It was the perfect morning, cool and bright, with the kind of crispness to the air that only existed in pristine wild places like this—places where old growth trees decayed into the Earth and new ones spawned, filling the soft breeze with the hint of spruce.
“You okay back there?” Carly asked, shifting the pack on her back as she glanced behind her before quietly adding, “Almost there, Dr. Fowler.”
In the distance she could see the four stakes that still marked the building site for the planned nature center—a meadow of wildflowers leading to a rocky bluff with a scenic view of Wolf Lake. In her mind’s eye, Carly could still see the architectural designs where they still lay on his desk back in Anchorage, detailed renderings of an A-frame lodge with large glass windows and decking all around—a secluded paradise with a breathtaking view from every window. She looked through the trees to the clearing, walking faster now as she clutched the straps of her pack.
Two huge firs stood like sentinels at the end of the narrow path, their tops swaying in the breeze as if ushering her into the meadow.
“See, Doc?” she called back. “Your twins are waving at you.” She smiled as she always did when she saw the nearly identical trees. Carly slowed down as she reached the meadow, enjoying the sight of wildflowers whose names she’d learned at his knee—larkspur, columbine, and aster.
The wind was stronger than she’d expected by the time she made it to the bluff, but its direction was sweeping out over the water, which was just what she wanted. Carly swallowed the painful lump that was forming in her throat as she mounted the rocky outcrop and began the slow climb that marked the last part of this emotional journey. For a moment she stood taking it all in—the lake, the tops of the spruce trees that ringed it, the snow-capped mountains looming in the distance.
“We made it.” Carly shrugged off her pack and knelt beside it, her palm resting on the nylon surface. When she’d planned this moment, she’d imagined a reverent, silent ceremony. She’d not imagined how badly her hands would shake as she undid the zipper on the pack to reveal her precious cargo—the urn containing the ashes of the only father she’d ever known.
Now she sat down on the cool rock, cradling the urn as she rocked back and forth, willing the tears to come. But they didn’t, and she realized that part of her was still as numb as the day she’d gotten news of the plane crash that had taken his life.
She looked down at the urn, trying to wrap her mind around his death as she recalled their last conversation about new beginnings for the conservation center he’d hoped would finally be getting off the ground after a lengthy legal battle.
So many plans. So many unrealized dreams.
The memorial service was still a fog thanks to the sedatives Dr. Eden had provided her. She could recall the parade of sympathetic faces, the awkward hugs coupled by the kinds of well-meaning words that just made it worse. He had a good life. At least he has you to carry on his legacy. And then there was her least favorite: He’s in a better place. No, she’d thought. He wasn’t in a better place; to Miles Fowler, this spot was the finest place on Earth, and it seemed cruel that his life had ended just when his dreams were so close to being realized.
Carly wiped the cuff of her North Face jacket across her nose and blinked away the haze of tears, wishing the dam holding her full grief at bay would break. She was sure it would, one day. But she didn’t feel she had the luxury of giving in to her grief. Every time she came close, she reminded herself that it was all down to her now to continue the work stalled by the betrayal of the man Miles Fowler had once trusted.
Carly turned her face to the wind. It was still blowing out, away from the point, and she realized she couldn’t wait any longer.
“It’s time,” she said.
Her legs felt like rubber as she stood. This was it. This was goodbye. She had to strain to open the lid on the urn. She didn’t want to look inside. Ashes to ashes, the chaplain had said, and it was hard for Carly to get her mind around the fact that the man who’d raised her was now reduced to four pounds of dust. She walked to the edge of the jutting rock, lifted the urn with the mouth facing outward, and shook.
It was almost as if the wind was waiting to receive him. With each shake of the urn, an updraft caught the ashes, sending them up in swirling clouds. It was almost beautiful the way the breeze carried him in a cloud out over the bluff to fall, swirling into the water below.
“Goodbye, Doc.” Fresh tears coursed down her face, and her heart was as heavy as the urn was light. And for the first time in her life, Carly was completely alone. She’d been nearly twelve when Miles Fowler had adopted her from a foster home in the remote town of Adak. He’d homeschooled her as they’d traveled from place to place for his research work—Siberia, Nova Scotia, the Himalayas. His field of study was apex predators, and most of his work had been primarily focused on an Alaskan wolf pack. Miles Fowler had become so committed to the Sourwood pack that he’d purchased the land Carly stood on, with plans to erect a research center and educational retreat.
She turned at the sound of something in one of the sentinel trees. A group of Steller’s jays were rustling the upper branches, their frantic buzz saw calls directed at something below. Carly peered into the undergrowth as she leaned down to place the urn back in the backpack. She could see nothing, and knew if Dr. Fowler were alive he’d chide her for hiking out to the site without company. But Carly had always been an introvert, and this was not a moment she’d wanted to share.
When she could no longer see any trace of her mentor on the wind, she stood and pulled the pack onto her back, adjusting the straps. More birds had joined the raucous gathering in the treetops, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as she walked toward the tree line. When she was almost there, she stopped to observe for several long minutes. Birds generally didn’t raise such a fuss unless a predator was nearby. The five hundred acres of remote wilderness that had been the object of Dr. Fowler’s passion and final fight was rich in wildlife, including wolves he’d fought to protect.
But Carly knew that wild predators were generally shy, and would only go after humans under the most extreme circumstances. That wasn’t the case this time of year, when deer and salmon were abundant. Still, the birds were screeching now and she reached back for the bear spray, just in case.
Then she saw them—two red foxes dashing into the clearing, the white tips of their tails bobbing behind them. The sun glinted off their thick coats, and for the first time that day, Carly smiled. She’d always loved foxes.
“Hey, guys,” she called up to the birds, breathing a sigh of relief. “It’s just a couple of foxes. No need for the drama.”
Shaking her head, she clipped the bear spray back onto the side of the pack, then turned and waved toward the bluff, imagining for a moment that Doc was standing there, waving back.
The jays were still flitting about in the upper branches as she passed beneath the twin firs, and she waved at them, too. It was a long hike back, but Carly decided she’d take it slow, maybe even pick some ferns to press to commemorate the occasion. She imagined pressing the soft fronds in between the pages of Doc’s nature journal.
Ferns and journals.
Those were her last coherent thoughts before Carly’s life would change forever.
The sensation was like being hit by a truck. One second, something exploded from a thicket to her left and the next second her body left the trail to slam with a thud against a fallen log. Her ears were ringing as she pulled herself to sitting, dazed and disoriented. When she looked up, it was just in time to see the bear raising its massive paw for another blow.
Carly instinctively rolled into a ball, her back facing the animal, and felt its claws rake across her upper arm before lodging in her backpack. The animal roared and pulled back, dragging her with it and slamming her into the side of a tree before whipping her back in the opposite direction. Carly heard a scream and realized it was her own voice, and a primal roar that filled her with the kind of fear she’d never imagined feeling.
The side of her face scraped across the ground as the bear pulled her back, but her hands had found the clasp of the pack where it fastened across her chest, and she unsnapped it, and this time when the bear pulled back she was able to wrench her arms free of the straps. A wave of dizziness hit her as she lurched to her feet, but she fought it off as she began to run, ignoring the pain in her arm and the wetness she knew could only be blood.
She tried to remember all that Dr. Fowler had taught her she should do if attacked. Play dead, he’d told her. But her rational mind had switched off and she could only flee. But the bear had dislodged the backpack and was coming after her. She knew because she could hear the sound of its heavy body crashing through the undergrowth, snapping sticks and saplings as it pursued her, the agitated chuffing breaths as it gained ground.
A tree root caught the toe of her hiking boot and she fell.
I’m going to die today.
She rolled onto her back, deciding that if it was to end this way, she’d face death. But the bear had slowed its charge and was advancing on her in an almost deliberate fashion. Carly opened her mouth to scream as it straddled her, but nothing came out. She could feel the heat of the beast’s fetid breath hit her face. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The bear was staring at her, its eyes hard and mean. And Carly stared back, waiting for the crushing sensation of its jaws closing on her face.
Instead, she heard a roar, as the bear whipped around and off her. Suddenly, its massive haunches were facing her now as it charged at something in front of it. Carly sat up, pushing backwards across the ground until her back came up against a huge boulder.
She could see the wolves now, two of them, facing down the bear, circling it in a stiff-legged gait, their hackles raised, their lips curled away from sharp, curved teeth. Two more wolves emerged from the dark of the woods to join them, and then two more.
The bear had moved forward to paw the earth, but the wolves stood their ground. One moved away from the others to approach the bear with a menacing growl that showed its teeth. The alpha. The head wolf was huge and solid black and the bear seemed especially agitated by its encroachment. It swiped at the pack leader with a huge paw, missing the lupine face by mere inches. Another wolf took advantage of that moment of distraction to snap at the bear’s lower leg. As it whirled around, the huge black wolf leapt onto the bear’s massive shoulder hump, digging in with its teeth. The bear raised itself onto its hind legs, roaring so loudly that a flock of crows in the trees above lifted and flew away. The black wolf lost its grip and slipped off, and now all the wolves were between her and the bear, which tried to charge through the protective line.
And now Carly did scream, for the look of rage in the animal’s brown eyes was like nothing she’d ever thought to see.
It wants to kill me.
She tried to push herself to standing, but the pain in her arm blinded her and a wave of darkness pushed her briefly into oblivion. When she next opened her eyes, the bear was fleeing, with all the wolves in pursuit except the huge black one that had led the attack. And Carly felt a renewed fear as it began to pad toward her.
“Back… back…” Her warning to the encroaching wolf was weak as she tried once more to stand, and a wave of agonizing pain hit her at the same moment she felt wetness coat her hand. She looked down to see the blood coating the arm of her shredded jacket sleeve.
“Fuck,” she said, and fell backwards again as a wave of pain merged with momentary darkness. When she opened her eyes, she saw a man—a tall man with long hair and broad shoulders. As he crouched beside her, Carly used the last of her consciousness to warn him.
“Wolves,” she said. “Watch out for the wolves. There are wolves all around…”
Strong arms went under her, lifting her from the ground.
“I know,” he said.
Everything went black.