Wilom didn’t hear from Vanda the day after, or the one after that. They both needed time to think, but Wilom was starting to chafe at having nothing to do but think.
Just as Wilom was taking his shoes off, getting ready for bed, he heard “Psst!” next to his ear.
“Shit! Vanda? You’re lucky I didn’t punch you! What are you doing?”
“Not like you could hit me anyway. I’m in the Pathways. Put your shoe back on and come with me.”
“What? Where? Is something wrong?”
There was a moment of silence, then Vanda said, “No. Just wanted to talk. Let’s go somewhere.”
Wilom nodded, and put his shoe back on. “Sure, alright.”
Vanda’s arm suddenly appeared in the middle of the room. “Come on.”
Wilom stepped into the Pathways with Vanda. She was leaning against the shadow of his bed, arms crossed, looking down at her feet.
“Well, where are we going?” Wilom prompted.
Vanda shrugged. “Any ideas?”
Wilom looked at Vanda.
It had been a long time since he’d taken a break a from his responsibilities. It had also been a long time since he’d thought of his old friends — of Tags, Alph, and Gloves. Especially Gloves. And if he was going to remember them, he was going to do it properly.
He grinned. “Well, I’ve got one, if you’re interested. It involves petty theft and not sleeping tonight.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be a law-abiding ferryman or something?”
“Well, I’m still technically an apprentice. Can’t blame me if I slip up.”
Vanda made a noise that was almost a laugh. “Well, you’re going to have to tell me where we’re going.”
“Back to the coast. To Westshire.”
Vanda took his hand and started to walk. “Why there?”
“Old times’ sake. How quick can you get there?”
“It won’t take much longer than going to the lighthouse.”
“Good. We’re looking for a place that sells liquor, by the way.”
“Any one in particular?”
“Hara’s, I think it was called, back when it was a general grocer. It was run by an old Northerner, though he’s certainly gone by now. It was near the middle of town.”
“Hara’s. Got you.”
“You alright?” Wilom asked.
“Hm? I’m alright.”
“If I’m not allowed to pretend nothing’s wrong, neither are you. What’s up?”
“You’ve got enough on your mind … especially after that conversation.”
“Nope. I’m insisting.”
“I’ll tell you when we get there,” Vanda said.
They started walking. Vanda hesitated before asking, “So … what are we actually doing?”
“Reliving my misspent youth,” Wilom said, feeling giddy. He hadn’t felt like this since he and Vanda had run away down the bank so long ago.
Vanda looked concerned for a moment, then grinned. “Alright! This sounds like my kind of adventure!”
Vanda pulled him out from the Pathways in front of an old building.
“Is this the one?”
Wilom looked up at it. The peeling “HARA’S” in fading paint. The suspiciously clean — and fixed — windows. The door had been replaced, or at least, the hinges had. And they’d bought the shop next door and expanded.
“Well?” Vanda asked. “It’s your childhood we’re reliving. What now?”
“Last time I was here,” Wilom said, still taking in the equally familiar and unfamiliar storefront, “we went in through the front door. Gloves would distract the shopkeeper by asking about something for his older brother. Or sometimes about a gift for an aunt or a teacher or something.”
An old man in a white-linened bed in his son’s house. “He was the oldest, so we always made him do the talking.”
“Surely the shopkeeper noticed that you were stealing things every time he came in and started chatting.”
“Maybe. His eyesight was going. Maybe we weren’t as smart as we thought. He never called the police on us, though.”
Vanda looked at him.
“No, thanks,” Wilom said. “If we’re going to do this, we’ll do it properly.”
They walked into the store. Wilom nodded to the old man behind the counter, and they walked between the aisles.
“A wine?” Vanda asked.
Wilom laughed. “Nope. I said we’re going to do this properly.” They walked to the back of the store.
Vanda raised an eyebrow. “So, spirits?”
“Whiskey. We used to get this one.” He pointed to a bottle of Watchmaker’s Whiskey.
“How am I supposed to know? But we’re going to need beer, too.” He took the bottle of Watchmaker’s off the shelf. They’d changed the shape of the neck since he’d last had it. It was a little disappointing, to be honest. It didn’t fit in his hand quite so nicely.
“What beer did you used to drink?”
“It was just an ale. I remember the label, but not the name. I don’t even think they sell it anymore.”
“That’s disappointing. Can I pick one?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Vanda grinned. “I may not know anything about whiskey, but I know about beer.”
She scanned the shelves quickly, spotted one, and pulled four bottles off the shelf.
“Yup. This stuff is good.”
They ducked back into the aisle. Vanda handed Wilom two of the bottles. “Here, you take these two. Did you have any special tricks for getting out?”
Vanda grinned. “Out the door, then I’ll take us into the Pathways?”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
The front door bell clanged, and a young couple walked in and began browsing wine.
“Wait till they’re at the desk?” Vanda asked.
The couple were a long time about choosing their wine. Vanda and Wilom pretended to discuss whiskey.
Wilom’s first thought was to walk out the door calmly and nonchalantly. This worked right up until he heard the “Hey, wait!” behind them a split second before the door clanged shut. They took off running.
The door burst open, and the shopkeeper was after them. Wilom grabbed Vanda’s hand and pulled her along with him, down streets and around corners. No Pathways, just good, old-fashioned side streets. Wilom remembered most of them so well, he didn’t even need to think.
Vanda stopped running first. She turned back to Wilom, eyes gleaming, chest heaving.
“It’s just not fun until you’ve run away from the store owner,” Wilom said.
“Well, that may have been my fault,” Vanda said.
“I waved on the way out the door.”
Wilom punched her in the shoulder. “Thanks for making it easy for us.”
“What happened to ‘it’s not fun until you’ve run away from the store owner’?”
Wilom chuckled. “This way. There should be a little place by the river.”
The ground sloped down over the hill and Wilom found himself disappointed that he didn’t see a little campfire on the other side.
The rise sloped down to the river, grassy and untouched. Wilom realised he’d stopped walking.
“Sorry,” he said to Vanda and walked with her down to the slightly flatter spot he knew well. It was quiet and empty.
“I’m a little surprised there aren’t other kids here,” Wilom said.
“I guess that’s a good thing for us. Whiskey or beer?”
“First, the beer. Because once you’ve drunk the beer, you don’t care as much how the whiskey tastes.”
“Did you think to get something to open these with?” Vanda asked.
“No. Did you?”
“Hold up, there was a trick I used to be good at …” Wilom pulled off his belt, and checked the buckle. “This should work. Want to wait a moment, in case it’s still shaken up?”
“We stopped running a while back. Go on, take the risk!”
A few seconds of struggle later, while Vanda watched, increasingly amused, the bottle cap popped off.
“Ta-da!” Wilom said, and handed it to her. “I know — seems I’m a little rusty on that.”
“That’s not a trick,” Vanda said. “That’s just improvising.”
“And look at which of us opened the bottle.” Wilom popped the lid off the next bottle. “There! Just took me a minute to figure out the right spot.”
“Sure.” Vanda took a drink. “Go on, try it. Tell me what you think.”
Wilom took a swig.
“Huh. It’s got flavour to it, not just bitter water.”
“You say that like you didn’t trust me.”
“I’ve never actually had a beer that wasn’t terrible. I didn’t know what to expect.” Wilom took another drink. “Heh. I remember having to choke down the beer we used to drink.”
“Yeah. T … One of my mates used to swear blind it was the best drink you could lay hands on, so we never drank anything else.”
“Did he really like it that much?”
“Dunno. Maybe. I always thought there might be something a bit wrong with me because I could never wait until we got to the whiskey.” He chuckled. “Don’t take that to mean it’s decent whiskey, though. It’s almost certainly not.”
“So,” Wilom said, leaning back on the hill. “What’s bothering you?”
Vanda took a long drink, looking out over the water. “Hell, I don’t know,” she said. “I stopped going to the front.”
Vanda nodded. “No point dragging people back if we’re just going to get them arrested. I promised Rytel I wouldn’t go looking for any more people until we sorted out this town thing. Can’t say it isn’t sort of a relief, though.”
“It’s starting to look pretty bad out there?”
“You have no idea. Most towns are just about abandoned. There used to be this one large town on the border, but it’s not there anymore. It’s not just that the people are gone. It looks like an earthquake and a hurricane came through on the same day. Everything’s destroyed. Broken glass. The whole place is gutted.” She let out a long breath. “No bodies, though. The fighting went through it, but … I mean, I hope everyone got out before that, but I know for a fact I didn’t take them, so I don’t know whether they did. Or what happened to them after, if they did manage to leave.”
“If there were no bodies …” Wilom said.
“Yeah, I suppose. At least … I hope. Sometimes I have this awful feeling that I didn’t look hard enough and I missed a basement or something, where a family is still hiding, slowly running out of food, waiting for it to be safe to come out, but …”
Wilom reached over and put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
Vanda took another drink. “Yeah. I really want to be able to do more.”
“Yeah,” Wilom said. “I get it.”
“Actually, I really want to run away. Still. I’ve been dead too much for that part to bother me, but there’s more than just death out there.”
“You’ve no idea how tempting it is. I could be gone in less than a day. Hell, my record is two hours, from decision to gone forever.”
“But there’s other people involved this time.”
“Damn that. The worse it gets out there, the more I can’t get it out of my head. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, and I can’t stop!”
Wilom took a drink. “We’ll get there.”
Vanda leaned back and lay down, resting her beer bottle beside her. “You know what I’m talking about, though. You talk to the people I bring. You’ve heard the stories.”
“I’m not sure I do,” Wilom said. “I mean, I know the stories. Some of the facts. But since I haven’t been there and seen it … I guess I can’t really feel it.”
Vanda looked over. “Really? Not even with the Ferryman’s Knowledge?”
Wilom shrugged. “No. The Ferryman’s Knowledge never said a thing about what it’s like to really be there.”
Vanda nodded. “Well, I just want to say: sorry if I push you into things.”
“Seriously, don’t worry. You have a good reason to want to do all of this, so I have a good reason for helping you out.”
Vanda swirled the beer around in her bottle, then had another drink. “It’s good beer,” she said.
“Bet you I can finish my bottle first.”
“That’s not fair! I’ve got more left!”
“So drink down to where I am first.”
Wilom swigged from the bottle. “What’re you betting? I don’t have any old coins left this time.”
“The one who finishes last has to take first drink of the whiskey.”
“Ouch. High stakes. But sure. Ready?”
“Readier than you. Go!”
Wilom winced. Beer was not a drink that was intended to be drunk all at once. The fizz burned his throat and the back of his nose.
He gasped and put the bottle down, holding his nose. Vanda finished two swallows after him.
“That wasn’t a good idea,” Wilom said.
“You agreed. Who’s the bigger fool, the fool, or the fool who follows her?”
“What can I say? You make harebrained schemes sound fun.”
“Yep. Also, I think you drank too much out of your bottle before we started. Rematch with the other one?”
“Hell no. I’d like to enjoy at least some of it.”
“Come on, get into the spirit of the occasion! Teenage you didn’t drink to enjoy it.”
“Yeah, but teenage me would have licked a frog if you told him his parents wouldn’t like it. Besides, this is actually good beer.”
“Well, get your belt again, and crack them open.”
Wilom did as asked.
“You know,” he said. “The water looks different.”
“How often have you seen water other than the River?”
“Only when you take me out of town. And from the tap.”
“That’d be why.”
“I know that. I know why. I’m just saying.”
“It’s pretty, though.”
“Isn’t it? But you should wait until it really gets dark.” He chuckled. “We used to have fires. Especially in winter. Sometimes we made big ones right down near the bank.”
Vanda took a moment to speak. “Sounds like fun.”
Wilom couldn’t avoid the edge in that voice. “Sorry. This place just brings back memories.”
“Mm.” Vanda took a long drink.
“Don’t worry about it.” She paused. “Can I ask a question?”
“What does the Ferryman’s Knowledge tell you about a person?”
Wilom had to think about that one. “Their name. Sometimes a little about their backstory. Mostly just how to react. Sometimes it does my reacting for me.”
“More useful than it sounds, not as useful as we want it to be, huh?”
“Mm. Something like that. So, where did you learn to choose beer?”
Vanda counted on her fingers for a moment. “Sometime after I died the third time. I got a job at a brewer.”
Vanda chuckled. “Not really. I wasn’t there for particularly long, and not in the seasons when anything actually happened. I mostly just turned the mash until I earned enough money to skip to the next town.”
“What was in the next town?”
“A place where things didn’t smell like beer mash.” Vanda chuckled. “Don’t get me wrong, I love beer once it’s in the bottle. But brewery smell is among the worst things ever invented.”
“I’ve never been close to a brewery.”
“Don’t do it. I had to burn all my clothes!”
Wilom grinned. “All of them?”
Vanda reached over and cuffed him on the shoulder. “Shut up, you know what I mean.”
“Don’t shove! You’ll make me spill my beer.”
“I hope you do, after that!”
Wilom took another swallow and winced.
“I thought you said you wanted to enjoy it.”
“My throat still burns from your little trick.”
“Oh, stop complaining.”
Wilom turned around and looked at the lights of the town through the trees. He finished his beer in silence.
Vanda broke the silence. “I don’t think I’ll be able to do that job much longer anyway.”
“Lighthouse keeper,” Vanda said bitterly.
“He was OK with it before, wasn’t he?”
Vanda shook her head in disgust as she had a drink. “I got another talking to. Apparently I’m too close to the line, or something.”
“So, definitely no using the Pathways to get us out of our current troubles.”
“Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
Vanda just took another drink.
Wilom jumped as Vanda slammed the bottle into the ground next to her. “We’re entirely too sombre,” she said. “Go on, you first. Tell a story!”
“I don’t care! Tell me something you and your friends used to do. About your time with the ferryman. Your aunt and uncle. Hell, tell me a ghost story!” She waved the beer bottle at him.
“How about a compromise? My friend Alph used to love telling stories, especially ghost stories. He must have told us this one a hundred times or more, but we were usually so drunk it didn’t matter.”
Wilom took another drink to wet his throat before he began.
“Well, it begins with a young woman. And she’s always wanted a house of her own, somewhere on the river. It’s all she’s ever wanted in life. So, she works, and she starts saving up. She meets a man, and they fall in love. On their wedding night, he promises to help her earn that house on the river. His dream has always been to own a little farm, with just enough chickens and vegetables, and whatever to support himself, and now he wants to do that with her.
“But after they’re married, things get harder and harder. She’s been in the business of trading coal from the nearby mine, but the seam is starting to run low, and it looks like it won’t last.
“So they split up. They’ll take a year, they say, and when they come back, they’ll pool their money and buy the house. She went to the West, and he to the East.
“On his travels, he trades coal for cloth, and then cloth for silk, and finally silk for money. He comes back filthy rich. Like, make Mr Treene jealous kind of rich.
“But she never met him there. She was killed on the road by bandits, not too far into her journey. The bandits robbed her and buried her close by in a grove of trees. When her husband finds out, he goes and digs up her body, and buries it again in the copse of trees behind us, next to the river, where she’d always wanted her house. He spends all his money on a house underground and a little paddock above, where he kept chickens and a goat, and where his wife’s coffin was just beyond the living room wall.
“But you can’t live with the dead. So after a while, he begins to hear sounds in the walls. They just keep coming and coming. Finally, he can’t take it anymore. The wall’s shored up with bricks, but he breaks a shovel trying to break his way through them. He finally manages to get through, and he’s just starting to dig into the dirt when the dead woman grabs his wrist, and pulls herself out. He’s so scared he can’t move, and she’s lying there on the floor, just gasping for breath. Finally, he heard words — ‘the road … to the road …’” Wilom rasped, the paused for another drink to refresh his throat.
“So, he does it. He carries her to the nearby road. When they get there, a howling wind blows past them, and the woman’s body starts to stand up like it’s come back to life.
“But it’s only half a life. She’d never had her burial rites said over her, so she can’t quite die, and her spirit’s stuck. But the flesh knows it needs to be dead. So, doing the only thing she can think of, she grabs her husband and drags him with her to the river, where she drowns both her body and him in the mud.
“Their souls never made it to the next world, and it’s said that if you go near the river while you’re sick, they’ll be there, waiting for you, trying to drag your soul with them, so they can follow it over.”
Vanda took a long drink of her beer. “Kind of makes a lot of sense, when you know the things we know.”
“Yeah,” Wilom said. “I never really thought about it.”
“Well, why would you?”
He shrugged. There were a lot of things it seemed he’d forgotten to think about. “Your turn.”
“What, a story?”
“Yeah. Anything. Tell me about the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Vanda snorted. “Well, this one time, I died. Didn’t stick, though.”
“Oh, come on! I told you a whole story! At least make an effort. Besides, I’ve heard that one before.”
Vanda grinned. “Oh, if you insist.” She took another long drink, staring somewhere off into the distance. “Alright, how about this? Weirdest cause of death. I think it was about the seventh time I died. Something like that, anyway. I was working in a library, one of the ones where they actually expect you not to read the books, just to look at them on the shelf being all old and majestic. I was in charge of the few returns we did have, and a lot of dusting.
“It was actually the best job I’d had in a whole lifetime. I had no idea why they’d given it to me. It took a while to learn the system, but once I did, it was great.
“But this one day, when I was standing between the stacks, rearranging a section someone else had put back wrong, I heard a crash and a bang, and when I looked up, the stack was coming down on top of me.”
“So, you were killed by the falling stack?”
“Nope. It gets worse. I didn’t die, but I made a good shot at it. They took me to a hospital. Somehow, my legs managed to survive with only some broken bones, and my spine was OK. So I’d walk with crutches for the rest of that life, but I’d be alive.
“I stayed there like a good girl, until I was told I could leave. And then, as I was walking down the corridor, finally, to leave, some doctor came barrelling down the corridor, carrying a patient between him and three nurses. The guy they were carrying was gasping for breath. Don’t ask me why I remember that. But as the doctor comes past, his leg catches the crutch and pulls it out from under me, and I fall down the stairs. And that’s the weirdest way I’ve ever died. Broken neck on the way out of the hospital.”
“Bullshit,” Wilom said. “Seriously? That’s how you died?”
“Every word of that story is completely true.”
“Well. That’s beaten just about all of my stories.”
“I know, right?” Vanda finished her beer. “Don’t feel bad. There’s not many stories that could beat that one.”
“Yeah. Pity you can’t tell it to more people.”
Vanda shrugged. “I’m not that great a storyteller, anyway.”
“I was entertained.”
Vanda tipped her empty beer bottle over. “Crack open the whiskey,” she said. “It’s about time I accepted my punishment.”
“It’s closer to you than me,” Wilom said. “Besides, you can open a bottle on your own.”
Vanda sighed. “Fine. You’re such a killjoy.” She opened the bottle and smelled the contents. “Aw, no. That’s bloody sharp.”
“You can always wait for the beer to sink in a bit more.”
“Yeah. You’re right.” She looked at the bottle, closed her eyes, and tipped it up.
Wilom watched her swallow with difficulty, eyes watering.
“Really? You use to drink this? Regularly? Shit — more than once?”
“Hold up. You said you looked forward to it because the beer didn’t taste good.”
“Damn. The beer must have been piss.”
“And don’t you forget it. Here, pass the bottle.”
“Weren’t you going to wait until the beer sink in a little more?”
“Can’t let you drink it all before I get any.”
“No fear of that.” Vanda passed the bottle over.
Wilom closed his eyes as he tipped it up. Oh, yes, he remembered the flavour. You had to really hate this stuff to drink it. It fought back.
Vanda took the bottle off him while he was coughing.
“It was a valiant effort,” she said.
“I swear they made this stuff worse since I was a kid,” Wilom said.
“Or maybe you just got sensible.” Vanda screwed up her face as she drank.
Wilom relaxed against the grass, feeling the numbness in his lips and shoulders.
“What time were you planning on going back?” Wilom asked.
“Anytime. Whatever time. Sometime.”
“I have stuff to do tomorrow,” Wilom said, looking mournfully at the whiskey bottle.
Vanda waved her hand lazily. “We’ll be fine. Stop worrying and look at the river or something.”
Wilom lay back. “It’s a very nice river.”
“Precisely. It’s a really nice damned river.”
“Stars’re nice, too.”
Wilom looked over at Vanda. “Pass the bottle again,” he said.