Swarms of people gathered at the terminal and waited impatiently for it to open. All walks of life – men, women, and children formed like hungry animals, eager to board the next ferry across. The terminal was more frightening than the boat ride, it seemed; Wet, dirty cobblestone and high cavern ceilings of what surely felt like the center of the earth gave way for a symphony of echoes from nervous voices and shuffling feet. It wasn’t just the echoes, though, but the stink of tragedy that still hung to the freshly departed passengers. The growls and groans of a three-headed beast on the other side of the foggy river was a welcome tune.
And then there was Ellie.
She didn’t recognize any of these people. Moments ago – it seemed – she was crossing the street with her family when she dropped her doll. Next thing she knew, Ellie was in this place. She must have fallen into a sewer, she thought, and these were all sewer dwellers. She wanted to cry out for her mother, but Ellie was taught to never cry out if she was lost, because a stranger would see her alone and take her. So she stood very still instead, and looked earnestly around for her parents.
The jolt of an ancient whistle grabbed the attention of the passengers, and Ellie found herself swept up in a wave as they gathered in an orderly line per the instruction of the ticketmaster. Slowly, she felt herself sucked backwards as large feet, petite shoes – ball gowns and hospital gowns – pushed forward. Ellie heard an old woman complain that she waited her whole life for this moment and now she was stuck behind a destitute.
“Two pieces!” the ticket man hollered. Two pieces of what? Ellie wondered. She had two clips in her hair, two shoes on her feet – two pieces of what? She was last in line, still unable to locate her parents, although compelled to wait exactly where she was, certain they would come find her. And at the back of this line, she figured, it wouldn’t be long before she found out what two pieces the ticketmaster required.
It felt like an eternity before Ellie could actually see the call box. Just beyond it was a short pier and – at the end of that – a long boat waited in the fog. She couldn’t see the captain’s face, but he was tall and thin and she thought maybe she didn’t want to ride this boat. She’d keep her clips and her shoes. Ellie couldn’t understand why these passengers wanted to cross into the fog – and it was almost her turn – so she tapped shyly on the back of an old woman’s arm. The lady turned around and looked down at the little girl. Her face softened, sad, to see someone so young in this line.
“Oh, you poor thing. How did you get here?”
“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “I can’t find my mum and dad.”
“Oh dear. They didn’t come with you?”
“I was just with them,” she replied. “I lost my doll.”
“Don’t worry, dear.” The old woman put a soft hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “My husband didn’t come with me either. We can ride the ferry together.”
“Where is it going?”
“To the afterlife, of course.” The old woman flashed a warm smile down to Ellie, but all she felt was the cold chill of fear run down her little spine.
“I want to go home!” Ellie stomped a foot and it echoed across the floor, prompting those ahead of her to turn and stare.
“Oh, child,” the old woman said, “you’re going to a new home. Your parents will find you there one day.”
Ellie wanted to cry. She looked frantically for an exit, and saw none. She was alone, and only had the old woman to guide her. Eventually, it was the woman’s turn to pay the ticketmaster.
“Two pieces,” a voice called from the shadow. She opened her hand and dropped two pence on the counter. A large palm covered the pieces and slid them into a drawer. She walked to the boat.
“See you soon, dear,” she said.
Ellie gulped and approached. He demanded the same two pieces. She checked her dress pockets, though she knew they were empty.
“I – I don’t have to pieces,” she said. Her throat was dry and hoarse.
“No pieces, no ferry,” he replied. His pitch didn’t waiver for anyone, not even a little girl.
“But where do I go?”
“Nowhere,” he said, and slammed the callbox window shut. Ellie was left speechless as she stood alone at the pier. She watched the old woman turn around and saw her face change to sadness. The old woman lifted a hand in a limp wave goodbye, her head falling to one side. The boat pushed off into the fog, taking with it whatever light there was.
Ellie sat on the ground in her dress. Her mum would have scolded her – but her mum wasn’t coming. She knew that now. She wrapped her arms around her knees and cried for what felt like hours, until a hand touched her shoulder, frightening her.
“Why are you crying?” The woman smiled down at Ellie on the cobblestone.
“I can’t go on the ferry, and I can’t find my mum and dad. And I’m scared,” Ellie wept.
“You can ride with me,” the woman said.
“Do you have an extra two pieces?”
“I don’t need two pieces,” she laughed.
Another boat arrived, different from the last. It was bigger, newer, and there was no ferryman in sight. Death took Ellie by the hand and walked her to the end of the pier. She picked up the little girl and placed her on a cushioned seat. Ellie felt safe for the first time since she arrived at the ferry terminal and thanked Death for taking her in.
“No worries, darling. Let’s go find that old woman.” They rode into the fog.