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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (5 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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Whether he crumbled under the weight of Charlie's unflinching glare or merely surrendered to his rank as captain, Mike sighed and finally said, “Look, darling, it's late. You're eating like a truck driver who just drove in from the moon but it's late. Charlie Mears and I, we're hitting the sack. You're welcome to my bunk for the night. There's an extra cot next to Falmouth. Won't be an issue long as he cranks down the snore machine for the—”

The girl stood abruptly. “Good night,” she said, and marched out of the galley.

Mike turned and stared at Charlie. They broke into laughter together, the girlish giggling subsiding only after Mike stood, yawning. “Fuck it,” the captain growled. “Maybe Billy's right. No sense cutting this thing short.”

Charlie shook his head. “It's late, Mike. Go to bed.”

Later, in his own room, Charlie couldn't find sleep. He stared at the darkened overhead while on his back, his big hands laced behind his head and one ankle crossed over the other. Joe was snoring soundly. Outside, he could hear the waves lapping against the sides of the trawler.

“You awake, Charlie?” It was Sammy Walper's voice, disembodied in the dark.

“I guess. What is it?”

“She make you feel…” Sammy paused, possibly choosing his words with heed. “Make you feel funny, Charlie?”

“Nearly gave me a heart attack earlier when I saw her running along that 'berg. That's about it.”

“She doesn't exist.” His voice was small and growing smaller. “Like… I mean, she's not supposed to exist. And maybe she doesn't. Not like you or me, I mean.”

“Sammy, what are you yappin' about?”

“She doesn't know who she is,” Sammy said.

“Probably amnesia. She'll remember in the morning,” Charlie assured him.

“No.” Sammy Walper sounded adamant. “No, that's not it…”

It was only when Joe spoke up did Charlie realize his snoring had stopped. “Truth is,” Joe muttered, his voice still groggy with sleep, “she didn't say she couldn't
remember
her name. She said she ain't
got
one.”

“Well shit,” whispered Sammy Walper. The greenhorn's heartbeat was nearly audible in the claustrophobic little room.

“Guys,” Charlie said, rolling over. “Let me get some sleep. I need to dream about my kid for a few hours before sunup, okay? Everything,” he promised them, “will be fine in the morning.”

6

In the morning, Sammy Walper was gone. It was impossible, of course—there was no place to go—but the truth of the matter could not be refuted. The kid was gone, vanished, disappeared. After thirty minutes of scrambling about the
Borealis
like frantic rats through a gasoline-smelling maze, the crew regrouped in the galley, confusions rising, to formulate a more ceremonial approach to the search.

“We'll split into teams,” Mike said. “Charlie and Joe, you guys check the engine room, the generators, every single poorly lit crevice on this ship.” Mike handed Charlie a flashlight then instructed Bryan and McEwan to systematically check every room as well as all the compartments and hatches abovedeck. “We'll tear the boat apart if we have to.”

“What're you gonna do?” McEwan said.

“I'll be in the pilothouse, trying to restore power to our radio and GPS,” Mike said. “We good on this?”

“We're good,” Charlie advised.

“Good as ever,” said Bryan.

As they began filing out of the room—

“Hey.” Mike pulled Charlie to one side, leaning close to his ear. “Do me a favor and peek in on our guest before you head down, will you?”

“Sure.”

She was still in Mike's room where she'd spent the night. Charlie knocked on the door, but when she didn't respond, he opened the door slightly. Poked his head inside. The lights were off in the windowless room. The girl sat stock-still on the edge of the cot, her bare feet on the floor, her hands folded in her lap, illuminated by the vertical sliver of electric hallway light coming in through the half-open cabin door.

“Jesus, I'm sorry,” Charlie blurted, quickly looking away.

She was completed naked, the curls of her raven-colored hair just long enough to cover the swells of her smallish breasts.

“Oh. Hello, Charlie.” Her voice was childlike, simplistic somehow. “You're awake early. It's still dark.”

“We're always awake early.”

“How are you?

“I'm…I'm okay.” He grinned in spite of his embarrassment—or, more likely, because of it—and held up two casual fingers over his eyes. Still, he could see her peripherally. “You didn't happen to see Sammy this morning, did you?”

“The young boy who saved me last night?”

“Yeah, that's the one.”

“No, sir.” She actually shook her head from side to side, like a stage actor being overly dramatic. “No.”

“Sit tight,” he told her and quickly departed, a flush of red having blossomed at each cheek.

Down belowdecks, they wandered through an ink-black labyrinth of industrial pipes and steam valves, of rattling compressors and twitching radium needles arcing across grime-caked dials. Charlie played the flashlight's beam along the ductwork, breaking light into cobwebbed corners and back behind narrow crevices. Behind him, Joe's boots shushed along the planking. The constant hum of the generators resonated in Charlie's back teeth and, at the end of the tapered black walkway, bending down where the pipes came in too close to his head, the vibrations caused an enormous spider's web to quiver like the plucked string of an upright bass. In these temperatures, the web's occupant was no longer in attendance, having either vacated by virtue of arachnid intuition just prior to the trawler's departure from Saint Paul Island or simply disintegrated in the subzero temperatures into filaments of frozen bug dust.

“Sammy ain't down here.” Joe's voice, punctuated by the chattering of molars, echoed off the pipes. “Ain't nothing down here, Charlie.”

“Sammy?” Charlie called, his own voice booming in the cramped space. “Kid, you down here?”

“Why's it so cold?”

“Dunno.”

“Charlie, man, you don't find this strange? First it's this chick running naked on a 'berg, next thing we know the kid's gone missing.”

“You sayin' there's some connection?”

“I'm sayin' it's pretty fucked up,
amigo
. That's what I'm saying.”

Something cold and wet fell in Charlie's face. He directed the flashlight toward the overhead which was only about a foot from his face, and saw icicles forming along the ductwork.

Joe saw it too. Muttered, “That ain't good.”

The flashlight flickered then winked off. Charlie groaned. He cracked it several times against the heel of one hand but the light did not come back on.

“Let's beat it topside,” Joe said, already retreating into the darkness through the maze of pipes.

Topside, the rest of the crew was in a panic. Bryan and McEwan were unsuccessful locating any sign of Sammy Walper and Mike was still fiddling with the power grid in the control room with no success. The sun had just started to peek up over the horizon, the sea like liquid mercury, and the pots would soon need to be collected.

Charlie rapped knuckles on the control room door three times before Mike, looking haggard and frustrated, opened it.

“No dice,” Charlie informed him. “I've got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, Mike, that the kid might've gone overboard.”

“Don't say that. Anyway, how in the world…?”

“Beats me. He was pretty shaken up last night. Maybe…I don't know…maybe he went topside for a smoke and fell the fuck over the side.”

“That's pretty goddamn queer.”

“Whole thing's queer,” said Charlie. “What're we gonna do about the pots?”

Mike rubbed the back of one hand across his forehead and looked instantly exhausted. “Guess we pull 'em. We're here, ain't we? Fuck.”

“Then what?”

“You mean do we head back to Saint Paul? I don't see no other alternatives, do you? Kid's gone, for Christ's sake. We gotta report it or something. Tell the police.”

“You been in to check on our guest this morning?” Charlie asked.

“Briefly. Talk about queer, she was just sittin' on the cot buck-ass naked.”

“You get a name from her yet?”

“No. And talkin' to her's kinda funny. Leaves me feeling…strange, I guess. Like talking into a tornado—words get all jumbled and lost.”

He didn't have to ask what Mike meant. “How's the power situation coming?”

“No soap. Still futzing with it.”

“We got ice on the pipes down by the generators.”

“Fuck me blue.”

“Just thought you should know.”

“Yeah, right.” Mike Fenty looked shaken. “Goddamn fuckarow this is turning out to be.”

Just then, Charlie happened to glimpse arms waving down on the foredeck from the corner of his eye. He turned to see Bryan Falmouth semaphoring to them from the bow, McEwan crouched on one knee before the hatch that led down into the crab tanks. The hatch was open and McEwan was peering in while dragging a hand across his scalp. Joe was bounding up the stairs of the control room, his eyes blazing like high beams in his head.

“Oh, shit,” Charlie uttered. That sinking sensation in his gut suddenly amplified ten times over. He and Mike burst through the control room door and nearly collided with Joe, who was spouting gibberish, talking too fast.

“Jesus Christ, fellas— I mean, it's— Jesus—”

Charlie brushed past him and took the iron steps two at a time, Mike right behind him on his heels. Looking far from the Dynamo Joe who'd stepped on board the
Borealis
just over a week ago, Joe Darling did not follow Charlie and Mike down the steps, he merely propped himself up against the iron railing and clung to it with both hands, all the color drained from his face.

McEwan held up a single hand, palm out, as Charlie and Mike approached the open hatch. “It's bad,” McEwarn warned, his voice hollow.

Charlie stopped at the edge of the hatch and peered down into the tank.

Yesterday's catch of crabs populated the water—enough of them to compound the confusion of the scene, which required Charlie to do a double take. Then he realized what he was seeing, recognizing the whitish skin and the specifications of the protrusion of a human leg…finally, the undeniable fan of dark hair, undulating in the icy tank water like some undersea vegetation. The reddish, spidery crustaceans heaped on top of what remained of the body, moving with a mechanical, calculated slowness.

He felt his stomach lurch and he turned quickly to the side of the trawler to address the sea below. The vomit came up in a messy, pasty string that burned his esophagus and stank like the bait locker. Eyes squeezed closed, he waited for the nausea to pass before turning back around. Moisture from his eyes froze to his face. He saw Mike Fenty, poised precipitously at the lip of the hatch, not so much staring down as he was staring into a blind abyss.
Like talking into a tornado,
Charlie thought. The captain's mind, it seemed, had temporarily shut down.

McEwan stood, albeit shakily. His small eyes appeared even smaller, almost disappearing altogether in the creases and folds of his weathered face. A sick tone to his voice, he mumbled, “How the hell could this have happened?”

“Shut it,” Mike ordered him. He took a step backward and tore his eyes from the opening in the deck. “Shut the fucking thing already.”

Together, Bryan and McEwan eased the hatch down and bolted it into the planking. They looked mutually disgusted and equally drained.

“It takes two men to open that hatch,” Mike said. He could have been addressing them all or just talking to himself.

“Doesn't make sense.” It was Bryan, hugging himself through his bright orange slicker. Bits of frost had collected about his eyelashes. “It's impossible…”

Charlie looked down at his hands. The tips of his fingers were blue. They were shaking something fierce.

7

Bryan put on a pot of coffee while Mike retreated to the control room once again. In his mounting agitation, McEwan grabbed a pack of Camels form his footlocker and tucked himself away at the rear of the boat where the diesel sauna fought to keep the cold at bay. With the sun full in the sky and the waters stretching around the world, looking alluringly calm, they would soon have to reclaim the pots and, in the wake of a unanimous decision, head back to Saint Paul Island.

Charlie crept down the corridor and, without knocking, pushed open Mike's cabin door.

Fully dressed in the clothes Charlie had given her the night before, the girl stood staring directly at him as if in anticipation of his arrival. A cold finger touched the base of Charlie's spine. He cleared his throat and was about to speak when she beat him to it—

“Did you find your friend?”

“Sammy's dead.” He cleared his throat a second time, fearful he might choke on his own words. “I want to ask you something.”

She eased herself down on the cot, folding her small hands in her lap. “Okay.” Again: that helpless, childish voice…

With a grief so powerful it nearly shook him to his knees, her voice caused him to think of Gabriel, his son. Before he knew what was happening, his eyes began welling with tears, blurring his vision.

Like a puppy plagued with unending curiosity, the girl cocked her head to one side and examined him with coal-black eyes.

The feeling passed and Charlie regained his composure, quickly swiping his thumb over both eyelids. “Have you left this room since last night?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Not even to take a—not even to use the head?”

“The ‘head'?”

“The toilet.”

“No.”

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