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Gayle Towell

Endless Ice

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Frank Parker stands, hands gripping the bow, and hasn't moved in too long. He'd gone looney and stripped most of his clothes off a while ago, and everyone knew better than to talk him out of it. I already know what I'll find when I touch him, but that doesn't stop the racing heart, the bile itching at the back of my throat.

He is frozen stiff, a mottled purple-blue color. Ice masks his face, his eyes frozen open, his mouth ajar and dry inside. Long black hair nearly to his waist. Chunks of ice embedded in is beard. No one shaves. No one gets haircuts. Not since insulation from the cold became a matter life or death.

The boat rocks and bangs against chunks of ice floating in the ocean. Frank Parker falls with a thud and slides to one side of the boat. He hits with his feet, then his body whips sideways, and he smacks parallel into the railing.

"Throw him over," Captain calls. I look back at him standing at the helm, his long, gray godly hair and beard whipping up and down in the slight breeze. His brow lowers and mouth rises as if the two are trying to meet. He says, "He's dead weight now."

"We're getting low on food," Marco calls from far enough away that I can't see him through the haze. Wind obscures his voice, but the meaning is clear. And I've seen it done before—the cannibalization of a man. A child.

We won't survive this either way. Feeding off each other only kills the soul before the body.

I stare at Frank Parker's stiff corpse, and in this claustrophobic bubble created by the ever-present haze, I fear for a second that he and I are the same person. The cold swallowed me, and I, too, am frozen—dead or dying. My limbs aren't right, and cold air seizes my lungs.

The boat sways again. Frank Parker slides toward me, then tips back, smacking into the railing once more. I drop to sitting, side by side with his corpse, pull my gloves off, stare at my pale fingers, barely able to bend them. I lift my pants, touch my legs, mottled and purple just like Frank Parker's. Could be the light of the dull sky, the poor circulation. I was just standing on them. They must still work. They must still be getting some blood.

"Cooper!" Captain shouts. "Don't you go loony on me, too. You get those gloves back on and get that man overboard or you'll be joining him."

I shove my gloves in my pocket. It's the wrong thing to do, but maybe I'm jealous of Frank. Maybe I want to know how it feels to give up the fight to keep warm for once.

I get to my feet and grab Frank's arms. He can't weigh any more than he did when alive, but he's so stiff and rigid, he's cumbersome to lift. Bracing myself against the railing, I hoist him up. It takes everything I've got to get his center of mass far enough that he slides overboard, crashing into a block of ice below, his arm snapping, his body pitching off the ice and into the water, disappearing.

My hands are on fire. I look down at them and the skin on my palms is missing—stuck to the corpse and ripped off when he fell from my grip, leaving behind raw, pink patches with jagged dead skin borders.

Captain leaves Marco at the helm, rushes over and grabs my arm. "You need to get your damn head on straight or you're going to lose those hands."

He yanks me down below deck, my numb legs stumbling on the steps. In the kitchen he grabs one of the last casks of liquor, holds my hands over the sink and pours it over my palms. The sting makes me cry out, some guttural disembodied howl, but Captain ignores it.

He dries my hands, then smears rendered fat over them. He pulls my gloves from my pockets and forces them back on me.

"You've been up too damn long. Go to your cabin and get some sleep."

On the way down the narrow hall, the boat rocks and causes me to bump into Mary. She grins at me, sneering to show off her brown, chipped canine tooth.

"Bite me," I say. "Do it."

She snaps like an angry dog, then laughs before her face falls serious. "Frank's gone?" she says.

"Frank's gone."

She nods and continues on her way bracing herself against the swaying by keeping one hand on the wall.

Mary cut off her own tits not long after we all got on this boat. Keeps the men from grabbing them, she said. And one less body part to keep warm. She didn't even bleed much. The cold cauterized the wound. Maybe the cold had her numb enough she didn't even feel it. She didn't make a sound when she did it, and from what I heard, the blade wasn't sharp. She had to saw at them.

I think the act had less to do with keeping the men from grabbing them and more to do with scaring the ever-loving crap out of everyone so they wouldn't dare try anything. She can't nurse a baby now. Shouldn't be making any babies in this world anyway. You can't have a baby on ice and live.

It feels warm in my cramped, dark cabin though it's not more than a hair above freezing.

Warm has become a relative term. Ask me two decades ago, and I'd tell you at least seventy Fahrenheit, but really eighty or ninety. But now anything in the twenties feels like relief. My cabin is downright toasty.

Though there is barely light but for what filters down from above deck, I can see my bed and my wool blanket. I sit and wrap myself up.

It is only in the absence of persistent stress that the body lets on all it's been forced to do. My limbs only held me up because of their frozen stiffness. I become warm and they melt. I puddle onto my small bed, curl in a ball, and I'm fast asleep, unable to move or react. The boat could capsize, and I wouldn't know it.

I don't even dream, and for that I am grateful.

• • •

I don't know how long I've slept. It must be day because I can see, but I don't know if it's the same day or the next. Time is irrelevant anyhow.

Every muscle aches, but it will ease as it always does once I start moving again.

The boat isn't rocking.

I hear shouting on deck, and my chest pounds with the hope that we've found land. The remains of civilization might lie just beyond the bow. Buildings and stores of canned goods. And maybe other people. Perhaps a tree—even dead and frozen, I'll take it. An end to the endless ice. Dear god, anything.

I climb up on deck, Marco leaps off the boat, and I rush over to see him standing on firm ice.

Ice. Not ground.

There are no trees, no houses, no remains of humanity. Only the endless ice disappearing into haze in every direction. We didn't stop moving because we ran aground. We stopped moving because the ice finally seized the boat.



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