He heard a small cry behind him.
“Gia,” he heard.
When he turned to look, Danny was holding out his arms. Julian heard himself groan, and his son ran toward him.
Marty descended the first two steps, then crouched and tried to make out the figures silhouetted in the firelight. There was a thickness to the air, a slight murkiness which suggested that the stove wasn’t drawing properly. They’d have to see about better ventilation. No wonder he was lightheaded.
The taller shape could easily be either Thom or Julian, but the smaller? They were standing too close together for him to distinguish them properly, and he could only catch the murmur of their voices, the vague sense of pleading or cajoling. He swallowed a few times, his ears full, and he prodded each in turn with a fingertip without any relief from the feeling of pressure or the tinnitus. His ears used to punish him for quite a while after a heavy metal concert. Come to think of it, he’d often been dizzy then, too.
He eased himself down another step, his knife in his right hand. Could the scream have come from outside? Briefly, he closed his eyes, but that only made the vertigo worse. He was in good shape — he was in great shape — so his heart shouldn’t be doing this to him, and he was beginning to sweat.
Marty, you’re at it again. The tingling of his skin, and the way his pulse was racing, his scrotum tightening — he knew what was happening. It was the smell of whiskey, a smell he’d recognize no matter how faint, and there was no way that Julian or Thom would pack any. With some people it was spiders, with others snakes, with still others heights or crowds. Breathe deeply, his phobia coach had told him. Override the physical reactions to the trigger. It’s only a learned response; it can be unlearned. They’d practiced first with photos, then with an unopened bottle. A naked glass across the room had been tougher, but the therapist had talked him through it. “Marty,” she’d said, “a few more sessions and you’ll be ready to taste a sip,” and at the last party he’d been fine till that fat clown had approached him. He’d already scheduled an appointment with a hypnotherapist.
A high-pitched cry penetrated the buzzing in his ears. His heart squeezed in his chest, his grip tightened on the knife. The cry came again, so much like a young boy’s (his own voice had broken early, though not early enough) that time was wound back and the smell was upon him, choking him, taking him, and gagging, he dropped into a half-crouch and raised his arm and saw — he saw, and screamed, and threw the knife.
Julian died while Thom tried to quell the bleeding.
“It was him,” Marty said again and again. “It was him.”
For once, Thom took charge. Eventually they carried the body outdoors into the storm, despite the risk of Julian serving as carrion. No scavengers came, however. Marty explained to the police and, later, to the media that it was because a snow leopard had kept watch. The local police believed him; the media loved it. After the brief trial, Thom and Marty never saw each other again, though Marty wrote upon receiving an anonymous notice, envelope crudely addressed and postmark illegible, of Tristan’s funeral. Only after Thom’s death nearly twenty years later did Lizzie find the record of his annual, and surprisingly substantial, donations to the Snow Leopard Trust. When contacted, the Trust gratefully acknowledged that at least half a dozen cubs had been reared and released into the wild due to her father’s generosity. They expressed their condolences; they would send a plaque and add a commemorative page to their website.