Nightmare Magazine




Spring Thaw

When Lucas walked in and nodded toward the Ice Bus, I thought for a fleeting moment he was finally going to make a move. Not that there was much of a dating scene in the small research station, but sometimes I would walk a short way away from camp and lie on my back and watch the stars and imagine that I could feel the Antarctic ice streams moving beneath me. And every time I would wish someone else was there with me, to let the sound of their breathing tether me to the Earth while my mind wandered among the distant lights.

“We have to go,” he said, voice official, and I sighed and nodded, got my gear and trundled out through the snow to the six-wheeled vehicle we used to get around. We had been waiting at camp for weeks, taking measurements and hoping for some sign that the Pine Island Glacier was getting ready to move.

“A flyover sighted something in the snow,” Lucas said as he climbed in shotgun, “to the west and south of here, only a few miles.”

I nodded and got us moving, my skills as a driver the only reason I was here anyway, the only reason Lucas had me along on his research mission, though I had hoped, ever since we met in Florida a year earlier, that it might mean something else as well. We had both been at a convention about the danger of warming polar ice, the prospect that the Keys and the Everglades and much of Florida were facing the very real possibility of erasure. He was there as a speaker, young and polished in his dark suit, and I had been there as the guest of another friend, who introduced us because Lucas had been looking for a driver willing to take on the Antarctic snows.

We hadn’t moved very far west or south since setting up camp; the ice was growing dangerous there and we had been advised countless times to keep clear of the more active ice streams. With the warming trends, even gentle disturbances could be catastrophic, and we didn’t want to be the ones that kicked the glacier screaming into the sea. But we were also obligated to track down every sighting from the air, to investigate in case it was someone in trouble, lost by the blinding white of the bottom of the world.

• • • •

I remember my first winter in the snow, moved up to Wausau, Wisconsin at age seven by my father to find work. I don’t remember much of Florida before that, just the sun and heat and a storm or two, the vague sound of my mother laughing. But Wisconsin was another world, a barren waste, completely white, from the snow to the people, and I, half-Cuban southern boy with something of my mother’s accent, didn’t fit in.

My father found work driving tow, everything from cars and trucks to snowmobiles and trailers; in the winter he made good money hauling ice fishing shacks out onto the frozen lakes. I would go with, would sit huddled against my father’s leg in the truck, sure that I could hear the ice cracking beneath us.

He would tell me then, “Ice is one of the strongest things in the world. You treat it with respect, and the ice will never let you through.”

I remember that it snowed over eighty inches that winter, that I thought the world was ending, that it would never stop snowing, that it was like Noah and the ark, only with snow so that God wouldn’t be lying when He said He’d never try the same thing twice.

• • • •

“Just a bit further to the west,” Lucas said, checking the coordinates he had been given by the aircraft. I nodded and found a safe path.

“You think it has something to do with the thaw?” I asked. For weeks I had been asking small questions, trying to piece together all of Lucas’ thoughts and theories. He was brilliant, driven, had been awarded grant after grant from the IPCC, the British Antarctic Survey, SCAR; the last always made me draw a hand to my shoulder without thinking and then quickly pull it away.

“Could be anything,” Lucas said, as usual not wanting to commit to anything that he hadn’t seen, that he hadn’t made his own mind up about. “Might just be some dark ash. The aircraft was vague, something large and dark. Maybe they think it’s the remains of some expedition, hoping for salvage rights if it turns out to be valuable.”

I nodded and didn’t say anything more, not wanting to seem uneducated, not wanting him to think that just because I only had a high school degree I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Instead I navigated up a slight rise and then slowed to a gentle stop, the coordinates reached. I killed the engine and we both climbed out and into the snow. The winds were calm, the spring air warmer than it should have been, warmer than was safe.

• • • •

In Wisconsin I learned what spring meant. I remember that first spring when the snows finally melted, when April was over and I had nearly forgotten there was color in the world. My father had learned of a new way to make money. He knew where every accident had been, where every car had collided with something. Winter had erased the evidence, but spring revealed it, and along the sides of the roads we saw the bodies, bones smashed, chests picked clean.

They were deer, mostly, trapped under the snow, their stories driven out by the cold and loneliness that winter brought. When we found a buck we would stop and my father would have me hold the head while he sawed the antlers off. Hunters would pay good money for them, and otherwise they would just be thrown away, my father had said.

Years later Jake would say the same thing, would take me out cruising for bodies, though much of the time it was just an excuse to make me go down on him in the car while he was driving the back roads as fast as he could. He would hold my head there and pretend to nearly crash, and in those moments I wondered who would find us along the side of the road, ripe and rotting in the melting snow.

Every year in Wausau hammered home the idea, though, that spring wasn’t the rebirth that everyone said it was, that what happened first was always the stink of dead flesh and rotting plants and a world that had been absent for five months. If it was a rebirth it was only once the bodies had been taken away, only once the dead weeds and leaves had been removed and disposed of.

• • • •

“What do you think it is?” I asked as we approached the strange, dark mound striking up at the sky. It was a little shorter than I was, mostly a dark brown but with something pale yellow, nearly white, at its tip. We walked closer, and I watched Lucas for some hint as to what he was thinking.

“I’m not sure,” he said, and paused, tilted his head. “Could be the remains of some campsite. The darker material looks like fabric.” It did, hanging down in ragged strips around the base of the protrusion. As we got up to it, I could see that it extended down into the snow and ice, its bulk lost somewhere under our feet.

It looked almost like the wreck of some ancient ship, a mast of ivory jutting up from the snow, the black sails in tatters around it. But the scale was off, and the beam at the center of it wasn’t straight but rather curved and perhaps broken. Lucas stepped closer, felt it with his gloved hand.

“We’ll have to take some samples to send in when we’re back at a lab,” he said, and I deflated some at that, knowing that it would be months until we’d hear anything. But I couldn’t argue. I went back to the Bus and pulled out a signal beacon so that we could find it later, even if the snows recovered what they had revealed.

I found Lucas standing, still touching the broken central shaft, when I got back. “Find anything?” I asked, activating the beacon. A small light flashed and it made a beep, announcing its readiness.

“There’s a hollow in this structure,” Lucas said, and I walked to where he was standing, saw that he was right. The broken column was just narrow enough to get my arms around, and did indeed have a hollow, an inner tube I could have just fit my hand into. Inside appeared to be empty, though at the edge of sight I could make out a strange, greenish substance, greasy looking even in the frigid conditions.

“I can run back to the Bus and get some more equipment,” I said, hoping to be helpful, hoping Lucas would notice me. Lucas just nodded, and I turned and struck the beacon down into the ice, then went back to the Bus.

• • • •

My father died on the ice. After I was older, had started working for him; right after I came out. He got drunk and fell through in late April, the start of spring, on a day when the temperatures reached nearly fifty degrees. I knew it wasn’t my fault the moment I heard, because he had told me, had said that as long as you respected it, the ice would never let you through. But by then my father had little respect left for anything, and fell through drunk and alone. The night had brought a cold snap, a return to single digit temperatures, and it wasn’t until the whole thing melted again in the middle of May that we found the body.

I remember his face as I told him, though, and as he walked away. It wasn’t my fault, I told myself when we found the body, when spring pushed it up from the waters, bloated and lifeless. I drove tow after that, no prospects, no goals. I let myself drive and drive, but I never helped the fisherman with their shacks, never went back on the ice, not until I was out of Wisconsin entirely, not until I came all the way to Antarctica with Lucas. I couldn’t have back then, knew that it would swallow me whole if it got the chance. I had lost my respect as well, replaced it with anger and beer and bitterness, a Northwoods tradition.

I hated the spring after that, lived for the winters when the snow would take it all away, the feelings and the colors and the warmth. I would go outside on the warmer winter nights and lie on the snow and look up at the stars and start to lose myself. Jake would find me most nights and pull me back inside, hit me so hard I couldn’t even shiver. On the nights he didn’t care I would wake up in the morning, the alcohol in my veins the only thing that had saved me. I’d call an ambulance and wonder if they’d make it in time.

• • • •

Back at camp Lucas took the samples he had collected from around the strange object and packed them all tightly for when we’d make our way to Byrd Station in the summer. There we’d give over the complete data from Lucas’ research and make our way back north. I wasn’t looking forward to it but didn’t say anything. We ate and I counted myself lucky we got better meals than whale fat, like they had to eat in the old days. Lucas never said much, but occasionally I asked a question and he answered.

When he had slipped into his tent, I slipped out of mine and crept to where the light from camp was hidden and I could lie on my back and look at the stars. I had to be careful, tracing constellations in my mind, wondering if, somewhere out there, some other person was lying on their back on an alien shore and staring back, the pair of us two points of darkness in the impenetrable gulf of space. If I stayed too long I would freeze, and I’d been sober for too long to survive a night in the elements.

As I watched the stars, though, there was a sudden quake, a rumbling in the ice and for a moment I thought the ice streams were finally giving out, that I’d be swept away and lost to the sea. There was a crack of ice and a roar of elements in the distance, and I stood quickly, waited for the tremors to recede. When they had, I ran back to camp, found Lucas awake and calling for me.

“Where were you?” he demanded, and instead of answering I pointed out into the snow.

“Something happened out there,” I said, “something big.” He frowned at me but nodded toward the Bus; we had been waiting for this, after all.

• • • •

Whenever Jake took me out looking for deer I prayed we wouldn’t find any. Silently, between moments of gagging, because I knew what happened when we found them. Unlike my father, who had known where to find them, Jake relied on chance to guide him to the rotting bodies. But there were always plenty. He never brought a saw, or a knife, or anything to cut the antlers free. He brought rope. When we found a deer we would get out and I would vomit onto the side of the road as he tied the rope to the deer’s antlers, then to the back of the truck.

I would shudder against the door as he revved the engine, as he peeled out as hard as he could. Most of the time the antlers would crack free when the rope pulled tight, and we would have to stop and gather them up. But sometimes, either because of the angle or the speed or the sheer stubbornness of the deer, it wouldn’t give up its treasure right away. And when that happened Jake would laugh and yell and take turns as sharp as he could, dragging the body behind until there was nothing left.

He would hit me when we got home, tell me he’d give me something to cry about. I asked him once why he kept doing it. He rarely even sold the antlers, because they were so often broken, useless, and I wanted to know why he would go out again and again. I hated it, hated myself for the part I played.

“What else are we supposed to do?” he asked back. “Why else would we be able to go out and have fun if we weren’t meant to? Fucking think, Adam. Man has domination over the animals.”

I remember that I had learned only a slightly different translation of that sentiment. I wouldn’t speak after that, would just duck my head and drink and wait to slip out into the cold.

• • • •

I took us back towards the object we had seen earlier, more to have a point of reference than anything else. The ice was broken in places but I navigated faithfully while Lucas checked a number of his instruments in the passenger seat. Seismic data was still coming in.

“What happened?” I asked, but Lucas just waved me away, distracted, nervous. I could tell he was excited, trying to downplay his anticipation. I waited in silence as we drove, and eventually he spoke.

“It could have been volcanic activity under the glacier,” he said, and I caught the faint hint of a smile on his lips. “Or it could have been sea water slipping between the glacier and the bedrock. The bedrock is below sea level and if that happened it is possible this could be just the start of the activity.”

It sounded bad, and I knew enough about the science to know that if what he was saying had actually happened we wouldn’t have long to get out of the area. But I could tell for Lucas it was like winning the lottery. Of all the times something immense could happen, he wanted it to be while he was there.

My eyes went back to the terrain and I saw the area near the beacon and slammed on the brakes, seeing almost too late that the area beyond seemed to drop away, that if we got too close the weight of the Bus might cause more erosion. I killed the engine and Lucas was out of the door before I could speak. I followed, trailing up the small rise toward the blinking light.

• • • •

It was spring when I left Wisconsin behind me. I had been drinking and fallen asleep on the chair in the living room, and I remember waking to the smell of burning meat. It took a few moments for the pain to overcome the alcohol in my system and send me reeling violently away, overturning the chair, breaking the table. Jake laughed and laughed, held the pan he had heated on the stove until it was nearly red hot.

“You can’t sleep all day,” he said while I cried, weak sobs escaping me like air being slowly let out of a balloon. “Fuck, all you ever do is sleep. We need some money. I’m going out to pull a Chicken Little, so you better be ready.”

Chicken Little was what he called taking an old car, worth nothing but scrap, and taking it out to the highway to cause an accident. Jake was an expert at getting into accidents that didn’t seem to be his fault. Once it had happened he’d act pissed, threatening, everything he could to try and get the other driver to just give him money and need a tow. That’s when I’d show up and take them to a garage to get fixed, and then I’d go back for Jake’s car to take it to the scrap yard.

I watched him go and kept crying for a while, but I knew that I had to get up. I put on a shirt and ripped off the sleeve because it hurt too much, waited for the call. When it came I got in the truck and started driving. I must have passed three deer on the side of the road, and I knew that Jake would have seen them, too. I didn’t stop driving until I was in Florida.

• • • •

The quake had caused much more damage around the protrusion than anywhere else, and Lucas and I stood there at the edge, where the ice fell away at least a hundred feet, down into the darkness. The ice had opened up, splitting, revealing more of the object we had seen.

“Is that bone?” I asked, squinting through the light of our lanterns. With the ice peeled away I could still see the broken whiteness of the piece we had seen, the dark tatters trailing from it. I could see more now, could follow it down its arc into the darkness. I couldn’t make out the entire thing, but I recognized more, similar shapes around it. I knew them; they were ribs, cracked and jutting up into the night, the last remnants of some dark flesh or skin or fur hanging off them in pieces.

“That’s not possible,” Lucas said, just a whisper, but I don’t know how he could try to deny it. Even in the dim light I could make out the form of a body, huge and broken. It must have been as long as a football field, the remains largely intact despite the time, despite the upheaval in the snow. It was spring in Antarctica, and the ice was finally pushing up its secrets.

Whatever it was, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Or maybe it looked a bit like the scar on my shoulder, a twisted memory of pain and loss. Its ribcage jutted up like the hull of some massive ship moored in the ice. I couldn’t see its arms or legs, didn’t know if it had them or if this was some giant fish or creature even more unknown. I could see its head, though, rising up in the distance, just barely visible against the white of the snow. And over that broken face I saw my father’s as it must have been when he fell through the ice, his mouth open, screaming as he splashed down into the water.

“If,” I heard myself muttering, though Lucas didn’t seem to notice, was lost in his own world, his own denials. “If you treat it with respect, the ice will never let you through.” My father had known, but the ice had taken him. I thought about Jake, and Lucas, and the Everglades, and I wondered how long this next winter would last before some distant spring bared our bodies to the world.

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Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.