Zoe's radio barks from the bench beside her instruments.
Kyle is talking to the pilots.
Kyle's voice: "Pressure altitude fifteen ten."
The pilot answers him, drone of the engines in the background, "Roger pole pressure altitude fifteen thousand one hundred. This is kilo charlie seven descending from twenty seven thousand six hundred for twenty thousand..."
Zoe shines the light in my eyes. Looks into my ears and then goes back to the x-ray of my skull on the lamp box on the wall.
"I shouldn't let you fly," she says. "There's still some fluid."
"Don't sweat it, doc," I tell her, sitting on the examining table, staring at the composite cast on my leg. "They want me out of here. You guys are better off. I think if McAllister were here, he'd say it to my face."
She turns as if to argue, then stops herself. She's a polie. I know she's not going to lie to one of her own.
Outside a crowd of polies moves toward the airstrip glowing blood orange in the rising sun. They don't think I heard the argument, but I was already coming out of it, then.
Nobody was going to let them take her to staging on the forklift. Six volunteered, and then six more, until the entire station agreed to do rotations, each carrying the casket a couple hundred yards. They'd load Jana onto the herc, then come for me.
Zoe sees me watching them. Says, "You were gone for nearly four months, Greg. You're lucky to be alive, intact, with all your faculties. For a long time we didn't think it was going to be that way."
"Am I?" I mean, really. "I don't feel that way right now."
She holds a stethoscope to my chest. Then to my neck. Makes me move my head slowly from side to side. Stops me in the middle. Hand on my cheek.
Glares into my eyes. Where's this in the doctor's manual?
"Listen to me. It wasn't your fault."
"No, nothing is anybody's fault," I hear myself say. I pull her hand away. "All this bad shit just randomly happens. I should have climbed the tower. Ryan and me. Would have taken ten minutes, twenty tops even with the storm. None of this--"
I can't even get the words out. Every time I think about it, it's like trying to swallow a tree trunk. My eyes start tearing. Throat closes. Just want to lie back down.
"Why didn't I die?"
Zoe sighs. Hangs her stethoscope around the back of her neck. Leans on a bench and crosses her arms. Stares out at them carrying Jana's casket to staging.
Because sounds carry forever, we can hear the herc on approach and there's still a couple minutes before it lands.
"I don't know," Zoe says. "I've been an ER doc for almost my entire adult life and I see it every day. Two people in a car wreck. One walks away unharmed. The other dies with hardly a mark on him. I don't know why life works the way it does. I just know it's this way."
"You should have let me die," I say to her, giving her some of her own staring medicine.
"You weren't hurt that badly," she says.
When Ryan comes to get me, Zoe helps me off the table and onto my crutches. She kisses me goodbye. Stuffs something into my parka pocket and then turns her back to me.
But it's too late. I've seen the tears streaking her cheeks.
"Tell me something good, buddy," Ryan says to me from the pickup's driver's seat as we trundle down the path to the airstrip.
"I didn't do it on purpose," I say, praying he believes me.
He says he does, but I don't feel it. I know some of them think I tried to kill her. Some think I tried to kill both of us. Most of them believe it was an accident. At least, I hope. Because that's what I want to believe, even if I'm not convinced.
He puts the truck in park next to the cargo and the herc lands, lumbers past, and disappears in a spray of ice mist as it slows and makes its U-turn at the end of the runway.
"We turned on the AMANDA modifications," he says, trying to make small talk while we wait. "Some people on the internet thought it would warp all of us into a worm hole. Then we'd be in a singularity where time and space were interchanged. We could move back and forth in time, but we'd all be stuck in the same place."
The plane pulls up. Kris comes and opens the door for me. Jim helps me out.
When Ryan comes around to the passenger side he says, "But that didn't happen."
He holds out his hand. "Be well, my friend," he says. "I'll come visit."
"I want to go back," I tell him.
And now I'm surrounded by polies. One by one, they kiss me. Shake my hand. Tears turning to ice. The roaring herc engines drown all their words.
"How do I do it?" I call to him, but Ryan turns and gets into the truck.
Two of the guardsmen come and shuttle me toward the plane, and I can't turn my head far enough to see everyone behind me that I know is waving.
Don't let me go alone.
My free hand into my pocket. Squeeze what's there.
It's a tiny stuffed purple dinosaur, the kind they have at Disney World. This guy has been with me for as long as she was. She bought it for me on our first trip together. It lived in our bedroom at home. At McMurdo. At pole. Never let me go without it.
They buckle me into my position on board and close the doors. Jim and Kris and a few others buckle in behind me.
The toy is mute in my hands. Feels like something dead, rather than inanimate. Like Jana, her casket strapped down beside me as the engines roar.
But I know if I concentrate hard enough, this dinosaur will animate. This plane will evaporate. Antarctic day will become night. And I will have another chance to save Jana. Another chance to save both of us.
I know because I've done it before. Hundreds of times.
previous episode: the sound of something precious breaking
first episode: stendec
I imagined this version of the story, or one close to it, stretched out on a pallet of scientific equipment on a New Zealand C-130 heading from McMurdo to Christchurch, New Zealand. It had been rattling around in my head that I wanted to tell a story about a guy who winters over at pole and slowly loses touch with consensus reality, so that from inside his head, it all seemed normal until the last moment, when the flight crew arrives and the contrast makes his condition obvious.
In a very serious way, the story is part of my Antarctic diary for 2003, and my entire "career" on the ice. The idea came to me first in 2001 while hiking down the Taylor Valley with William Fox, the writer. He encouraged me to continue with the idea but I shelved it for other projects.
This year, 2003, on a whim I wrote a chapter of it for the McMurdo writer's group that meets on Tuesday evenings in the lounge of 203B. There were some decent responses, but the idea of going nuts and becoming homicidal didn't sit well with most people. People have become homicidal on the ice, at all stations. People have been killed, and the perpitrators dealt with, sometimes very harshly. Though everyone is curious, no ice person takes the subject lightly.
Homicide as a story motivator, while more historically accurate and hip with modern media, would probably result in a more mainstream, mundane plot line that would have the side effect of pissing off most ice people. While I am somewhat sensitive to denizens of the ice, that wouldn't stop me from writing a story I thought needed to be told. The issue, in my mind, is that unless you're a witness or a member of the family of one of those involved, the stories of the various w/o homicides are simply not interesting beyond a 300-word newsclipping. It's way too obvious. Of course being in the dark cold for six months doing a repetitive job with the same crew drives some people crazy. The audience provides the resounding "duh" and the writer goes back to his hole.
Which means if you're trying to write an interesting story, you have to fictionalize it, and then, in my opinion and those of the McMurdo writer's group, you'd be better off writing something completely fiction. Then, at least, there'd be some possibility to get the backing of the NSF rather than alienating them.
I discussed the idea with Stan Hutchinson, who runs the writer's group and the Antarctic Sun newspaper on the ice. After a couple of long walks with her I landed on the idea that something terribly tragic should happen, and the protagonist's mind would protect him from the knowledge of the horrors that occurred at his hand by propelling him into a fantasy world that everyone else would witness--or would act like they were to humor him. But after a while, they would be drawn into his mania so that they, too, were seeing cartoon dragons and giant spiders. And most of all, eventually, everone would see and believe they were interacting with the woman who died as a result of the tragedy.
We left it at that. So it remains a raw idea in need of development. Evolution is certain. It will change into what it's supposed to be, but there is hardly enough time or space here on our beloved E2 to accomplish much more than this very rough outline of 8 wus.
I thank Kristan, Tim, Ed, Bruce, Cathy, and all the other ice writers who convene on Tuesdays for their help and encouragement.
I will continue to try for my w/o spot so I can experience that life first-hand, and become a better storyteller as a result. It's not my goal to make a spectacle of their lives, but to do some honor to bonds that form as result of the hardships those chosen go through together.