It was two weeks before Auberon got a day off. She didn’t mind the constant work and the promise of getting a real paycheck at the end of it all, though her feet were beginning to blister in places she didn’t know existed and her hands were red and tough from burns. If it hadn’t been for the fact that she was fairly sure that most human bodies weren’t supposed to be worked constantly, and that she was beginning to feel the after effects of overtiredness, Auberon thought she was doing just fine.
“Take a break,” Hazel said one afternoon as she turned to look at Auberon, her constant smile faltering. “You look like you’ve been walking across the Sahara for days with no food or water.”
“I don’t think that’s a compliment,” Auberon said, letting out a laugh that turned into a sigh. She wasn’t necessarily wrong. Auberon was used to working hard, but working at the pace that Hazel did and keeping up with her for two constant weeks had barely given Auberon any time to settle into her new home. On top of that, she had been constantly stressed about her aunt coming and finding her to drag her back home. She didn’t think the probability of it was that high, but that didn’t mean a chill didn’t run down her spine every time she heard the jingle of the opening door.
“It’s not meant to be. Take a few days off. It’ll give you a little bit of time to spend that paycheck of yours.”
“Paycheck?” Auberon practically blossomed at the words, surprise falling across her face. Hazel snorted and gestured to the back.
“Yeah, every other Friday. It’s in your cubby – go cash it across the street. Get out of here, I’ll close up.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” Auberon called over her shoulder, practically sliding into the back room. As promised, sitting neatly and unassuming in the cubby next to her keys, was a neatly folded envelope with her name spelled out on the front of it. Her heart fluttered in her chest with excitement as she tore the envelope open and looked inside, the check – just as unassuming a piece of paper as the envelope it was in – with her name on it looking up at her. Relief flooded her veins. In between this and the tips she had been splitting with Hazel for the last two weeks, she would have enough for rent and then some. And that was only two weeks worth of work.
Giddiness flooded through her as she bounced out of the cafe, giving Hazel a quick side hug. She was ushered out of the building by her coworker, who thrust an iced Americano into her hand before waving her off. Auberon was halfway down across the road toward the bank before she thought, yet again, about how lucky she was.
Auberon wasn’t telling Hazel this, and if her coworker had noticed at all within the last two weeks she hadn’t said anything, but Auberon had been eating solely off of a stolen plate and fork from the cafe.
It was one of the things that the basement apartment hadn’t come equipped with, and Auberon had been just getting by enough on tips that she hadn’t thought to set aside money to buy real utensils or that which to eat off of. Honestly Auberon was getting on fine with the salad plate she had nicked from work. Plus, honestly, no one bought so many baked goods that the tiny thing would be missing.
It was while she was standing in the aisle 7 of the only grocery store in town she first heard of the missing person, looking at plastic forks, knives, and paper plates.
“Sad about the Johnson girl,” she heard from the other side of the aisle. She was staring at the plastic forks and spoons. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to commit to actual silverware and honestly she was fairly sure that the tiny grocery store wouldn’t have any, anyway. The thought was pushed out of her mind as the woman, hidden by the shelf, let out a heavy sigh – Auberon wanted to know what could have been so sad about whoever this girl was.
“Oh, just terrible. I can’t imagine what her mother is going through.” If she had had moveable ears, they would have perked in the direction of the conversation. Instead she slowly made her way toward end of the aisle, looking down to see both women chatting while mulling over condiments; one woman was holding a jar of mayonnaise and the other a double pack of ketchup. They were both staring intently at the items in their hands, as if they were judging their purchase based on the labels. In all actuality they were just pretending to do something to cover up their blatant gossip.
“Can’t you, though? She let her daughter out at night when she knows what’s out here. It could have been anything. Coyotes, a bear…a boy,” the first woman said. Her brown hair was tied up in a tight ponytail, and she was wearing a matching track suit. She nudged her companion with her shoulder, although she didn’t take her eyes off the ketchup in her hands. The other woman – tall, blond, willowy – hushed her and looked down either end of the aisle they stood in. Her eyes glazed right over Auberon, who looked suddenly very intent on the Worcester sauce in front of her.
“You can’t say things like that out here, Joan. Someone might hear you.”
“I’m only saying what everyone else is saying. Girls’ don’t go missing here. They run away. Off to bigger cities with their secret boyfriends. I did the same thing when I was her age, you know, and I came running back with my tail tucked between my legs. Begged my mother for her forgiveness. I was gone for six months. Sarah will come back, same as me.”
“You do have a way of settling my thoughts, Joan,” the blonde said with a sigh, placing the mayonnaise back on the counter. “I was getting a little bit worried about Amy.”
“Don’t be. Amy and Sarah weren’t that close, were they?”
Auberon grabbed the unneeded bottle of steak sauce and threw it in her basket, turning on her heel then. She didn’t need to hear much else. It was bad enough that she was eavesdropping on them anyway – it seemed like petty high school drama, although admittedly it felt like the women were downplaying it a little bit. If a girl was missing it was always smartest to leave all options open, and not just decide on the easiest, right?
The rest of her shopping trip was uneventful, up until she had paid and was carrying her paper bag out to her bicycle. A police officer sat in his car, watching the opening doors of the market. He tipped his hat to Auberon as she came out, and she gave a slightly forced smile as she moved to unlock her bike and to strap her bag of groceries onto the back of it.
“Officer Henry, you on patrol?” the speaker from inside of his car crackled to life, and the officer sat straighter instantly.
“Nah sir, I’m out front of the market. You need me?”
“We need everyone,” it said, “back to the station now. We’ll prep you there.”
“Roger that, sir. I can be there in five.”
The car grumbled to life and sped out of the lot, back wheels squealing as it turned onto the main road. Auberon watched him fly off, her eyebrows knitting together as she slipped her keys into her front pocket and lifted herself onto the bike. Maybe Raven’s End wasn’t always as quiet as it seemed.
,,,By the time she finally came home, it was dusk. She had taken her time to roam around the town, riding her bike down back roads and following sidewalks that she had yet to go done. Almost every day she had been exhausted once she came off work, so she hadn’t made it out to do any true exploring of the place she was planning on calling home. This afternoon had been just perfect for that – it helped that everything she bought at the store would stay solid, too.
She leaned her bike under the awning of the deck and locked it there. Her fingers fumbled for keys, one arm wrapped around her bag of groceries. Had it not been for the unfortunate crunch from underneath her feet, Auberon never would have noticed the smear of blood that tracked down the glass and culminated in a crumbled mess that was quite literally under her feet.
It took all of her willpower not to scream when she did look down.
Auberon pulled her foot away, inhaling through her nose as deeply as she could. Her shadow fell over it, but even with the darkening sky she could see the scattered and clumped feathers, slick with wetness. White portions of bone stuck out where her foot had been. Fragments were still attached to her shoe. Guilt clung to her throat like a choker, tightening with every breath. Her next inhale brought the metallic tang of blood, and the scream that was stuck in her throat changed into a gag as she tumbled backwards, the bag falling out of her hand, contents tumbling out as she tried to back as far away from the dead bird as possible.
It was obvious what had happened – it had flown right into the glass door, so hard that it had broken itself. Killed itself. She had only made it worse by not noticing, by practically crushing it underneath her feet. Now it lay, eyes glassy, wings broken. It would never fly again. Not now that it’s entire chest lay open and trampled. Auberon didn’t want to touch it, didn’t want to look at it, but she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of it, and in the same moment she wanted to reach her hand out to it and comfort it. As if there was still some form of life in the frail body. As if there was some spirit lingering there.
She finally closed her eyes and did her best to think of anything else. She thought of the vegetables that would be bruised on the ground, on work in the morning. She breathed and tried to ignore the smell of blood. When she finally opened her eyes, she didn’t look at the bird. She moved over it, opening up the door and kicking off her shoe outside – making sure it didn’t land anywhere near the bird – and grabbed a roll of paper towels.
From there it was simple. A clean up job. Auberon couldn’t look at it as anything else without getting sick, so she pretended that she was just taking care of a mess at work. She had knocked over a bottle of syrup and used coffee grounds the other day that had looked a little like the mess on her front porch. In the darkness she could pretend that that’s what this was, as long as she didn’t try to focus too hard on it. It was only when her fingers brushed against the smoothness of its beak that she was reminded that it had once been living. Breathing, heart pumping and glassy eyes blinking. Auberon got up and walked away for a moment, staring out into the darkness as she put the back of her hand to her forehead. There was nothing she could have done to stop it. It was a wild bird, for fuck’s sake. Even if she had been here, all that would have changed was that she would have seen it happen. That might have been even worse. Turning back to the rest of its remains – no longer able to look at it as a mess from the shop – she let out a deep sigh. For now all she could do was clean it up and hope that she could do was hope that she could give the poor thing some dignity. She moved slowly, gathering its remains as she found them – scattered bones from where she had crushed it, feathers that had fallen in the mess – and set them all carefully alongside the body. When she was finished, there was only the puddle of sticky blood on the ground in front of the door, and the smear. The bird lay wrapped tightly in the towels.
Auberon didn’t just want to throw it away, and burying it six feet underground felt just as alien. A bird was not meant to hide beneath the Earth. It felt disrespectful. It was obvious after she had picked it up from its size that it was a raven, and it felt wrong to show such little reverence to it – especially given the town’s namesake. This was her home, after all, and she should treat it as such.
She would burn it in the woods, later. Give it as close to a Viking funeral as she could. The bird, she decided, would fly one last time.
Auberon had finally managed to go inside, hiding the remains of the bird in her bathroom and shutting the door tightly behind her. It was at ten thirty, and all she had done in the time between setting the bird up in the bathroom and setting herself up in the living room was stare at the eggshell white wall. For a good quarter of an hour, that was all she had figured out how to do. She was positive that it was the shock of the scenario – it isn’t every day that you have to reassemble a dead and broken raven, of course – but it left her heavy headed and feeling like she had fog in her brain. It felt almost surreal, despite the obvious reality of everything. She might have been able to write it off as something else if she hadn’t been so sure there was a dead bird in her bathroom sink.
Over time, the idea of functioning like a normal human person returned to her, and somewhere between her blank staring and then she had realized that something had to be done about the corpse before it started decomposing. So she texted Hazel. Both because she knew no one else and because she felt that if anyone would help, it would be her.
Hey, can I ask you a weird question?
Shoot! Hazel replied, almost instantly. A wave of relief flooded Auberon.
If I needed to burn something is there a safe place for me to do it?
There was a short pause before her phone began buzzing in her hand, Hazel’s face suddenly appearing on the screen. Auberon answered the call immediately, phone shaking as sudden anxiety rippled through her. She had never been good at phone calls, and the strangeness of the night didn’t change that. In fact, it made her anxiety a little worse. Her whole body felt like it was on high alert.
“Hey?” She asked, warily. She was about as used to receiving phone calls as she was to texting – and ultimately both of those things were fairly new to her. It wasn’t that she had been…isolated growing up. It was just that she had had more important things to do, and the only phone calls she had ever gotten were from her aunt. Those never ended well. Phone calls, along with many other day to day tasks, fell into the category of Immediately Anxiety Inducing.
“Hey. What do you have to burn and do you need a ride?” Hazel’s readiness took Auberon by surprise, but she didn’t hesitate in responding, more glad that she was so willing to offer her services even if she had no idea what they would be used for.
“It is…kind of a weird story, but a ride would be good, considering I have no idea how to get around here still. And it’s dark, which will make it harder.”
“Okay, I can be there in ten. Meet me down the road.” Auberon smiled to herself, happy that she didn’t have to explain just yet and that despite a complete lack of detail, Hazel was more than happy to offer her services. It was incredibly refreshing. It almost felt a little bit like friendship.
“You” Auberon began, leaning back against the kitchen counter, “are seriously awesome. Do you know that?”
“I’ve been told,” Hazel said, letting out a half laugh, “but I try not to let it go to my head. Most of the time. See you soon.”
The line clipped off, and Auberon moved to gather the bird, making sure it was padded enough to go on a ride without breaking itself too much more.
Auberon stood a little ways past the gate, where the private road turned into public, and waited for Hazel. The night air was cool against her skin – not so much that goosebumps raised on her arms, but enough that she took a shaking breath as she held her backpack close to her chest. Or maybe it was because she had a dead bird in her pack. What had once contained the entirety of her belongings, essentially her entire life, was now carrying what was left of the raven’s. She wasn’t sure if that counted as poetic justice or not.
When the headlights of Hazel’s Subaru pulled down the road Auberon gave a half-hearted wave and walked towards the vehicle as it rolled to a slow stop. As she opened the passenger’s side door and slid in, pack still hugged to her chest, she couldn’t help but notice Hazel’s eyes locked onto the mansion. It wasn’t until the door shut firmly behind Auberon that she managed to shake her attention from the house and looked at her passenger.
“Hey. So what are we burning?”
“Okay so, first thing, please do not kill me after I tell you what is in the bag. Second…I have a dead bird in the bag.”
“Right,” Hazel said, sucking both of her lips in and staring at Auberon. She stayed silent for a good thirty seconds or so, obviously mulling over what the best thing to say was. “So we’re burning the bird.”
“He deserves a proper funeral.”
“Right. And that means we’re burning him why?”
“Like a Viking funeral.”
Hazel nodded, lips pursed but looking poignant as she backed out onto the main road. The car rumbled quietly along, the softest hint of electronic music reverberating through the speakers. They both remained silent, dark trees zooming past them as they sped down the country road. Auberon had never been this far out before – hadn’t managed to get much farther than the singular city light, if she was being honest. The streets and roads she had been exploring earlier the day weren’t exactly much to see, and had it not been for the fact that she had enjoyed the leisurely sentiment of it all, it would have been incredibly boring. This was different though – as they drove down the road and the trees buzzed past them, the stars were out in full force, lighting up the night sky with the help of the half-full moon. The past two weeks had flown by for Auberon, letting her get lost in the work and tedious – but welcome – day to day life of living alone. It was a sort of freedom and ultimately it was exactly what she wanted…but there was something that she hadn’t wanted to admit that she lacked. Something that she had hoped to find but was missing somewhere along the lines of her easily found house and job.
Now, sitting beside Hazel, driving down a road she had never been before, Auberon had the sudden realization that it was this.
Whatever this feeling was, the way she felt sitting next to a girl who was becoming her friend and who had appeared to her with no need for explanation and offered nothing but help while driving along a deserted road in the middle of one of the most beautiful nights she had ever seen, was what she had been missing.
Minus the bird, of course. Auberon would have been much happier if this hadn’t involved a corpse.
The feeling slowly dismantled itself as the car slowed, and Hazel pulled off onto a long gravel driveway. At the end sat a house with the light of a television flashing through the window. The moment the cars headlights hit it, the front porch light flicked on and the front door opened, practically in the same second.
“Where are we?” Auberon asked, straightening up suddenly. The figure that stood, half-illuminated in the light, was a thick set man that was so tall that his head practically touched the doorway. His hair was long and pulled back behind his head. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, which made Auberon instantly uncomfortable; she had always hated that men had the option to be half naked whenever they wanted to and women were always constrained to at least underwear.
“Tane’s house. He’s an old friend,” Hazel replied, looking over to her passenger with a smile. “Don’t worry. He’s Good People too.”
“So it’s not just me then?” Auberon asked, a shaky laugh escaping her lips.
“Sorry to burst that bubble, but no, it’s not just you.” Hazel shut off the car and slid out, instantly running up the steps and wrapping her arms around the man. He swung an arm around her in return – so thick that if he had used both he would have squished her in his grasp – before letting her go and giving a nod to Auberon, who stood awkwardly just outside of the passenger’s seat.
“What are we burning?” He asked, clearing his throat and waving Auberon toward him. “Not just a backpack?”
“A bird,” Hazel sighed, although the porch light illuminated her smile. “We’re sending him back to Valhalla to feast with the Vikings.”