“What do you see, Gerry?”
“It’s beautiful,” he says before taking another slightly labored breath. “Grass everywhere. The sun’s bright. No clouds.” There’s a scary optimism in his voice, an unnerving counterpart to the stark “I’m going home” he loudly proclaimed an hour ago during dinner. Yeah, it shocked the hell out of everyone eating, but no one was really surprised. In Antarctica, even more so here at the South Pole, going toasty is a national pastime.
It stinks to high hell in the small, cramped gym. Gerry’s boot clad feet pound in rhythm against the treadmill. He’s going a steady four miles an hour, a brisk walk that could go on for hours. Gloves, sweat pants, and the standard National Science Foundation red parka cover everything on his beanpole frame besides his pale forehead and gray eyes. A quickly packed bag of god knows what is lying just to the right of him. I keep my mouth shut. Two full winter seasons under my belt have taught me much more than how pipes explode as sixty below, that a single leak can put everything out of commission. Crazies go violent if you don’t treat them right.
“Sounds nice,” I finally reply as I shift my sore ass onto a softer spot on the bench press. What I say to Gerry isn’t a lie. Five months have passed since I’ve seen grass, four without the sun. Living at the bottom of the world, it’s natural to miss these things, miss a lot of things. Florescent lights, shag carpeting and beige walls really don’t cut it. We all feel it, a skeleton crew of forty keeping the place running during the six-month night. It’s all right, Gerry, I want to say. No one’s judging you for this, happens to everyone in one form or another. Your body will give out soon enough. You’ll fall, probably cry a little before passing out. Tomorrow you won’t hear a word about it.
I, on the other hand, will be pulling a double shift by myself as you recover from your long walk.
Thinking of the inevitable, I place some yoga mats behind the treadmill. Wouldn’t want him to hit his head on the concrete. Finished, I sit back down and resume my vigil.
After a few minutes Dr. Harrison, Kate, leisurely steps in from the hall. She’s a kind woman and a good enough doctor for the scrapes we get into down here. She embodies the type of temperament that everyone here carries to one degree or another: so different from the rest of the world that we all fell to the bottom. In each other’s company, there’s really nothing odd about us. It’s just that war, strife, famine, gas bills: the rest of the world can have it.
No medication or instruments in hand, I guess she just wants to observe for a little while. I motion for her to sit next to me. She does.
“How’s my patient?” She asks with a knowing smile, the deep wrinkles on her bony face stretching almost comically. “Getting his exercise it looks like.”
I chuckle. “He thinks he’s going home.”
“He didn’t seem odd today, did he?”
“Nope. I thought he was holding up pretty well considering it’s only his first season down here. Spent six hours today in the crawlspaces beneath the mess. Replaced insulation on about a dozen pipes in that time. Work was pretty routine. We talked a lot.”
“About what?” She adjusts her ponytail.
“Shit…normal stuff I guess.” I rub the stubble on my face. “Old jobs, women. He mentioned after lunch that he missed 5th Avenue bars. You know, the ones like Butterfinger.”
Kate nods. “That is pretty normal,” she says, tilting her head slightly. “There’s usually signs. You do work with him every day. There was really nothing else?”
“I took him out this morning on the snowmobile to see the Aurora,” I admit after a few seconds of thought. “But he was fine the whole time, I swear.”
“How far?” Kate asks, her tone sharpening somewhat.
“A mile, maybe just a little under,” I reply, looking at Gerry. “It’s no good if you can still see the base lights.”
“Christ.” She shakes her head. “Harris is going to have your ass if he finds out.” She’s referring to the base leader, a small lump of a man who cares more about not getting fired than anything else.
“He’d be more mad that I used a gallon of gas without permission,” I reply, grinning ear to ear. To hell with Harris or any of his bosses in the Colorado home office. They can bill me for it.
“It was a miracle we found you last year,” Kate whispers. “If you hadn’t had your personnel transmitter with you…” She trails off.
I reluctantly nod. “I know.”
Last year, after the end of a three-week twilight, I started going off by myself before shifts, taking brief strolls in the still night. My strolls became long, solitary walks, a quest to find the perfect spot to lie down for a while, plug in the iPod, and watch the Aurora. I soon realized that I could save time by taking one of the snowmobiles every day, riding it out a few miles behind the nearest low ridge where it was perfectly dark and the sound of the jet fueled generators didn’t carry.
One day everything went wrong, at least that’s what I was told when I woke up. The sky was as beautiful as ever, and I was listening to a Mahler symphony burned from CDs I’d received as a birthday gift from my baby sister. All of a sudden the Aurora became especially bright, and in half a heartbeat there was no time, no space, no me. All existence, the universe and the mysteries beyond became the image floating above my head: a pale band of green light dancing endlessly against a star filled sky. Nothing had come before it. Nothing would exist after it. The end of time was also its beginning. Kate later said that when they found me, tears were frozen to my nearly frostbitten face. Fortunately for me, the psych tests came back normal.
“But at least I had Gerry with me this time,” I say, trying to shore up my defense.
“Look at him now,” Kate says, pointing with both arms. “What if he had done this out there?”
I see it in my head, both of us frozen in the dark, Gerry a few miles closer to home. All of a sudden I feel like shit.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” I say as if apologizing to my mother.
“Just don’t do it again,” she tells me, rubbing her palm against her forehead.
“What do you think set him off?” I ask after another few minutes of only Gerry’s footsteps filling the room.
“Good question.” She pauses for a moment, sighing in the process. “What happened to you out there last year?”
“Wish I knew.” Did I go out there to lose myself again, Gerry only coming along to snap me out of it? Oh course he’d never tell anyone. He looks up to me too damn much. For the life of me I can’t remember any other intention besides wanting to show him a perfect sky.
“Did you know that if you put your neurons end to end, they would circle the entire world?” Her words break me out of the self-inquisition.
Kate shrugs. “I don’t know, but I think I read it in a book once. The point is that there’s a lot of wiring upstairs in our heads, and maybe for Gerry all it took was one little chemical misfire or break at the right time.” Staring me square in the eye, she taps her temple for emphasis. “Anyway, he’ll be fine by morning.” Kate slaps her denim-clad knees before standing up. “You look tired. Sure you don’t want me to take watch?”
“Nah. Gerry’s a nice kid. I want to make sure he’s okay.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll be in my room. Call me if anything should change for the worse.”
I nod, smiling at Kate as she steps outside. Gerry is still walking along, oblivious to the conversation that just ended. “Still beautiful over there?”
“A little warm.”
Of course it’s warm, I want to reply. Running in that many layers in a seventy-degree room will do that. Beads of sweat are dripping off his forehead. His pace is just as strong, though, eighty thuds a minute. It’s hypnotic, an annoying metronome.
Yawning, I get up briefly to pull over Gerry’s duffel bag. It’s surprisingly light for the size. I’m sure he won’t mind if I have a look. Two sweaters, long johns, briefs: it’s a mundane assortment for someone having an episode.
“Had you pegged wrong, Gerry,” I say aloud as my fingers grasp a square glass bottle near the bottom of the bag. The bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold is over half full. “Never took you for a scotch man.” I unscrew the cap and take a small sip. “Before you decided to take your walk, I was going to buy you a drink tonight.” I grin. “Guess I owe you two now.”
No reply. I’m alone. A half mouthful of the Scottish firewater burns all the way down my throat. I inspect the bottle, rubbing my thumb over the paper label. It’s so perfectly normal, like driving down to the store on a whim to buy a candy bar, or barbecuing in shorts on the 4th of July. During the holiday last week we ate microwaved hotdogs and watched a fuzzy fireworks display on the rec room TV. Going out in shorts would have been suicidal. I take a full swig.
I shouldn’t be drinking so much. The first wave of intoxication hits and I immediately think of another poor soul…Carl Rivers. Jesus Christ, compared to Carl, Gerry’s in heaven.
“You know, Gerry,” I say, a little sigh escaping my lips. “I never told you about Carl. Carl was an old timer. In all he spent ten seasons down here. After a shift rewiring a fuse box two years ago, Carl sat next to me at the bar, pushed his beer gut against the table, and calmly lit a smoke. One jack and coke turned to two, two to three. Then, without warning, Carl gabbed the bottle from behind the counter and started to chug. We got it away from him pretty quick, but the bastard kept fighting for it. He screamed over and over that some unholy monster was going to pull him into the darkness if he didn’t have ‘home’ in him. He kept going until Kate shot him up with enough Thorazine to knock out a horse. I walked away with a black eye and Carl didn’t wake up for two days.” A few words later and I trail off.
An overwhelming pang of disgust and fear makes me set down the alcohol. There’s already wetness on my cheeks. “Gerry,” I say, voice trembling, hands clenched so tight that my knuckles are white. “I almost froze to death down here once. Carl tried to drink himself into an early grave. Even Kate sobs in her room. She doesn’t think anyone knows, but I can hear her when I walk by before bed. We’d give it all up, all the little distractions meant to keep us sane, the DVDs in the rec room, books, games, and even the fucking tax free liquor, all of it for five minutes of what you have now.”
As I lean forward, probably to fall on the floor and weep, the bottle at my feet reflects the ceiling light into the corner of my left eye. My tears turn the simple flash into a bright, flowering starburst that envelopes everything.
Aurora from a bottle.
Calm and collected, I slowly stand before walking to the phone hanging near the door. I dial.
“Hello,” Kate answers, groggy. She probably just nodded off a second ago.
“I think I’ll follow Gerry for a while.”
“What are you…”
Click. I hope she understands. I won’t be long, just a few days, enough time to see my girlfriend, sleep in my own bed, and maybe even barbecue a little. I’ll work some extra shifts when I get back. Yeah, no one will mind.
I step up on the second treadmill. There’s no need to catch up to Gerry. We’ll run into each other eventually.
As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, THOMAS BRODERICK published short fiction in The Vanderbilt Review in 2006, 2007, and 2008. His work has most recently appeared in The Legendary and Curbside Splendor.