Combustion

Of the couple, the man came first. He was sitting against the cliffs, back pressed into a corner. His knees were drawn up against him, his arms holding them securely in place.

Wilom crouched about a foot away from him. He could see the marks on his face and hands, and he knew exactly how he’d died.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

He didn’t respond.

“Are you in any pain at all?”

A shake of the head.

“That’s good, at least. There was a fire, wasn’t there?”

The man winced. “Can we not talk about it?”

“Of course. Do you think you can come with me? The boat is waiting.”

He took a deep, unsteady breath. “Just … just a moment.”

“Take as many as you need.”

The man took a few more breaths.

“I’m Wilom,” Wilom said. “What’s your name?”

“Jessen.”

“I had a cousin named Jessen. We used to climb up onto my parents’ roof long after we were supposed to be in bed, and watch the stars or clouds. And occasionally dare each other to jump off the roof, if we could pile up something soft to land in.”

The story elicited a small smile.

Wilom paused, sitting down properly on the sand to ease his legs. “You know,” he said, “Things won’t get any better sitting there on the sand.”

“I know,” Jessen said. “I know.”

“Have you ever had one of those days, when you hadn’t slept well, or got woken early, but you had things to do?”

Jessen hesitated. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I have.”

“Well,” Wilom said, “You know that the hardest part is starting. Once you’re going, you might as well keep going.”

“Yeah,” Jessen said.

Wilom stood up and offered his hand. “So, come on,” he said. “We can’t stay here forever, and now is as good a time as any to go.”

Jessen looked at Wilom, but didn’t move.

“Like the first time your dog gets ticks. It’s a nasty job, but you learn how to approach it.”

“Do you?”

“And I’m sure the dog is relieved afterwards, too.”

Jessen took Wilom’s hand, and slowly unfolded himself, wincing. “Oh. Right. For some reason, I expected this to hurt.”

“There’s no pain here,” Wilom said. “Though the body remembers for a while.”

Wilom led him slowly to the ferryman, and he sat curled in the front of the boat, while Wilom took his second-favourite spot near the ferryman, just out of the range of the long pole.

“That’s the other side just there,” Wilom said. “Through the mist. Just walk straight ahead, and you’ll be fine.”

“Alright,” Jessen said, and got out of the boat, feeling with one foot for the shore under the mist before trusting his weight to it. “Thanks. I guess … I probably won’t see you again.”

“Probably not. Good luck.”

Jessen walked slowly, but soon disappeared.

Back on the other side of the River, the next soul was far from quiet. She was about Jessen’s age, banging the rock of the wall with her fists.

Wilom approached her, aiming to be quiet, and let her work out her anger before she noticed him, but she must have caught him out of the corner of her eye.

“Don’t you d … oh. I thought you were the ferryman. Quickly, before he comes. I need to find a way to get back.”

Wilom took a deep breath. “Actually, I’m his apprentice. There is no way back.”

“Oh, come on, that’s impossible. There are always stories about people coming back. I know first aid – I’ve resuscitated people, for crying out loud!”

“I can’t speak for that. But from here, there is no way back.”

“Listen, you’re just going to have to make an exception.”

“I can’t. It isn’t my decision.”

“Well, go to hell, then, because you’re not going anywhere else with me.”

Wilom went to check his anger, and realised that it just … wasn’t there.

So, he stood there and waited, watching the River.

She looked at him, hands on her hips. “Well? Are you taking me back, or what?”

“No.”

She turned back to the wall, raised her fist and opened her mouth, then stopped. She glanced back at Wilom.

“Stop that!”

“I’m just waiting. My job is to take you to the boat so the ferryman can take you across the River. I’m not leaving until that happens, but I won’t make you come until you’re ready.”

She lifted her fist again, then screwed up her face. “Isn’t there someone else you can be bothering?”

“On this beach there is nobody but you and me, and the ferryman in his boat.” It was almost amusing to see how close he could get to sounding like the ferryman.

She held up her arms and pointed to her face. “Do you know where I got these?”

“Yes. You were in a fire.”

“Yes! Do you have any bloody clue what’s going on up there?”

She took a step closer to him, looking down at him. She was more than a head taller than him, and he shifted to set his feet, in case she started throwing punches.

“Look, you’ve seen soldiers through here, right? Well, you’re about to see a lot of normal people, too. Normal people that those soldiers didn’t give a shit about. Someone up there needs to know what happened to me, so they can prepare. I’ve got to stop this happening to them, too!”

There was nothing to say to that, so Wilom said nothing.

“Can’t you see that’s important? So make an exception!”

“I’m sorry,” Wilom said. “I can’t.”

She walked over, drew her fist back, and punched him full in the face.

It didn’t hurt as much as he’d expected, but he felt his head snap back.

She tried again, a powerful uppercut to his stomach. He had to take a step back, and was privately glad that her aim wasn’t very good, so he wasn’t winded.

She raised her hand for a third blow, but dropped it.

“I took your husband across just before,” Wilom said quietly.

“That’s low,” she spat.

“If things above are as you say,” he said, “the people you want to warn have probably already realised this might happen to them. I don’t doubt they’ll be prepared.”

“Why should they be? We weren’t.”

“But it has happened once now. To someone close to them. What happens now is up to them. They have all the information you could have given them already, or if not, they will have it soon. Word has a way of travelling.”

The woman’s gaze wavered, wandering from Wilom to the sand to the cliffs to the River. “You’re saying Jessen is already over there?”

“Yes, I took him over just moments ago.”

“How … how was he? He was closer to the fire than me when it hit …”

“Scared.”

She let out a long, slow breath.

“Do you think, if I came now, I could catch up with him?”

“It’s possible,” Wilom said.

“Well, since he’s there … I might as well get him before I go back. I know he’d want to go back as well.” She glared at him, challenging him to tell her that she couldn’t go back again.

“And the two of you will come up with a better plan than one working alone,” Wilom said.

“Yes, exactly. Alright.” She walked off down the beach, ahead of Wilom.

The ferryman watched her board.

“Could we go quickly, please?” she asked. “I need to catch up to the man you just took across.”

The hood moved down, then back up again, and with long, powerful oar strokes, the boat slid across the water. As soon as they touched the other side, the woman jumped out and hurried off into the mist.

The ferryman waited a few moments, then turned and began to row back.

“Well done,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Wilom, rubbing his ribs. “Hey, telling her she could catch up to him — that was OK, right?”

The ferryman did not answer for a long time. “It was not necessarily a lie, as far as you know. And it made the trip easier for her.”

“That’s not really an answer.”

“It wasn’t really a question.”

Wilom snorted. “Guess I should have expected that. Have it your way, then.”

The ferryman’s hood inclined, and the pole dipped into the River, pushing the boat forward smoothly towards the bank.

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