Authors: Claire McFall
Jonas shushed her, his hands gesturing a warning as he glanced around. Dylan ignored his panic, but she lowered her voice as she asked the question again.
“What did you mean, try to go back? I thought there was no going back?”
“There isn’t,” Jonas replied at once, but his expression was shifty.
“But…” Dylan prompted.
“But nothing.” Jonas tried to back away but Dylan wouldn’t let him, shadowing each step.
“People have tried,” she guessed. Then inspiration hit her like lightning. “The crossed-out names,” she breathed. Had she been wrong before? Were they not souls who had been lost on the way here, but on the way back? It was possible.
“You can’t go back.” Jonas repeated Caeli’s words almost as if the answer was ingrained, but he couldn’t hold the innocent expression faced with Dylan’s flagrant disbelief.
“How did they do it?” she demanded, advancing again. Blanket silence from the German. “How did they do it, Jonas?”
He pressed his lips together, considering her. “I don’t know.”
Dylan stared back, too caught by sudden hope to be shy. “You’re lying,” she said, eyeing him shrewdly.
“I’m not, Dylan. I don’t know how it’s done. But I know that it’s suicide.”
Dylan laughed sourly. “I’m already dead.”
He gave her a long look. “You know what I mean.”
She took a second to think about it. Dead.
dead. Gone. It was frightening; her heart started pounding painfully in her chest at just the thought. But then… what was the point of being here? Yes, eventually Joan, her dad, Katie – they’d all make their way across. She could have her old life back, or some strange version of it. And she could be just as lonely, just as out of step as she’d been before; before the wasteland.
That was not worth waiting a lifetime for. If she knew Tristan was coming, then maybe she could bear to linger here. But that wasn’t going to happen. He was never, ever coming. That thought sent a jolt of agony right into her core and she shut her eyes against the pain of it. Tristan. She could still recall with crystal clarity the burning feeling of his lips pressing against hers, his arms tight around her. How ironic that that moment was the most alive she’d ever felt.
Was it worth risking oblivion to feel it again?
“How can you be so sure when you don’t even know how to do it?” Dylan challenged. She refused to be put off by his negativity, not when he’d given her a hope to grasp at.
“No, Dylan. You don’t understand.” Jonas shook his head at her, hands aloft in alarm. “There are souls here who have watched centuries pass. They’ve known hundreds, maybe thousands of souls try to crawl their way back, to return to their wife or their children. Not a single one has ever made their way back here again to tell the tale. You’ve seen the wraiths, you know what they do.”
Dylan bit her lip, thinking. “How do you know about them? The ones who’ve tried?”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Rumours.”
Rumours. She stepped forward, eyes piercing. Jonas tried to take a step back, but there was nowhere to go. Dylan glared at him, eyes determined. “Rumours from who?”
he lived in a wooden building that Dylan could only describe as a shack, surrounded by miles and miles of flat plains. It was an isolated and wild place, with yapping dogs and rolling thunderclouds overhead, though whatever rain lurked amongst the steel grey stayed in the sky. Eliza. The oldest soul that Jonas knew. If anyone was going to be able to give her answers, he told Dylan, it was Eliza
Jonas had taken her there simply by walking through another of the doors on his street. One moment they had been surrounded by buildings, the next, sand and tumbleweed. Dylan watched him close a rickety gate, warped pieces of wood held together with rusting nails.
“Have you been here before?” Dylan asked as he pointed the way to the old woman’s house, where a light shone brightly from the one window. It was much darker here, and the warm glow was welcoming.
“No.” Jonas shook his head. “But I don’t know of anyone else who might be able to help you.”
He gave her a funny look and Dylan knew that he was hoping Eliza would try to talk her out of it rather than help her. She looked at the ramshackle house, a little nervous.
“Who is she?” Dylan asked. “How does she know about these things?”
“She’s been here a very long time,” Jonas replied.
Dylan set her mouth into a dissatisfied line. That didn’t really answer her question, but she sensed it was all Jonas knew.
Jonas stepped smartly onto a shaky-looking wooden porch and rapped on the door, but Dylan held back. Though she had confronted Jonas without any hesitation, she felt unsure, timid at the thought of speaking to another soul. Maybe it was because she was old, a proper adult. Maybe it was because she had never known Tristan. Whatever it was, it had Dylan backing away rather than stepping forward. If Jonas hadn’t escorted her, she knew she wouldn’t even have made it this far.
She thought about changing her mind, telling Jonas not to bother. Tristan seemed even further away in this alien, unforgiving landscape. But then a voice from inside called “Come”, and Jonas swung the door open, motioning with his hand for her to enter. There was nothing Dylan could do but comply.
Inside, the cabin was a little cosier, and that eased some of her nerves. A fire burned, and the walls were adorned with knitted fabrics. It was a one-room hut, with the bed against the wall at one end, and a small kitchen area underneath the window at the other. In the middle sat an ancient woman, swaddled in blankets and rocking gently in an old-fashioned wooden rocking chair. Dylan continued to look around rather than return her curious stare, and wondered idly if this was what the wasteland safe houses had looked like before they’d fallen into disrepair.
“Eliza, this is Dylan, and—” Jonas started.
“You want to know how to go back,” she finished for him, her voice feathery and weak, but when Dylan whipped her head round to gape at her – surprised that she had been so quick to guess the reason for her visit – her eyes were alert, piercing.
“How did you…” Dylan tailed off under the shrewd look Eliza gave her.
“People always come to me when they want to know that. I have seen a hundred others like you, my dear,” she said, not unkindly.
“Can you tell me how to do it?” Dylan asked, the fingers of her left hand crossing behind her back.
Eliza perused her for a long moment. “Sit down,” she finally said.
Dylan frowned. She didn’t want to sit down. She was agitated, pent up. She wanted to pace, to move about and release some of the tension making her muscles twitch. She wanted to find out what the old woman knew and then get going, get started.
Eliza looked at her as if she knew exactly what Dylan was thinking. She gestured once again to the only other chair in the room. “Sit down.”
Dylan sat, perching on the edge, fingers jammed between her knees to stop them tapping or fidgeting or shaking. She fixed her eyes on the old woman, not noticing Jonas settle himself discreetly on the edge of a table behind her.
“Tell me what you know,” she demanded.
anything,” the old woman answered. “But I’ve heard things.”
“What’s the difference?”
Eliza smiled at her, but the expression was tinged with wistful sadness. “Certainty.”
That halted Dylan in her tracks, but only for a moment. “Tell me what you’ve heard, then. Please.”
Eliza shifted in her seat, adjusting the swathes of shawls draped over her shoulders. “I have
,” she said, emphasising the final word, “that it is possible to cross back through the wasteland.”
“How?” Dylan breathed.
“You know how this place works by now. All you have to do is find the door.”
“And where is that?” The question was out of Dylan’s lips before Eliza had even finished speaking.
The old woman looked amused by her eagerness, the corners of her lips twitching. “Any door.”
“What?” Dylan’s voice was sharp, impatient. “What do you mean?”
“Any door will take you there. It’s not about the door; it’s about you.”
“That can’t be right.” Dylan shook her head dismissively. “If any door could take you there, everyone would try it.”
“No, they wouldn’t,” Eliza contradicted gently.
“Of course they would!” Dylan exploded. She was getting angry, feeling like this was a waste of time.
“No,” Eliza repeated. “Because when most people try to open that door – and you’re right, many do try – every time they try to open the door, it locks itself.”
“It’s this place,” Dylan whispered. “It’s like a prison; it won’t let you out. I know,” she continued, seeing Eliza shake her head, “most people don’t want to leave. But it should let them, if they want to.”
“You’re wrong,” Eliza said. “It’s not this place. It’s the souls; they stop themselves.”
“How? Why?” Dylan shuffled even closer to the edge of the chair, suddenly interested.
“They don’t really want to leave. No, that’s not quite right. They want to leave, but more than that they don’t want to die. Somewhere deep down, they know crossing the wasteland again will likely be the death of them, and that thought stops them, keeps them here. Because they know if they’re patient, if they wait, they’ll likely see their loved ones again. They just can’t take the risk of trying, and failing; knowing that will truly be the end.”
Dylan heard the warning in her words: stay here. Wait. But what Eliza didn’t realise was that no amount of waiting was going to make Tristan come to her.
“So how do you make the door open?”
Eliza spread her hands out, as if the answer was obvious.
“You have to want to go back more than you want your soul to survive.”
Dylan considered that. Did she? She thought so. And from the sound of it, it would be nothing to try the door and find out. But even if she got back to the wasteland, then what? How would she find Tristan? She doubted Eliza would be able to tell her that. Had there ever been a soul who wanted to be reunited with their ferryman? Dylan didn’t care if she and Tristan came here, or if they went back to the real world. Even if they lived in the wasteland. She shuddered at the thought of the wraiths, of facing them again, but she would do it. She just wanted… she just wanted Tristan.
Eliza sighed, pulling Dylan from her thoughts. “It’s always the young ones who want to go back,” she murmured. “Always.”
“Weren’t you tempted?” Dylan asked, momentarily distracted.
Eliza shook her head, her eyes darkening with grief. “No, girl. I was old, I knew I would not have long to wait before my husband joined me.”
“Where is he? Is he here?” Dylan asked the question before she realised how rude it was.
“No.” Eliza’s light, whispering voice almost disappeared entirely. “No, he didn’t make it across the wasteland.”
“I’m sorry,” Dylan mumbled into her lap, abashed.
Eliza’s face had closed in on itself, and tears threatened to leak from her eyes, but then she seemed to steel herself, straightening her back and sniffing deeply.
“I suppose you want to know what happens when you get back across,” she said.
Dylan shrugged. She hadn’t thought that far ahead, was no more eager to return to her old life than she would be to come back here. It would look odd, though, if she didn’t appear interested. She wasn’t sure she wanted to confess her true intentions to Eliza. Telling her would be different to telling Jonas.
…” Once again Eliza sought to get through to Dylan the risk she was taking. “… that if you can make it back to your body, you can climb back inside.”
“Will it still be there?” Dylan made a horrified face, forgetting, for a moment, that this wasn’t part of her plan. “Surely they’ll have taken it away. My mum will have buried me. Oh my God, I wouldn’t come back in the coffin, would I? Or what if she had me cremated?” Panic and revulsion turned the final few words into a squeak.
“Dylan, time has stopped. For you, anyway. Your body will be exactly where it was.”
Dylan nodded, accepting this. Plans were forming in her mind. She could see herself rowing across the lake, picking a path through the valley. She thought about the blood-red ground, the scorched sky, but even these terrifying images couldn’t sway her. Her determination was solidifying. She was going to try it, she knew. Somehow she was going to make the door open, and she was going to try it. She was going to find Tristan. She smiled a tiny smile to herself, pleased with her decision. Looking up, she saw Eliza watching her closely.
“There’s something more,” the old woman said slowly. “Something you’re not telling me.” Her eyes searched Dylan’s face. It was uncomfortable, like she was trying to see into her very core. Dylan grimaced, fighting the urge to turn away. “You don’t want to go back,” she mused. “Not all the way. What is it you are after, Dylan?”
What was the point in lying? Dylan bit her lips together for a moment, then decided to confide in her. She had made her mind up anyway, regardless of what Eliza had to say. Perhaps the old woman would be able to help her.
“I want to find my ferryman,” she said quietly.
Her confession out in the open, Dylan held her breath, waiting for Eliza’s reaction. The old woman kept her face impassive, only a slight puckering of her lips revealing her emotions as she thought through Dylan’s intentions.
“That is harder,” she said, after a painful minute.
Dylan’s heart broke into a sprint. “But not impossible?” she asked.
“Perhaps not impossible.”
“What do I have to do?”
“You have to find him.”
Dylan blinked two, three times, confused. That wasn’t hard. He was ferrying another soul. She would just wait at a safe house and – eventually – he would come to her.
Then she remembered. Remembered watching shadowy outlines ghosting across the red-tinged wasteland. Remembered the hoard of black wraiths dogging their every step. And the orbs. The glowing orbs lighting the path, giving the souls something to follow, keeping them safe. Would that be all Tristan was to her now, an orb? If so, how would she tell him apart from the thousand others? You’ll know, a small voice said at the back of her head. But just once. Just quietly. Because the rest of her conscious brain turned the full force of its scorn onto the voice. This wasn’t some drippy, romantic movie. This was real life. If Tristan was one of those things, if she couldn’t see him, hear him, she’d never pick him out.
“How do I find him?” she asked. “I’ve seen them, the other ferrymen in the wasteland. They’re not people, they’re just—”
“Light,” Eliza finished. Dylan nodded, it was as good a description as any. “But,” she continued, “he is still
ferryman. Even if he has guided another soul since. Even if he has guided a thousand. If you see him, you should see him as you always did.”
Dylan’s eyes lit up with unconcealed joy. So there was a chance… it was possible. She heard a low cough from Jonas behind her and turned to beam at him. Only a hunch had led her to him; how long would it have taken her to find these answers on her own? How many long years had it taken Eliza to fully understand how this place worked?
“How do you know all this?” Dylan asked her, still smiling widely.
The old woman didn’t mirror the gesture, however. She sighed. “I told you – and this is something you need to remember, Dylan – I don’t
. I really don’t. You would be taking an enormous risk.”
Her doubts couldn’t diminish Dylan’s sudden enthusiasm, though she was determined to try. “How long do you think you can survive in the wasteland?” she asked her. “Even if you find him, your ferryman. How long do you think you can outsmart the demons?”
“We’ll stay in the safe houses,” Dylan said. “They can’t come in.”
“Are you sure? You’re changing the game, Dylan. How do you know the safe houses will still be there, will still work for you?”
Dylan frowned, wrong-footed by Eliza’s words. “Well, we won’t stay in the wasteland then,” she asserted, but some of the confidence had dropped from her voice.
Eliza laughed scornfully, but her expression was pitying. “And where will you go?”
“Can he come with me?” It was whispered, timid. Dylan’s heart, racing before, now stopped, thumping erratically, as nervous for the answer as she was.
“Here. There. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter.”
“He doesn’t belong here.”
“Neither do I,” Dylan shot back. She tried to ignore the sympathetic way Eliza smiled at her.
“And he doesn’t belong with you, either. He’s not human, Dylan. He doesn’t feel like we do, doesn’t bleed.”
“He does bleed,” Dylan said quietly. She wanted to tell Eliza that he could feel, too, that he loved her, but she knew the old woman wouldn’t believe her and she didn’t want to have to defend Tristan’s words when she wasn’t sure just how much she believed them herself.
“What?” Eliza asked, looking confused and uncertain for the first time.
“He does bleed,” Dylan repeated. “When… when the demons got him, when they dragged him under, they hurt him. He came back to me, though. And he was covered in bruises and scratches.”