Ksenia abruptly came to in her chair by the cold window, a bone-chilling confusion of nightmare and intuited fear clanging some primeval alarm in her chest.
It was a half an hour later than she usually made her way down the icy incline behind their forest safe house and to the lean-to where her brother kept a lookout, mostly for things to eat but also for things that wanted to eat them. Every moment of their days was lived on high alert at a scheduled post of indispensable duty, and their schedule had to be strictly adhered to. It was how they protected each other while remaining completely vigilant of their perimeter. An occasional oversight was OK, but Zachariah would have come up to the house to check by now. He always had. She hastily improvised the vatrogasna oprema he would have expected by now, but she could not shake the chills climbing up her leg and spine.
Out in the cold, now, anxious, breathing heavily, she sharpened her focus onto the glass in her hand — an electrifying concoction of vodka-diluted ice chunks, habanero spirit and the vinegar of a jalapeño shrub they used to grow in their once-lush garden before the rebellion, before the famine.
Nearly at the ghostly lean-to, she stumbled and collapsed, spilling the firewater in front of the shelter and gasping at the sound of a dull crack in the glass, now the shape of two fused-together daggers laying hidden beneath the snow. Feeling around her feet, she lifted the steely nose of Zachariah’s rifle out of the white beneath her. Turning, staring expectantly at the canvas flapping in the wind, she briskly but carefully went on her hands and knees across the gun, past the speckled orange snow and into the lean-to, where she stumbled and collapsed once more. Forcing her obstruction back into some more convenient location, her vigorous shunts turned into a captivating examination. She gently ran the flat of her hands over her brother’s frozen corpse like she was molding it into shape. Outside, snow began falling.
Ice crystals forming on the spill looked like a frozen concentrate. Inside, Ksenia lay heavy over what used to whisper, “Don’t worry.”
Moments passed. Numbed into sleep, that familiar whisper called to her, and she felt not alone. And in the same whisper she jerked her head up in horror. The grunts and tongue licks of a wolf right outside the lean-to seized Ksenia’s breath. The peppery spirits of frozen spill, of their garden, inflamed its mouth. Inside, she closed her eyes, in her mind a step by step picture of the landscape and trial that lay before her, outside: Zachariah’s gun behind the now hot, intoxicated canine, the fused blades that were her glass somewhere in the snow just outside the lean-to between them. A confused sense of dread and reverence boiled her blood.