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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (4 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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McEwan pulled back his hood and grabbed his knit cap off his head. Eyes locked on Sammy Walper and the girl, he raked thick fingers through his corkscrew hair. “Jesus, Sammy, she breathing?”

Sammy didn't answer. When he dropped his face down toward hers, pressing his lips against hers, Charlie turned away. He was thinking of how her lips had ballooned up and split at the creases…the way the blood had dried on her chin…

Bryan sloughed off the crank platform and staggered over to Charlie and Joe. He seemed unable to look away from the spectacle. In a small voice he said, “How the hell did she get out here?” When no one answered he said, “And what happened to her clothes?”

Mike bent down beside Sammy, who was back to administering chest compressions. “You're doing real good, kid. Real fucking impressive. Come on, Sammy. Come on, Sam—”

Sammy cried out, high-pitched as a schoolgirl. Startled, Mike staggered backward a few steps, his arms splayed, his knees wobbly. With unmatched agility, Sammy Walper popped to his feet and practically moonwalked back across the deck.

The girl's eyes were open. Stiffly she turned her head to one side, appraising the crew one by one. When those cold, black eyes fell on Charlie, he felt something tighten in the center of his gut.

She sat up. Color was already beginning to filter through her veins. Clumps of ice slid down her wet hair and splashed to the deck in muddy pools.

Mike clapped his hands. “Come on, guys! Let's get her downstairs, warm her up!” He grabbed Sammy's sleeve and dragged him back down toward the girl. “Help me get her on her feet, Sammy.”

Sammy jerked his sleeve free and pulled his arm up to his chest, as if injured. In a small voice he said, “I ain't touchin' her.”

McEwan rolled into place. He slipped two hands beneath the girl's armpits and, after a quick one-two-three count, lifted her off the deck. Upright, her body was as pale as moon glow, slender yet muscular, fragile as glass. Mike rushed to assist McEwan, each of them grabbing one of the girl's arms. They proceeded to lead her to the hatch. At one point the girl turned and looked over her shoulder. Charlie thought she was looking directly at him.

5

Charlie gathered dry towels from the pantry while Joe boiled water on the petrol stove in the galley. There were only a few towels, which Charlie stacked under one arm. There were warm, clean clothes on his bunk—fresh socks, sweats, a hoodie—so he jogged down the narrow corridor that led to the tiny compartment he shared with Joe and Sammy.

Sammy was in the room, sitting on the edge of his own bunk. His presence startled Charlie, who paused briefly before setting the towels down on Joe's bunk.

“Nice work out there, kiddo.”

Sammy nodded.

Charlie grabbed a laundry bag and stuffed it with two pairs of clean socks, a pair of LSU sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a drawstring hood. He balled the towels up too, and squeezed them into the bag.

Before leaving, he turned back to Sammy. “You okay?”

The kid sat on the edge of his cot, a runnel of snot leaking from one nostril, his legs bouncing up and down like pistons. He had his hands folded together between his knees. At the sound of Charlie's voice, the greenhorn lowered his head and refused to look Charlie in the eye.

“Sammy,” he said.

“Who,” the kid began. He swallowed what appeared to be a hard lump of spit then continued. “Who do you think she is?”

“I have no idea. What's the matter with you?”

“You picked her up.” Sammy turned to him. His eyes were haunted, frightened. “You feel anything funny?”

“Like what?”

Sammy opened his mouth as if to speak but no words came out. Instead, he merely shook his head and turned his face away. His legs, those twin engines, were going a mile a minute now.

Charlie left, hurrying back down the corridor toward the captain's quarters. Mike's cabin door was cracked halfway, allowed Charlie to see movement on the other side. He knocked once then eased the door open.

The girl sat on Mike's cot, the towel around her shoulders already soaking wet and dripping water onto the floor. She looked up at him as he entered. Her face was expressionless. Curls of dark hair hung down over her face.

Mike was digging through an old footlocker, presumably for more towels or warm clothes, while McEwan leaned against one wall, his big arms folded across his chest.

“Here,” Charlie said, tossing the laundry sack at McEwan. “Clean clothes and towels.”

Mike stood with a groan and intercepted the sack from McEwan. Undoing the drawstring, Mike emptied the contents beside the girl on the cot. Taking one of the towels, he unfolded it and draped it down over the girl's head.

“You speak English, honey?” McEwan said.

The girl was busy watching Mike; she didn't look in McEwan's direction.

“¿Habla ingles?”
McEwan grunted. He thumbed his nose then, with a kiss-my-ass grin, looked at Charlie. “You win the prize for best catch of the day, Mears.”

He was about to say something when the cabin door swung in and slammed against his back. Joe's head poked through the opened, wincing. “Shit, Charlie, sorry about that.” He was holding a steaming mug of tea wrapped in a dishtowel with both hands.

Mike bent down to eye level with the girl. “What's your name, honey?”

Her dark, oil-spot eyes flitted from Mike to McEwan…then Joe, Charlie, and back to Mike.

“Can you talk?” Mike tried again. “Can you tell us your name?”

She looked away again, only this time at the fresh clothes spread out on the cot.

“She wants to get dressed,” Joe said, setting the mug of tea down on Mike's footlocker. “Why don't we step out for a couple seconds, give her some privacy?”

Mike sighed. He clapped both hands on his workpants then stood with his trademark grunt. “You're right, Dynamo.” He nodded toward the door. “Everybody out.”

They gathered in the galley where Bryan was already pouring shots of vodka. He passed them out as the others filed into the room and slid around the table. Holding one extra shot, Bryan frowned and said, “Where's the kid?”

“In his room,” Charlie said.

Bryan leaned out into the corridor and shouted, “Hey, Walper, get your CPR-pumpin' hands in here!” Claiming his own seat in the booth around the table, Bryan knocked back both his and Sammy's vodka and grimaced. “You see that kid out there? His first time out and he's saving people's lives and shit.”

“Let's not jump to conclusions,” Joe said.

Pouring himself another shot, Bryan said, “Conclusions about what?”

“About what constitutes being a person.”

Everyone looked at Joe. McEwan said, “The hell you talkin' about?”

“Did you see her in there?” Joe was running one finger around the rim of his own shot glass. “It's fucking January and we're how many nautical miles off the coast of fucking Alaska? And she's out runnin' around naked as a jaybird. Fellas, she ain't even
shivering
in there. Not to mention the fact that she's simply fucking
alive
to begin with…”

“So what is she?” McEwan said. “Let's hear your theory, Einstein.”

Joe cracked an awkward grin. His eyes looked aloof, delirious. “Fuck should I know? She could be a mermaid, a ghost, a fucking vampire. I don't know. All I know is there's no rational explanation for what she's—”

Mike held up one finger. He turned to Bryan. “Flip on and see if you can get Saint Paul on the radio. Find out if there's been any distress calls from ships within the past twenty-four.”

Bryan saluted and jumped out of the booth. His heavy footfalls were heard tromping the steps up to the pilothouse.

They drank their shots and Mike passed around the bottle for refills.

Charlie rubbed two thick fingers across his furrowed brow. “You think she was on a ship that went down?”

Mike shrugged. “It's possible.”

“Fuck,” McEwan countered. “We would have heard the distress call come over the line too.”

“Hell,” Mike said, “for all we know, she could have fallen off a goddamn cruise ship. I'm just covering all the bases.”

“Do you think—” Charlie began then cut himself off. When Mike prompted him to continue he said, “Do you think there could be more people out there?”

There was silence around the table as this notion sank in.

“Nothing we can do about it now,” Mike said. He sounded dejected, worn out, beaten. “Unless we hear something specific from Saint Paul dispatch, I ain't risking running this boat into a 'berg searching for people who ain't there.” He rubbed his weary face with his big hands. “We'll decide when to head back tomorrow morning when—”

“Whoa,” McEwan said, holding up one hand. “Head back? What the hell, Mike?”

“What's wrong?”

McEwan coughed up a strangled little chortle. “You're kidding, right?” He leaned closer toward Mike across the tabletop. Charlie could smell the dried perspiration on his skin, mingling with the odor of the codfish used for baiting the pots. “You were out there today, weren't you? We keep this up for the rest of the week we're liable to pull fifty thousand pounds before the next snowfall.” He shook his burly head. “No. No fucking way, Mike. We killed a whole week out here, catching nothing but runny noses
at your direction
and we've got the chance to make up for lost time. We hit the motherload today, man. Think about it.”

“But what about the girl?” Charlie offered before Mike could come to his own defense.

McEwan rolled one massive shoulder. “What about her? Keep her nice and warm, give her a few paperback Westerns to read, and we drop her off on Sheriff Lapatu's doorstep the second we get back.”

“And what if she freaks out?” Mike said. “What if she has a goddamn seizure or a heart attack or fucking
dies
out here, Billy?”

“If she didn't die up there on the fucking deck twenty minutes ago, then I think she's out of the woods. I get your concern, Mike. This is your boat and everything on it—every person—is your responsibility. I get that. But I ain't gonna let you cash in for no goddamn reason.”

Charlie opened his mouth to speak but Joe cut him off, quick to the punch.

“He's got a point,” Joe said, though unable to meet Charlie's eyes. As if he owed some explanation, he added, “Got mouths to feed, Charlie. Sorry, Mike.”

Bryan came bounding back down the pilothouse stairs and into the galley, a grim look on his face.

Mike turned to him. “Well?”

“Well, you're not gonna believe it but the fucking radio's down.” He tossed both hands up in mock surrender. “So's the GPS.”

Mike sat forward.
“What?”

“It's juiced,” said Bryan. “I mean, it's getting power. It's just not turning on. I rebooted the whole console but it ain't working.”

“Christ.” Mike sank back in his seat. “I'd say we check the generators but if the board's getting power…I mean, the fucking lights come on and everything?”

“Lights, meters, gauges, you name it. No GPS screen and no radio signal. Power light comes on but I can't locate a channel.”

Mike rubbed at his face and stared at the shot of vodka that stood before him on the table. Disgusted, he slid the shot over to McEwan. Through his fingers, Mike said, “Let's drop console power for the night. We'll reboot in the morning and deal with it then. It's been a long day. Any other suggestions?”

There was a resounding grunt of approval from the others.

“All right,” Mike said, standing up. “I'll go down and double-check the generators. Last thing I want is all the power to cut out. Lose heat. I think—”

The girl appeared in the doorway. She was swimming in an oversized sweatshirt and baggy sweatpants, her tiny feet bound in two pairs of socks. Though still damp, her long dark hair had begun to dry in silken, raven-colored waves around her face.

The men stared at her, speechless.

“Do you have any food?” she said, startling them all.

No one moved.

“I'm hungry,” she said, and this time Bryan snapped into action, climbing over the booth and pulling open cupboards.

The girl eased herself down into Bryan's seat while everyone else slid over to make room for her in the booth. Mike put his hands on his hips and looked like he wanted to laugh.

“You can talk, huh?” Mike said. “How come you wouldn't talk to us before?”

“I didn't know what to say,” said the girl.

“What's your name?” Mike asked.

“I don't have one.”

“Did you fall off a ship?” Charlie asked from across the table. “Did a ship go down out here or something?”

“I don't think so,” she said. She seemed unconcerned. Bryan placed a bowl of cornflakes in front of her, which she proceeded to eat with her fingers. “This is good,” she told him, holding up individual flakes to examine them up close before eating them. “These taste good.”

“Honey,” Mike went on, “how the hell did you get out here?”

“Wait.” She set both palms down on the tabletop, on either side of the cereal bowl. Across the table from her, the guys recoiled without thinking about it. “There was one more of you.”

“The kid's in his room,” McEwan said before anyone else could answer. “Sweetheart, what the fuck you doin' running around naked out here in the middle of the devil's icebox? How long you been out here before we came along?”

“I don't remember,” she said. “I don't know how long.”

“And you don't remember how you got out here?”

She seemed to consider this. Finally, as a coy little smile spread across her face, she said, “I don't. I don't remember.”

They watched her devour several bowls of cereal and even warmed her with a shot of vodka before the totality of the day's exhaustion began to weigh heavy on them all. They slipped out of the galley one at a time, until only Charlie, Mike Fenty, and the mysterious girl remained. The trawler bobbing like a cork on the troubled, icy waters of the Imarpik, the cupboard doors creaked open and banged shut while the remaining few inches of Popov seesawed in the bottle. Between Charlie and Mike the silence was pregnant with speculation. Frequently, sitting across from each other at the Formica table, the two men would exchange similar glances, each attempting to prompt the other into speaking.

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