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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (10 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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Fuck it,
he thought.
I'll drag this whole fucking boat—and everyone on it—straight to hell.

Hoisting the ice axe back over his shoulder, he expelled an exhausted grunt and swung the tool straight into the hub of the line spout. It was a solid strike, ringing through the heart of the
Borealis.
There came a teakettle hissing followed by a burning stream of hot fuel sprayed into the dark, scorching his flesh. Burned, he foolishly dropped the ice axe where it plunked through the frozen sludge. He dropped to his knees without thinking, though he immediately regretted his actions as his testicles retreated into the cavity of his abdomen and his muscles seemed to stiffen to broom handles.

Cold fingers clutched the nape of his neck. Charlie cried out and launched himself forward, sprinting in the sightlessness for the rung ladder. He heard the thing—

(the girl)

—slam through the water in quick pursuit. Hand over fist, he scrambled up the ladder, heavy boots tolling on the iron rungs, shrieking like someone in furious pain until he broke through the hatch and crawled across the floor toward the galley. But the corridor was midnight black, cramped like a coffin; there was no place to go.

Sour breath sawing from his lips, his chest hitching, Charlie Mears pulled himself into a ball and waited. Despite his blindness, he nonetheless trained his eyes in the direction of where he knew the engine room hatch to be.

Listening…listening…listening…

But she never appeared. There were no more sounds from below, save for the occasional thumping of ice against the bottom of the
Borealis.
He would have thought such a feat impossible, but in his exhaustion and before he knew it was happening, Charlie Mears fell asleep.

11

And awoke with a scream caught in his throat.

Couldn't feel his fingertips; couldn't feel his toes. Could he move them? He couldn't tell. How long had he slept? There was no way to tell. Was he dead? He didn't know.

But if he was dead, this was Hell.

He found matches in the galley. Igniting the corner of one of McEwan's paperback Westerns, he carried it like a torch while traversing the inner deck of the
Borealis
. The corridor closed in around him, the darkness diluted to a chalky grayness. The walls were overgrown with frost, the corridor a frozen white throat, which, upon bringing the makeshift torch too close, would weep runnels of melting ice like tears onto steel-colored frozen pools on the floor.

Dynamo Joe Darling was now a mummified, dehydrated husk webbed in a gelatinous black tar on the floor of the head.

Charlie walked through the cabins, smelling the disuse and, beneath that, the stronger vein of putrefaction. Had he anything in his stomach, he would have vomited.

He noticed that the ship was no longer rocking. In fact, it seemed unusually calm.

Lastly, he poked back inside Mike Fenty's old stateroom, still vacant. However, there was a moist, almost breath-smelling condensation to the air in the room. The flames danced off the paperback, already having consumed half the book while managing to fill the overhead with black columns of smoke, and Charlie had to creep farther into the room to make sure he was actually seeing what he thought he was.

The place on the cot where the girl had sat was
darker
than the rest of the fabric. It was a stellated, tentacled shape, like a cannonball-sized asterisk, that Charlie at first thought was due to water dripping down onto the cot's fabric from somewhere up above. Dampened, darkened fabric. But when he touched the spot, his fingers came away dry as bone.

Taking a step back, he noticed two similar spots moldering on the floor—where, naturally, the girl's feet would have been while she sat on the edge of Mike's cot. It was a darkening of the wood, each one practically foot shaped. As if her flesh, not belonging to this world, was rotting whatever it touched, soiling it, marking it the way a wolf might mark its den.

He crept up to the foredeck and pushed open the double hatch. Shafts of hoary light stung his eyes, though he couldn't tell what time of the day it was. Or
what
day it was.

Topside, he crossed over to the bow and looked out upon a vast ice field, its size indeterminable, upon which, at some point during his unconsciousness, the
Borealis
had run aground. The hull was destroyed, stabbed by countless knives of ice, an explosion of boat pieces sprayed across the snow.

He turned and proceeded toward the pilothouse. Walking was less about moving his legs independently of each other but merely pivoting each foot and twisting at the hips, for this seemed the best way to conserve what warmth hadn't evacuated his body. At the control room door, he wiped away thick grime from the window and, cupping his hands at either side of his face, peered inside.

Mike was on the floor, his hand still clutching the hilt of the boning knife that he'd used to open his throat. His skin was gray as bird down, his eyes milky pustules overloaded in their sockets.

Shaking, shaking—

Breathing into his hands, he retreated down the steps and noticed something in the snow he hadn't seen when he'd first looked over the bow.

Footsteps.

She.

And
she—

12

Down in the galley he scooped handfuls of cereal off the countertop, which he ate without expression, then ate two slices of wheat bread, which were covered in frost. Afterward, he urinated in the galley's steal sink—a stream so pungent and yellow it was nearly solid. From his cabin, he retrieved the flare gun then, on second thought, packed the entire first-aid kit in his laundry bag. He pulled tight the laces on the bag and slung it over one shoulder.

There was a flashlight in Mike's room. It didn't work but, for some reason, Charlie was confident the farther he got from the trawler the greater the chance the flashlight might start to work. Again he thought of those blackened footprints on the floor of Mike's stateroom, the tentacled star on the seat of the cot. The girl, he knew, had poisoned the
Borealis,
and everything on it. Well, almost everything.

While he prepared his gear and changed into warm clothes, he thought of Gabriel. When he was born, on the day Johanna and he had taken him home from the hospital, the infant had been silent as a dormouse. This reddened, squinty-eyed little garden gnome with a tiny, upturned nose and square little pink fists. And the hair on his head! Dark as the pelt of a black bear. They'd been living in Oregon then, in a small cabin backed by redwood trees as formidable as minarets while the front yard opened up on a pebbly gray beach where the cold Pacific waters rushed up to lap against the seawall. He'd been piloting charters back then while sustaining a hunger to get his hands back into the gullets of cod instead of just coolers of Bud. It was what he hoped for that pink, squirming little baby too—a lifetime of
doing
as opposed to the
pursuit
of doing. Anyway, he'd get back to the sea, the real sea, in due time. There was the baby. Gabe. Gabriel. The way Johanna, slight in frame and just as beautiful as she'd ever been, nursing the baby in the half-gloom of midday coming in through the cabin's windows, framing her in some angelic penumbra while she rocked gently in the old rocking chair that had once been her—or his?—grandfather's…

Back abovedecks, the world was colorless. Snow snowed. The boat's prow had shriveled and turned black as rotting fruit. There came the steady
glug-glug
from the hull as the trawler slowly took on more and more water. With a pair of field glasses, Charlie surveyed the expansive strip of ice, miles long, practically its own continent. He could see the girl's footprints in the snow, soon to be covered over by the fresh fall.

Shouldering his gear, he climbed down the side of the trawler via an overhang of cable. The ice nails in the soles of his boots left pockmarks in the fiberglass hull. Touching down on the ice field, he found the frozen terra firma solid as pavement. Charlie hefted his gear and, without a second thought, pushed forward through the twirling snow. He followed the girl's footprints until the storm covered them up. Then he continued in their estimated direction, up over frozen buttes, across jagged crevasses and down the throat of winding, bluish canyons through which dense, crystalline fog called “pogonip” hung like spectral gauze. He walked until hunger cramped his stomach and the silver aurora of sun bled away behind the sea, leaving a velvety, star-encrusted firmament in its place.

In the dark and miles from the
Borealis,
the flashlight came on.

Trudging through the snow, his head down and his stiff-bristled beard glistening with ice crystals, he pursued the ghostly mirage. When he caught a glimpse of her in the pale cast of moonlight, white against a whiter background, he had to question what he was seeing—was it real or only in his mind, a trick of his eyes? Had she
ever
existed? Had any of them?

Holes everywhere,
Bryan's voice came back to him.
You get it, man? The whole goddamn world…

At one point, he collapsed in the snow. Thinking,
Mailboxes full of firecrackers.
Thinking,
Moon-bugs.
He managed to roll onto his back and, with some semblance of consciousness, propped himself up against a pillar of ice. Shivering, he pulled his gear into his lap for warmth against the biting, unforgiving wind. However, the seat of his pants soon grew wet and cold, the snow soaking through both pairs of underwear, long johns, his BDUs. His buttocks went numb. Thinking of Gabriel, zigzagging around the yard in Saint Paul, lobbing fistfuls of snow over Dale Carver's fence. Dale's German shepherd barked wildly, poking its snout through the quadrangular rings in the fence. He chased the boy around the yard, feinting for him just as the boy pivoted in the snow and darted in the opposite direction. From the trailer's stoop, Johanna looked on, dressed in a heavy pink bathrobe and rabbit-fur slippers, her arms folded in mock-disapproval across her chest.

Just as his fingers looped into the collar of Gabriel's parka, he happened to look up and meet Johanna's eyes. Laughing, shrieking, Gabriel eventually pulled free and sprinted across the yard. Dale's dog loped wildly in the snow.

“Why you gonna leave?” he said suddenly to Johanna.

“What are you talking about, Charlie?”

“I know you're gonna leave.”

“I don't know what you mean, Charlie.”

“Yes you do.” Gabriel's laughter faded into blackening ether. “You're gonna wait for me to go out so I won't know until I come back home. It'll give you a good head start.”

“Charlie, please. You don't know that. You're dreaming this now and it's not real. It already happened. That's how you know. This isn't real.”

“Don't go,” he begged her, tears suddenly spilling down his face. He crossed the yard and, before the trailer's steps, dropped to his knees in the snow. “Please, Jo. Don't leave. Don't take him away from me. If you're unhappy—”

“It's not about me being unhappy. The boy shouldn't live like this, Charlie. Look around. This isn't normal for him. And with you gone half the year—”

“Please, Jo,” he begged. “Please…”

13

And opened his eyes—

He was covered in frost, the back of his coat frozen to the pillar of ice. Likewise, his gear lay frozen to his legs. He had no feeling from the waist down. The snow had let up to a lazy flutter, the large flakes twisting and spiraling in the clear, crisp night air. Overhead, he saw—or imagined he saw—the great bruise-colored northern lights, the aurora borealis, the spirit of the great north. It gleamed like heat lightning.

Over the nearest bluff, a figure appeared. Small, inconsequential. Almost nonexistent. Charlie blinked his eyes and, with much difficulty, managed to bring his gloved hands, hooked now into inflexible talons, up to his face. He scrubbed the ice from his lashes and peered out along the moonlit pass. The figure was descending the bluff, coming toward him.

Charlie's breathing quickened. He tried to move his legs but couldn't. Moving anything but his arms—which were weak and practically useless anyway—was impossible.

“Huh…huh…
huuuuhhh…”
Clouds of vapor wafted before his face before being carried off in the wind.

The figure stood before him now, peering down at his broken, immobile form.

“G-G-
Gabriel,”
Charlie managed.

The boy was wearing his ski parka and Ninja Turtle earmuffs. Red mittens, yellow books with the bright red buckles.

“Daddy,” said the boy.

“G-G-Guh-Guhhh—”

The boy crossed over to him. Bending down, he peeled Charlie's pack from his legs, the frost popping and tearing, until he was able to roll the pack down a nearby embankment. Then the boy climbed up into Charlie's lap, his weight and warmth so real, Charlie could not deny the boy's existence.

“How d-d-d-did you guh-
get—
Huh-how…how…”

“Daddy,” the boy said, pressing his face to Charlie's chest. His small arms found Charlie's neck, looped around it. “I missed you, Daddy.”

“Oh, pal,” said Charlie, his eyes welling with tears that froze the second they spilled from his eyes. He managed to bring one arm up and encircle the boy with it. Hugged him gently. “I was g-gonna f-f-find you, p-pal,” he told the boy. The nacreous, velvety lights in the sky seemed to brighten, tremble, waver.

“I love you,” the boy told him, his breath warm on his neck. “I love you, Daddy.”

“Was g-g-gonna f-f-
find
y-y-yuh-y-yuh—”

The boy's arms tightened around Charlie's neck. Charlie forced himself to smile, the flesh cracking and splitting and bleeding down his face and chin, and returned the boy's embrace with his one free arm. He squeezed the boy as tight as he could—

“…find you…”

—while the world around him went white, white.

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