I never told my parents about what had happened, and I never went to the house again.
We had moved away shortly after the attack, up to town, and Olivia had rejoined us. I heard our parents talking quietly at night about me, about my withdrawal, my silence. They spoke in undertones when they thought I wasn't around, about what might be wrong with me, but they never even came close to the truth. My problem drew my mother and father closer together, which provided the only blessing of my teenage years.
I moved towards the fire and felt the clothes. They had dried, so I pulled them on. It was early afternoon, and I needed to get the gun and reach the next hut in the pass before dark. My hope and only chance was that Craig would call a stop for the night at that hut.
I fashioned the blanket into a poncho, and then wrapped it in place about my waist with several meters of rope I found in a cupboard before stepping out into the biting wind. The rain had stopped, but I felt its presence in the air. It would return before the day was done.
Sucking in a deep breath to draw on my diminishing self-confidence, I set off for the far shore of the lake. Along the way, I broke off a branch of a tree and fashioned it into a club. Unarmed and vulnerable was not my favorite position.
As I neared the spot, I stayed close to the lake, ready to leap for the refuge of its waves. Beyond the field, the reticent forest enclosed the secrets of the wild in its darkness. Had the wolves retreated to its protection? Were they hovering inside its depths, waiting for my return?
Despite the numbing cold, I remained alert, adrenaline spiking in my system every time a shadow moved. But no monster appeared. I was alone on the mountainside, alone as I had felt most of my life, or at least as I had chosen to be. My secret always kept me just ahead of anyone who might care. I had spent many years dodging and repelling my own feelings. But that was changing. Craig had caught up to me, and I had let him. Something was shifting in my psyche.
I reached the gun at the same time I saw Branko's remains. The reduction of a living, breathing human being to that lifeless mangle of torn flesh was beyond comprehension. The image would stay with me forever, I knew that. There was no dignity in his death, no redeeming factor that made it worthwhile. The wolves wouldn't starve for the moment, but it had cost them the lives of three of their number. The savagery of nature had a balance and power of its own, but when it ended in human tragedy, the beauty was lost.
Branko's eyes, unseeing, gazed up to the heaven I hoped he had gone to. What freakin' heaven, for God's sake? Who was I fooling? Out of the black sky, a wave of hopelessness thundered over me. For an instant a cavity opened and closed, but I had seen inside, and that image of empty loneliness scratched at my sanity.
I fell forward onto my knees by his side and touched an unblemished cheek. It was cold. This was the face Ana loved. I felt her sorrow, and tears threatened. I brushed his hair into place and rubbed at the dirt on that cheek. I had seen more death than most people see in a century of life, but this was Branko. He had a name. I had talked to him. I had liked him.
I heaved my pack onto my back, snatched up the rifle, checked the magazine and put the safety on. There was nothing I could do for Branko, but I could help save his family--if I could get to them before they reached the pass.
I turned around and faced the mountains. That was where I was going. Up there into the snow.