One Small Step

Entry for the 24-hour writing competition. 5/9 parts published


4. Permafrost





   Aput's hands hurt where he gripped the rubber handles of the snow motor. The skin on his face stung too in the wind of his movement, where it wasn't protected by his ski mask. He hunched further into his coat and wished he'd taken toilet duty instead.


   The sun was high in the sky - it always was, of course, during the Arctic summer - and the metropolis towers of the drilling station were close on the horizon when he saw it. He wasn't sure why, afterwards, it so managed to catch his eye; maybe it was the animal ability to recognise something dead, for the purpose of avoiding it.


   He certainly didn't realise its enormous size until he took the motor closer. It hung there, head and fore-torso sticking out from the icy packed dirt cliff, maybe fifteen feet up. Some kind of moose, clearly, in the early stages of decay, its antler span much wider than Aput was tall. He gazed up, trying to work out how it could have become so firmly embedded, then pulled out his phone.


   A moment of triumph when he managed to get it on despite the cold (he always told Heather he would get an 'extreme' model for work but there just never seemed to be the spare cash), and he took a shot to show the moose's bizarre final resting place, then scrambled up the slushy mud slope to take a picture of himself next to it. The kids would love that, especially Benny, the morbid little wannabe-zoologist. Shaking his head with a laugh, he tried to send it, only to recieve a 'failed'. He always forgot, no data signal out on the peninsula. It would send when he got back to base.


   Unconsciously he leant on the dirt wall behind him, only for the slush underneath and behind him to give way and send him on his back down the slope. He managed to turn onto his feet just as he hit the bottom but then there was a terrible 'schloop' sound, and he turned to see the moose carcass slithering out of its hole.


   Aput recoiled quickly at the sight of the huge dead thing bearing down on him, its oversized antlers catching under its body and twisting its neck under. When it had come to rest Aput cautiously returned from the protection of the snowmobile. It was bigger than any moose he'd ever seen, and the rear part of it was frozen and less decayed than the head, which he noticed now had large, almost invisible froths of fungus thread spilling from its recently-pecked eye sockets and mouth. The foamy mycelium were crushed on the side it had fallen.


   Unsettled, he took one more picture and got back on his mobile, eager for the grounding company of the other shift workers.




   At first he wouldn't even admit he was sick; he needed the pay for this shift, so he shrugged off concerned questions and hands about the headaches, the throat aches, the all-over-aches, the dizziness. 


   He collapsed on the fifth day after day after finding the carcass; the station's infirmary wasn't prepared, and he was airlifted out. He started suffering hallucinations of the moose in the helicopter, lifting its ravaged head towards him and talking.


   You were never there for them, it said, puppet-like, what kind of father leaves his children halfway across a continent?


   "No, I... it was for them, always for them," he tried to reply, but it felt as if his lungs were full of that cottony fungus.


   You're a bad father. A bad husband. You know it, that's why you ran. How old is Benny then? Little Benny? How old is he?


  Through the toxic smog in his brain, he couldn't recall.


   Time moved in fits and starts. Sometimes he would stare at the clock on the wall and it would seem to take years before the seconds hand clicked over, ticking in his head.




   After some days, the fog lifted a little. He wasn't getting better, he knew; the doctors in masks who came into his shrink-wrapped quarantine room kept throwing around the phrase 'organ failure'. He felt floaty all the time now, which was an improvement of trapped in his sweaty, shivering, bone-ache body. Probably the drugs they'd been trying.


   At one point he heard a voice outside the biohazard zip, a scared voice; perhaps the fever heightened his hearing or was just producing more delusions, because he knew it immediately.


   He tried to paw at the coat of the next doctor who came in. Their face, behind the mask, was too far away to see, out of range of focus for his tired eyes. They pulled of his breathing mask.


   "Heather..." he managed.




   The doctors explained to him, safe from inside their plastic bubbles, that it was unlikely he'd make it. They really knew how to put it to soften the blow. Must have had a lot of experience, he mused.


   And they explained that he was contagious. That he couldn't speak - couldn't say goodbye - to Heather and the kids face to face without putting them in danger. Aput closed his eyes behind the breathing mask. But they could arrange something, the doctors continued, if he wanted. He nodded because yes, that was what he wanted, it was the only want left in him. To be close to his family.


   They brought in the screen, propped him up, wiped his face of the bloody drool around the edges of his mouth, combed his hair for him. When their faces popped up he reached out to the screen. Heather did the same. They didn't even speak for a few seconds.


   Then, "Daddy!"


   "Hey, Benny! Caitlyn!" He wiped a tear, hoping it didn't smear blood. "I hope you're both helping your mum look after baby."


   "Yes Papa..."





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