Claire Beauchamp is barely eight years old when she starts to see the dead.
She is wandering around a Scottish cemetery, having abandoned her uncle’s pensive mourning in favor of something more productive. She is tired of grieving in the rain—is in fact tired of this country altogether, though she is as devoted to their purpose here as she is to cats, plants, and God. For somewhere in this wet and dreary place are her parents—the possibility of their discovery the very reason she and Lamb have moved here from England.
At this age, Claire is precocious, restless. She is a girl whose insatiable curiosity often carries her places she doesn’t belong. Claire has heard too much (an ominous knock at the door) and seen too much (a battered car, upholstered seats stained with river water), but there is still a part of her that burns with optimism; thinks miracles can happen.
She begins leaping from one grave to another, legs aching as she launches from stone to stone. Shiny with the day’s rain, the markers—a mismatched assortment of headstones, monuments, and granite slates—form no discernable pattern as they stretch in all directions. She clings to the base of an obelisk memorial, catching her breath.
The sight of Lamb off in the distance, stooped with the weight of his responsibility, sends her lunging toward a faraway tree line. She needs more distance between herself and the hallmarks of her uncle’s grief: his rumpled flat cap and moon-ringed eyes; the ever-deepening crease between his brows, which splits his face in half just as tragedy has cracked Claire’s life into two distinct parts. Before. After.
The rhythm of Claire’s soles smacking the rock, of her own breathing as she prepares for another leap, soon frees her mind to think of happier things. These daydreams are not of princes and princesses, or of fire-breathing dragons, but of real-life resurrections. She has spent countless hours between the library stacks, seeking scientific evidence that such things do, sometimes, happen.
She thinks of a particularly stirring case she found last Wednesday: Jessie Flowers, age 36, from northern Indiana. Here was a man, in good health and a father of two, who came back to life hours after he was pronounced dead from a drowning in Lake Michigan. The photo-copied medical reports, eyewitness accounts, and images of a fully recovered Jessie now fuel Claire’s leaps and, eventually, her imagination:
She pictures going back to the old house on Chestnut Street and finding it filled with the familiar music of her parents’ existence. Her mother’s sewing needles click-clack while a sitcom laugh track plays in the background. There’s the swish-swosh of cloth against leather—her father cleaning his work shoes, a nightly ritual—and the hiss of his lit cigarette. Her mother tsks when she notices a sloppy stitch; her father laughs at the TV, having finally caught a joke delivered minutes earlier.
When Claire walks through the imagined front door, they rush towards her without a second’s thought. They are relieved to finally tell her there’s been a terrible misunderstanding—that they did not die in the crash that tossed their car into a deep ravine. That they have been injured, starved—so hopelessly lost in the corners of the Scottish wilderness, unable to share news of their survival with anyone.
Mama’s hands are all over her as she recalls how they swam out of the wreckage and made it safely to the riverbank. Can you imagine, darling? Your father and I, rubbing sticks together for fire? Claire must try to understand—Please don’t be angry with us, darling!—but they couldn’t wait for the police arrive, so desperate were they to return home to her. What else were we supposed to do? Twiddle our thumbs for the thirteen days it took them to find the car?
Papa grunts his approval at Mama’s defense of their logic. He bemoans the lack of trail markers, the ineptitude of Search and Rescue. He has already written a strongly worded letter that questions the ethics of declaring one dead before one’s body is found.
For a moment, Claire is at peace—cheered by her mother’s imaginary darlings and her father’s conviction—as she jumps her way through the maze of graves.
But when her legs buckle and she loses her footing, the fantasy comes tumbling down with her. Henry and Julia Beauchamp have been gone for eleven months—and there is nothing of them here. Their graves sit empty in this field of stones while their bodies lie at the bottom of some distant river, two secrets that Lamb claims (hopes) his hired team of human eyes, spotlight beams, and industrial claws will soon uncover. He has lost all faith in the police. The police lost all faith months ago.
The truth of this pricks at the back of Claire’s eyes and weighs her down. She so badly wants to be the brave girl everyone has commended her for being, but she cannot keep her sorrow from pouring out in great, heaving sobs. Hunched on the ground, cradling her twisted ankle, she thinks of how unfair the world is—and how she is surely the loneliest person in it.
Suddenly, there is a disturbance in the wind, and Claire knows in the very marrow of her bones: Someone is here. There is no shadow or sound to announce this new presence, but Claire is as sure of it as she is of her own bruising knees and, now, of the increasing impossibility of her parents’ discovery.
Through a veil of tears, she looks up to find two wrinkled feet standing on a grave just a few feet away. They are shoeless and purple and they smell of something foul. Claire drags her gaze upwards to find a pair of matching ankles and legs, then a bloodied waist, until she is staring directly into a woman’s eyes. Bulging from their sockets and clouded by death, these eyes reach into Claire’s soul and set down roots, as immovable as the gnarled hand now closing around her wrist.
Then Claire is falling.
She is soaring through a dark and nameless space where there is only a deafening buzz. The noise swallows her screams just as the darkness obscures her sight. The descent is endless, as if it cannot be measured by distance or by time, but only by the intensity of Claire’s fear—which grows and grows the more she falls. She is certain she will be torn in two by the sheer force of her own terror.
And then, just as suddenly, she crashes against something solid. The buzzing quiets, the darkness abates, and Claire opens her eyes to a blinding brightness. A uniformed man hovers over her with a flashlight, brows knitted together and fingers sleeved in red. His words are muffled and reach Claire slowly, like they are floating through a viscous film.
“Stay with me, lass. Stay wi’ me,” he says before shouting over his shoulder. When he wipes the sweat from his forehead, he leaves a streak of blood behind. “For fuck’s sake, can I get more help over here?!”
Claire feels a sudden pressure, then a searing pain. Another man is pressing into a stomach that she realizes is not her own, a vain attempt at staunching the blood that does not belong to her either. Her hand—now reaching feebly for a dark-haired girl—is the same hand that dragged her here, but no longer gnarled. The eyes through which Claire sees the girl’s stricken face are not yet clouded by death.
“Wh-where’s yer brother?” Claire croaks, and she is shocked to find a woman’s voice inside her mouth. Shocked further still by the knowledge of the girl’s name and of the gun shot that has ripped this alien body apart. “Jenny?”
“I dinna ken!” the girl sobs, beside herself. Jenny tries to break through the wall of paramedics but is forced back into a room of toppled furniture. A fireplace crackles cozily behind her, wildly at odds with the surrounding chaos but reminiscent of Henry Beauchamp’s lit Rothmans. But no—that memory is from a different place, from a different time. Claire is a wholly different person from the girl she was in the house on Chestnut Street, or just minutes ago in the cemetery.
“He ran, Ma! He just ran!”
Claire is now keenly aware of the front door, which stands open to the quiet night and the swathe of white beyond. The snow-covered land stretches beyond eyesight, marked here and there with trees, valleys, and rocky inclines—plenty of places where a frightened boy might conceal himself and be forgotten. She thinks of several neglected barns that she, Claire, has never actually seen—a collection of half-fallen structures that look like kneeling parishioners, bent in prayer for the repairs that Claire knows there is no money for.
“My son is out there,” Claire rasps in her foreign voice, but no one seems to hear her. Black spots creep into her vision and stretch, forming ribbons that wrap themselves around her limbs. She is weightless, almost buoyant, as they pull her along an invisible current, back towards the darkness of the nameless space.
“My son,” she tries again, weak but frantic. Every word on her tongue is like an etching in stone, decided long before it’s even spoken. “H-he’s all alone out there.”
“Yer husband is on his way, mum,” says one of the men above her. They seem farther away, trapped behind glass. “Dinna worry about him now. Ellen, I want you to focus on me. Stay wi’ me.”
“N-no,” she whispers, her lips so chapped they feel coated in salt. She tries to steady the flutter of her lids, the involuntary skyward roll of her eyeballs. “It’s my son. Please, you have to find my—my—” but the rest of her words are lost in a rush of liquid metal. Blood fills her throat and pools in her mouth, and Claire is drowning inside, alongside, this woman.
Then she is falling again.
This time, the journey is different. She slams against the ground, and back into herself, in only a matter of seconds. The rain has become a steady pour, and—there!—just in the distance stands her Uncle Lamb, wrestling with a half-broken umbrella. But the vice-like grip around her wrist, and the eyes that ripped through her soul, have disappeared. The woman who brought her through the darkness, whose body she just inhabited, is nowhere to be found.
Now, there is only the faintest whisper, carried on the wind from the land of the dead.