June 24, 2015

Sorry guys… took me a couple of days to finish this one….

“Jolene!!”

No response. He tried again.

“Get back here, Jolene!”

Nothing. Just the quiet of the clearing and the passive bleating of the other sheep. Jolene was always trouble. He should’ve known better.

Sigh.

He couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned. Jolene did have a tendency to wander off. So-named for her rather unusual affection towards bucks, Jolene was a troublemaker. In a field full of docile, fluffy white things, Jolene was nowhere to be found.

He’d already rounded up and counted all of the others and they were ready to go home for the night. The sun was still high, but not for long. And, independent of spirit though she may be, Jolene needed to be penned with the rest of the fluffballs for the night.

The herd, most of them fairly well-behaved, would stay together.

In a gesture of determination, he hiked up his jeans a little farther and set off to find her. How far could she have gotten, after all? The pasture wasn’t that big. The way back to the farm lay one way and a small copse of woods hedged the other. The sheep usually had enough sense to stay away from the trees, but he didn’t trust Jolene to have the common sense God gave a flea… so to the woods he went.

Carefully picking his way through the undergrowth, he listened.

There. There it was. Soft bleating. Not very far away, but strangely echoey.

At least she hadn’t gotten too far… although, he thought, he should be able to see her by now.

“Meh-eh-eh-eh.”

There it was again.

He could hear her… why couldn’t he see her?

Jolene was trouble, but she didn’t have the ability to turn invisible. As far as he knew, it wasn’t a feature sheep generally came with. Maybe, he thought, with a grim smile, it’s something they throw in at extra cost, like a sunroof on a car. New sheep, now with the annoying ability to disappear right when you’re looking for them.

“Meh-eh-eh-eh.”

“Dammit, Jolene,” he muttered under his breath, clambering further into the woods.

Was he imagining it? He hadn’t been working on the farm for very long… Was the bleating only in his head?

Maybe he’d come back only to find that Jolene had found her way back to the rest of the flock?

He doubted it.

And he doubted it even more when bleating got louder.

“Dammit, Jolene.”

He wasn’t sure how she’d managed to fit in there, let alone how he would.

The bleating was coming from a hole in the ground. Not a hole, exactly. More like a hollowed-out dip in the earth, tucked under the gnarled roots of one of the old trees. The small gap was completely black, with the kind of terrifying absence of light he imagined you’d only find in the bowels of the earth.

Ok, so it wasn’t the bowels of the earth. It was just a cave. He repeated the words to himself. It’s just a cave. It’s just a cave.

It didn’t help.

The hole was big enough for a sheep to get through… and unfortunately it looked just big enough for him to get through.

“Stay calm, Josh,” he told himself. “You can do this.”

You know things are bad, reader, when you begin calling yourself by name.

Gulping down air, he sat himself in front of the gap and began to scoot in, legs first. He figured if something bit him, he could always pull himself back out. Only…. If something bites your legs off, that makes it pretty hard to run away. He tried not to think about that scenario. He tried not to imagine something large and hungry waiting for him in the darkness, with sharp, blood-smeared teeth. He told himself that he was being ridiculous.

Luckily, nothing bit him.

And after a few more moments of scrabbling across dirt, he found himself on his hands and knees inside the entrance of a small cave. To his overwhelming joy, he discovered it also wasn’t completely dark – on this side of the cave entrance some light filtered through. It was grayish and dull, like light filtering through water, but he was grateful for whatever light he could get.

And he was even more grateful when the space broadened out a few feet ahead of him, allowing him to stand full height.

On further examination, this place was huge. The narrow path he was on emptied out into a large cavern. He could swear he heard running water ahead, along the with Jolene’s familiar bleating.

The rushing of water got louder and he swiftly came to realize that it wasn’t just some tiny underground creek. The noise swept up around him as the water began to soak through his sneakers. He’d stepped up the edge of some vast, underground river. In the dim light, he looked out over the water… and realized he couldn’t see the other side. Nor, he realized, could he find the edges of the cavern. The space seemed to fade into a blurry, yellow-gray at the edges of his vision.

“Meh-eh-eh-eh.”

Back to the reason he was down here. The sound drew his eyes up… and up… and up. Some short way into the river, incongruous in this muddy place, was a yacht. He supposed anywhere else it would be a ‘small’ yacht, but in the cavern it loomed large above him, cheerfully striped in royal blue and white.

And Jolene sat placidly on deck, happily baa-ing her little heart out, under the firm grasp of what looked to be a very old man.

Josh said the first thing he could think of, which was, admittedly, not altogether polite.

“What are you doing here?”

The old man grinned at him, a rictus grin in a hollow-looking face. Deep-set eyes watched him. The old man ran fingers through his long, matted, gray beard. His nails, Josh noted, were long and dirty, almost like claws, and he fought back a shiver.

Incongruously, he wore electric blue-and-green board shorts, revealing skinny white legs and a pair of shovel-sized feet stuffed into a pair of black converse. A black t-shirt featured a bright green tongue emerging from cherry-red lips, emblazoned with the name of a band he’d never heard of.

“I could ask you the same thing,” the man said. “Not many use this entrance anymore. It’s hardly worth my time to patrol it.”

“I… uh…. Well… I…”

Really articulate. Good job, there, Josh. Just ask for your damn sheep back and go home. Unfortunately, he seemed to have a bit of trouble making words come out of his mouth.

“I came down here to find Jolene,” he finally managed.

“This little lady?” the old man stroked her back affectionately. “I see. Well, that’s all right then.”

“It is?”

He didn’t know why he sounded surprised.

“I had been going to ask about her,” the man said casually. “Whether you intended to use her to pay for your passage.”

The man cleared his throat before continuing.

“It’s a relatively recent policy change, you see,” he said. “We no longer accept livestock as payment. Things get messy when transportation of live animals is involved. Particularly in this industry. I think you’d understand the … umm… inconvenience. But we now accept Visa and Discover. And, if you’re approved based on your credit score, we have a variety of amenities to make your journey easier.”

“My – my journey?” he asked. “Journey where? Is this some kind of cruise?”

“Your journey to the other side, of course.”

The man’s expression returned to seriousness as he went into what appeared to be a pre-written corporate spiel.

“We here at Charon Cruises take your afterlife experience very seriously,” he explained. “We understand that this is a difficult journey and provide comfortable, all-encompassing service in your transition from this life to the next one.”

For a price, thought Josh, although he didn’t say it.

“Wait a minute….”

Charon.

Afterlife.

River.

A fleeting vision of his eighth grade classroom bloomed before his eyes, including what little he remembered from Greek mythology.

“Wait…. Charon?”

The rictus smile bloomed across the old man’s face.

“One and the very same,” he said. “Owner and proprietor.”

“The…. The ferryman from Greek mythology?” he asked, vaguely disbelieving the words coming out of his own mouth.

“Glad to be of some renown,” the old man said. “Although I would like you to know, young man, that we here are Charon Cruises do not discriminate based on ethnicity, race or religion. All are welcome aboard our luxurious river-cruise. No longer a service provided exclusively to Greeks, we now provide global access.”

“I see,” he said, the wheels in his head cranking overtime to adjust to this bizarre reality. “But what happened to the whole…. Ferry thing? The cloak and the coins and all that?”

“Eh,” the old man responded with a shrug of his shoulders. “Coins. They get so clanky and loud, you know? And it’s hard to keep organized. Credit is much easier to handle.”

“And the rest?”

The old man looked down at his tropical-getaway outfit and shrugged again.

“We decided to rebrand,” he said. “The whole wooden-ferry and black cloak thing really wasn’t working. Nobody wants to get into a boat with a creepy old man, you know? Especially not kids. Apparently, I was ‘scary.’”

The man lifted his hands in the ‘quotes’ gesture.

“Profit margins were falling and the customer surveys reflected an overall poor consumer experience, so I decided to change everything,” he explained. “You know, get hip with the younger generation. Provide the luxury experience that the modern world demands. For a reasonable fee.”

“I see,” he said. “Good job?”

He hadn’t meant it as a question. But apparently it was enough for the old man to keep going.

“Between you and me,” he said. “The rebranding has made my life a whole lot better. I mean, rowing people in a boat all day isn’t exactly fun, you know? It was murder on my back. And I’m not exactly young anymore.”

“Ah, well. Good for you.”

“It’s more than good,” the old man said. “It’s awesome. Rowing people in a boat all day is boring. Now? I have cable. And Netflix. Have you heard of Netflix? It’s a Godsend. I mean, I just started watching Orange is the New Black. I don’t know how I’ve lived without it all these years. Well, not lived, exactly, but you know.”

“Ah. Good for you.”

He wasn’t sure. That sounded like a reasonable thing to say. What were you supposed to say when talking to the ferryman of the dead?

“So how about it, kid?” the old man asked. “You in? I can have the paperwork filled out in a jiffy.”

“I… umm…. Here’s the thing,” he said. “Is that I really only came down here to get my sheep… And I’m not dead. At least I don’t think I’m dead?”

He really hadn’t meant that one as a question either.

The old man gave him a hard look up and down, frowning slightly. He gave a small sigh and a shrug of the shoulders.

“You’re right,” the old man agreed. “You’re not dead. But that’s really just a formality. I mean, I’m totally willing to looking the other way on that, if you’d like to see what the land of the dead looks like. And, for a nominal fee, I’ll even look the other way on the sheep.”

Silence hung between them for a moment.

“How you get back, of course…. Is your concern.”

This last was stated quietly, almost a whisper.

“Thanks for the offer,” he said. “But really…. I gotta go. I just came down here to get my sheep and I … it’s really time I should be leaving.”

He made a show of looking down at his wrist, which was pretty unnecessary, he realized, as he wasn’t actually wearing a watch.

“You sure?”

“Yes. I’m sure,” he answered. “Now… if you could just….”

He nodded meaningfully at Jolene, still sitting patiently on deck, ready to go on the trip of no return.

“Fine,” the old man said, giving her one last stroke.

Lazily, he lowered a gangplank and guided the sheep onto it.

“It’s really your loss, you know,” he added, watching the fluffball scoot slowly back towards Josh. “We have HBO and Showtime. And when they were installing the cable, they made a mistake, so we get the pay-per-view stuff for free.”

The old man shook his head, slightly disappointed.

“You’re totally missing out,” he finished.

“Thanks,” Josh said. “But no thanks.”

He began shoving Jolene back up the way she came, hurrying her up to the entrance of the cave, as much as a sheep can be hurried, which is, after all, not very much. Which is why he heard the ferryman’s last words loud and clear.

“Thanks for stopping by,” he said. “See you soon.”

Josh turned around to glare at him, only to find nothing there… Just black water lapping at a dirty brown shore in the gray gloom. A shiver crawled down his spine, in spite of the warmth of the day. He shook his head, fighting off the dull grayness of the space, trying to shake off the gloom and the fog filling his mind.

Finally, he pushed the stupid sheep out of the cave and into the woods, following her out into the real world.

Writing Prompt:

Hell Yacht Sheep

Writing Prompt Courtesy of:

http://writingexercises.co.uk/take-three-nouns.php

Image Courtesy of:

Me. I took this one.

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