Years ago, long before the narration of her father turned unreliable, dissolving like one of those Sweet’N Lows in his favorite stale black tea, Nico would climb into his armchair and sit in his lap as he read The Phantom Tollbooth or Tuck Everlasting or any one of the hundreds of books in the cozy-dank Farmhouse library, and even now, even here, she could smell her father’s beard, feel the glow of flames from the fireplace, hear the soothing salivary tones of his reading voice, and Nico wondered if perhaps that was life after life: not a physical place, but a loop of some former time in which a person, after death, was allowed to relive over and over again. There, in a story, in her father’s armchair—in her father’s arms—Nico hoped that was the afterlife.
She supposed she would know soon enough.
Nico stared into fire. Beside her, Harry’s breathing had long ago fallen into time with hers, and she thought that one could hardly call them two separate entities, that at some point between yesterday and today, she and her dog had consolidated into a single, cosmically connected creature of survival. Maybe this telepathic bond had been there all along, lying dormant below the surface; maybe it took leaving the Farmhouse, entering the wild, to coax it out.
All around, the trees were thick: every few feet, the base of a trunk exploded from the earth, rose up into the sky where branches reached like arms to hold hands with other branches, tree-sisters and tree-brothers seeking touch, listening for words of comfort in the dark night. I am here. You are not alone.
The thought of trees talking to each other warmed Nico’s stomach.
She pulled a pen from her bag, held the back of her hand up to the firelight. There, in the space between her thumb and forefinger, was a single line in ink. Carefully, she drew a second line beside it. According to the map, the Merrimack River ran over a hundred miles from New Hampshire to Massachusetts before spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. It helped to think of the woods on a large scale; by contrast, their walk in them seemed minuscule, their destination much closer than it actually was.
She stared at the lines on her hand: two days down. At the rate they were going, she hoped to reach the river by the fourth tally, leaving her with four more to get to Manchester.
Not the Kingdom of Manchester. Just Manchester. She could still hear her father’s voice: The Waters of Kairos are real. Manchester is a real place . . .
She knew Manchester (or what was left of it) existed. Outside of that, she wasn’t sure what to believe. Her father had seemed lucid enough, though the line between lucidity and opacity had blurred considerably these past weeks. The problem was, there was no protocol in place, no books on the shelf, nobody in the wide empty world to help her answer this question: What do you do when the person you most trust hands you a fiction and calls it fact?
On her back now, tucked into the sleeping bag, Nico looked up at the stars and thought of her parents. How quickly her memories of them had come to resemble a place more than a person: a permanent imprint in the armchair, a dusty seat at the dinner table, the empty mantel by the fireplace, her mother’s dog-eared Bible. So long as they lived in the Farmhouse, the Farmhouse lived. It was the body and they were the heart. But it was quickly becoming a ghost, every nook and cranny a whispered reminder that her mother was gone, her father wasn’t far behind, the beating heart was winding down.
The fire popped; beside her, Harry shimmied in his sleep, his front and back haunches lurching in a running motion, chasing the squirrel or rabbit of his dreams.
Winters in the Farmhouse were cold, but Nico found comfort in them: cozy spots, always a fire, an extra blanket or two. It was late October now, what her mother called pre-winter, when the year skipped fall altogether and the sun went to bed early. Out here, she felt she was seeing the true nature of cold, a bitter-bleak affair. At least once, probably twice in the night, she would wake up freezing and add wood to the fire. Still, bitter-bleak or not, here was the truth: part of her—a small part, buried under the threat of woods and Flies, the loss of her mother, the fear of reaching Manchester to find nothing at all—down there, burrowed in, was a part of Nico that was glad to be out here. That she’d made the unknowable horizon known, reached out and grabbed it, turned it like a glass doll in her hands.
Around her, the sounds of the wild undulated, rolled in loudly, flowed out softly; a circular pattern took shape in the sky, the stars themselves a cosmic connect-the-dots. Soon she would be asleep in Harry’s musky scent, dreaming of herself in a little boat at sea, being pulled by an orca, guided by a large bright eye in the sky.
For now she looked to the stars for answers. “How can I fight this darkness?”
The stars were cold and uncaring as ever.
“What do you get when your dog makes you breakfast?”
Having finished his strawberry granola, Harry looked up at her expectantly.
“Pooched eggs,” said Nico.
A single tail wag; it was the best she could hope for.
Breakfast today was the same as it had been yesterday: one serving of strawberry granola crunch and a strip of rabbit jerky apiece. It would be lunch and dinner, too.
Blood was the stuff of lore. A long lineage of logic she would never understand, but which her parents had locked on to in the early days of the Flies, when she was still a baby. They maintained live traps along the Farmhouse perimeter, mostly for rabbits, the occasional gopher, but never doing the killing outside. The cellar was for slaughter, skinning, dressing.
Whatever the logic, it had apparently imbedded itself in her.
She could not bring herself to hunt.
Luckily, her dad had been economical in his packing, raiding the food supply buckets for lightweight items. Most of the freeze-dried dinners were out; they required too much space, weight, preparation. There was no chili mac (her favorite), but plenty of strawberry granola (palatable), and a good amount of her dad’s homemade jerky. Aside from food, her backpack contained a water- filter bottle, sleeping bag and bedroll, two gallon-size ziplocks of lighters, a compass, folding knife, map, extra socks, a small first aid kit, and packs of ground cinnamon. So long as strict attention was paid to rations, their meals would be taken care of, and they had enough Fly repellent to last weeks.
Nico sat with her back against a tree, savoring the jerky. “Why aren’t koalas actual bears?” Harry tilted his head as if to say, Go ahead then. It was a look inherited from his mother, Harriet, whose death would have been unbearable were it not for those same humanoid eyes she’d passed on to her pup. (As for the breed of Harry’s father, there was really no way to know, given Harriet’s propensity to disappear into the woods for days at a time.)
Harry was a medium-size two-year-old, perky ears, dark black fur. Like his mother, he was playful without being needy, more intuition than simple smarts.
“So now you say, ‘I don’t know, Nico, why aren’t koalas actual bears?’ And I say, ‘Because they don’t meet the koalafications.’”
Not even a wag this time.
Nico stood, kicked dirt on the remains of the fire. She wrapped herself in her coat, pulled on the backpack, and was about to set out when a deer appeared, and it began to snow, and it felt like the one had been waiting on the other.
Her mother had often complained how much of the wildlife had been wiped out by Flies. Squirrels had survived, and rabbits, all things rascally and quick, animals that knew how to live in claustrophobic places. Nico had seen a moose once: enormous, mythical, like something from a storybook. But that was years ago.
They stared at the deer, and it stared back, two dark orbs inside white eye rings, and time slowed to little wisps, gliding like one of these thousand snowflakes to the ground. Grayish-brown skin. Antlers. “A whitetail,” whispered Nico. A buck, though it had been in a fight or suffered some sickness, as the antlers on one side of its head were gone, and a back leg was bleeding.
Sunk in the animal’s glow, she didn’t hear it at first.
Then, in the distance, a low hum . . .
Swarms had a way of conjuring sounds she’d only imagined: a fleet of trains, a collapsing skyscraper from one of the old cities, the cyclone in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. From the Farmhouse cellar, it was hard to tell whether a swarm’s volume was due to size or proximity.
She put a hand on Harry’s head, felt him trembling. “Easy,” she whispered, scanning the area for places to hide. “Easy . . .”
The whitetail raised its lopsided head to the sky, its nostrils flared . . .
It happened fast: the humming burst from the trees, a deafening roar now, and the Flies came down like holy thunder, a celestial arm from the sky. She jumped behind a tree, yelled for Harry, but he’d run off somewhere, where, where, she couldn’t see him, and now she was on the ground, couldn’t remember falling, heart pounding against the quaking earth. From where she fell, she saw the whitetail covered in Flies, and for the first time in her life, she understood the fury of the swarm.
By the tens of thousands they worked as one until there was no visible grayish-brown fur, no broken antlers or red blood, no deer at all, only a deer-shaped thing, black and pulsing. The deer barked, a nightmarish screech, and as the Flies began lifting it off the ground, Nico buried her face, covered her ears, and did not move until she felt Harry’s warm breath and wet nose against the back of her neck. And even though it was quiet again, the thunder in her head lingered.