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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (8 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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Grabbing the bottle by the neck, McEwan smashed it against the edge of the table. It broke into a crystal spray, pellets of broken glass scattering across the table and onto the floor. The liquor sprayed everywhere, darkening his chambray work-shirt.

“We have to do something about our situation here b'fore we resort to eatin' one another, Charlie,” said McEwan. A silvery threat of saliva drooled from his mouth. “Or before we start explodin' like mailboxes full of firecrackers.” He was breathing heavy, practically panting. “You an' me, Charlie. We have to do something.” He brought up his free hand and pressed an index finger to his left temple. “Before we start losin' it in here.”

“You're drunk, man,” Charlie said.

Those soul-piercing eyes—Charlie couldn't shake them off him. Then, to his amazement, Billy McEwan's ruinous lips splintered into a mock smile. His teeth were narrow, gray pickets protruding from purpling gums. “Oh, yeah,” he said, still smiling. “I'm drunk, all right. To hell and back. Right, Charlie?” The lip-splitting grin widened. “Right, homeboy?”

“Joe's—”

“Haven't fucking seen Joe.”

“Where's Bryan?”

Angrily, he tossed the broken bottleneck into the stainless steel sink. “Topside.”

10

Out on the deck, the air tore into his face, neck and hands. His cheeks tightened and the moisture around his eyes seemed to freeze instantly. Still, with Billy McEwan's words still fresh in his ears, he was glad to be out here in the open and away from the increasing claustrophobia of the quarterdeck.

Pulling his slicker tighter around his body, he spotted Bryan Falmouth standing at the end of the bow. Beyond, the sea was growing rough, a gray-black patchwork of ice fields miles in length drifting along the shimmering surface. Too much ice. The sun was still struggling to break free of the clouds.

Suddenly, the boat rocked. A sound like tree limbs breaking sounded out over the bow. Steadying himself against the railing in case a second blow should accost the boat, he diligently maneuvered his way to the front of the trawler.

“Hey,” he said, coming up behind Bryan. “The hell's Mike doing? There's too much ice out here.”

Bryan spun around, instantly shocking Charlie with the emptiness that was so evident on his face. He brought his cigarette to his lips, his hand vibrating like a tuning fork, and displayed some difficulty actually getting it into his mouth. He sucked hard, his cheeks nearly touching, and blew a shaky pillar of smoke into the wind.

“You fucking leave Mike alone,” Bryan uttered through chattering teeth.

“What?”

“Don't think I'm not on to you, Charlie. Tryin' to stir the fucking pot.”

“Bryan, man, I don't know what you're talking about.” He took a step forward, one hand outstretched—

“Don't come near me,” Bryan said.

As if stung, Charlie quickly retracted his hand. “Bryan—what's going on, man? What the hell's happening?”

“Don't fucking play with me, Charlie. You just stay right where you are.”

“Bry—”

“I'm not fucking playing with you, Charlie, so don't try to play with me!” Bryan screamed, spittle firing from his lips.

Speechless, Charlie backpedaled with his hands up in surrender. Bryan watched his retreat, the cigarette stuttering between two mercurochrome-colored fingers. As Charlie watched, something poked briefly from Bryan's right nostril. A second later it appeared again, more prominent this time, and Charlie realized, with a sinking sense of dread, that it was a bubble of dark blood.

“Bryan, please—”

“She's drilling holes,” Bryan said. His teeth rattled in the cold. Charlie watched as the cigarette dropped to the foredeck and smoldered on the planking. “Holes everywhere.” In a terrifying mimicry of McEwan, he brought up a set of fingers and jabbed at his temple. “In here,” he said. “In the boat too.” Looking briefly out over the roiling sea, he added, “The goddamn
world,
Charlie.” He managed a half-curled lopsided grin—again, just like McEwan's. “You get it, man? The whole goddamn
world.”

In a whisper, Charlie said, “What about the world, Bryan? What is it? Tell me.”

Eyes wide and rimmed red with terror, Bryan Falmouth whispered back,
“Infected.”

“Infected by what?” When Bryan didn't answer—he just stood there, his eyes afire, his entire frame quaking in his slicker—he said it again. “Infected by what, Bryan?”

There came a sound similar to metal sheeting being crushed under a great weight, followed by a rumbling from beneath the boat. The whole trawler shook. Bryan lost his footing and slipped on the wet deck, his arms pinwheeling. Charlie ditched to the side and grabbed hold of the railing. Looking down over the side, he watched as a small drift of ice was sucked underneath the boat. He heard a snapping, recoiling sound and looked up in time to see the trawler mow through a second sheet of ice closer to the bow. The sheet literally split down the middle and parted in half by the cutting trawler.

At the bow, Bryan had righted himself against the railing and was also leering over the side of the boat, although he seemed unimpressed by the fact that the
Borealis
was currently cutting through an ice field. As he looked, a length of salt-encrusted fiberglass siding, perhaps two feet long, snapped off the ship's hull and flipped end over end in the air until it crashed onto—and slid along—a shelf of frazil ice.

Charlie looked toward the darkened pilothouse. Sea salt had calcified on the paneled glass, making it impossible to see inside…and, he thought, impossible to see out. Nonetheless he began waving his arms high above his head, suddenly shouting Mike's name.

“No use, Charlie,” Bryan called to him. He was fumbling another cigarette from out of his slicker. “He's locked on course now. You guys will be home soon.”

He
almost
didn't pick up on it. “What do you mean ‘you guys', Bryan?” he asked. “What about you? You'll be home too, Bryan. We'll all be home.”

Unable to light his fresh cigarette in the strong wind, Bryan flicked it over the bow. “No,” he said. “Not me. Ain't supposed to be me.”

“Bryan, please, what—”

Bryan appeared to crouch, lowering his center of gravity. For one bone-chilling moment Charlie thought the man was preparing to rush him. And in fact Bryan
did
lower his head, ready to charge. Had it been his intention to execute a full-on rush into Charlie's solar plexus, he would have accomplished just that, as Charlie Mears was too slow getting out of the way. But as it turned out, such was not Bryan's intention. Head lowered, eyes ablaze, Bryan charged like a locomotive straight
past
Charlie, his all-weather boots slamming on the foredeck, his arms and legs pumping like machinery. He ran straight across the planking toward the stern where, in a bluish cloud of exhaust, Bryan Falmouth spread wide his arms and, without pause, launched himself over the side of the trawler.

Charlie shrieked his name, already running in Bryan's direction. But by the time he reached the stern, there was no sign of Bryan—not even the ripples in the ice-black water. Still, he kept screaming his name, as if mere recital would affect the man's return, his own hands biting into the framework of the stern. As the trawler peeled away, carving a white-capped tract through the frozen sea, Charlie saw—or imagined he saw—one of Bryan's boots briefly bob to the surface.

Holes everywhere,
Bryan's voice echoed in his head.
You get it, man? The whole goddamn world…

He spun around and ran for the pilothouse, mounting the steps in just three giant strides. He slammed his considerable weight against the pilothouse door, which, once again, was bolted from the inside. Shouting Mike's name, his breath blossoming on the filthy pane, he rattled the doorframe with his fists.

Mike, stock-still behind the control panel, did not turn and look at him.

“Goddamn it, Mike, open the fucking door!”

“Mears!” The voice boomed over the snarling engine, just barely audible despite the urgency of tone. It was McEwan, his features muddied by the low-hanging thunderheads trembling with snow. He was wearing only an open chambray shirt and, beneath, an unwashed wife-beater—no coat. The bristling tufts of his hair, unraveling in every direction, rustled like oak leaves in the strong wind. In his hands he held an ice axe.

Charlie took a step back, his blood freezing in his veins. “Bryan's dead,” he heard himself say, his voice flimsy and paper thin. “Jumped off the stern.”

“Come on down from there,” McEwan said. There was a calculated levelness to his voice, Charlie noticed—a noticeable restraint. Something was trembling just below the surface. “Leave Mike alone.”

Another grinding, peeling sound as jagged fingers of ice cut into the hull—

“He's gonna sink us,” Charlie warned.

McEwan placed one heavy boot on the first iron step. His eyes settled hard on Charlie, dull like the heads of iron spikes driven into his skull. “He's a good, strong captain,” said McEwan. “Said it yourself. He knows what he's doing.”

Charlie shook his head. “No. She got to him.” He cleared his throat as McEwan mounted another step. “She got to you too, Mac.”

“Ain't nobody gettin' to me, Mears. Why don't you come on down? We'll talk it out.”

Mike Fenty's face suddenly appeared at the pane of glass in the pilothouse door—just inches, despite the shield of glass, from Charlie's own. Charlie's heart leapt in his chest. Mike's eyes had soured, the sclera textured like curdled milk, and a network of whitish blisters had cropped up along the right corner of his mouth. As Charlie looked upon him, Mike Fenty grinned. His gums receded, his teeth looked wolfish.

“Can't have you messin' with the captain,” McEwan said. He hefted the ice axe in his hands as he climbed yet another step. “We're almost home, Charlie. Then we can go about our shit. Like you.” Just as the girl had done before him, McEwan cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive mutt. “Ain't you got a kid out there you're anxious to start lookin' for, Mears? A little boy? Hell, man, once we get back to Saint Paul, you can do all the lookin' you want. You can use my goddamn car. Got a brand new F-450, chains on the tires, the whole nine. All yours,
amigo
. Whatever you want.” McEwan paused, halfway up the stairs. “Just come on down with me, huh? What'd ya say?”

Behind the glass, Mike Fenty's face appeared to blur like someone moving too quickly just as a photo was being snapped.

“Listen to me,” Charlie said, trying to watch both Mike and McEwan at the same time. “You guys ain't thinkin' right. Did you hear what I said about Bryan? He jumped over the
side
, Mac. He's dead.”

“Parasites,” McEwan said matter-of-factly. “In the head.”

“I can't let this boat reach Alaska. I think that's what she wants.”

“Talkin' crazy now, Mears.”

“Someone dumped her out here for a reason. We can't let her get back.”

“Hey, Mears—” he said, taking another step, “—you remember what I said 'bout them crabs? How we ain't really no different so's we gotta be careful, keep an eye out, make sure we don't do what they do?”

“Don't come up any farther,” he warned.

“Well,” McEwan continued, ignoring him, “you ain't kept such a close eye. Seems to me you started coming apart, gettin' ready to explode on y'self.”

“Billy—”

Scraping: nails on a chalkboard. Wincing, Charlie looked to find Mike dragging the blade of a ten-inch boning knife down the length of the windowpane. His menacing grin widened, skeletal in its appearance.

With a grunt, McEwan lunged forward, swinging the ice axe in a wide arc. Overcompensating for the distance between them, the swing was undisciplined; the tapered point of the ice axe missed Charlie's thigh by a good foot and a half—though it seemed much closer to him—and wedged itself into the pilothouse door. Before McEwan could yank it free, Charlie administered a swift kick, which connected squarely with McEwan's chin. McEwan's head rocketed back on his neck, his bulky torso bowing backward until the distribution of his weight sent him spilling down the iron steps. The foredeck sustained the full brunt of his weight, the planks buckling but not breaking, while the back of McEwan's head rebounded off a slatted wooden crate.

Charlie vaulted down the steps and bounded over McEwan's prone form. As he rounded the foredeck, he happened to catch sight of an immense pillar of ice, its summit carving a notch in the silvery sun, rushing up to greet the starboard. Too late to brace himself against the collision, the flooring was ripped from beneath his feet, launching him into a succession of somersaults from starboard to portside in the blink of an eye. A moment later he was knocked stupid by a blood-freezing pummel of water that reached over the starboard side and, like the smiting Hand of God, smacked down on the foredeck. The icy wave burned through him. It seemed an eternity for it to spill away and for the trawler, now bobbing like a Coke bottle at sea, to right itself.

Gasping for air, his entire body flash numbed, Charlie scrambled to his feet just as McEwan, dazed in his own right, was trying to prop himself up against the pilothouse stairs. As their eyes locked—

“Mears!”
It was a roar, no more human than the guttural articulation of some mythical Himalayan beastie.
“Get the fuck back here, goddamn you!”

The trawler shook again then tipped gradually to portside. All the crates, deck furniture, lines and hooks, loose tools and tool chests slid in that direction. Hands up in a defensive posture, Charlie felt the equipment slam into him, biting his flesh and snagging his clothes. Something solid ricocheted off his forehead, causing a fireworks display to erupt beneath his eyelids. Dizzy, he managed to climb to his feet and, staggering like a drunkard, propelled himself across the foredeck toward the narrow cutout of steps descending beneath the pilothouse station.

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