Raised in isolation by her mother and Maeve on a small island off the coast of a post-apocalyptic Ireland, Orpen’s life has revolved around training to fight a threat she’s never seen. More and more she feels the call of the mainland, and the prospect of finding other survivors.
But that is where danger lies, too, in the form of the flesh-eating menace known as the skrake.
Then disaster strikes. Alone, pushing an unconscious Maeve in a wheelbarrow, Orpen decides her last hope is abandoning the safety of the island and journeying across the country to reach the legendary banshees, the rumored all-female fighting force that battles the skrake.
But the skrake are not the only threat…
Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive is available from Flatiron Books—read an excerpt below!
My toenail has blackened, and I have to pull to get it off. You’d feel it, so you would; it’s painful enough. I douse my foot in water, and I leave the nail by the side of the road, and on we go.
This road, this hungry road, eating us up.
We’ve been walking already for a long time, the three of us together.
Where are the trees and stone walls? Where the abandoned cottages and burned-out bridge, where the waterfall and the hidden skiff? Where the signposts to lead us back home? I mark them, scraping old metal with jagged rocks, an X that’d mean something only to Maeve and me, one line a little longer than the other for direction. I go over it, making sure I’ll remember, while the muscles along my neck and in the small of my back swell and creak with pain. I keep watching all around me.
The blisters I got on my hands from rowing to and from the island fill with fluid, burst, fill again.
When we rest, I take leaves of mint from the herb pouch. Mam’s herb pouch. My eyes are tired from the glare of the sun. My feet are sore from the too-hot road.
Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.
We are moving.
Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small— “scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.
We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.
I do, I tell him. But I can’t.
Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.
I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one spot at the top of my forehead.
We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.
We pause to drink. I shadowbox to show that maybe we’re on the road now, but I can keep to my training. I nearly feel that I still have some control over what’s happening to us, with my fists in the air. I stare at my map, guessing how far we’ve come from the beach, from home. My eyes and ears are strained long past comfort, waiting to catch the first sign of a skrake bearing down on us.
We get going and we keep going.
I keep an eye on her.
Our road joins a bigger road, and that joins a bigger road again, a straight road, and we see more houses, and the villages begin to clump together. The road curves upward and the land thickens into hills. The trees are getting bolder and greener, the landscape transforming every few clicks into shapes and colors I’ve never seen before. I leave Maeve in the barrow to walk off the road, my back giving out as I straighten, and pull some sticky pine needles to make the tea. It’s cooler in the woods, the air smells more the way it does on Slanbeg. Cleaner. I rub the needles in my hands and breathe in deep, letting my eyes stay closed a moment.
Vitamin C, Maeve says in my ear, so clearly that I start, take in a sharp breath. I go quickly back to the road.
Her body is prone in the barrow, her lips closed in a disapproving line.
Every now and then, there’ll be a tree growing right up in the middle of the road, and I have to unpack the barrow and carry everything round. Food, blankets, the chickens squawking. I try not to breathe when I lift Maeve. I try not to feel her bones.
Progress is slow, slower even than I thought it would be. Danger lies down to watch me and pant in the shade of a stone wall standing all on its own. He waits till I’ve slogged past him, and then he gets up and shakes himself and lollops along again.
It’s viciously hot till the sun starts to sink, then suddenly it’s cold. The clouds come down on us, obstinate and dour.
When the storm comes, it lights up the darkening sky with violent intensity. I stop and lift my head to watch, my hands in the small of my back to stretch it out. It feels dangerous, pausing, but I linger and even let my stinging eyes close, and when it starts raining, I take the hand-wraps off and hold my palms up and offer them to the deluge.
We’re moving east, striking out opposite to home, but sometimes the road takes us north or south or even west again for a while. I don’t know if we’re going along the path we should.
I look to Maeve and ask her again which way. She has nothing to say to me.
I think about food; I think about Mam’s old way of saying it: The hunger is on me. That’s it. I’ve lost condition, and the dog was skinny enough starting out. The chickens are subdued in their makeshift crate. Around me the sky crackles and combusts.
I do nothing but walk, and we get nowhere. Sometimes we pass road signs that are still legible: Doolin, Lisdoonvarna. I tick them off the tattered map. I’m not watching out around me enough, I know that without Maeve telling me, and so every fifty steps, I take one careful look in all four directions. It’s good to stretch out my neck, to take in the landscape, a balm for my eyes still. Then I’m back watching the top of her head, and I begin the count again.
I make lists as I push—of all the things I’m afraid of. Going back to the island. Never going back. Skrake. People, especially men.
While we walk, and then when I can walk no more, I try to get my brain to linger over home. In case I haven’t another chance at it, I try to think of Mam. Her smell, like warm herbs. She used to sing. I hum to myself, trying to remember a tune. The noise that comes out of me sounds nothing like her songs, and I should be keeping quiet. I don’t want to be adding to the noise my feet are making on the road, the roll of the barrow’s wheel, the racket of me pushing and pulling through trees and over debris. Skrake are attracted to noise. Noise and fire and movement. Their vision is good and their smell is exceptional, and they’re afraid of nothing. And they’ve a taste for us, so they do.
I wonder instead what Mam’d be at now, if she were me. She wouldn’t have stayed on the island either. Mam would be proud of me.
Wouldn’t she, Maeve?
My throat is dry, and all I want is to stop and drink and then collapse and lie still for a long time, days and nights. We press on. Danger lags so far behind, his lithe black-and-white coat a dark smudge against the horizon. I wonder if he’ll bother to catch up at all.
It is the first day of our walk.
I had a childhood and it was happy, and the fact that my mother and Maeve were able to do that for me while the country was ate around us says probably everything anyone needs to know about them.
The sun rises on Slanbeg and us with it. I hear the soft noises of the hens, the rooster making a racket no matter what the hour. Stretching in the bed while Mam cooks eggs downstairs. The smells and the sounds and the feeling of warmth even in the winter while the panes of glass had frost the whole way across and the ice storms went on for days.
Farming in the heat. We wear hats with brims against the sun. Mine is too big and keeps falling down over my ears. The lazy sound of a bumblebee and over that, singing. The sun warm on my shoulders, the smell of wholesome things growing, of grass and peas and ripening tomatoes. Maeve passes me with her bucket full of weeds and puts her rough hand on the back of my neck for a moment, and I feel like my chest could heave full open, spilling red happiness on the hot, thirsty earth.
One happy memory is a million when you’re growing up, one summer afternoon a decade of them. How many days spent by the sea, making dams and collecting shells and seaweed. Lying on a rug in the warmth with an arm thrown over my eyes against the sun, smelling the salt on my skin and digging my toes into the sand. Straying over to watch the creatures in rock pools, only to look up with a question and see Mam and Maeve talking quietly together, stopping to kiss, fingers touching.
Or later, watching them spar, showing me the holds and pressure points and the right curve in a hit. Sitting in the wild grass watching, the chickens bawking and eyeing me to see if I’ll find a slug for them.
The water nearly warm in the big plastic basin she put before the fire. Winter again, the rain raging against the windows, and I nearly feel sorry for it being so cold and lonely and wanting to get in. There’s a towel warming for me on a rack before the hearth, and I know when I get out of the dirty water in a minute, Mam will wrap it around me, from ears to feet. She’ll tell me I’ll be as snug as a bug.
Making up stories for me once I’m in my nightclothes and we’ve finished stretches. Maeve says not to be filling that child’s head with rubbish, the half laugh that used be in her, the light the both of them gave out.
The point being, in any case, that I had a home and I was loved and that was really fucking obvious even if everything else was a mystery.
Excerpted from Last Ones Left Alive, copyright © 2019 by Sarah Davis-Goff.