There’s a sparrow lying on the crust of the snow, beak open, one wing folded. George watches it from a wary distance, gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering, hands shoved tightly up under his armpits. There’s something strangely perfect about it, no blood or scattered feathers. But nothing living could be that still. It looks like someone’s glove, dropped and forgotten. It must have died recently, to be left bare like that.
The snow was still falling when George went to bed last night. He left the curtains open to watch. The snowflakes were made orange by streetlamp light, sliding past the glass in hypnotic, patterned flurries.
This morning the snow is no longer alive, but still, as still and dead as the bird. Unsettled, George looks away, up at the house. This is a curtain-twitching kind of street in a curtain-twitching kind of village, but the windows are dark and empty.
Come on, he thinks. Come on. Open the door.
His toes are starting to ache, and he shifts from side to side, trying to stamp away the cold. He should just leave. He will leave. He doesn’t need Tom to come with him.
Even so, something in his chest unwinds when the front door finally opens. He’s taking a breath to yell at Tom for leaving it so long, when he sees it’s Julia standing there in the doorway. He stops stamping and tries to smile.
“Oh, hi. I’m just waiting for your brother.” He looks past her to the hallway, hoping maybe Tom is hiding behind her in the dark.
“I know,” Julia says and then steps outside, shutting the door behind her. George feels his smile become a little more fixed. Talking to Julia alone always unnerves him. It’s not just that she’s a year older than him at twelve, or even that she’s a girl, though in Tom’s eyes at least that’s enough to make her The Enemy. It’s that George can remember a time before those things were important and it was just the three of them, having pretend adventures in the back garden. Julia had the best imagination out of any of them, telling them they were knights on a quest, superheroes, a wild pack of wolves. Nowadays, George can’t look at her without remembering and feeling a squirmy kind of embarrassment.
“Is he coming out?” he asks. “Did he say?”
“Probably not,” Julia says, kneeling on the step to lace up her hiking shoes. She’s wearing a bright yellow puffer jacket that goes down to her knees, and when she stands up and zips it, she looks like a caterpillar. “He’s still in his room.”
“Well…” George says and lets out a huff of white cloud. “Can you tell him I’m here?”
“Fucksake,” George says but there’s no heat in it. He knew really, even on his way over, that this was a pointless exercise. Tom hasn’t answered his texts with anything more than single-word replies for a long time now. Still, George hoped that the message he sent Tom last night would have changed something. That knocking on Tom’s door would have forced some kind of reaction.
“Sorry,” Julia says, clearly not invested. She shoves her hands into her pockets and tilts her head to the side to look at him. It still reminds George of an owl, even if Julia’s hair isn’t short and tufty anymore. It’s the same brown, but longer now and, George can’t help but notice, greasy and unbrushed. There are purple shadows under her eyes and George wonders if she’s only just gotten out of bed.
“It’s fine,” George says, scowling at his shoes. He wants to ask Julia to go inside and force Tom to come down, at least force Tom to talk to him, but that would be pathetic, so instead he just asks, “Where are you off to, then?”
He doesn’t really care, but then Julia sniffs and juts out her chin. “With you. Thought I’d come and see what all the fuss is about.”
“Tom told you where I’m going?” George asks. He tries to say it neutrally, but Julia must hear something in his voice because she scowls.
“Is it a secret?”
“No,” George says, but then hesitates. “How much did he say?”
“He said you saw it fall.” Julia says. “He said you’re going to find it.”
She says it bluntly, but that’s nothing new for her. Julia doesn’t act like the other girls he knows, who were always in groups, whispering and giggling behind their hands. When George saw Julia at school she was almost always alone.
Sometimes when Tom talked about Julia, his anger sounded wounded, as if she had betrayed them by growing up and becoming a girl. As if she had defected to the enemy side. George would never say it, but he finds this hard to believe. Julia doesn’t seem to belong to any side at all.
George looks down and kicks at the snow a little with the toe of his boot. “He’s talking, then?”
“Not a lot. I had to force it out of him,” Julia says. Then she clears her throat and says, more brusquely. “It’s not going to stay light for long. How far is it?”
“Er, not that far, but I’m not sure that…”
“Are we walking?”
George hesitates, aware that he’s losing control of the situation. Tom was always the one to tell her to Go away, no girls allowed, but Tom isn’t here and without him it’s hard to remember why it’s so important to stay away from Julia anyway. He imagined today with Tom there at his side, but now, when it comes to it, maybe anyone would be better than going alone.
He just shrugs, in the end.
“I was going to cycle some of the way. You could borrow Tom’s bike, maybe?”
“I don’t know how.”
“Right,” George says heavily. He looks over at his bike.
“I’m not riding on the back,” Julia says quickly. “I’ll fall off.”
George sighs and resists the temptation to point out he hadn’t offered. “Okay. I guess we’re walking then. Can I lock this to the fence?”
He doesn’t wait for the answer, pulling off his glove with his teeth to fumble numbly at the lock. His finger slips and he swears, muffled by a mouthful of wool. Last night, with his head stuck out of the window, snow falling in his hair while he waited for the sirens, this plan was exciting, almost perfect. Now, it’s beginning to feel like a mistake.
With the bike secured, he walks back over to Julia, who is looking down at the sparrow with an unreadable expression.
“It must have flown into a window,” he says, wondering if she might suggest they bury it or something. He doesn’t remember her ever being very sentimental. The stories she had made up for them were always violent. When they were pirates, she had George walk the plank by bouncing off the trampoline. He misjudged the jump and as he lay winded on the grass, Julia had circled him, saying, The sharks smell blood. Did you feel that one touch your leg?
“They’re not always dead,” is all she says now. “Sometimes they’re just stunned.”
“It looks dead.”
“Yeah,” she says, frowning. “Yeah, I think it is.”
George clears his throat. “So, should we, ah…?”
“We can go.”
She doesn’t say it like a command, but when they start walking, he makes sure to go in front. This is, after all, his expedition.
It doesn’t take them more than ten minutes to reach the outskirts of the village and start cutting their way over the farm track that runs between the fields. George spends the time trying to think of something, anything, that they can talk about. Even back when they were little, it was always the three of them together. Without Tom, George doesn’t know how to act around her. Julia makes no effort to fill the silence and George doesn’t know if she feels the same way or if this is who she is now, this quiet, withdrawn person. In all his memories, she’s talking.
The air feels muffled now that the wind has died down, and the clouds feel very close overhead, like big balls of cotton pressing down on them. It’s quiet enough that the crunching noise of their footsteps feels startling. He can hear Julia struggle for breath as the track gets steeper and it makes him too aware of his own breathing, taking in air through his nose even though the cold of it hurts.
He can’t help but keep checking over his shoulder in the hopes that Tom will pop up in the distance, a dark shape running to catch up.
The fourth time he does it, Julia makes a face. “No one’s going to care that we’re going.”
“I know,” George says, feeling defensive. “I’m not worried about that.”
He is, though, just a little, but only out of habit. Technically, everyone is meant to stay in their houses for a full twenty-four hours after the sirens go off. A year ago, there might have been policemen about, even all the way out here in the countryside. There was a hotline you could call to report on your neighbors if you saw them out on the street.
No one cares much these days. Streets stay empty anyway. There are a few tattered posters left on lampposts, warning people of the dangers of contamination, but the policemen have all gone. George doesn’t know if this is because they’re needed elsewhere or if there are just fewer and fewer of them.
Sometimes he thinks they’ve just stopped trying. Go outside or don’t, it doesn’t seem to matter. The same thing happens to everyone.
The sirens are the only constant, and George finds them almost comforting now. It means that someone, somewhere, is setting them off. Someone is still watching the sky and waiting with their finger on the button.
It’s a relief when they finally reach the ragged treeline. When he looks back over his shoulder, the village has already shrunk down into the crook of the valley. It looks like a handful of toy buildings left out on a dirty white carpet. It looks like nothing at all from here.
“Which way now?” Julia asks, peering dubiously into the gloom. George hates to admit it, but she was right to worry about losing daylight. At this time of year, it is pitch black by teatime.
Julia snorts. “I’ll get out my compass, shall I?”
“Up the hill,” he says begrudgingly. “That way.”
Julia doesn’t step forward, frowning up at the trees, and George wonders suddenly when she last left her house. The village isn’t large, and he thinks he knows all the people left. He’s come across them from time to time, walking aimlessly like him. Sometimes they nod at each other or even stop to talk, but he’s never seen Julia. Every time he passed Tom’s house, the windows were dark and empty. Was she inside the whole time?
“Do you want to go back?” George asks her.
He tries to say it gently, but Julia sniffs, offended, and shakes her head. “No. But you’re leading the way.”
It’s dark under the trees and they have to watch their step to avoid tripping on the roots. George is going first and when he pushes back a branch, he holds it to let Julia through.
The damp chill of the bark seeps through his gloves and he shudders, wrinkling his nose at the smell of rotting leaves. He’s spent most of the last year going on long rambling walks with his headphones jammed in, but he’s not an outdoors person by nature. Still, anything is better than watching television alone in the living room, pausing every time there’s a creak from the floor above, imagining that maybe it’s his mum and dad, that maybe they will come downstairs showered and dressed and smiling. Enough lying about, his dad might say, I’m starving. Who wants breakfast?
“Very chivalrous,” Julia says drily as she pushes past.
You’re welcome, George thinks darkly, but contents himself with scowling at the back of her bright yellow hood.
They walk in silence for a while and then out of nowhere she says, “He wanted to come along. Tom did, I mean.”
“So why didn’t he?” George asks, batting a leaf irritably out of his face.
“He’s not…he doesn’t leave his room much these days. Mum and dad too.”
George is silent for a moment and then, because he can’t stop himself, because he has to tell someone, he admits, “Mine don’t either.”
“For how long?” She doesn’t sound surprised. She doesn’t even look back, for which George feels strangely thankful.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Dad started getting quieter from the very start, the first fall. But mum was okay till last week.”
“It comes on fast,” Julia says. “I thought I would see it coming after mum and dad, but with Tom I thought he would be okay. I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen to him. I thought…”
Her voice wobbles and she doesn’t finish. George doesn’t know what to say. For a moment it’s too much, the frustration, the hopelessness of it all. He stops walking.
“Tom was fine,” George says and to his horror the words come out thick and heavy. “Just a month ago. He was fine.”
Julia stops then and looks back over her shoulder, and George thinks she’s going to make fun of him, stamping his feet like a little kid, talking about how unfair it all is. Or worse, she might try to be kind. It would be wrong, George knows, for Julia to try and comfort him.
Tom is her brother after all, not his.
To his relief, she just nods, face tight and drawn.
“I just wish…” he starts and then, feeling stupid, he looks down at the mud on his shoes. “I just wish we could do something.”
“We are, though,” she says. “We’re going to find the angel.”
For a moment they look at each other in silence and then George nods.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, you’re right.”
“We should get on, then.” Julia smiles at him. It’s crooked and a little awkward, like she’s not used to it, but George tries to return it as best he can.
“Yeah.” He scrubs a hand over his nose, sniffs and sets off again, moving faster now. Soon he’ll have to pull out the map and check the marking he made last night and the thought of that is comforting. This could still be what he wanted it to be last night. An adventure.
“You don’t think they’re aliens, then?” he asks when they’re a little further on. He’s speaking too loudly, he knows, but he’s embarrassed to have almost been caught almost crying in front of her. Even when they were both kids that would have been shameful.
“Maybe they’re aliens. Maybe aliens and angels are the same thing.”
“You don’t care?”
“I don’t think it’s important. If someone knows, then they won’t tell us, but I don’t think anyone does know.”
“I think they know,” George says quickly. “I think there’s a reason they’re not telling us.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
George can’t see her face, but he can tell she’s making fun of him. He doesn’t care. He’s spent too long staring at his computer scrolling through message boards and the itch to share his research wins out. It’s not like anyone else is asking him.
“I think it’s because they did it. It’s their fault. The satellites sent out some kind of frequency that’s poisonous to these things. Like whales.”
“The way our sonar messes with their echolocation and they beach themselves. That’s why they’re coming here. They’re confused.”
“Hmm. And who are they?”
George looks back over his shoulder, confused, and then nearly trips. “Huh?”
“They,” Julia says. “With the capital T. The people doing this.”
George sighs and tries to control his rising frustration. They talked about this on the message boards too, the way nobody seemed to care. George cares. Sometimes it feels like the questions are the only thing left in his head.
“The government,” he says. “Companies.”
“What companies?” Julia asks. “McDonalds? Facebook?”
There’s no bite to it, but George doesn’t want to play this game anymore.
“You asked,” he says and then stops and makes a big show of taking out his map and compass so that she’ll see he’s not interested in continuing the conversation.
She looks over his shoulder at the map and, as if to make amends, she hums in a way that could be called impressed. “It’s close. How did you work out where it fell?”
“I saw it. Last night.”
She raises her eyebrows. “From your window? What did it look like?”
For some reason, George doesn’t want to tell her. The memory feels private. His face was so close to the window that the skin of his nose went rubbery and cold from the glass. He was looking for it, but even so, the hair on the back of his neck stood up when it came into view. It only lasted a moment, but for some reason in George’s memory it took a long time to fall. The storm must have been at its peak, but he remembers it being silent, so silent he could have sworn he heard his heart beating in his chest. Too fast. Like it wasn’t his heart at all. Like a bird’s heart.
“It looked like a star,” he says. “A shooting star.”
Julia hums. “I guess that makes sense. It was burning up in the atmosphere.”
“Maybe,” George says. The thought makes him strangely uncomfortable.
“I hope there’s some left and it’s not just a melted burnt-up lump.” She must see the look on his face because she laughs. “Sorry, was that too gross?”
“Yes,” George says shortly and sets off again at a brisk pace.
He’s expecting, no, hoping for silence now, but if anything, Julia seems to have been cheered up by his increasingly bad mood.
“It isn’t a bad theory,” she says. “Your one. But how does it explain the fallout?”
“You know,” she says. “The sadness.”
“I don’t know. I read something about it just being like shock. Of first contact.” The article he read put it more scientifically than that, but George just skimmed it.
He doesn’t care so much about that part. That part is too real. That part is his parents sleeping for twelve hours a day. Not talking for the rest.
“If I did think it was angels,” Julia says, so quietly he almost misses it. “Then that would be evidence, I think.”
“I don’t know. It feels like a… I don’t know… a spiritual sickness.”
When George looks back, her cheeks are pink, and she won’t meet his eyes.
“I guess,” he says but it’s dubious. His own parents aren’t very religious, but he’s seen the Bible in Tom’s living room.
“Well what do you think it is? Radiation or contamination or whatever?”
“Well that’s what they say,” George says darkly.
Julia laughs. “Oh, them. At it again.”
“Well it’s a good excuse isn’t it? For the sirens? For keeping us inside for twenty four hours, for not letting us get close?” He’s riled up again, he can feel his face getting warm but for some reason it feels strangely good to be angry. “They just want to hide the evidence.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Julia says slowly, like she’s turning something over in her mind. “That would almost be nice, wouldn’t it? If it were their fault. I think that would be easier.”
They’re both silent after that.
As the ground rises, the trees start to draw more tightly in around them. More than a few times they have to change direction in order to get around some tricky patch of undergrowth. This makes George increasingly nervous, and every ten minutes he makes them stop and check the map. It’s only a little past midday, but already the light is changing, the trees losing detail, stiffening into stark silhouettes.
The edge of the forest comes without warning. There is no slow sparsening of trees. One moment they are picking their way carefully through the gloom and in the next they are stumbling out into bright emptiness.
Ahead of them, the ground veers sharply up to the bald head of the hill. The snow is thicker up here, and the wind snatches at their clothes, looking for gaps between glove and sleeve, scarf and collar. The skin of his face feels pinched.
“I didn’t realize we were so high up,” Julia says. Her voice sounds thinner out here, lost in the new space that has opened up around them. It felt better somehow, to only see the sky in gaps between branches.
“Let’s get to the top,” George says, teeth chattering. “I think we’ll see it from there.”
He doesn’t step forward. They’ve come all this way. He could move if he wanted to. He should want to. He did want to.
We’ll see it from the top of the hill. The thought feels sick, suddenly. Wrong.
George clears his throat. Maybe it would be okay to turn back now. Maybe they don’t need to go any further. He wants somehow to convey this to Julia, but the words won’t come.
“Julia,” he says. “What if I was wrong? What if it is dangerous, to get too close to it?”
Hearing himself say it, he sounds childish and stupid. Maybe he should have stayed home, done as he was told. Maybe they were telling the truth, maybe there is no conspiracy after all, nothing hidden. Maybe it’s no one’s fault.
Julia looks over at him, her eyes pale above the red blotches on her cheeks. “It might be. But we’re already here,” Julia says. “And the worst that can happen is we end up like the others.”
Something about the way she says it sounds almost wistful, and George has a sudden impulse to reach out and take the sleeve of her yellow coat, pull them both back under the trees.
“Do you want that?” he asks. “Why did you want to come here?”
“Same as you,” she says. “I need to do something.”
She opens her mouth and closes it and then, as if she can’t help herself, she keeps going, the words coming out in a messy rush.
“It’s too late for our parents and too late for Tom and maybe for you and me too. But I have to see it for myself. I have to know.”
She looks at him like she wants him to understand and George thinks of her looking down at the bird, with that strange expression on her face. He didn’t understand at the time what it meant. He thinks of her alone in that quiet house and he thinks of her listening, like him, hoping for the creaking floorboards.
“You can wait here,” Julia says. “I’ll look and come back.”
She says it simply and without judgement, and George remembers all at once that the story didn’t stop with the sharks biting at his toes. He remembered Julia looking up, widening her eyes and pointing, saying, What’s that on the horizon?
Tom had been rolled over on a skateboard, reaching out his hand, with Julia calling out, A raft, a raft, Tom’s here to save you, but even then George knew it wasn’t Tom who rescued him, that it was Julia who took pity on him, Julia who saved him from drowning. He loved her for it then, and now he thinks that maybe it isn’t embarrassment that makes his stomach twist when he sees her now, but guilt. Because Julia saved him and kept the sharks away and then he grew up and abandoned her for it.
“I’m going,” George says. “I want to see it too.”
It’s suddenly very important that neither of them should be alone.
Julia looks at him for a moment, and whatever she sees in his face seems to bring her to a decision, because she nods and turns to go, head tilted upwards towards the ascent. George follows close behind, stumbling a little in the snow.
Walking is harder now, much harder, and with every step the snow drags at his feet. The climb gets steeper and steeper but somehow the hilltop seems to remain in the same place, always just out of reach. Twice he stumbles, and on the third time he falls forward onto his knees. Julia turns back, eyes too large in her head, but George waves her away, gets up. The fall was painless, but the wet seeps through his trousers and, even through the glove, his hand feels raw where he caught himself against the snow.
Everything is shades of white, the sky dirtied and yellowish, the ground like bone, and in the middle of it all is Julia in her yellow coat, always just a little ahead. George wants to rest, to hold back a moment, but he’s scared that if he does, he’ll be left alone. He wants to call out, wants to say, Stop, wait, wants to say, Let’s not look, this is enough, let’s go back, but he can barely breathe, let alone shout.
He gulps at the air and tries to stand upright against the slope, swaying, trying to keep his balance.
It comes out as a raspy, broken thing, snatched away by the wind almost before it leaves his mouth, but it’s enough.
She is waiting for him, and George lets out a breath that is almost a sob, scrambling up faster to join her. Even as he closes the distance, he knows something is wrong. She is too still, her back too straight. She’s not looking back at him. He reaches her and realizes why.
They’ve reached the top.
George isn’t sure how long they stand together looking down into the valley. He only knows that it ends when Julia reaches over and takes his hand to pull him away. She does it very gently and he lets himself be led. He thinks he might fall without her. His limbs feel clumsy and mechanical. No one has held his hand like this, to guide his way, in a long time, not for years. She must have done this for Tom once, when they were both much younger.
When the ground levels out, just before the tree line, he lets go to wipe at his wet face. Julia turns her head away, giving him privacy.
For a moment he presses his hands into his face very tightly, counting breaths. When he closes his eyes, he can see it again, all tangled up in the telephone wires in that horrible scraped out wound in the earth, dripping out a dark stain. He keeps his eyes open, looks at the pink light between his fingers instead.
Julia says something, but it’s lost in the wind and George takes his hands away from his eyes to look at her. The yellow hood has fallen down. A strand of hair is stuck to the corner of Julia’s mouth, but she doesn’t brush it away. She doesn’t even seem to notice.
“What?” George asks. “What did you say?”
“It couldn’t have survived,” Julia says and the way she says it sounds like a question.
“It was dead,” George says and when she looks at him, he says it again, to make sure she knows he means it. “It was dead.”
They reach the trees and keep moving.
They walk side by side now, keeping close even though it makes the path more difficult to navigate. Julia holds back a branch to let him through and George glances at her face as he passes through the gap. He looks for some sign in her face, some lasting mark to reflect back at him the truth of what they’ve seen. She should look older, but she doesn’t look any different than this morning. Her mouth is a thin, hard line, lips pressed so tightly together that it seems impossible that she could ever speak again.
Even so, George wants to ask her. He wants to ask her if she will be okay. He wants to ask her if it made a difference, coming out here today, if it was better to know, to see it for themselves.
“It’s getting dark,” he says.
“I know. But it’s not far now.”
He wants to ask, how could it be that big, how could it be possible for something like that to exist in the same world as his bike and their village? He wants to ask about the telephone wires and if she remembers the stories she used to make up or if he imagined that, if maybe he imagined a life before this, a life that was normal and safe and small.
He wants to ask her what happened after he walked the plank, after the sharks and the raft. He wants to ask her how it all ended.
Maybe she’ll smile at him and laugh and say, I remember. I remember that story. It never stopped. It just kept going.
For now though, with the shadows gathering, they keep walking, as above them small snowflakes escape the net of dark branches and fall softly, soundlessly, to the ground.