The journey was long, but he knew that it needed to happen. His mother kept saying, “You have to take her. She has to go and you are by far the most capable, also the strongest.” She kept telling him that he would need physical and emotional strength. Michael knew that what she said was true, but was skeptical that his mother’s claim – that he was the only one was capable.
It couldn't have been anyone else. Grandma knew it too, but she wasn't in any condition to argue with anyone. See Michael’s beloved grandmother had passed from her earthly existence a while back and now she had to be delivered from this existence to the next.
“You get to take her. I left everything you should need on the bed side table. The map will get here tomorrow. Get a good night’s sleep.” Michael’s mom had decided he was the one to go yesterday. He wasn't sure it was a “get to go” situation, but he wasn't sure what he was getting himself into. So the hesitation was understandable. This was a unique opportunity that holds more weight with those who never have the chance to go.
He went to his room and crawled in bed, hopeful to get more sleep than he had the night before.
The directions arrived in his mailbox first thing on the day of his adventure. Michael read these through once and put them aside until after he ate breakfast. The LIFE cereal helped nourish his childhood side before this overwhelming journey. He grabbed the directions and the small container of grandma’s ashes he had to take with him and stashed them in his pocket. He walked out the front door of his childhood home.
He was heavy with the task in front of him and unsure of what to expect. Normally he was pretty confident in the decisions he makes when on adventures. The only thing he feared was the large hungry critters, but according to the directions he wouldn't find too many on this trek.
His directions were oddly detailed. It went like this:
Exit childhood home via the front door.
Walk until you reach the main highway via the residential dirt roads.
Continue to walk east-ish along the highway past the storage units.
Take a right on the next dirt road.
Do not look back.
Walk until you pass the large desert shrub with the worn green tag hanging from the top branch.
Take a right off the road that is no longer a road and not much more than a foot path.
Do not look back; you will not see what you are looking for.
Walk into the desert.
You will reach a large-ish rock with a circle engraved on its surface.
If you make this stretch of the journey before noon, your local time, the rock will shimmer making it easier to find from a distance.
Step over the rock.
Follow the path.
Do not look back.
You won’t have to go too far, epically speaking.
That was it. That was all the directions had to guide him.
He followed all of the directions outlined keeping an eye on the time as he found the shrub. It was still before noon. He turned right and kept walking. As soon as he leveled his focus he could see a glint of light what it seemed like a mile away. It was flat. He could see pretty far. He did not look back. He kept walking.
Michael considered the difference between attractive and unattractive sports reporters, the dynamics used to calibrate the internet, and the perks of having a pet monkey (one of which is punching chavs in the balls) and the meaning behind a glimmering rock in the middle of the desert.
He kept walking and thinking. Walking and thinking. This was way more than a mile. Eventually the rock was getting closer. He picked up the pace and ran the last 200 or so yards to the rock with the circle engraved on the top. It was polished marble with the tiniest of yellow crystals embedded on the surface. He was tall enough to step over the rock, as instructed.
The desert landscape was gone.
There was a path under his feet. It lead him along the edge on a volcano on what seemed to be a deserted Hawaiian island. It was humid, hot, and nothing beyond the small island his feet resided on, but ocean for miles. He walked with the path as it curved around the volcano and down a small steep hill. He found his place in line.
Most of the people waiting were dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt. Every few people there were someone in obviously traditional religious garb, some of it excessively ornate for this climate. Michael was happy with his choice of yellow button down and dark plaid red shorts.
“What are you doing here?” He asked curiously as recognition of the presence he hadn't been able to shake, since he stepped over the rock, clicked.
She said nothing. He turned around to face her. Michael relaxed his shoulders as his grandmother reached for his hand. It was his job to take her. He understood why now. She had no words and they needed none. He was afraid, but she was comforted by the line they were in. They walked hand in hand as the line got shorter and shorter.
A giant tree stood on the bank of the river. Michael would consider giant an understatement as he slowly moved his glance upward in an attempt to see the color of its leaves, but they were well beyond the sunset rose clouds. As he walked closer he could see ragged boots sticking out from behind one of the roots. He approached who he assumed was the boatman.
"Excuse me." He knocked on the tree trunk. It made an intrusive gong sound and almost knocked Michael out of his own ragged boots.
"Really?" A grave and resonant voice came from the being inhabiting the boots. "You weren't expecting that were you? It’s a good way to remind people of where they are."
"Excuse me?" Michael was curious of how someone could not remember that they are standing on the bank of the river Styx.
"You think that everyone who comes to see me is the only one who could accompany their dead?" There was a pause. "Let’s just say that your grandmother is very lucky to have you escort her here. There are others who would have done it, if you hadn't and they aren't as unassuming."
"Sir, I’m not…what are you talking about?” Michael wasn't sure he wanted to ask for clarification, but it was too late now.
“Not all of the folks who die in your world have loved ones to bring them to me. I have a log of those who die so I know who to expect. We have to keep diligent records. For those who don’t have someone dear to them to bring them to me, I send a taxi, if you will. We had to set up a back-up plan since when we miss someone things get unpleasant.”
“Unpleasant?” He had to ask.
“Let’s just say more people end up dead than were in the first place. Anyway, she,” he pointed at the graceful old woman behind Michael, “is lucky she has you to watch over her.”
“Yeah, I wasn't sure what I was getting into bringing her. It’s cool that there is a whole process, but where do they go?”
“Wow, you are just full of questions.” He inhaled patiently like he had this part well-rehearsed centuries ago and the answer has gotten old. “Everyone goes to the same place. There is no heaven or hell. Folks have a way of finding their kind even on our side. Heaven is just used to reassure those who believe in righteousness. They believe in it so much that they don’t even ask me that question anymore, but they also aren’t the ones who bring their dead.”
Michael considered that last statement and assumed it was because they didn't believe in this afterlife, so why would they even concern themselves with the journey. “That sounds like a good process; it’s neat to know that nothing changes too much.”
“It is nice to know that a kid approves of our policies and procedures that have worked for centuries.” Talking to himself. “Thank you. Now we must get on with it. That is a line." He pointed behind Michael and there was definitely a longer line than when he was at the front of it.
"Oh right." Michael moved his grandmother to lie on the crude wooden raft tethered to the bank. He finally noticed how inky black the water was on this bank, while the other side of the river looked remarkably clear.
"Now place the coins on her eyes." Charon gracefully gestured to where her head now lay.
"About that, what does it cost?" He pulled two of each from his pocket, everything from pennies to Sacajawea dollars. He had even scrounged up two Kennedy half dollars.
He looked toward the clear water bank, "oh my, you weren't kidding. Okay, this is a penny ride.” Charon gestured toward a wooden raft . “Nickels come with a feather pillow." He snapped his fingers with a false enthusiastic face and a fluffy pillow appeared under her head. "Dimes will get you an inflatable kayak, instead of this reliable raft, reminiscent of my good friend Mark Twain's iconic work. He talked us though how to build it more sturdy, but the kayak will help prevent her from sliding overboard if the waters get rough. Of the two, I would vote for the raft. We still believe in solid craftsmanship and we don't build the kayaks "A snap and the kayak appeared. “Now, if you want to spend quarters we can make it a Viking longboat. I know the mythology is wrong, but it is a customer favorite, if they sacrifice parking meter money." When he saw it, the longboat became a strong contender and totally worth 50¢. "It isn't very often that JFK graces my humble banks, so those who chose him get a black sail pirate ship with a busty figurehead." That was an intriguing option as well. "Now, for the dollar, the vote was to go with the theme. I think it’s a bit racist, but the Sacajawea dollar gets you a 'genuine' Native American canoe. Between you and me, those who bring me American coins get the most generic and offensive options. So what is your choice?" The boatman put his hands on his hips and waited.
"Pirate ship, for sure. She would've been a pirate. Will she know?" Michael had a feeling that this decision was for his comfort, not hers.
"Yes, she will know, but I've heard that it doesn't matter that much to most people. Those it matters too are more likely to be too much of a pain that their families didn't bring them anyway. Go ahead and place the coins on her eyes. We gotta keep this train a moving." Charon nods to how many people have been standing in line.
Michael leaned in and placed the half dollars on her eyes. He kissed her forehead and stepped away.
The boatman snapped his fingers and the ship appeared. Michael could see his grandmother finally at rest.
"Can I ask one last question?"
"A quick one." Charon liked him and appreciated his love for his grandmother.
"Do you know who will bring me?"
"I don't have that foresight, but you will instill your love in all of your family and the person who is meant to bring you will. I have no doubt of that."
“Thank you.” Michael turned around to face the ever growing line and started his walk home.