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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (7 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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“You're one of the hard ones,” she commented after a while.

“What does that mean?”

“It means some people are easy to reach. Most people, actually. But not all. You're one of the hard ones to reach. I think… I think it's because you're overtaken by something else.” Wrinkling her nose and creasing her brow, she was trying to read something in him, something deep below the surface. “There is something keeping you shielded.” She added, suddenly brightening, “It is a little boy.”

This statement, for whatever reason, did not jar him. “My son, yes. Gabriel. He's been on my mind a lot lately. You can tell that?”

“You're a hard one,” she said again, “but you're not difficult to read.”

He sighed and leaned away from her, sitting straighter on the footlocker. “You did that to Sammy, didn't you?”

“Sammy did what he did to himself.”

“He couldn't have opened that hatch by himself. Someone had to have helped him.”

“There are a lot of big, strong men on this boat,” she offered.

“None of them would have done anything to him. Let's stop playing games. Tell me how you got out here.”

At first, he did not think she was going to answer. The only sound was their intermingled breathing and the ticking of Mike's wristwatch on the nightstand. Then, surprisingly, and with evident surrender, the girl said, “I was brought out here by a man. His name was Calvert Tackler. We came out on a boat, much like this boat, and he left me out here, presumably to die.”

“Why did he do that?”

“Because,” she said, “he was thinking the same thoughts about me that you're thinking right now.”

This startled him. He began bouncing one leg up and down, up and down, up and down. “How long ago did he leave you here?”

“A very long time ago,” she said. “I don't know exactly.”

“Who was he? This Calvert Tackler?”

“Just a man.”

“How did you know him?”

“We came to meet. He thought he loved me, or was in the process of falling in love with me, but that was not why he brought me out here. He brought me out here because he couldn't bring himself to kill me. Maybe it was because he loved me or maybe it because he simply did not have it in him to kill a person—”

“But why would he want to kill you?”

“Not just him.”

“What do you mean?”

“There have been others,” she said. “My whole life, there have been people who've tried to kill me. I can remember their names, all these people, and what each one looked like. I can remember the first one, a man named Frank Bodine, who nearly managed to kill me in a motel room outside Las Vegas. But in the end, I eventually got to him. I eventually got to them all, even the strongest ones. Strong ones like you, Charlie Mears. Ones who put up a mental wall, put up a fight. Strong ones like you.”

Charlie stood. “I get it. You're out of your mind. Either that or you just like to play games. Well, I don't like games. I don't have time for them. You've got three seconds to start talking sense—”

“Don't yell, Charlie.”

“—or you're gonna spend the rest of the trip back to Alaska locked in this room. Do you understand?”

“Don't be angry with me.” She smiled.

“One,” he said.

“Poor, poor Charlie. Misses his boy.”

“Two.” Grinding his teeth.

“You'll never see him again. You know it's true.”

“Three,” he said, simultaneously swiping the bowl of cereal and glass of milk from the top of the dresser and onto the floor.

“Look at the mess you've made.” She cast her eyes to the cornflakes and broken shards of bowl in the puddle of milk. “Very messy, Charlie.”

“You can talk to the cops when we reach land.” He stormed out into the corridor, slamming the cabin door. In the darkness of the corridor, he nearly ran right into Joe, who was leaning against one wall, shrouded in darkness.

“She tell you anything?” Joe asked. Charlie couldn't see his face in the dark but it sounded as if he had something in his mouth.

“She'll tell Lapatu when we get back to Saint Paul,” he promised Joe. “You should be in bed.”

“You need to push her more, Charlie. You need to get her to stop.”

“Stop what?”

“What she's doing to me.”

“You're just seasick.”

“Ain't never been seasick in my life, Charlie.”

He pressed a hand to Joe's forehead then quickly withdrew it, disgusted by the moist clamminess of Dynamo Joe's flesh. A skein of perspiration came away with his hand, cool like menthol.

“Fuck, Joe. You're burning up, man.”

Joe took a lumbering step forward, his face suddenly illuminated by the red emergency lights recessed in the overhead. A living skeleton, his skin looked like latex stretched taut over a large stone. Charlie could smell him too, and it was a sick-sweet, organic smell that reminded him of the breweries down in Anchorage. Though he didn't want to touch Joe again, he placed a hand on one of the man's shoulders and directed him back toward their cabin. Inside the room, Joe winced and recoiled from the lamplight. Joe growled for him to turn it off. Charlie flipped the switch and assisted Joe as he climbed back onto his cot.

“Fucking fuh-freezing,” Joe stuttered.

“I know.” Charlie grabbed the blanket off his own coat and draped it over Joe's quaking body. Even as he left the room, he could hear Joe's teeth chattering in his skull—could hear them as he walked all the way down the corridor.

In the galley, Bryan was looking down forlornly at the petrol stove. Billy McEwan was at the table, getting drunk. Charlie paused in the doorway and McEwan's eyelids fluttered. He waved a hand at Charlie. “C'mon, Mears. Drink with me.”

“Damn thing,” Bryan muttered, seemingly oblivious to Charlie's arrival.

“Is Mike still topside?” Charlie asked. When no one responded, he reached out and touched Bryan's elbow. As if shocked, Bryan jerked his arm away and practically threw himself back against the bulkhead. He stared at Charlie with wide eyes.

“Mike,” expounded McEwan, drawing Charlie's attention to him, “is a damn fool. He got lucky yesterday with the catch, Mears, but there ain't no luck left out here. Not for us.” Again that sloppy wave of the hand. “So come on over and let's you and me kill this bottle, eh?”

Charlie stepped down into the galley and, with two hands, ripped one of the cupboard doors off its hinges. Bryan's jaw dropped, still pressed against the wall as far away from Charlie as the cramped little room would permit. McEwan, even in his stupor, watched with speechless detachment.

Tucking the cupboard door under one arm, Charlie plucked the flashlight off the countertop. “I'm going down to the engine room for some tools. You two keep an eye on Mike's cabin, make sure that girl doesn't come out.”

“What're you doing?” boomed McEwan, but Charlie was already gone.

9

Despite the pump of the generators and the grind of the diesel engine, it was freezing in the bowels of the trawler. Wagging his flashlight around the network of pipes, it didn't take Charlie long to locate a suitcase-sized metal toolbox, already open on the floor. Charlie crouched over it and fished around for a handful of carpenter nails and a recoilless hammer.

He heard it—the steady
plick-plick-plick
of dripping water. Charlie cast the beam of light onto the floor and found he was crouching in a puddle of filthy gray water. Rings expanded in the puddle as drops of water fell from above. He followed the droplets up to the overhead to discover that the drops were actually sloughing off the tips of icicles clinging to the underside of the entire system of pipes.

It was ridiculous, he knew, but he stood and touched the pipes nonetheless. Cold as bone, powdered in frost. He traced the pipes with the flashlight back to the wall of generators. The pipes, he learned, led to the heating unit.

“Goddamn it…”

He approached the unit only to discover, with increasing horror, that it was dead. The dials all ran to zero; the archipelago of bulbs stood unlit. He pressed one hand against the heating unit to find it was still slightly warm but was quickly losing heat.

Frustrated, he administered a swift kick to the side of the unit. The clang played off the metal pipes for an eternity. He didn't want to think about what it would mean to be caught out here for an extended period without heat. Silently he prayed that Mike Fenty knew what the hell he was doing—that, in fact, he would find their way back to Saint Paul Island without the use of the GPS and the navigational system.

Back on the quarterdeck, Charlie cracked open the door to Mike's stateroom. The lamp on the nightstand was blinking sporadically. The girl was sitting up on the cot, staring at him through the crack in the door.

“You ready to start talkin' sense?” he said to her.

That coy little smile…

Without another word, he shut the door and proceeded to nail the section of cupboard across the stateroom door and the frame. The sound of the hammering was nearly deafening in these close quarters; still, he drove every nail home until he was left, exhausted and breathless, panting like a lion, outside the door. When the hammer slipped from his hand and dropped on his foot, he was brought back to reality. Shaken, tired, he crept down the corridor to his own room. Careful not to wake Joe, who was snoring wetly beneath a heap of blankets, Charlie peeled off his sweat-smelling clothes and, in nothing but long johns and wool socks, settled down on his own cot. The trawler rocking, the struts creaking and sighing and moaning all around him, he knew right away, despite his fatigue, he would not find sleep.

Eventually Gabriel worked his way into his head—out in the yard, overburdened by a heavy winter coat and snowpants, scooping up handfuls of graying snow and throwing them over the fence at Dale Carver's German shepherd. Johanna was there too, a wool cap on her head and a knit scarf around her neck. She looked fresh-faced and pure in the snow, her face barren of makeup. Calling to Gabriel as a gentle snow began falling in the yard. Dale Carver's German shepherd yelped and bounded after the fistfuls of snow tossed over the fence, confounded by the fact that the mysterious white balls disappeared the second they touched the snowy ground.

Charlie was there too, of course. In his bright red ski parka, his reddish beard neatly trimmed, he came out of the trailer and proceeded to chase Gabe around the yard. Giggling and wailing, his small legs pushing hard through the deep snow, Gabriel tore around the yard as Charlie pursued him, the German shepherd bounding after them from behind its fence. Barking.

Charlie's eyes flipped open. Not barking. Something struck the hull of the trawler. Maybe another iceberg.

“Joe?” His voice was empty, void of substance. “You awake?”

No answer. He could no longer hear Joe's snoring, he realized.

Sitting up on one elbow, he peered through the absolute darkness but could not see a thing. Fumbling on the floor for the flashlight, he located it and clicked it on. The dim, cataract light opened up on Joe's empty cot. The mound of blankets were strewn on the floor.

It wasn't until he sat up and squeezed his feet into his boots did he realize he was still mumbling Joe's name over and over.

Yeah,
he thought.
Losing my mind like a regular champ.

He dressed, the room bitter cold, and he could feel every muscle in his body wanting to cramp up. In the vague gloominess of the quarterdeck, he could see his breath, billowing out like tufts of cotton, nearly freezing to the bulkhead.

 

He all but collapsed in the doorway of the galley. Breathing hard, sweat freezing to his temples, he struggled to catch his breath. McEwan, seated alone at the table, glared up at him. Both his big hands were hugging the bottle of vodka, which was now mostly empty. Dead eyes lifted to examine Charlie, partially slumped in the galley doorway.

“Joe's very sick,” he managed, realizing as he said it that it was probably the understatement of the year. “He's not in his room. Have you seen him?”

“This,” McEwan grumbled, his rheumy eyes moving wetly in their sockets, “is all your fault, Mears.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You're always trying to be the hero,” McEwan said. “Always trying to save the world. Funny thing is, you can't even take care of your own domestic problems.”

“Man—”

“We're no different than the crabs,” McEwan went on. “You know it? We're no goddamn different than the moon-bugs in the tank. Each of us, we're all in our own tanks, all scuttlin' and clackin' and spittin' bubbles. Sure.” He grunted in approval of himself. “Sure as shit.” Those sloppy eyes worked their way up to meet Charlie again. “You know what happens to the spiders if they stay in that tank too long, don't you, Charlie?”

Charlie exhaled slowly. “What's that?”

“One of two things happen. Neither's very good.” A grimace. “One—they freeze in that tank. Ain't enough to circulate the water so it gets icy, even colder'n where they come from on the sea floor. They freeze and then they start exploding, bits o' shell and claws—pincers, clusters of spidery red legs—all of that, just
poof!
Like puttin' an M-80 in a mailbox, way we all did when we was kids.

“Then there's the other way,” McEwan continued, not missing a beat, “an' maybe you'd think this way is worse, mostly 'cause it ain't as quick as explodin' into pieces of spider-shell, but also 'cause what it means—what, see, it
means—”

“You're drunk,” Charlie said flatly.

“They eat each other.” Billy McEwan's voice was equally as flat. “Cannibalism. They get to starvin' in that tank, get to fightin' and gettin' on each other's last nerve. Close quarters, scrabbling over each other, probably learn to hate every other space-spider in there with you. You start pulling off a leg here, a claw there. Pretty soon you can't pull no more 'cause your
own
claws are filled with the claws and legs of others, and anyway it's only a matter of time b'fore they start pulling you apart and eating out your guts while you're still alive.”

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