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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis

BOOK: Borealis
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1

Twelve years ago, a man named Bodine checked into a Las Vegas motel under the name Thomas Hudson with a young girl who was of no relation to him. She was a pretty little thing, perhaps eight or nine years of age, dressed plainly in a simple cotton dress embroidered with tiny red strawberries around the waist. To glance casually upon the pair, one would assume they were father and daughter. But on closer inspection, anyone with a knack for detail would see that the man was no one's father. Tall, gaunt, haunted—looking at him was like staring infinity in the face. With his black, hopeless eyes recessed into deep pockets and an air of chronic fatigue surrounding him like a cloud of Midwestern dust, this man was no one's father.

“What's wrong?” the girl said. “Why did we stop?”

Bodine's grip tightened on the Bronco's steering wheel. The sodium lights from the motel fell against the Bronco's windshield. A light rain had begun to fall.

“We're getting a room here,” he said, his voice low. “We're staying here for the night.”

The girl leaned toward the dashboard to peer out the windshield. She wasn't wearing her seat belt. “Looks dirty,” she said, sizing up the motel.

It was one of a million nameless joints he'd passed on the drive from the mountains of Colorado and across the equally anonymous desert highways. There was nothing distinguishable about it. After a while, on the road, everything started to look the same.

“We call this comfortable digs,” he said.

“What's that mean?”

“Means we stay here tonight.” He shut the car down and popped open the door. Paused. “You wait here,” he said, an afterthought.

“Can I play the radio?”

He didn't think there was any harm leaving the keys in the ignition. Unless she'd been lying, judging by her simple questions about what the pedals on the floor were for and why he had to turn a key in order to start the “growling”, as she called it, he didn't think she knew how to start the vehicle let alone drive away in it. Bodine turned the switch over until the door chimes sounded. The girl, whose name Bodine did not know, smiled and switched on the radio. One tiny white hand ran through the dials until she located an oldies station while Bodine watched.

“How come you need to turn the key to play the radio?” she asked now.

“Because it runs off the car's battery. I need to turn it on to use the battery.”

“Cars have batteries?” She sounded almost incredulous.

“Yes.”

“Is that how they drive?”

“They drive on gasoline.”

“Like from the last time we stopped,” she said. “How you put it into the gas tank, like you said.”

“Yes.” He suddenly felt like an imbecile. What the hell was he doing talking to her like this, anyway?

“Are you going to shoot somebody?” the girl asked before he could step out of the Bronco. The statement caused him to freeze, caused the fingers of his left hand to tighten on the doorhandle.

“Why would you say something like that?”

“Because you have a gun in your pants.”

His throat was lined with sandpaper. “How do you know that?”

The girl didn't answer.

“How do you know that?” he repeated, one foot out on the blacktop, his fingers still strangling the doorhandle.

The girl just smiled and stared straight ahead out the windshield. She swung her legs to the rhythm of the music, her face radiating a sickly glow beneath the wash of sodium lights. “I like this song,” she said after a bit.

The motel lobby was rundown, filthy, and haunted by cigarette smoke. A flickering black-and-white television was mounted to the wall on brackets behind the night counter.

“One room,” Bodine said at the counter. “One night.”

“Just you?” said the grizzled cowboy behind the counter. No stranger to midnight characters of peculiar design, the cowboy did not give Bodine a second glance. And that was just fine by Bodine.

“Just me,” Bodine said.

“Name?”

“Thomas Hudson,” said Bodine.

“Credit card?”

“Cash,” he told the cowboy, who did not raise an eyebrow.

The room was tomblike. Peeling alabaster walls and an oatmeal-colored carpet, the single bed, wide as a coffin, was dressed in a fleur-de-lis spread, heavily starched. The bathroom reeked of mildew, and the shower curtain was curled at one end of the shower into a filthy plastic sleeve. In the tub, a bristling brown spider did pushups by the drain.

“It smells bad in here,” said the girl, wrinkling her nose. “Gross.” She stood clutching the empty cardboard cylinder that had moments ago contained a milkshake.

“Go turn down the bed,” he told her, carrying his nylon duffel bag into the bathroom. He set it beside the sink and unzipped it. Inside: fresh sneakers and a change of clothes. Brand spanking new. The sneakers were too bright and the clothes still had the tags hanging from them.

The girl did not move. She watched him through the open bathroom doorway. When he turned and saw her staring at him, he nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Thought I told you to go turn down the bed,” he said, his voice quiet and level. Nearly monotone.

The girl shrugged and stepped away. A moment later, he heard the mattress springs creak.

A skeleton stared back at him from the mirror.
Jesus Christ, is that me? Is that really me?
He grimaced, inspecting the way his purplish gums had begun to recede from his teeth, the teeth themselves discolored and patchy with calcium deposits.

Bodine peered out into the room. The girl had turned down one corner of the bed and was now sitting on the edge, staring directly at him. She'd set her empty cup down on the nightstand.

“Did you want another milkshake?” he asked. His voice shook.
Stop it,
he thought.
Stop it, stop it, stop it.

“Why did you tell the man at the counter your name was Thomas Hudson?”

Sweat stung his eyes. “There's a soda machine down the hall. Do you want a Coke?”

“Your name's not Thomas Hudson,” she said, swinging her legs.

“I don't like playing these games.”

“What games?”

“These games where you ask all these questions and expect me to answer.”

The girl shrugged her small shoulders. “Your name's Frank Bodine,” she said.

Bodine swallowed a hard lump of spit. Seconds ticked by. His own heartbeat was like a drum in his ears. “How do you know my name?” he said finally. He'd never told her.

Again, the girl shrugged.

“Yes,” he said after a moment, blinking the sweat from his eyes. “Yes, my name's Bodine. Frank Bodine.” Sour, shaky exhalation. “You think you're ready to tell me your name yet?”

The girl shook her head. Grinned.

“Why not?”

“I told you,” she said simply. “I don't have a name.”

“Yes you do. Everyone's got a name.”

“Nope. Not me.”

“Sure you do. You just don't want to tell it.”

“You're silly,” said the girl.

“What about your parents? Didn't they give you a name?”

“I don't have any parents.”

“You don't have a mom or a dad?”

“No.”

“Everyone does.”

“No, silly.” She giggled.

Withdrawing back into the bathroom, Bodine toed the bathroom door shut. He lifted his pullover up, which stank of perspiration. The butt of the 9mm protruded from his waistband.

Can you do this?
a voice spoke up toward the back of his head. It was the same voice that had followed him all the way from Durango.
Are you really sure you can do this?

He plucked the 9mm from his waistband, set it down beside the duffel bag, and turned the water on in the sink. Just the hot water. He waited as the entire bathroom steamed up before shutting the water off. With one hand he carved an arc through the condensation on the mirror before him. Dead eyes stared back.

Can you do this?

Bodine removed his pullover and tossed it on the floor. Took a deep breath. A chill accosted him, pimpling his flesh with goose bumps. Grabbing the handgun, he eased open the bathroom door and stepped out into the room.

The girl hadn't moved. She grinned at him as he took a single step toward the bed. His nostrils flared with each inhalation of breath. He stood unmoving, no more than ten feet from her, peripherally aware that the digital clock on the nightstand counted through several minutes while he simply stood there.

“You're skinny,” she said after a while. “Your chest has red marks on it.” She said, “I can see your ribs.” As if this was funny, she giggled. “Your bellybutton looks funny.” Legs still swinging.

“Tell me who you are,” he breathed. Leveled the gun at her. His hand shook. His whole fucking arm shook. “Tell me.”

“Your hair,” she said, wrinkling up her nose as if she suddenly smelled something awful—the room itself, perhaps. “It's too long. Like a girl's.”

He lowered his arm. The 9mm suddenly weighed fifty pounds. Without a word, he turned and retreated back into the bathroom. He felt cold, clammy, made of vulcanized rubber. The soles of his work boots creaked with each step.

In the bathroom, he set the gun down in the sink basin, which was still streaked with water. Staring up at his reflection, he thought the girl was right—that somewhere along the way, his hair
had
gotten too long. Like a girl's.

Wearily, Bodine grinned at himself. Skeleton-faced, too-big teeth protruding from retreating purple gums…

Can you—

Grinned.

Next morning, a Puerto Rican housekeeper would discover Bodine's body in the bathtub, a dried spray of blood on the tiled shower stall behind his head. Bodine's hand, still limply holding the 9mm, was nestled into the thatch of black pubic hair between his legs.

The woman's screams would bring the grizzled cowboy who would in turn alert the local sheriff. Suicide, the sheriff would say, and the grizzled cowboy would nod while he chewed on an unlit cigar stub no longer than a grown man's thumb and greenish in color, and would recall nothing special about the man from the night before. There were all breeds of stranger who passed through his place, after all—all species of outlaw and lummox and daft buffoon—and who could remember one from the other?

“Name's Hudson,” the cowboy would tell the sheriff, handing over the log from last night where the man had signed in. The sheriff, a grizzled old cowboy in his own right, took the log without so much as a grunt while fishing out a pack of menthols from his nylon coat with the faux fur at the collar.

There was no sign of the little girl. But, of course, no one had seen her come in with the man and therefore never knew to look for her.

Anyway, that was twelve years ago, and in a whole other part of the country.

2

After seven days of futility—

“So fucking cold my goddamn lighter's giving up the ghost,” Charlie Mears said, chasing the tip of his cigarette with a tarnished Zippo. His cold, gray eyes leveled out over the vast nothingness of charcoal waters and icy strata from over the bow of the trawler. The air was cold and sharp, only vaguely scented by the trawler's diesel exhaust. Each inhalation burned his nostrils.

Beside him, hugging himself in his bright orange slicker with the hood up, “Dynamo” Joe Darling offered nothing but a grunt.

“What's your vibe on
el capitán
?” Charlie said, exhaling smoke out over the bow. The trawler was at a crawl now yet the wind still stung his chapped face.

“Think he's got a good eye for snailfish, is what I think,” muttered Joe. Charlie could tell he was shivering in his orange slicker without looking at his face.

“The rest of the guys are getting restless too,” Charlie said, though it didn't need to be said. He was a big, broad-shouldered guy, square-jawed with a salt-and-pepper beard tinged with copper strands. Creases splayed from the corners of his black eyes: years spent wincing through the glare of the sun off the water. “Look at that,” he added, nodding toward the bleed-over pastels beyond the horizon as the sun dipped into the Bering Sea. “Something, eh?”

“I got bills to pay,” Joe went on, unimpressed. “I got two mortgages, Charlie.”

The crew hadn't seen a single blue since disembarking from Saint Paul Island one week ago. The captain was Mike Fenty, fairly new to the red circuit, though he'd carved out a name for himself going after walleye and sablefish. Crabs, however, were a different story. While he wouldn't say so to anyone on board, it was Charlie's distinct impression that
el capitán
was in over his head.

“You think you'd get used to seeing the sun go down out here,” Charlie said. “But I never do. It's fine in the daytime, but at night, it's like God and the rest of the world forgets about you. Left behind, like some kid in a grocery store.”

“Got three kids at home, Charlie, countin' on me.” There was no shaking Dynamo Joe. Anyway, he was right.

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