was approaching.