Wilom found it hard to keep his calm as he knocked on the door of the house with the faded 44 on it. Somehow he managed not to fidget as the door opened.
“Hello?” the man behind it asked.
“Good afternoon,” Wilom said. “I’m sorry, this must sound very odd, but I’m looking for news of Rowan. He and my grandfather used to be very good friends, and I’ve been meaning to look him up. Wilom Tris was my grandfather’s name.”
Recognition dawned. “Dad always said that Wilom disappeared.”
Wilom nodded. “He did, sort of. It’s a long story. Can you tell me a little about Rowan?”
The man looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “I might be able to do one better. I’ll ask if he wants to chat.”
Wilom tried to hide the intake of breath. So he was alive still. Gloves was alive. Legs feeling a little numb, he took the offered seat on the couch, and waited for Gloves’s son to come back.
A few minutes later, Wilom was beckoned in.
Inside the door, he had to stop for a moment.
Gloves was … old.
The window was open, and the room was bright. Wilom could see every single wrinkle and mark on Gloves’s face. His hands didn’t even look the same anymore, made knobbly like old tree branches by retreating skin. Wilom took a deep breath.
“Grandson of old friend, you say?” Gloves asked, and Wilom fought down a smile. He remembered that tone.
“Says his grandfather was Wilom, and he wants to talk.”
Wilom walked over to the bed and sat down on the chair beside it. “Granddad used to call you Gloves,” he said.
Gloves’s face crumpled, and his lips tightened. “What did you say your name was, boy?”
“Tris,” Wilom said. “Janim Tris.”
Gloves looked up. His son nodded, and said, “I’ll leave you two to talk,” then left the room.
“Granddad, you say,” Gloves said.
“Well,” Wilom said. “That’s what I said. I’ve never been a terrifically good liar, though. I’d offer you a beer for Tags’s memory, but I’m not sure how I’d explain it to your son.” He grinned at Gloves, with a mirth he didn’t feel.
“If you’re his grandson,” Gloves said, after a moment, old voice cracking, “Then I’m the River Spirit.”
“I always said Alph based that character off you,” Wilom said.
“He’s dead now,” Gloves said sadly. “We got a letter. Tags, too”
“I know,” Wilom said. “I read the obituary. Obituaries.” He only just remembered to add the plural.
Gloves sighed. “Wilom, you must tell me.” He gripped Wilom’s hand. “What happened?”
Wilom hesitated. “I got an apprenticeship,” he said. “And I moved away suddenly. But I didn’t realise how much time was passing, so by the time I wanted to come back to visit, everyone already thought I was just … gone.”
Gloves shook Wilom’s hand gently from side to side. “Slow down,” he said. “You never tell things in order when you’re flustered. What apprenticeship? Where?”
Wilom chuckled. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll start at the beginning.”
He told Gloves the whole story, right from the minute he’d gotten onto the train on the day they’d last talked to each other. It seemed that whenever he stopped for breath, Gloves urged him to “Keep telling the story, Wilom.”
When he got to the part where he left the River, Gloves sighed and finally let go of his hand.
“What’s wrong?” Wilom asked.
“Nothing at all,” Gloves said. “I’m glad you got time to finish the story.”
Wilom frowned. “Why? What would stop me?”
Gloves looked at him, bewildered. “Why, you’re here to take me away, aren’t you?”
Wilom shook his head. “No. I’m not. I just came because, well … I’m sorry I never came back to see you. And that I never sent word.”
Gloves seemed not to know what to do with his hands for a moment, then he said, “I’m glad.”
Wilom waited for Gloves to continue with the thing he wasn’t saying. Gloves gave him a small smile, stretching thin lips. “Will you let me admit something that I never could say to anyone?”
“Always,” Wilom said. “You’ve listened to enough of my ramblings. My turn for once.”
Gloves chuckled. “I regret falling out with Tags. I never got the chance to make it up to him, you know.”
Wilom nodded. “Go on?”
“I love my family dearly,” Gloves said. “But I don’t half wonder if I might have been happier following one of your dreams after all. You know, the ones I used to tell you weren’t practical? Now I won’t ever know. Still can’t stop wondering.”
Wilom gripped Gloves’s hand. “I understand,” he said. “I don’t blame you. But you were probably right about my dreams, you know.”
Gloves sighed, and Wilom watched the tension leave his shoulders. “Tell me what it’s like on the River?” he asked.
“It’s dark,” Wilom said. “In a twilight sort of way. There’s mist. You stand on the shore of the River, with cliffs at your back, and then a boat comes out at you through the water. On the boat, there’s a ferryman in a black robe with a hood. You’ll never see his face, but if you listen closely to his voice, you’ll hear his expression in it. He’ll ask you if you’re ready to go, and he’ll take your hand. On the way across, you can talk to him if you’d like, or you can stay silent. He won’t mind. He’ll listen to whatever you have to say, and he’ll never judge or criticise you for it. Then, at the other side, you get out of the boat, and walk straight ahead. The ferryman will watch and wait until he’s sure you’re safe.”
Gloves nodded. “That doesn’t sound like such a bad way to go,” he said.
Wilom found that there was a lump in his throat. “It’s a lot better than everyone expects it to be.”
Gloves sighed and lay back in the bed. “Talk to me for a while, about the old days.”
When Gloves’s son finally poked his head around the door to say it was dinnertime, and was Janim staying for dinner, Wilom stood and shook his head. “No, I have to be back home.” He turned back to Gloves, who was sitting very still with a faraway look in his eyes.
“That was a good talk,” Wilom said. “I’ll come back to see you soon.”
Gloves shook his head. “No, you won’t,” he said.
“I will,” Wilom said. “I promise, this time. Every week.”
Gloves patted his hand. “No,” he said softly. “You won’t.”
Wilom suddenly realised what he meant. “Gloves?” he asked softly.
“I can tell him anything I want?” Gloves asked.
Wilom nodded, trying to keep the tears from his eyes. “Anything,” he said.
Gloves patted Wilom’s hand and said, “You go home and have your dinner.”
Later, Wilom wouldn’t quite remember how he got home, nor what they talked about over dinner. He only remembered managing to wait until the rest of the house was asleep to cry.