They buried Nell when the frost thawed. James stood over her grave, the mound covered with moss and leaves. He had never left her side, not then, not now. Rowan had listened to him whispering to his daughter, who struggled to speak through the black feathers spilling from her mouth. She had known what was happening. Eight years old was enough to understand death. To understand the world was ruin and sorrow. She had held onto James’ hand until the end.
He had carried her out to the garden, backing out onto a field, empty from bleating sheep. A wooden swing shuddered against the wind, a pond thick with algae and rotten fish. James had dug with his bare hands, and Rowan helped, despite the stones slitting beneath his fingernails, his hands raw and knuckle joints aching with each fistful. James didn’t look anywhere but at her when he lowered Nell down.
The brisk October morning became afternoon by the time they finished. Mist was wisps around their ankles, slithering across the grave. Within it were feathers, raining down upon them.
James snatched one up and tore the down from its spine, dropping the fragments to his feet. He tugged at his auburn-grey beard. “We should keep moving.”
Rowan wiped the fog from his glasses. “Let’s mark the spot.” He took some seashells from his pocket, from the jar that had been sitting on the kitchen windowsill. When Nell was able to stay awake for longer than five minutes, she would put her ear to the shells, as though hoping for the ocean waves. “She liked these ones the most, didn’t she?”
Agony tore over James’ face, but he recovered and spun around, heading for the front gate. Rowan fought the urge to call after him. They had been hunkered down for several days, taking advantage of the intact ceiling and warm beds as the days shortened, but Rowan understood why James would not stay for a second longer. There were still feathers on the sofa, where Nell once laid.
James slammed the gate shut behind him and on Rowan, who pretended not to see the shaking in his shoulders.
The large alleyway bins proved more successful than the household rubbish they had spent the following three nights scavenging through.
Elbow-deep with rancid food, attracting rats that tried to nab a finger or two, their fur matted and slimy. Rowan found bags full of clothes that were absent from the sour meat smell he had come across more than once. Not that he had much choice with the worsening winter, his jaw clenching each time a cold breath whistled through his teeth.
He shrugged on the layers and studied James continuing to root around. Unease licked at Rowan’s spine as he attempted to look up at the Edinburgh sky. North was no better than the south. Fog pressed down on them. Faraway was hidden, but not the near: the corpses with vacant eye sockets and pitted flesh, either devoured or dying from infection, feathers heaved from lungs drowning with mealworms.
Cawing echoed in the distance, lashing against the mist. Against his skull. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, though Nell still seared across his mind.
As he shook the thoughts off, James hefted bags onto the pavement, ripped open to expose maggots. James sighed.
Rowan touched his back. “We should find somewhere for the night,” he said, pulling away at the flinch. At the trembling hands, the wavering breath.
James batted the grime and insects from a tartan scarf, wrapping it tight around his throat. “We’ve got time to sort through more.”
“Not with sunset around the corner.” Silence stretched between them. “There’s always tomorrow. Staying here might be nice. Being close to home and all.”
A sullen nose grated from within James. “Nothing like seeing what you love dead.”
Rowan let James limp ahead. Old age was hitting them, needing deep heat or ibuprofen for sore knees and bad backs whenever they were lucky enough to find any, grabbing them from looted pharmacies or prying them from rigid fingers. They were young once, when he and James were at university and could walk without leaning against walls for breathers; when there were no ravens to feast upon them. Nostalgia trailed after Rowan, softening his anxiety.
“Where should we head to next?” he asked. An invitation to talk about settling down for winter, a sentiment that had been shared by Nell. “What about the coast? Find a boat, an island. Build something.”
James said nothing and kept walking.
Mist snaked around them, wetting the concrete, awash in the dusky light. The sight might have been beautiful if not for what lurked within.
Rowan noticed the feather landing on his shoulder far slower than he would have liked. Not because they were unexpected; not an inch of the world was without them. But because it came from above, not across, like the others when carried on the wind. The cawing followed as a hoarse shear on the air, shuddering through his ribcage.
Fear pulled taut within his body, and James registered the change, but he didn’t move until Rowan yanked him down the street. They were seconds into night-time, but the ravens must have been waiting. Hungering.
Boots pounded the ground, their breaths coming thin and burning. They staggered to a stop, seeing through the mist enough to spot a church, its spire managing to break the surface. Rowan dragged and shoved, throwing James over the threshold and pressing him against the inside wall with his arm bracketed across his chest. He sensed the ravens were close from the cries above.
stayed that way. Rowan counted the minutes. Four, with stillness and cawing and breathing.
When the cries faded, he asked, “Are you all right?”
“Grand,” James said, thick and flat. He peered out the door, fists shaking at his sides. “We’re clear.”
A beat passed where Rowan wondered what James was thinking. Did he too think about the past, mourn it? Like when Rowan was hunched over his laptop typing an essay, stealing glances at James standing at his easel, his fingertips smudged with charcoal or wet with acrylics. He would always smear some over his cheek, a pastel blue like an ocean across his skin. Rowan would resist the impulse to wipe it away, the same way he resisted the impulse to touch him now.
The longer he looked at James and his faraway gaze, the more he realized he thought about one thing only. About one person.
What little sunlight strained through the stained windows rested on them with red and yellow hues. They made their way to the back of the church. Debris from the caved-in roof covered the benches filmed with dust, stepping over battered books and candle holders. Rowan tried to ignore the decaying smell he knew all too well, though the bile rose.
“We’re heading back out?” he asked, when James kept walking towards the exit. They had always travelled during the day. Night meant wading through thicker and colder fog, beneath the glinting eyes of the ravens. “You can’t think we’d survive for longer than a minute, even a second, if we go out now. We’d be even more exposed than—”
He stopped when James stared blankly at him and asked, “Are you coming or not? Then let’s go, eh?”
Rowan had no other choice but to follow. Their survival was still stronger with the two of them, and the thought of leaving him was beyond comprehension. He trailed after James, shivering from the cold. From the cries ringing out high in the fog.
They stopped at Perth when Rowan sprained his ankle from tripping over a crack in the road, split open from overgrown vegetation.
The same infested the buildings: old crumbling grey bricks smothered with foliage, knotted around deserted cars. He had grown accustomed to the sight in the few months the world had been swarmed with flesh-eating birds. Nell had made that easy for him when he explained the situation to her, taking reality in its stride. At least in the beginning.
James had been searching for food to relieve them from something other than canned beans and moldy bread. Not much time had passed. Barely a fortnight into the chaos, when they were still barricaded in Rowan’s ground flat, when the news broadcasts had died out and the streets were becoming abandoned. Rain pattered on the window, an unusual change to what was expected mid-spring, streaking across the glass like London cried; like the world cried.
Nell laid on her belly, legs swinging in the air. She played with an old secondhand Game Boy, spending as few minutes on it as possible to save the battery. Sirens sounded from the center of the city, a screeching rarity, stifled by the otherworldly shrieks. “What’s that?” she asked, her head tilted towards the noise.
He had not explained right away, contemplating what to say. They had postponed the conversation, distracting her with video games or biscuits. Before he could try, James returned home, tired and sagging, but managed a smile when Nell bounded up to him.
“Daddy!” she exclaimed, her eagerness endearing but saddening. “Rowan was going to tell me about outside!”
Rowan mouthed his apologies, because James might have wanted to be the one to explain, or even preferred to have kept quiet.
But he looked relieved, encouraging Rowan to go on, and so he did. Nell seemed more annoyed than scared. No hopscotch, no visiting the corner shop for sweets. He told her they could do those things again. Someday. She went about her day, scoffing her baked beans warmed over the fireplace. Rowan sat down on the sofa, sighing when James did the same, whose expression was concerned, before fading into something unreadable.
He brushed Rowan’s thigh. “Thank you,” he whispered, and even though he pulled back, the spot he touched was still warm.
They sat like that for the rest of the night, sinking into the leather, against each other, their hands close enough for their little fingers to touch.
A scuttling noise yanked him out from his mind, coming from the city hall. The doors juddered as though something or someone from inside had slammed them shut.
From where he knelt on the ground, sorting his supplies, James was frozen, staring at the same space. He rose. “Stay here.”
Rowan ignored him and followed, pausing at the entrance. In front of the doors were feathers, along with droplets of blood, leading off to the right and around the street corner. Whether they were away or towards he couldn’t tell.
They never should have travelled at night, and he shouldn’t have agreed to it. “We back out slow. Head back the way we came,” Rowan said. If there were ravens inside, found corpses to pick apart, they might not hear their retreat over their own consumption. They would have to be quick, but James had not moved. “You’re tired and hungry, but you should reconsider—”
“Don’t move, don’t follow me. Don’t do anything,” James repeated. In the silence, he added, “You ken?”
At first Rowan seemed to listen, stepping back from how forceful James sounded, who took out his knife and reached for the door handle. His shoulders hunched; his hands shook. Control cloaked with desperation, sharpening his edges from the way he flinched at the creak when he pushed the door open. Seconds after James entered, Rowan finally moved, pressing against the wall to ease the weight on his throbbing ankle.
The hall was empty save for the circle of stalls and the feathers scattered over the hardwood floors. James was kneeling. And crouched in front of him was a child. A girl around the same age as Nell, with the same dirty blonde hair. She was leaning away from James and his offered hand, which was shaking even worse than before.
“What’s your name? Are you alone?” he asked, sounding as though he tried to soften his voice, but it came out a hiss. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Her gaze darted away from James and to Rowan, to his foot when he eased forward with a hushed drag. “That’s what happens when you fall on your face,” he joked. He took some water from his backpack and sipped. When she eyed the bottle, he asked, “Would you like some too?”
The moment tensed as he waited for her reaction. He expected her to run and hide, and he would have told Nell to do the same. But the girl rose and shuffled forward, skimming around James, stopping in front of Rowan. Plastic crunched as she took the bottle and downed half the contents. Rowan saw James kept his gaze pinned to the ground, his jaw grinding.
“Are you alone?” Rowan repeated when she stopped drinking with a loud, wet gasp. “We want to help you. That’s all.”
She paused. “We were running from the ravens. My dad and me,” she said. Her Scottish accent was gentle. “He left to lead them away. I’ve been waiting for him.”
Rowan bridged the gap between her and James, sensing the anxiety still fraught within her, even though his stomach twisted with discomfort. “He told you to wait?”
Another nod. “We were going to Dundee,” she said, “but I don’t know how to get there.”
Beside him, James flinched. Something like hesitation and conflict crossed over his face, but then: “We can take you. To find your da.”
Rowan bristled with sudden thoughts. What if her father returned to find her gone? Who were they to take her to?
He surveyed the scene around her. She had been here for a while. Empty cans surrounded a sleeping bag stuffed in the corner, along with candles melted to the base, spreading out as wax puddles. Her mouth was cracked and peeling, her skin washed out grey over hollow cheeks. Dread crawled over him. Her father could be dead. She could be too, if they left her. Although the decision had been made for them by James, there was not much choice to begin with.
The girl stared at Rowan for his answer, to which he managed to smile and say, “We can.”
James led the way, collecting her things and heading for the doors. As they all stepped out onto the street, Rowan asked her what her name was. She told him Frances.
In the few hours that passed, Rowan hoped the note they left behind would be enough. Hoped Frances’ father would be alive to find it.
“Are you all right?” he asked James, as the three of them camped inside a small pub in Balbeggie.
But he was far from all right. They were edging closer to November, when Nell would have turned nine. Each birthday had been loud and lively. Decorations strung across the walls, with confetti still embedded in the carpet months later. Whatever she wanted would be torn from catalogues or bookmarked on the computer. A bowling party of thirty with chips and burgers, or a double-feature animation at the cinema with squealing kids. He was present for each one, and now he found himself remembering her fifth, as he carried her home after the exhaustive excitement.
They had been walking down the road, their breaths misting from the late-night air. James was close beside him, smiling as Nell lifted her head from Rowan’s shoulder to mumble, “Want cake.”
“Can’t help you there,” he said, smirking against the crown of her head. “Your dad and I ate the lot.”
James hid the Tupperware box behind his back. “Down to the last sliver of icing.”
Nell half-heartedly waved her arm behind James, trying to grab the leftovers. “You’re lying.”
She fell back to sleep before she could seize the cake, but they all shared the last slice the next morning as a treat. Nell laughed at Rowan’s buttercream moustache, but before he could wipe it away with his napkin, James reached over and swiped his thumb over Rowan’s lip. There had been a hitch of breath, a twitching hand. James pulled away slow, and Rowan followed the movement of his throat as he swallowed. His lip was still warm, sweet with vanilla.
The cereal bar Rowan forced down now was supposed to be vanilla too, but it was stale, crumbling like gravel in his mouth. He gave the rest to Frances, who was content with settling against a wall and eating it in three bites, as he waited for James to answer his question. There was none but an unreadable stare outside the grime-thick window.
Mountains sloped towards the sky, touching the air clear from mist. Rowan was almost convinced he heard the calls from other birds, like crossbills swooping down the hills. He wanted to climb them, to see what was coming. To see to the horizon. But James avoided that, cutting through to hurry and keep moving on. Never taking the moment to breathe.
Which was why when Frances fell asleep, Rowan let the question fall out from him. “What’s your plan here, James?”
He frowned. “You know what the plan is.”
“I’m not talking about now,” Rowan said. “I’m talking about after.”
James’ silence was unnerving and his reply empty, “What do you want me to say?”
Rowan dragged his fingernails across the gritty carpet, exhaling a hot breath. “The truth.”
What did James think would happen for the rest of their lives? Would they reach one corner of Scotland and turn back? Back and forth, wearing down the pavement until there was nothing but dirt and blood. There was more. There was finding what they had lost. “We’re always moving and never stopping,” he continued. “We could be searching for somewhere to stay.”
“Somewhere to stay?” James’ scoff was bitter. Gone was the blank mask, replaced with a snarl. “It would be us and the fucking ravens.”
Rowan gave a sigh, soft and sad. “Aren’t we enough?”
James pressed his mouth into a thin, blanched line, which pushed Rowan to continue, even though his nerves protested. “You wanted to before. We were going to find somewhere. With Nell.”
The air shifted with a stone-heavy drop. “Don’t you dare try and use her against me.”
“I’m saying she would be wondering the same thing as me—”
“Shut up.” James’ voice wavered, as did his body when he stood. “You don’t get to talk about what you don’t understand. She wasn’t your daughter.”
He vanished upstairs before Rowan could respond, but he found he couldn’t even if he wanted to, his shock letting James walk away. The words were a punch to his chest. Nell had been like his own. The kid who yelled his name whenever he knocked on the door, who braided his hair with butterfly hair ties, who asked him to cut up her fish fingers.
He had been there when James brought her home.
He had been there when the talons scratched her forearm and the feathers swelled from the wound.
The snare caught the hare mid-jump, its body jerking, stilling. Frances trailed behind Rowan, holding onto his trouser leg. She made an icky sound when he untangled the dead animal and slung it over his shoulder, saving it for later. He had learnt how to set traps through manuals he found in a house, and he much preferred his method than the rifle James had taken, his protests swiftly ignored with their strained silence.
They crossed into Dundee soon after, and Rowan noticed James’ back straightening solid, a shiver rippling up his spine. Any emotion he had kept guarded was bleeding out. A place he had once raved about when they were young adults. Like when they were blackout drunk in Soho, their heads huddled close as they spoke over the bass, where James’ hand was at the nape of Rowan’s neck, his mouth at the shell of his ear. A place where he had wanted to take Nell someday. Rowan longed for that sentiment now, not the never-ending, deep fear that had since rooted itself in them.
Still, James trudged ahead with his head low, keeping to the side, along the buildings, away from Rowan and Frances.
“Do you know where you and your dad might have gone once you got here?” he asked her, though the question felt stale and bleak.
She thought for a moment. “We talked about going to the McManus.”
Rowan tried not to show his lacking expectation to find her father there, or to find him in Dundee at all, and instead asked: “You’re into art? So is James.”
Frances glanced at him, where he skirted along a book shop. “What kind?”
An image came to Rowan of nimble fingers cradling a pencil, poised over paper; or kneading wet clay with teeth sunken into a lower lip in concentration. He smiled to himself. “The kind where he can make anything beautiful.”
James looked their way, as though he had heard what was said. They held gazes for a brief moment, before he broke it.
The final walk to the gallery took a few more hours, staggered with rest stops and cautious scouting. The square was empty. The grass was patchy, the spiral shrubbery sculptures bare and bodiless. Staircases curled around the entrance to a building with dirty beige bricks and broken grey-tiled roof. Long, arched windows were cracked or shattered, which they chose to climb through rather than try and break down the locked doors.
Rowan hissed when his leg caught on a shard, gashing above his knee. He dropped to the floor. Not deep enough for stitches, but enough to shake from the pain. Blood blotted his trousers.
His breath stuttered when James dropped down in front of him and ripped open the fabric further, examining the damage. “Frances,” he said distantly, his voice softer and lower. She still startled, but not as much. He tilted towards her to show his backpack. “Could you find me the bandages? They should be in the front pocket. Please.”
She gnawed on her lip, shuffling forward on her knees, unzipping and reaching in. She handed him the rolled dressings.
After, James stood and eased his arm under Rowan’s elbow, lifting him. His face was still taut, his jaw set. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah.” The pain almost disappeared, as it shot to his chest when James released him. “Thank you.”
They made their way through the hallways. Most art had been stolen, but they admired what little had been left. An oil painting with torn canvas, too damaged to be bothered with. Marble statues fractured across the floors. Frances stopped at the end of one corridor, studying the plaques listing each department. She reached out and brushed her fingers over the one for the Here and Now exhibition. She hurried away, following the arrows, encouraging Rowan and James to follow. They paused at the entrance, scanning the empty room, the temporary displays gutted. Except for one.
Frances headed for the far corner, where one display was untouched. Even the rope was still strung around it. Anxiety twitched within Rowan, causing him to read the plaque rather than look at the art itself, but the title was scratched out. He looked up, at the thin plume of black curled across an eye-achingly white canvas. A lonely thing surrounded with starkness.
“We were on holiday when we came to the museum. It was a year before the ravens came. We saw this,” Frances muttered. “It scared us.”
Fear could leave an imprint like a scald, no matter how faded. Why else did Rowan feel like he could not look away from James for fear he would lose him?
The longer they stood around the painting with no sign of Frances’ father, the more Rowan’s fear intensified. He thought he sensed the same in Frances as she stayed close, wrapping her hand around the rope with a white-knuckled grip.
As Rowan and Frances turned to leave, James did something else. He sat down on one of the nearby benches, rummaging through his backpack. He pulled out a sketchpad and pencil. Both were worn, with the corners of the paper fraying and the pencil blunted down to a stub. He balanced the pad on his knee and flicked the cover over, thumbing the old days, from when he first stripped the outer plastic off and drew the Scottish countryside, to the leather now battered after being stuffed down the bottom of his bag since Nell died.
His back was to Rowan and Frances, covering what he drew. His shoulder blades trembled with each drag of the pencil, each flick of his wrist. His breaths came quiet but shaky. Rowan knew he would not share his finished piece, but he was fine with that. Even if it meant never ever seeing it. Because all he cared about was how James’ fingers were smudged with graphite rather than dirt.
They made for the back exit once James finished, and Rowan noticed a familiar smear across his cheekbone. “Here,” he said, and wiped it away with his thumb before either realized. James didn’t startle; if anything, he looked the same way Rowan had felt when James wiped away the buttercream. A gentle hitch of breath lost on the shivery air.
The back exit led onto the street. There was something under his boot as soon as he stepped out. More blood and feathers, fresher and wetter. A round glass lens, breaking beneath his weight. Frances was too distracted to notice, but James had, staring down at the bloodied spot. Fear morphed into dread. Because what if? What if this belonged to Frances’ father? What if her future was stark and tainted? What if theirs was?
He forced the thoughts out, and James appeared to dismiss them too, marching away. He and Frances walked towards what felt like a path neither would want to end.
Travelling with a child meant finding camp every few hours. Not that Rowan complained, his leg stinging and ankle faintly aching.
They found an old farming house off the main road, a bungalow welcome to their blistering feet and neck strain. Frances had not spoken a word since they left the museum. Rowan tore himself up about whether to broach the subject of her father’s likely death; if the mess at city hall and museum could have belonged to him, if the man ever wore glasses. But he watched her trail off instead, to the stables, scuffing gravel beneath her boots. Once she was out of earshot, he turned to James.
“What we saw at the McManus—”
“Could have been anyone’s,” James said, not looking away from where he studied Frances. His fingers twitched towards the rifle on his shoulder.
Rowan made a sound between laughter and frustration. “When was the last time we saw anyone?”
It had been at the start. An old man who had been kitted out with bags and coats, looking as though he should have been at home with a crossword puzzle and cup of tea. They passed him on the weed-infested road without speaking. Trust was something neither seemed to have. Except for Nell, as she waved from where she was perched on James’ back. The man waved back. They never saw him again.
James walked away without answering, his attention elsewhere. Rowan ground his teeth hard enough for his cheek to spasm. He understood the agitation, the grief, the mourning. But he didn’t know how much farther he could allow them to walk down this path before they reached the dead end.
Goosebumps prickled over his skin with cold panic when he followed and saw what had distracted James, who was reaching for the rifle. The stable floors were matted with manure-covered hay, the smell thickening with each breath. There were no horses save for the muddy hoof prints where they had once been. In their place was something that caused fear to slither around his neck like thin-boned fingers, crushing a weak gasp from his lungs.
Ravens were everywhere. A nest of small, twigged burrows crowding each stable, ruffled and twitching forms. They were preening each other, feeding on flesh scraps. Shadows blanketed most of them, half-lit by the moonlight, but even with the canvas of night Rowan, James, and Frances were exposed.
Rowan took Frances’ shoulder and eased her towards him. Slow, he willed. She mirrored his steady pace. One thundering heartbeat at a time.
When he reached for James, he was shrugged off. James wrapped his hand around the rifle barrel. Rowan grabbed his arm and squeezed as hard as he could, digging his nails through his coat. Not now, not ever. Not when one shot could kill them all. James’ gaze flared, but Rowan shook his head, slow and pleading.
They stared at each other for the longest moment. Rowan’s chest felt like his heart was bruised. He mouthed, “Please.”
A beat pulsed between them. James retracted his hand. He sighed, and stepped back, where his foot skidded across stones. Caws fell over them like an orchestra.
Dozens of glinted eyes found them through the darkness, red and glowing. The second shrieking urged them to run.
They threw the bungalow door open. Bodies slammed against the outside. Loud, wet thuds that churned stomachs. Not all followed, swooping upwards and around, their shadows flickering across the window and swarming the ground. Unless Rowan and James did something, the ravens would keep them trapped for hours, even days; even weeks. Hunger could wait if it meant a feast.
Rowan searched the room: a kitchen cluttered with an abandoned scene, half-eaten and rotting food on the table. Pots and pans clanged on the tiles as he tore out the cupboards, coming across lighter fluid and matches. He emptied the bottle over everything.
When he stopped, his cheeks were hot and his forehead clammy. “We open that door,” he wheezed, pointing to the one the ravens had collided with. “One of us cuts them off here.” A point to the door behind him, to the living room; then, once more to the first door, splintered with impacts: “The other cuts them off out there.” A pause, a breath. “And we burn them.”
“I’ll take the outside door,” James said, his fingers twitching again.
Rowan stopped him with a hand splayed on his chest. “You’ll give me the rifle if you do,” he said. Because you can’t be trusted with it, he didn’t say.
Jaw working, James relented, ushering Frances into the living room. Rowan went to the outside door, grabbed the handle. He had seconds to execute the plan. He closed his eyes, and he yanked it open.
His footsteps thudded with his heartbeat. A downdraft of wings whipped at his back. He lurched over into the living room, the feathery swollen bodies pouncing for him. More crashed against the closing door, an echoed tempo against James’ back as he held it shut. Rowan sprinted out and around the bungalow. Dust kicked up as he slid to a stop, clambering over the bird corpses. He struck one match and threw it in. He heard only the rush of flame as he reached for the door.
Most of the ravens gnawed for entrance to the living room. But, as Rowan pulled at the door, one came for him.
It launched with a squawk, slipping through the gap before sealing. The force threw Rowan to the ground, pressing him into the mud with its heavy weight on his chest. Its jagged beak snapped at his face.
He screamed until he was hoarse, until he was silenced when talons ripped through his coat. Panic, fear, dread—
The raven shrieked as it was wrenched away. James slammed it to the dirt, took the rifle from his back, and fired once. The resounding crack reverberated across the air, causing the other ravens to give several final wails. No other ravens came for them, the orange-hued night empty. The raven on the ground croaked and shuddered and stilled, but James did not stop, bringing the butt of the gun down on its skull with a wet crunch. His eyes were wild and unblinking. Again, and again, until there was nothing left but mangled bones and feathers.
When he stopped, heaving and flush-cheeked, Frances hid behind Rowan. She looked the same way he felt. Like she would never stop shaking.
“You’ve been scratched,” James said, staring at the ripped coat. He stepped forward, and, with blood-splattered fingers, tore the gape further.
Relief flooded through Rowan when he saw his skin was unmarred, but the feeling soon evaporated. Because James was a man who he thought could return to who he remembered, a man who had jeopardized their safety. Rage boiled within him. “This never would have happened. None of it. But it did,” he spat. “Because of you.”
He took Frances’ hand and hurried her down the dirt path, leaving James with the dead raven as the distant sounds of others approached them.
The farm bloomed with smoke as they reached the main road again, mingling with the mist to blend into an even duller grey.
They missed the other ravens by a hairsbreadth, their concern more with the glowing carnage than the culprits hidden within. Rowan walked with a sleeping Frances in his arms, despite his body aching and the anger still acidic on his tongue. James lingered behind, his footsteps shuffling, even his teeth clicking as he gnashed them.
Where they were going Rowan could not say. Wherever the road took them, with the chances of finding Frances’ father shrinking. There were only empty streets and abandoned homes and bodies too far gone to know who they were. How could James expose Frances further to this world when they could be searching for another?
James appeared, slowing Rowan to a halt with a touch to his arm. “What did you mean?”
Rowan hesitated at the sad glistening in James’ eyes, but he forced himself to follow through. “You were the one who wanted to travel at night, who wanted to keep searching for him.” He checked to see Frances was still asleep on his shoulder before adding: “We won’t find him. Dead or alive. You’re hoping for nothing. And that’s endangering all of our lives.”
“I’m not the only one hoping for something.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
A sigh, heavy and lilted. “You think there’s more hope in building a whole new future than finding one man.”
Rowan scoffed. “What’s wrong with wanting—”
“Because you want what we had. That is what you wanted, isn’t it?” James snapped. “We are in a dead world, Rowan. Dead. Yet you believe we can find what has been gone all this time. You believed we could find it. You made her believe that. ” His laugh was cracked and frayed. He was a raw soul split open. “Aren’t we enough?”
Rowan let him stalk away, remaining rooted to the spot for an eternity. Longer than when Nell had been scratched.
They had been walking down a gridlocked motorway, smothered with overgrown trees and vines. Heat from the sweltering season rippled off the asphalt. James took lead while Rowan and Nell lingered behind, holding hands and reminiscing about the ice cream truck that would be sitting outside his flat now, hurrying out for their flake cones. Despite her smile, Nell showed shaking apprehension, as though reality was finally sinking in for her, after she’d seen the dead body of an old woman.
“What’s going on?” he’d asked, soft, unhurried. His knees crunched on what he imagined was bones, bird and human.
She didn’t look at him but the surroundings, like she was seeing them for the first time. “Are we ever going to go back home?”
James joined them, as Rowan told her, “Yeah, of course.” There was a deep-furrowed brow, a hushed hiss of his name. Still, Rowan went on, because he couldn’t tell her what he himself did not believe. “We’ll go back someday. Back to how we were.”
Silence tailed them to the petrol station, uncomfortable and flattening. Rowan dismissed it when he saw Nell smile, eating pretzels and drinking lemonade, the same as when they had eaten her final slice of birthday cake. Because it felt like a chance to always feel that way. To save, and find, the home he thought once gone.
The raven had come from nowhere. A caw and slash and scream. They all acted too late. Nell’s cheek was already scratched, a deepening gash across her pale skin. Blood dribbled through her splayed fingers, mingling with startled tears. James grabbed gauze and taped the wound, shushing her cries with soft murmurs. Rowan stood where he was, over the bird corpse. He flinched when James yelled for him to act, but neither could do anything more but hold her, talk to her, even as a feather sprouted from the wound.
They found the house with the seashells not long after. James laid her out on the sofa, where she grew more dazed, reaching out to finger the hand-knitted doilies hanging over the arms, mumbling to herself. Sweat slicked her skin, staring at her father with bloodshot eyes, deep brown hidden within scarlet red. She stopped talking on her last day. Verbally, at least. She spoke to them with the weak squeeze of a hand, the pleading edge sharpening her gaze.
James brushed the hair from her face, clinging to her sweat-flush cheeks. “It’s going to be okay,” he told her. “You’re going to be okay.”
As he spoke, he glanced at Rowan with a teary glare, from forcing himself to continue what Rowan had started.
Nell’s mouth parted on a whistling and feathered gasp, on the hint of a word, and she stilled.
As James stood, he asked Rowan, “What was that about going back home again?”
Rowan realized now, with Frances in his arms and James behind him, that their home no longer existed. Because how could it without Nell?
The rusted sign for Linlathen squeaked against the night’s wind. Rowan set Frances down to walk, while James marched on without them. He didn’t seem restless anymore but exhausted, saddened with memories from the way his shoulders trembled. Guilt settled on Rowan’s own with almost unbearable heaviness, compressing on his spine, his ribcage.
They wound through the streets, sticking to alleyways and porches for shelter. Feathered bodies sprawled over the pavement. Every three beats there was faraway cawing, in and around the mist. Loud enough to keep them on edge but enough chance to run. Frances dragged her feet along the black ice glossing the concrete, clutching onto Rowan’s arm when she misjudged the stability.
“Are we still looking for my dad?” she asked. Maybe she had overheard his and James’ conversation. Maybe she shared their worries.
Rowan tried to think of an answer, but before he could attempt to, Frances had stopped walking.
He followed where her wide-eyed gaze was fixed. At the end of the road, slumped against the street sign for Glenfeshire Terrace, was a body. A man with pallid skin wooled with feathers and riddled with scratches. Blood streaked his chin, a single black tuft dangling from his mouth. His round glasses sat askew on his nose. One of the lenses was missing.
Intuition kicked doubt to the ground. Frances crept forward and swayed, staggering before he could reach for her. Gravel slipped under her knees. Silence choked the air like water, wet and heavy and drowning. This man was Frances’ father; what they’d found outside the museum, outside the city hall, belonged to him. Anyone would know if they saw the devastation on her face.
Had he been scratched as soon as he left? Could he have returned to find her gone and sought to find her again, or run until it was too late to turn back? His mind would have been spoiled the moment those claws sliced into flesh, yet he seemed to have remembered the museum, like his daughter had. Rowan did not know for sure, and he knew he never would, but one thing was clear. If true, this man had done all he could for his daughter.
James had done the same for his. For all of them. Because he was the one who scavenged for her favorite jellybeans, who drew pictures for her every time she asked, who always walked a step ahead to shield her. There was no finding their own home, but he made sure there was a home at all. Rowan had tried to force otherwise, a dangerous seed to plant. A home he had encouraged Nell to remember and believe in, a home James wanted to now forget. A home that had caused them harm.
He knelt down and touched Frances’ shoulder. “Hey, look at me,” he said, but when she did, his words shriveled on a strangled noise.
A moment passed. James, with a familiar look of anguish, came forward. “Do you understand what’s happened to your da?” he asked. His tone was the softest Rowan had ever heard it. Frances nodded, and James did too, jerky and tearful. “My daughter’s name was Nell.”
Frances moved slow, reaching out with a trembling hand, until she rested it against James’ chest. He laid his own hand over hers.
Sobs fell from both of them. Frances threw herself into his open arms. “Why?” she asked, muffled and cracked against him. “Why?”
James shuddered. “Because they are,” he said, and gripped her harder, tucking his face into the crook of her neck with a gasp.
When they parted, Rowan and James lifted Frances’ father into their arms. He was skinny and pale from the maggots feeding. Fingers could wrap around his ankles twice, his shoulder blades cutting. They carried him to the nearest garden, one with the most grass and without other graves. Frances shuffled behind, plucking flowers as she went, filling the silence with the tear of uprooting.
They dug with whatever they could: the peen of a hammer, the branch from a tree, even their bare hands. They paused and looked at each other, lingering in the pensive moment. Two burials between fathers and daughters.
Frances came forward and retrieved her father’s glasses, folding them neatly and tucking them into her coat pocket. When she stepped back, they lowered him down into the hole, piled on the dirt. Frances laid the clumped flowers onto the mound and said, “We can go now.”
“We can stay for as long as you need,” James said, but, when she seemed to not like that idea, suggested, “How about until morning?”
To Rowan’s surprise, they did exactly that. Eventually, dawn broke across the sky, a warm pink tainting the mist.
When they reached the entrance sign for Linlathen, Rowan went to continue on, but James hung back. He took the rifle from his back, unloaded it, scattered the bullets in the brush, and rested the empty gun against the pole. He locked gazes with Rowan. “She was as much yours as she was mine.” A pause, solemn and wistful. “We were trying to love her as much as we could.”
“How could you not with that girl?”
James’ smile was fond, as though he did not even realize it graced his face. “She was the smallest bairn I’d ever seen.”
She had been nearing thirteen months when James brought her home, after all the paperwork and social visits. She slumbered against his shoulder, her smile as sweet as her father’s. She wrapped her hand around Rowan’s finger. He left the memory there, knowing the courage that came with unearthing it, letting the moment sit as it was. “Where should we head to next?”
“Maybe the coast,” James said. “There’s no before, Rowan. Not much of an after either. But there’s a now. We can compromise, can’t we?”
It would not be like before, but it would be something. “We’re enough, James. We are.”
They kept walking until they reached the mountains, thick with uncut grass and jagged rocks, towering high over them like the mist itself. Like the ravens. The sun crested over the peaks, as though attempting to break through and shroud them with its light.
James caught Rowan’s coat sleeve before he could walk around. He cradled Rowan’s fingers, easing them up to his mouth, pressing a soft kiss on his knuckles. His beard was sensitive on skin, his lips comfort to a wounded heart.
He lowered their linked hands between them, and he whispered, “Let’s go up.”
“Not sure about that now,” Rowan said with a nervous laugh, at the mountains above. “Looks like they might never end.”
James took Frances’ hand on his other side. There was an inhale and exhale, slow and deep. His smile was raw, a bittersweet resolve. “Dinna fash yersel,” he said. “We’ll be okay.”
They might not get far, and they might turn back. Go around, cut through, start over. For now, with warmth between them, they climbed.
|K. A. Tutin writes about death, apocalypses, and birds. Her work has appeared in Queer Blade Anthology, Lamplight, Luna Station Quartely, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter at @MsKATutin.|