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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (6 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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He said, “Then how did you know it was dark out this morning?”

She only stared at him, as motionless as a stone figure.

“When I came in here this morning,” he went on, “you said that it was still dark outside. You said it was early and still dark. How did you know that if you hadn't been outside?”

“I'm hungry,” she said.

“Answer my question first.”

“But I want to eat.”

“You won't get any food until you answer my question.” Lowering his voice, he heard himself say, as if from the mouth of someone else speaking from a far distance, “What happened to Sammy?”

Almost imperceptibly, the girl's eyes narrowed.

There's knowledge there,
Charlie realized.
There's knowledge behind those eyes.

“Don't be angry with me,” she said, and he could not tell if she was feigning innocence or if it was genuine. “I don't like it when people get angry with me.”

Steeling himself, he said, “I want to know what happened to Sammy. I want you to tell me.”

“Why do you think I know?”

“Because I do. And I'm not angry. I won't be. But you have to tell me.”

“Maybe your friend Sammy couldn't help himself.” A pause. “Sometimes people just can't help themselves…”

“If—”

There came a sudden jarring, books and framed photographs flipping off the nightstand, a ceramic coffee mug, and the lights blinked but stayed on. Charlie, his fingers digging into the doorframe, glanced around. “Jesus, I think we hit something.”

He rushed down the corridor and out onto the foredeck. An elongated slip of ice, roughly the size of the trawler itself, had rushed up alongside them in some semblance of an attack. The hull of the boat was dented and streaming with heavy scrapes but it hadn't been punctured. At least, as far as Charlie could tell from peering over the side…

A cigarette dangling from his chapped, bloodless lips, McEwan appeared beside him. “The fuck's Mike doing?” he shouted over the sudden grinding of gears sounding up from the engine room. He waved a hand in the direction of the pilothouse but the lights behind the glass had gone dim; Mike Fenty was nothing more than a ghost among shadows.

“Something's funny,” Charlie whispered.

“Yeah,” McEwan agreed, his voice scratchy. “A regular fucking riot.”

Bryan was cursing at the petrol stove when, five minutes later, Charlie and McEwan came down the galley steps.

“Damn thing won't work,” Bryan growled, dropping a fist on top of the unit. “Useless.”

“Maybe needs more fuel?” Charlie suggested.

“It's full. I just checked. And look.” He reached up and slammed one of the cupboard doors, cracking it against its frame. It rebounded, easing itself back open. “See that?” said Bryan. The early stirrings of insanity glittered behind his eyes. Laughed humorlessly. “None of them close.” He ran one finger along the inside of the door, prodding the magnetic panel screwed into the wood. “The magnets don't work anymore. None of 'em do.”

For the first time, Charlie noticed all the cupboard doors were standing open.

Grumbling, McEwan retrieved a bottle of vodka from one of the open cupboards then dropped his considerable bulk, in tandem with a piggish grunt, into the booth. “Go complain to Fenty,” he said, unscrewing the cap off the bottle. “It's his piece of shit rig.”

Still glaring down at the petrol stove, Bryan said, “I don't get it. Everything worked fine until now.”

“To the kid,” McEwan toasted, bringing the bottle of vodka to his lips.

“How the hell did he get
down
there?” Bryan asked, sliding into the booth beside McEwan. He grabbed the bottle from McEwan's lips and took a swing himself. “What was he
thinking?”

“Mike's right,” Charlie said, folding his arms. “Hatch is too heavy for one man to lift. And Sammy, he weren't no Superman.”

“Sounds to me,” McEwan said, “you're accusing one of us of bein' there when it happened.” Without expression, he snatched the bottle back from Bryan. “Maybe even insinuatin' we had somethin' to do with him dying.”

“I don't know what I'm insinuating,” said Charlie.

“Why don't you go ahead and say what's on your mind, then?”

“I'd just like someone to explain to me how that kid got himself killed in the holding tank, that's all. Kid's dead. I'd like to know how it happened.”

In the overhead, the lights blinked in their fixtures. All three of them cast wary glances. The ship was keeling to one side, items slid out of the open cupboards and onto the floor. A bag of sugar spilled like beach sand across the counter.

“We're turning around,” Bryan observed. “Mike's taking us back.”

“What about the pots?” McEwan said.

“Pots ain't goin' nowhere,” Charlie said. He turned and rolled out of the galley, both hands planted on either wall for support as he made his way down the canting corridor. The bluish light from the head shone in the darkness. Joe was staring into the commode, his legs folded up under him, a dazed expression on his face. As Charlie approached, Joe turned his head slowly to address him, a silvery tightrope of spittle bowing from his lower lip to the rim of the toilet.

“Hey, Charlie.”

“What's wrong, Joe?”

“Sick.” And indeed he looked like death. In the bluish light of the tiny latrine, his skin had adopted a translucence that was almost corpselike. Dark rings encircled his eyes and his lips quivered, vibrating the trail of saliva that held him to the toilet. “Never been seasick b'fore. All my time on boats, ain't never been seasick. Funny, huh?”

Charlie leaned in and pulled the flush chain. The commode growled and, with a whoosh, devoured the whole mess.

“Mike taking us home?”

“Think so, yeah.”

“I'm still seein' him, Charlie. Every time I close my eyes, man, I see him—or what was left of him—in that holding tank. The water all pink, the space-spiders creepin' and crawlin' all over him. His flesh all white and hanging off in chunks like bits of uncooked chuh-chuh-chicken—” He leaned over the commode and retched.

“Go lie down, Joe.”

“Those crabs,” Joe said, wiping a sleeve across his mouth. “I mean, we can't use 'em, right? We gotta let 'em back out into the sea. Christ, Charlie, they fucking
ate
him.”

Uneasy, Charlie turned away and climbed the galley steps that led out into the milky haze of an overcast day. It felt like forty below, the wind practically searing the skin from his face. He chased the tip of a cigarette around with a lighter until he caught it. Sucked vehemently. It was all he could do not to stare at the hatch. How in the world had Sammy managed to open it on his own, let alone fall in there?

He glanced up at the pilothouse. Just barely did he make out the seemingly disembodied face of Mike Fenty, floating like a white moon behind the salt-streaked windows. Lungs tugging on the smoke, Charlie ascended the steps toward the control room, his muscles almost audibly creaking in the cold, running one numbing hand along the iron rail. Around them, the sea was growing rough. Behind a veil of cumuli, the sun had repositioned itself in the sky, burning silver threads through the clouds.

The control room door was locked.

“Hey, Mike.” Charlie knocked against the pane of glass. “Door's locked.”

Mike did not turn to look at him; he merely stood behind the wheel facing straight out the windows.

Charlie knocked again, this time with more urgency. Through the pane, he could see that the control panel was unlit: still no power.

“Mike?”

Snapped from his daze, Mike craned his neck to stare at Charlie. With the dedication of a death-row inmate, Mike leaned over and flipped the latch on the door. Charlie stepped inside, expecting the usual blast of heat from the floor vents, but it was almost as cold in the pilothouse as it was out on the foredeck.

“You takin' us back to Saint Paul?”

“Sure,” Mike said.

“Guess we'll come back for the pots another time.”

“Sure will.”

“Figure we might not want to touch the reds in the holding tank,” he suggested. “In case, you know, Sheriff Lapatu wants to have first look. Scene of the crime and all that, I'm guessing.”

“What crime is that?” Mike said. He continued to stare out the grime-streaked, salted windows.

“I guess not a
crime,
per se, but…well, you know, we prob'ly shouldn't go messin' in that tank, is all.” He put a hand on Mike's shoulder. Still, the captain would not look at him. “You all right?”

“Sure am.”

“Couldn't get the power up?”

“Don't need it. Been navigating these waters since I was a teenager.”

“Lights are blinking and the petrol stove is cold.” Charlie tapped one of the floor vents with his boot. “Feels like the heat ain't makin' it up through the vents anymore, either. Like she's givin' up on us.”

Mike swung his head around to face him, his eyes haunted and nearly fearful. “What do you mean ‘she'?”

“The boat. She. Listen, Mike, why don't you head down, get something in your stomach. You're burning yourself out, man.”

He returned his gaze to the sea. “Not hungry.”

“Then take a nap.”

“Not tired.”

Defeated, Charlie bent and rummaged through the underside of the console for the first-aid kit. Once he located it he stood, his spine cracking, and cast one final glance at Mike Fenty before taking the first aid back below the deck.

Joe was curled in a fetal position on his cot when Charlie entered the cabin. His eyes were closed but he spoke Charlie's name when he entered. Charlie sat on his own cot and opened the kit in his lap. Bandages, adhesive strips, a needle and thread, a syringe, even a flare gun and two flare cartridges. Eventually he located some Dramamine. Joe dry swallowed two tablets without opening his eyes.

Charlie slid the first-aid kit beneath his cot and stood, unsure if the creaking sound he heard was from the cot's struts or his own tired bones. He suddenly felt a million years old. For whatever reason, he thought once again of Gabriel. The last time he'd seen the kid had been six months ago, back at the trailer in Saint Paul Village. He'd been sitting on a telephone book at the kitchen table, shoveling spoonfuls of some sugary cereal into his mouth. Through the kitchen windows, the tawny lights of an Alaskan predawn bled up into the sky behind the black serration of distant firs. The boy was up early for school, dressed in oversized corduroys and a Batman sweatshirt. Though seated at the table, he already had his matching Batman backpack strapped to his back.

Charlie tousled the boy's hair and kissed the top of his head. He too was up early, it being the first day of a new season. Down at the shore, the trawlers would be lined like soldiers along the seal rookeries, dressed and ready for a trek across the Imarpik. He grabbed a bowl for himself and, in sleepy silence, sat opposite his son at the small table, pouring his own bowl of cereal and milk. They ate without talking, content merely with their proximity, for the boy loved his father and the father loved the boy, and in the pauses between their crunching, Charlie could hear Johanna's light snoring emanating from the back bedroom.

When he'd finished eating, Charlie stood, raking the legs of the chair across the linoleum, and paused to grip the boy's chin. Pinched him gently.

“You do good in school,” he told the boy.

“I know, I know.”

“I'll see you in a couple weeks.”

“You do good too,” the boy said.

“I know, I know,” he said, mimicking his son's tone.

Yet two weeks later, Charlie Mears returned from the great salt seas to an empty home—empty, it seemed, for so long that the smells representative of his wife and child no longer haunted the empty rooms…

“Where you goin'?” Joe practically croaked from the cot. The sound of his voice dragged Charlie back from his reverie.

“Finish talkin' with our no-name little guest in the next room,” he said and left.

8

Unable to prepare any warm food without the use of the petrol stove, he entered Mike's cabin carrying a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk. The girl stood beside the dresser, holding one of Mike's framed photographs in her hands. It was a glamour shot of Mike's wife, one of those airbrushed, angelic portraits you can get at K-mart or some such place, her hair a nest of springy platinum curls, too much makeup on her face.

“She's pretty,” the girl said, setting the picture back atop the dresser as Charlie came in.

“Brought you some food.” He set the bowl of cereal and glass of milk on the dresser. “I wanted to pick up where we left off before.”

“About your friend who died?”

“About who you are,” said Charlie. He sat on Mike's footlocker, folding his hands between his knees, and motioned with his chin for the girl to sit on the cot. She sat without protest, her eyes never leaving his. “Who are you?” he said after a few moments of uninterrupted silence fell between them.

“I'm your catch,” she said. “I'm your find.”

“That makes no sense.”

“You found me, didn't you?”

“What's your name?”

“I don't have one.” Again—that timid head cocking. “You can give me a name, if you like.”

“Forget names,” he said. “Tell me how you got out here.”

“You picked me up,” she told him. “You brought me on the boat.”

“No. Not how you got on the boat,” he clarified, growing increasingly irritated at her evasiveness. “How did you wind up out here in the sea? On the iceberg?”

She held him in his gaze for several seconds, unspeaking. A cold, marrow-freezing chill overtook him and settled deep within his soul. He had to break her stare, to look away from her.

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