After by Em Harriett

The ghost of civilization peeks between the trees as three travelers cross the woods. Grimfang, black curls flowing from his slender frame in waves of night, trots ahead of the group with his head on a swivel. He peers into the shadows between brush and bracken, reading the darkness with his keen brown eyes. For a borzoi, he is stockier than most, but he glides across the trail like a black swan over the water.

A field spaniel follows behind him. She pads confidently over the leaf litter even as it tangles in her wavy gold-spun fur. Lacey cannot stop to groom herself, not with the forest so foreign to her and her own comfort a hollow shell in the drowned city. Her known lands sink behind her with the sun.

Tailing the pack is a dachshund barely bigger than a woodchuck. Her long fur is a motley coat of white and summer brown as if she’d rolled in mud and forgotten to wash it clean. Roxy knows nothing of the woods, and it is her youth that carries her forward more than her short legs.

The trail opens onto a black river of asphalt cracked and cut from age and neglect. Grimfang crosses it without a look to either side. Lacey checks more out of habit than actual experience, and Roxy mimics her, though she is too young to know what a car used to be.

The other half of the old trail winds further into the woods, deeper and deeper into unfamiliarity. Trees rustle in the wind, their greenery barely brushed by gold and crimson.

Grimfang lopes toward the trees, but Lacey stops and clacks her teeth to get his attention. He swings his head around and raises his brow.

“What?” he asks.

“Where are we going?” Lacey replies. She plants a paw on the gravel that flanks the asphalt. “You said we would stop and rest before sundown. Well, the sun fades, the birds retire, and you’ve yet to tell us where we’re sleeping for the night.”

Grimfang shrugs a shoulder and looks down his long snout at Lacey. “We’ll sleep wherever we are when the sun sets,” he says levelly. “There’s still daylight. I want distance between ourselves and that human-tainted place before we let our guard down to sleep.”

Lacey growls. Roxy hangs her head sadly.

“The only human who lived there is dead,” Roxy says.

“And it isn’t tainted,” Lacey objects. “It’s fallen apart, yes, but it used to be something filled with life. Why come to the city at all if you revile it?”

“I was only in that city to find other dogs,” says Grimfang. “I found you and Roxy. You decided to come with me—”

“Because you promised us food and shelter. Because the alternative was suffering the storms.” Lacey’s long curly ears pull back against her skull, revealing a collar around her neck. “This time of year, the surges wash across the island and crumble the earth. The winds are too strong. If we didn’t leave with you, Roxy and I would have likely died.”

“It was still your choice,” Grimfang says too casually. “You can turn around and go drown with your memories if you choose.”

Lacey quiets, looking over her shoulder. On her collar is a metal charm with markings she cannot read, markings that point to a place and a person she’s left behind. From this height, she can see the drowned city stretch from the base of the hill to the ocean. The dead buildings are black in the shadow of the sun. Lacey thinks she can see her old home from here—or, rather, her grief tricks her into thinking so. If she turns back now, she could make it by dusk.

But there isn’t a point. It’s too dangerous to live there now.

Lacey sighs. She turns her head away from the water.

“What I want to know is why you insist on leading us,” she says to Grimfang.

Grimfang rolls his eyes and swishes his long tail as he turns around. “Because I have the common sense to not stay near old human packs,” he says, starting into the woods. “You two are too nostalgic. Humans won’t help you—they barely even help themselves. Staying away from them is the only way to survive.”

Lacey crinkles her muzzle, about to say something else, but Roxy trots past her, eager to catch up to Grimfang. Lacey stands a moment on the side of the road, watching the two dogs’ shapes blend and blur into the underbrush. For a moment, she thinks she can make it back to the island. For a moment, the lure of concrete and the smell of humanity makes her nostrils flare.

But, as much as it pains her to admit it, Grimfang is right on one count: she’s too nostalgic. Her human cannot care for her now.

But that is the only thing the borzoi is right about.

Sighing, Lacey pads into the underbrush, following pawprints over the dirt away from the drowned city.

Grimfang sets a brisk pace north, following the stars and keeping the sun in check. He is the only one with experience in the wilderness, and his long strides easily put him ahead of the others. The drowned city with its slew of dead skyscrapers disappears from sight as the wild forest overtakes the land.

Lacey tries to forget. Her memory won’t allow her.

For all their endless walking and the meager meals of songbirds and rodents, Roxy never complains. She keeps pace with the two older dogs, her own paws moving twice the speed as the others’. Her pink tongue lolls out of her jaws with the effort, yet every night she curls up against Lacey’s side, content with the company she keeps. Lacey cannot bear to leave the little dog behind.

After a few days, the woods thin around patches of open countryside, remnants of farms where crops grow wild and untethered, where mice and other smaller creatures make homes in the bones of stone walls and brick houses. Grimfang leads the group up a hill and pauses to check the lay of the land.

Lacey stares. A field of thick, tall grass sprawls downhill, whispering wheat-colored and golden. A collection of old wood planks and window panes leans against itself near one side of the field. Whatever color it once was, the house is nothing but weathered gray now, its paint worn off by wind and water.

Something in Lacey’s heart clenches at the sight. Her tail wags without her notice.

“Can we stay here?” Lacey asks. Grimfang’s muzzle twitches, and Lacey adds in a rush, “Just for a little while. We need to rest. If we keep going at the pace we’ve been, our paw pads will crack and bleed, and then we’ll attract our cousins.”

Grimfang rolls his eyes. “Wolves don’t hunt in these lands.”

“Still. I think it could be good.”

“I want to see what’s in the grass!” Roxy says. She leans forward eagerly, her ears alert. Leaves tangled in her long fur rustle like the wind as she wags her tail.

Lacey catches Grimfang’s eye and pointedly nods at Roxy. Grimfang huffs.

“Fine,” he says.

Roxy yips for joy and races to chase a scent through the field. A few times, Lacey sees Roxy’s head pop up from the tall grass as the dachshund leaps and pounces, but the sea of grass swallows her whenever her paws fall back to earth.

“Don’t get carried away!” Grimfang barks after her, but Roxy is having too much fun to take him seriously. Grimfang sighs and starts for the broken house, Lacey beside him.

The two lay in the shade, shielded by wooden planks and cracked shingles. Broken glass glitters like ice where it fell from window panes.

“You kept your word,” Lacey says after a while. “If we traveled with you, we’d have food and shelter. Thank you for that.”

Grimfang nods. He and Lacey watch Roxy spring through the grass. Lacey smiles fondly. She’s never had a litter, but she remembers her puppy years, that same time of boundless energy and marvel at the world. Her human wasn’t around back then—just the cracked streets where water hadn’t risen—but exploration, curiosity, those were what had driven her forward day after scorching day until her human found her and brought her to his home above the waterline.

Roxy yips excitedly and flushes a meadowlark from the grass. The bird flies across the field before Grimfang or Lacey can rise to give chase.

Roxy sneezes and dives back into the long grass. Lacey smiles.

“She’s happy,” she says.

“She’s naïve.”

Lacey glares at Grimfang, not bothering to hide her displeasure.

“What is your issue with a pup having fun?” she asks him. “Roxy is barely a year old, yet you somehow think allowing her the freedom to explore and play will taint her judgment.”

Grimfang snorts down his long muzzle. This close, Lacey sees a few gray hairs sprouted around his nose—so subtle, they are minnows in a vast stream.

“She can’t stay a pup forever,” he says.

“Let her have this.”

“If she acts foolishly, she won’t survive. She’s too small. Coyotes think better when they see you or me, but Roxy is a meal to them.”

Lacey shoots Grimfang an annoyed look.

“You’re awfully pessimistic,” she says. “What happened to you? You can’t have been this jaded your whole life.”

Death happened.” Grimfang bristles, his hackles rising along his shoulder blades.

Lacey feels a pang of sympathy in her chest, but she shakes her head, curly-furred ears swinging with the movement.

“Death happens to all of us—”

“Not the death I’ve seen.”

Grimfang curls his lip, baring his fangs. Lacey involuntarily shrinks back. The borzoi rises on his forepaws.

“Roxy!” Grimfang barks.

At once, the little dachshund’s head pokes out of the field. Golden grass sticks out from her fur like the feathers of a bird.

“We’re going,” Grimfang adds, and he leaves Lacey in the shadow of the wooden planks.

“What?” Lacey says, snout crinkling. “We’ve only just arrived—”

“We ought to make as much progress as we can before nightfall. If you want to stay and starve, by all means,” Grimfang snarls as he turns away.

Lacey bites down a growl and rises, her gold fur rippling in the wind. Sunlight touches her when she stands.

“You insult me for clinging to memory,” she says lowly, “but, out of all of us, I think you are the one running from something.”

Grimfang doesn’t reply. He lopes uphill, a black streak in the gold, his shoulders hunched against the sun.

Grimfang doesn’t speak to Lacey for three more days.

Lacey ignores him in turn. She and Roxy sleep together wherever they rest for the night, be it tree roots, old highways, or in the shelter of abandoned buildings. The water has not risen this far from the sea, but rivers and creeks have flooded ferociously, scouring the land and leaving deep trenches of mud and silt in their wake. Maybe in another time, these would be farmlands, but for now the humans have migrated too far north and inland to use it.

During the day, Lacey keeps her ears open for animals—not that any have troubled them. The woods are too mild. Deer keep their distance, wild turkeys move in stuttering flocks, and songbirds only have attention for their mourning hymns. No wolf howls break the night. The coyotes and foxes that yip and snarl make trouble for other prey.

Lacey counts her blessings and keeps moving. Her memories of the drowned city still call to her at night when she tries not to listen. Her human’s bones should be bare by now. Insects make short work of the dead.

At the end of the third day, Roxy finds a creek. Her romps around each night’s resting place lead her to a trickling stream, where she splashes and rolls over the smooth stones before drinking her fill.

“Good find,” says Grimfang when he and Lacey join her.

Roxy puffs her chest out and wags her tail. Water drips down her fur and lands in a soft patter on the weeds.

Grimfang and Lacey both lean down to drink at the same time, and their eyes meet.

Grimfang nods politely. Lacey does the same. There is a shared moment of understanding and the lifting of grudges, and then they return to their business, drinking clean water and taking a moment to wash the dirt from their fur.

That night, Lacey rests her head on her paws, Roxy curled against her side, watching the moon through the branches of a thicket. This could be a pack, if she lets it.

This could be a pack, if only she could get through to Grimfang.

She thinks on the idea until she falls asleep.

Grimfang follows the river’s course as it widens and winds through undulating hills. By now, the trees have turned to gold, their leaves breaking from the branches and cascading over the sky as light as feathers. Humidity clings to the air like a sickness, but the three dogs lope on, their paw pads hardened by travel and their coats a collection of twigs and wild marks.

After a week, the river empties into its source.

The lake is a tail dragged through the valley by a dog the size of the sky, and in its wake the water shimmers blindingly white as the sun sinks past the hills. Lake mud and silty sand tint the water the color of dirt, but Lacey’s heart sings at the sight. It’s like the ocean from her old home, that same shining stretch of water, but softer, fresher, untainted by salt or pollution.

“We’re staying,” Lacey decides.

Grimfang opens his mouth to object, but Lacey plants her haunches on the beach and tilts her snout up. Grimfang sighs, turns his back, and lopes toward the trees. He digs a hide in the soil just past the treeline big enough for the three of them.

Lacey watches the lake. On the other shore, she swears she can see more old houses, dilapidated and broken by storms and snow, but nonetheless human. No lights shine from them. Lacey feels a twinge of sorrow hit her chest.

A long hour of golden sunlight brings shadows to the edge of the lake. Roxy, through with her running about, flops in the sand next to Lacey and rests her head on her paws, panting. Grimfang sits a few feet away and watches the water like a stone-carved sentinel.

“We shouldn’t stay here,” he says.

Lacey rolls her eyes. “Why not?” she asks. “There’s fresh water, Roxy saw fish, and we have shelter from the wind and rain. We could investigate those human buildings across the shore, too, if we need thicker shelter.”

Grimfang shakes his head.

“Staying in one place means death,” he says.

“Again with the death talk from you! If you’re trying to scare us, you’ll have to do better than that.”

Grimfang looks at her sharply. His curly fur catches the sinking sun like coils of metal.

“I talk of death because I see it in every branch and smell it in every breath of wind,” he says. “True, no humans live here anymore, but there is more than just their taint in the air. Storms bring water and break trees. Landslides bury our kin under rubble. Mud traps the paws, the sun bakes our skin until it blisters, and blizzards numb the soul until you cannot bear to rise. The land of our parents’ parents is gone. And we are left to suffer the remains.”

Water laps at the shoreline. Roxy closes her eyes and pretends to sleep.

“That may be true,” says Lacey, her voice low and her eyes alight with the sun, “but that shouldn’t make you a pessimist.”

Grimfang grins mockingly, his long snout twisted.

“Oh?” he says. “Then tell me, what do you want that’s so important? Why insist on staying still when I’ve told you all the dangers that arise? All the dangers you’ve seen, firsthand, back in the drowned city where I met you?”

Lacey tilts her chin up. The tarnished metal charm on her collar gleams in the setting sunlight.

“I want a place to rest my head at night,” Lacey says simply. “All I want are four walls and a roof over my head.”

“You want a cage.”

“I want a home.”

Grimfang curls his lip in disgust. “You want humans,” he spits, “when they’ve done nothing but destroy everything they touch. Look around you! You think the concrete cages from your old city built themselves out of the water? You think they picked that salty shore by choice? No, humans raised the water like gods and reaped the consequences. If you’d stayed in the drowned city you would have died.”

“I know,” says Lacey. “That’s why Roxy and I left with you. And you’re right—nature is dangerous and its destruction is swift. But there’s beauty in it, too. If you respect it rather than fear it or try to tame it, you’ll see it too.”

She cranes her neck to look at the trees. The breeze coming off the lake rustles their branches into an orchestra. The lake water ripples white with streaks of gold over the darkening edges.

Grimfang follows Lacey’s gaze and kneads his forepaws uncomfortably in the sand. Try as he might to ignore it, Lacey’s words echo in his head and conjure images across his wild wanderings: snow-capped mountains, green-backed hills, the sound of birds and insects singing their gratitude to be alive every morning and evening.

“And not all humans are bad, either,” Lacey continues. Her collar is a beacon, and in the surface of its metal charm the decrepit houses across the lake shine. “My human was kind to me, even when his own health was failing. He loved me with all his heart and I loved him just the same. You can’t lump them all together—that’s as silly as saying all spaniels are like me, or all borzois are like you. They made mistakes. But there’s good in them. Humans are not irredeemable creatures.”

Beside her, Roxy hums an agreeable note and nods her head against the sand, still pretending to sleep. Lacey smiles at her and then looks at Grimfang, waiting for some rebuttal, but the black dog is pensive as he stares out over the water. The sun dips ever closer to the edge of the lake. From this angle, light bounces on the abandoned houses across the water, illuminating the windows.

“Maybe,” he finally says. “I’ve still no interest in forming a pack with one, though.”

“You don’t have to,” Lacey says. “Most of the humans migrated, anyway. If we see any, they’re the odd ones who stayed behind.”

“Left to take care of what happened after.”

“Someone has to.”

Grimfang nods. He can’t tell if the houses across the lake are actually lit or if it’s a trick of the light, but he finds a strange comfort in it—that the structures are not abandoned, that someone is left to tend the world back to balance.

That, maybe, there is more to the world than death.

“I’ll find us food,” he says, standing and shaking off his coat.

“I’ll stay and watch Roxy,” Lacey says.

Beside her, Roxy peeks an eye open and then snuggles deeper against Lacey’s haunch. Grimfang doesn’t see the look and pads off into the woods.

Lacey sits, watching the sun disappear. The broken houses dim when the sun leaves, but there is a lingering warmth from them, and Lacey swears—or wants to believe—she sees movement from one of them.

“I think Grimfang’s lonely,” Roxy says.

“Then it’s a good thing we’re here for him,” says Lacey. “I’d hate to be alone, too.”

“That’s because we’re a pack. And a pack sticks together even after all the bad things happen.”

Lacey smiles, and she leans down to brush her nose against Roxy’s head.

“Yes, they do,” she says, and believes it.

That night, with the moon reflected in the lake and Sirius watching from a glimmering point in the sky, the three dogs sleep all together, snouts and tails and fur entwined. Gold light from the moon spills over the water. There is darkness in the depths, but there is still beauty in the wake.

There is still life in what comes after.

Em Harriett (she/they) is a queer author, illustrator, and photographer from New England. She is inspired by nature and enjoys writing speculative fiction when she isn’t knitting. Their work has appeared in All Worlds Wayfarer, Kaleidoscope: A Queer Anthology, and A Coup of Owls. You can find Em on Twitter or their website.