"I don't think I can do this," Omber says. They can hear the panic in their own voice, the tears welling up in their eyes. It's too familiar. It's disgusting.
"Now, honey," their mother says. "You won't know until you try. You've made it through finals before."
"Not like this," Omber replies desperately. "I have four major projects due in the next two days, and I've only started one of them. I'm done for. I'm finished."
"You'll manage," their mother tells them again, sickly sweet repetitions that don't mean much of anything. Especially since she follows it with, "You know we'll still love you even if you don't get the grades you want, right?"
'You know we know you could never cut it in art school,' Omber hears.
"It's not about the grades," Omber shouts, more harshly than they wanted. "I should be able to do this much!"
"Honey," their mother starts again, but Omber hangs up before she can continue. They stare at the screen as she calls back, and then throw their phone across the room. It hits the wall with an impotent bounce and falls into the laundry basket.
They immediately feel guilty. For throwing their expensive phone. For hanging up on their mother. For snapping at her. For having procrastinated themself into this corner in the first place.
The sketches for their studio final are strewn across their floor. They crumple and fold under Omber's feet as they storm towards the door, barely remembering to pull their shoes on before pushing open the door of their dorm room.
One of the people in the common room says something to them as they pass, but they don't register the words until they're already pushing open the door to the staircase. They almost run down the stairs, skipping two, three at a time, wondering how hurt they might get if they miss their footing and fall down to the first floor. They’re almost disappointed to reach the bottom without incident, but a broken arm wouldn’t really help them anyway.
As soon as they're outside, they regret not throwing a winter coat on over their sweater. It's only one regret of many; a sea of regrets that threatens to swallow them whole. They hail a taxi, knowing they can't afford it but not caring.
When the driver asks where they want to go, they say the first thing that comes to mind. The forest to the north of town seems right. They might find bones there, from a vole or a sparrow, or a deer if they're lucky. Their finals are lacking something, and maybe a touch of death will fill that gap. Or maybe it will be Omber who experiences the touch of death.
There are rumours all over campus, after all. Don't go to the woods, everyone says. Especially not alone. You won't come back. They won't even find your body. Omber can think of nothing more appealing, today, than vanishing without a trace.
But it's just stupid rumours.
The taxi driver tells Omber off for paying with credit, and drives away quickly. Omber walks towards the trees, a thin layer of snow crunching beneath their shoes. They can see their breath in front of them. Their hands and nose are cold already, but they can't turn back now. They don't even have their phone on them.
They walk along a path, the tracks of dirt bikes buried under fresh snow. It is quiet in the woods. They can't decide if the silence is welcome, compared to the constant thrum of conversation and footsteps on campus. Their headache won't go away. They can hardly remember the last time it did.
As they walk, their breathing slows. Their steps fade from agitated strides to relaxed steps.
Their problems feel far away, like someone else's. They wonder how long they can stay in the woods. Their fingers are starting to lose feeling, but it seems like a fair trade off. The crunch of snow under their shoes is the only sound. Even the distant rushing of cars along the street they arrived on is gone, now.
The bike path intersects with a deer trail, and Omber, still half hoping to find something dead, decides to follow it. There are no fresh tracks, and they have to push branches out of their path with their hands to proceed. The difficulty of it is gratifying. They should have come here sooner.
The trail opens into a clearing. They hear a flock of birds in the distance. Not birdsong, but the flapping of wings. Having no other landmarks to care about, they decide to head towards the sound.
They reach the end of the clearing and reenter the woods. They're not on any path now, wading through the dead underbrush. The racket from their own journey drowns out the sound of flapping wings for a while, but they more or less know where it came from. Not that any bird would stick around to greet them after they've been making all this noise.
They break back onto a curved dirt bike path, and surprisingly they can still hear the birds. Louder, now. Closer. Omber wonders if it's stuck in a trap, but it still isn't calling out. Maybe it's been there for a while.
They round the corner, and they can see it. A flurry of white wings, beating against each other cacophonously. It hovers two feet above the trail, moving in jerky and erratic motions towards Omber.
Omber slows down, but doesn't stop, doesn't turn away.
It's not a bird.
Maybe it's an angel, they think. Maybe they're finally going to die.
The creature continues towards them. Omber can make out, beyond the chaos of its six white wings, a number of beady black eyes. A beak, no, two beaks, open but making no noise. Knots of muscle, feathers intersecting and overlapping in no particular pattern. The beginning of a talon, attached to no foot, reaching.
Omber takes another step closer, and the creature startles, as if it hadn't noticed them until now. All of its eyes open wider. Its wings beat faster, furiously propelling it another foot higher into the air but getting it no closer to Omber's position.
It does not sound like a bird. It does not sound like any animal, or any other thing Omber has ever heard. It screeches and grates, keens in a voice that does not come from its beaks but from the core of its body, impossibly loud.
The sound vibrates against Omber's face. It keeps getting louder until Omber's heart jumps to its non-rhythm, erratic, explosive, cathartic.
It is like nothing Omber has heard before, and at the same time, it is intimately familiar. It is suffering. They are sure of this, more than they've been sure of anything ever before. This creature, the angel of Omber's oncoming death, is suffering immeasurably.
It is suffering exactly as much as Omber is.
As Omber approaches it, a cold wind blows. There is not a cloud in the sky above, but they feel thick snowflakes hit their face. The creature is close enough now that it's wings beat against Omber's hands and chest. They carry none of the warmth a living creature might have. They are cold enough to sting against Omber's skin.
Omber keeps walking towards it, into it. Its scream of anguish keeps getting louder. White light closes around the edges of Omber's vision. White feathers, white snow, white sound. Everything is white.
They remember the day they died.
Searching through the snowstorm for their home. Calling out again and again for their family, and hearing their voices, but being unable to see them through the snow. Through the blinding white wind. Frost forming on their wingtips. Lethargy settling into their body, from the outside in. Their eyes glazing over. White light, white snow, white silence.
And then, the white begins to fade, and they see the forest again.
They flap their wings to gain balance. They put out their arms, they curl their toes into the earth, they fan out their tail.
The snow is cold against their talons. The wind blows cold through their feathers.
There is somewhere they should be.
They move towards the place they know best. One step, one flap of their wings at a time. It is immensely relieving to be touching the ground. It is immensely freeing to be spreading their wings.
None of their limbs are so coordinated as to avoid the frozen fingers of the trees pulling against them, but they ignore it. They can only see in one direction. They can only hear the scream. The forest is silent.
A building appears through the trees. The birds make sounds, and they do not understand. There is something they have forgotten.
A person appears on the steps of the building. The person makes sounds, and they do not understand. There is something they have forgotten.
They ruffle their feathers. They stamp their feet. They curl and uncurl their talons. They blink their eyes.
The human makes sounds. The birds make sounds. They do not understand. They feel panic rise in their chest.
The human raises its hands, and they remember one thing: the human's short fingernails sifting through their feathers to scratch against their neck. There is something they have forgotten, but they remember that. They remember that they want that.
They stretch out their neck, cautiously. They settle their ruffled feathers, relax their clenched hands. They know what they want, but the want will not condense into sounds. The scream echoes in their mind.
The human reaches out, and puts its hand into their feathers, and it feels good. The human makes sounds, and the birds make sounds, and none of the sounds mean anything.
Except that they do.
They mean that for the first time since Omber's death, for the first time ever, they are at home. And that is good.
--- cover artist