Authors: Claire McFall
Dylan was full of guilt and pity. She knew that she had hurt him when she’d accused him of being uncaring. She hadn’t meant the words to come out so viciously, but the idea of someone pretending to be your mother, your father or, worse still, the love of your life… It was an appalling thought. But maybe he was right; here the consequences to a wrong decision were frightening. It was life or death.
than life or death. A far cry from the petty squabbles that had seemed so significant in her old life.
She was also trying to imagine how it would feel not to have your own identity. To be defined entirely by those around you, never to have a moment alone. Not even knowing your own face. She couldn’t envisage it and, for once, was glad to be her.
At midday they took a break, halfway down a hill on a little ledge that offered shelter from the wind and breathtaking views of the rolling countryside. There was a thick covering of clouds, but they didn’t look like they held any rain. Dylan sat down on the rock floor, not caring that it was cold and chilled her through the thick denim of her jeans. She stretched out her legs in front of her and leaned back against the rocky hill. Tristan didn’t sit beside her, but stood at the front of the ledge, staring out across the hills with his back to her. It might have looked like a protective gesture, but Dylan was sure that he was simply avoiding conversation. She chewed on a jagged nail, wanting to smooth things over but not sure how to fix it. She didn’t want to bring the subject back up again for fear of making things worse, but she couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound false. How could she bring back the mood from earlier? Reawaken the jokey, carefree Tristan? She didn’t know.
Tristan turned round abruptly and stared down at her. “Time to move.”
hat night they stayed in another cottage, another safe house on the route across the wasteland. The afternoon had passed quickly, marching at a pace that had Dylan guessing that Tristan was trying to make up for time lost during their argument. They reached the cottage just before the sun disappeared over the horizon. During the last half mile, Dylan thought she could hear distant howling, although it was difficult to tell over the wind. However, Tristan had increased the pace once again, grabbing her hand to urge her to speed up, confirming her suspicions that danger lurked nearby.
As soon as they entered the confines of the cottage, he instantly relaxed. The muscles in his jaw, clenched tight in concern, loosened into a slow smile, and his eyebrows unfurrowed, smoothing out the creases in his forehead.
This cottage was very much like the other places they had stayed in over the past two nights: pieces of broken furniture strewn about a single large room. There were two windows on either side of the front door, and two more at the rear of the cottage. They were made up of small panes of glass, and several in each window were broken, allowing the wind to whistle noisily through the room. Tristan snatched some scraps of material from beside the bed and began to stuff the small holes, while Dylan crossed to a chair and flopped down, exhausted from the day’s exertion. Although, if she didn’t need sleep, should she really be tired? Whatever, she thought. Her muscles hurt; or felt like they did. Trying to put her muddled thoughts out of her mind, she watched Tristan work.
Once he had finished with the windows, Tristan busied himself building a fire. He took much longer than the previous night, fiddling with the lie of the logs and snapping twigs into a perfect pyramid. Even when the fire was crackling merrily away, he still didn’t move from the fireplace, but stood crouched over it, staring into the flames as though mesmerised. Dylan began to feel sure that he was avoiding her, a feat that was next to impossible in the small room. She decided to try a stab at humour to bring him out of his reverie.
“If this place is my making, why are all these cottages so crappy? Couldn’t my imagination come up with a slightly better resting spot? Maybe something with a Jacuzzi, or a telly?”
Tristan turned and gave her a very small, forced smile. Dylan grimaced back, lost as to how to pull him out of his black mood. She watched as he stood lithely and crossed the room, plonking himself down on the opposite side of the small table that she had leaned her elbows on. He copied her position so that they were face to face, just a half-metre apart. They stared at each other for a short moment. Tristan’s mouth twisted to the side as he read the slight awkwardness in her eyes, and with some effort he offered her a genuine smile. Dylan took courage from the gesture.
“Look,” she started, “about before…”
“Don’t worry about it,” he interrupted abruptly.
“But…” Dylan opened her mouth to continue, but nothing came and so she lapsed into silence.
Tristan saw the regret, guilt and – worst of all – pity in her eyes and felt a confusing mixture of emotions. On the one hand, there was a kind of perverse pleasure that she cared enough about his pain to feel sorry for him, but also a niggling frustration that she was making him think about things that he’d long since accepted and come to terms with. For the first time in a long while he felt aggrieved at his lot in life. At the never-ending circular prison his existence amounted to. All of those selfish souls who had lied, cheated, wasted the life they had been given; a gift he could never have and longed for.
“What’s it like?” Dylan suddenly asked him.
“What’s what like?”
He watched her purse her lips, searching for words to phrase her question.
“Ferrying all these people; taking them all the way across, then watching them disappear, or go over, or whatever. It must be hard. I bet some of them don’t even deserve it.”
Tristan stared at her, astonished by the question. Nobody, not one soul of all the thousands he’d guided over, had ever asked him that. And what answer to give? The truth was hard, but he didn’t want to lie to her.
“At first, I didn’t really think about it. I had a job, and I did it. It seemed the most important thing in the world to protect each soul, to keep it safe. It took a long time before I started to see some of the people for what they really were. Who they really were. I stopped pitying them; stopped being kind. They didn’t deserve it.” Tristan’s voice twisted as bitterness coated his tongue. He breathed in deeply, pushing the resentment back down, glossing over it with the facade of indifference that he’d perfected over time. “They cross over, and I have to watch them walk away. That’s how it is.”
It had been like that for a long time now. Then this one had come along, and she was so different that it was knocking him out of the role that he usually played. He’d been fairly horrible to her – sneering, patronising, making fun of her – but he couldn’t help it. She had him off-balance, off-kilter somehow. She was no angel, he knew that, saw it in the million different memories of hers that played in his head, but there was something unusual – no, special – about her. He felt guilt stir in the pit of his stomach as she squirmed uncomfortably in the chair, compassion and borrowed sorrow etched across her face.
“Let’s talk about something else,” he offered, to spare her feelings.
“Okay,” Dylan agreed quickly, glad of the chance to turn the conversation. “Tell me some more about you.”
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“Hmm,” she said, going through a list of the questions that had been swimming around her head all afternoon. “Tell me about the weirdest form you’ve ever taken.”
He grinned at once and she knew this had been the right question to lighten the mood.
“Santa Claus,” he answered.
“Santa?!” she exclaimed. “Why?”
He shrugged. “It was a little kid. He died on Christmas Eve in a car crash. He was only about five, and Santa was the person he trusted more than anyone. He’d sat on his knee in a store a couple of days before, and it was one of his favourite memories.” A humorous light sparkled in his eyes. “I had to keep jiggling my belly and shouting, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ to keep him happy. He was very disappointed when he found out Santa couldn’t sing ‘Jingle Bells’ in tune.”
Dylan laughed at the idea of the boy sitting in front of her dressed up as Santa. Then she realised that he wouldn’t have been just dressed up as Santa, he would have
“You know what the weirdest thing is for me?” she asked. He shook his head. “It’s looking at you, and thinking that you’re my age, but knowing in the back of my mind that you’re really an adult. No, older than an adult. Older than anybody I know.”
Tristan smiled sympathetically.
“I don’t relate well to adults; they like to order me about. Kind of like you do, actually,” she said, laughing.
He laughed too, enjoying the sound. “Well, if it helps, I don’t feel like an adult. And you don’t seem like a child. You just seem like you.”
Dylan smiled at that.
“Any more questions?”
“Tell me… tell me about your first ever soul.”
Tristan twitched his lips to the side in a wry smile. He couldn’t refuse her anything.
“Well, it was a long time ago,” he began. “His name was Gregor. Do you want to hear the story?”
Dylan nodded eagerly.
It was a very long time ago, but in his mind’s eye Tristan could still see every detail. His first memory of existing was walking, walking in a landscape of brilliant white. There had been no floors, no walls, no sky. The fact that he was walking was the only evidence that any surface existed at all. Then out of nowhere details had begun to appear. The ground beneath his feet was suddenly a dirt track. Hedges sprang up on either side of him, high and unruly and rustling with the sounds of living creatures. It was night, the sky above him was inky black interspersed with twinkling stars. He recognised and could name all of these things. He also knew where he was going, and why he was there.
“There was a fire,” he said. “A thick plume of smoke was winding its way up into the sky, and that was where I was headed. I was walking up a lane, then from out of nowhere two men came flying past me. They ran so close to me that I could feel the air stirring, but they couldn’t see me. When I got to the source of the flames, I saw that the two men were trying to draw water from a well, but their efforts were in vain. They could not defeat a fire like that. It was a vicious inferno. A man could not hope to survive such a thing. That was why I was there, of course.”
He smiled thinly at Dylan, who was staring at him with rapt attention.
“I remember feeling… not nervous, but uncertain. Was I supposed to go in and get him, or stand there and wait? Would he know who I was, or would I have to convince him to accompany me? What would I do if the he got upset or angry?
“But in the end it was easy. He walked straight through the wall of the burning building and came to a stop in front of me, totally unscathed by the fire.”
“We should have left then. Got away from the place. But Gregor didn’t seem to want to leave. He was waiting for something. No… some
Dylan blinked, confused. “He could see them?” Tristan nodded. “I couldn’t,” she mumbled, looking down thoughtfully. “I didn’t see anyone. I was… I was alone.” Her voice died on the final word.
“Souls see the life they’ve left for a little while. It depends on their moment of death,” he explained. “You were unconscious when you died, and by the time your soul woke up, it was too late. They were gone.”
Dylan gazed at him, eyes wide pools of sadness. Then she swallowed audibly. “Keep going,” she said.
“People started to arrive at the house, and though Gregor gazed at them mournfully, he didn’t move from my side. Then a woman came sprinting up the drive, her skirts hitched up to leave her legs free to run, a horror-struck expression on her face.
“‘Gregor!’ she screamed. It was a heart-wrenching, tortured sound. She dashed past the watching crowd and made as if to run into the house, but a man grabbed her round the waist, and, after struggling for a few seconds, she slumped into his arms, sobbing hysterically.”
“Who was she?” Dylan breathed, captivated by the story.
Tristan shrugged. “His wife, I guess, or a lover.”
“What happened next?”
“The hardest part. I waited as Gregor watched her outburst with an agonised look burned across his features. One arm was stretched out towards her, but he seemed to realise that he could not offer comfort, and he had remained next to me. After a few seconds, he turned and spoke.
“‘I’m dead, aren’t I?’ he said. I just nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“‘Do I have to go with you?’ he asked, looking wistfully towards the crying woman.
“‘Yes,’ I replied.
“‘Where are we going?’ he enquired, still gazing at the woman who simply stared, mesmerised and horrified, at the burning building.
“I panicked when he asked me that,” Tristan confessed. “I didn’t know what to say.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I said ‘I am just the ferryman. I do not determine that.’
“Thankfully the man accepted this answer and I turned and begun walking away into the dark night. With one last look at the woman, Gregor followed.”
“Poor woman,” Dylan muttered, thinking of the wife, left behind and left alone. “That man, Gregor, he knew he was dead. Right away he knew.” She looked incredulous.
“Well,” replied Tristan, “he had just walked through the wall of a burning building. Besides, back then, people where you’re from were much more religious. They didn’t question their church and they believed what it taught them. They saw me as a messenger from above – an angel, I guess you’d call it. They didn’t dare question me. People nowadays are much more troublesome. They all seem to think they have rights.” He rolled his eyes.
“Huh.” Dylan looked up, unsure whether to ask her next question.
“What?” Tristan asked, seeing the hesitation in her eyes.
“Who were you for him?” she blurted out.
“Just a man. I remember being tall and muscular, with a beard.” He paused at the look on her face. Her lips were twisted together to stop herself from giggling. “Lots of men had beards, big bushy ones. I had a moustache, too. I quite liked it; it was nice and warm.”
This time she couldn’t contain the laughter, but it died away quickly.
“Who’s been the worst soul?” she asked quietly.
“You.” He smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach his eyes.