It didn’t hit Wilom at all as he was walking home, despite the new sheaf of paper in his briefcase: the lists of things he would need to procure and do before he reported for training. He probed at the idea like a sore tooth.
He was going to have to go to war
He had been conscripted.
He would learn to use a gun.
He would be told to kill people.
The last one, at the very least, he would have expected to have a reaction to. But instead, it all seemed so inevitable that he couldn’t summon anything beyond numbness.
Ferryman, he wondered idly, or just that he hadn’t grasped it yet?
When he arrived at Marc’s house, though, he could tell immediately that something was wrong. Instead of opening the door with his key like usual, Wilom knocked.
It was a long, heavy moment before the door was opened. It was Marc, not Cathlin, stony-faced and calm.
“Wilom’s home!” Jilli cried and ran to the door.
“Jilli!” Cathlin snapped, but Jilli was already at the door. However, the sight of Marc and Wilom watching each other instead of the usual cheerful greetings stopped her dead, confused.
Marc nodded slowly once, then said quietly, “We heard your manager was getting investigated.”
“Yes,” Wilom said.
“Heard you haven’t been working there,” Marc said.
“That is correct,” Wilom said. There was no point lying. It felt just a little better to have said it. A harkening back to his days before the ferryman, when admitting a shameful truth could be a kind of shield, if you remembered to look people in the eyes while you said it. Own it, and it couldn’t be used against you.
There was no way out of this, the Ferryman’s Knowledge told him. They have already made up their minds about you, but they have not told Jilli.
“You’ve been terribly busy for a man without a job,” Marc said, a little more darkly. “And you seem to have an awful lot of money for one, too.”
“Did they tell you about the rest of the investigation, too?” Wilom asked. His tone was pleasant, just like when he’d first arrived and asked for news from the war front.
“They told us,” Cathlin said from inside the house. “So did you take their deal?”
The question was clearly intended to cut. If he said yes, she would assume he was trying to save face from an investigation.
“Yes,” he said. “I have the lists here. I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
There was a long pause, then Cathlin’s footsteps from inside the house.
“Why did you decide to go?” Jilli asked, interrupting Wilom as he listened to what Cathlin was doing. Marc looked at Wilom, clearly waiting to see how he would respond.
“I didn’t decide to,” Wilom said. “I have to.”
“Because I don’t have a job anymore. And anyone who doesn’t have a job has to go.”
“Do I need to?”
“No, you’ve got a job with your Mum.”
“What happens if you say ‘no’?”
“I don’t get to say no. That’s what conscription means.”
Jilli nodded, looking troubled.
Cathlin appeared at the door, then, dragging Jilli back and standing in front of her. She folded her arms. Her face was stormy, everything about her tense. Wilom could tell how dearly she wanted to slap him in the face just then.
“You aren’t coming back in this house,” Cathlin said. “Not today, not after the war, not ever.”
“I understand,” Wilom said. “Can I at least save you the bother of having to clean my things out of the spare room?”
“You won’t need most of it,” Cathlin said. “You can keep anything Marc can bring out to you in the next five minutes. Everything else is being sold or burned.”
Wilom nodded slowly. “In that case, I would quite like my notebooks back. Top drawer, left. Three of them. Black and white binding.”
Cathlin nodded sharply, and Marc left to get the notebooks, ushering Jilli back inside as he did.
For a moment, Cathlin was silent, then she shook her head. “We took you in,” she said. “I thought I’d made it clear what I thought of people like you. I have a daughter. You could have …” she stopped short, and took a breath. “And now you’re going off to war. You might be fighting alongside my son. My family just can’t be quit of you, can we?”
“I won’t endanger your son.” Wilom wrapped his ferryman’s training around the bland honesty of his teenage self and used them both to push his feelings down, just like he’d done all his life.
“Too late,” Cathlin said. “They seized the books of that organisation. Is it true they brought in a Marclorn soldier?”
Wilom really did consider lying about that one. “Yes,” he said. “But she wouldn’t -”
She really did slap him then. Not hard. It was almost as if she’d tried to pull her arm back mid-swing, to change her mind, but by then her hand had too much momentum. She tucked the offending hand quickly back into her folded arms, and looked away. There was silence again for a long time.
“I wish I’d asked more questions at the start,” Cathlin said. “I knew you finding work was suspicious. I should have known it didn’t add up that you were doing shift work. Not with your hours. No — before that. I should never have invited a total stranger …”
Marc returned then, and Wilom took the notebooks. “Goodbye,” he said. “You’ll never have to see me again. I promise.”
Cathlin closed the door on him.