The Hard Land of the Winter

Every Friday this month, I will be posting an original work of short fiction.

The Hard Land of the Winter

The wind howled, even through the heavy doors it bayed and roared.  Its wispy tendrils lashed at the doors like whips, slamming against them as though the clawed hands of a great beast, pushing and prying them off their hinges.  Beyond the wind and the clambering of the doors, the three sat in deathly silence.

The three had been five, but no longer.  One was lost to a crevasse, the other to the cold.  Now they were all that remained.  In a small relay station they huddled in warmth and fear, listening apprehensively to the wind and watching the doors struggle against the hastily laid brace: a fire axe they’d jammed through the handles.  With each blow the doors buckled, straining against the axe.  Periodically the doors would be pushed hard enough to open a tiny gap between them, letting in a burst of snow and a deep breath of icy air.  

Outside, their enemy lurked, impatient.  They had escaped once.  Now it bayed and howled and raked its icy claws across the walls, threw its might upon their doors, splintered their axe, desperate to hold them in its frozen grasp and destroy them.  The elements had claimed their comrades.  Their ancient wrath would not be sated until all five had surrendered to the cold.

Their situation was grim.  They had but their coats to keep warm…their emergency blankets had gotten wet, and were sure to provide hypothermia before life-giving warmth.  They had no water…nothing thawed, anyway.  They had no food.  They were already half-frozen, and while the storm would likely last through the night, most likely they would not.

The lead researcher closed his eyes.  He was beyond tears, beyond remorse and regret, well into the realm of shock.  Even as he sought to reassure his comrades he knew the end was likely near.  Shutting his eyes tight, he fought to place himself elsewhere, not wanting to be around when he passed on.  Yet no matter where he went, the cold intruded.  Blizzards in Maui, frozen rain in Los Angeles…glaciers creeping across the Sahara…the cold consumed his thoughts, and soon it broke him.  His thoughts drifted to his family: his wife, his two boys…only days ago he had complained about the miserable conditions at McMurdo…about the cold, the food, how he couldn’t wait to see his wife and kids.  Now he found himself thinking of McMurdo in a far more positive light…reminiscing fondly, as one might dream of a night in Waikiki.

He stopped and listened.  His companion to the right had slowed his breathing…it was low, shallow, almost imperceptible.  He nudged him hard.  No, he needed to wake up.  No response.  He tried again, jabbing an elbow hard into his comrade’s gut.  At once he awoke…barely.  He looked over at him, eyes glazed, slack-jawed.  Like the rest of them, he was nearing the end, though he was perhaps closer.  For a time he watched him.

“Doctor,” his other companion whispered to him, “…are we going to die?”

He did his best to put a smile on his face.  “No, of course we’re not!  No one’s dying today.  We just need to stick with it until help comes.  It will, you’ll see.  This storm won’t last all night.”  He couldn’t help but feel bad for inserting that last part.  He certainly didn’t believe it himself.

“I wish I could call my mom,” she said, absently.  Clearly, she didn’t buy it either.  He looked at her for a moment, then back at the doors in front of them.  Another blow shook them.  The shudder caused the axe to creak, and let in a burst of fresh snow.  The three of them closed their eyes and turned away as the fine powder dusted their chests and faces.  It would be a long night…

Hours dragged on into eternity, an infinite nightmare of frozen hell.  The three stayed huddled within the tiny shed, the structure buckling and thundering as though being savaged by a great unseen monster that waited outside to finish them.  Eventually, his companions fell asleep, but the lead researcher fought to remain awake.  Someone needed to keep watch.  Should the axe break, someone would have to improvise another brace, or they would be dead in minutes.

Despite his best efforts, at some point he at last succumbed to fatigue.  In sleep, at last, he found his warm place.  He stood on a beach…it was Panama City Beach, as it had been years earlier.  Everything had seemed so simple then…simple and warm.  It was hot and muggy, his Hawaiian shirt stuck to his skin as he shook sand from his sandals.  It was a mad place, with high-rise condominiums, bars and restaurants painted in garish hues, bright and loud with equally boisterous crowds within.  The crowds spilled into the motorways, carrying the party with them as they drank and sang beneath gently swaying palms.  Large men in loud swimsuits rode by shirtless on mopeds, wraparound sunglasses on their noses, their skin tanned to leather by the Floridian sun.  

Finally, at some indeterminate hour of the early morning, the howling died down.  As he awoke, he could scarcely believe it…hesitantly, he rose to his feet, careful not to disturb his companions, and crept toward the door.  With great care he slid the axe from the handles, and cracked one of the doors, peering outside…

It was clear.  The sky above was a hazy white, but the snow and wind had ceased their violence.  The crawler was buried, their tracks completely erased…but they had done it.  They had weathered the storm.  An even greater miracle soon presented itself, as he heard a great thrumming sound high overhead in the distance…a search helicopter.  Hastily he reached into his coat pocket, his thick-gloved fingers fumbling with the tiny flare gun he’d taken from the crawler.  Finally, grasping it firmly in his hand, he held it aloft, and fired.

The flare shot upward, a plume of orange tail-fire in its wake.  As it reached its apex it burst into a brilliant red, glowing as a beacon of hope bright as the light of day.  He looked up and felt tears freezing on his face.  It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

The chopper pilot saw the flare, and the aircraft doubled back, heading toward their position.  Hastily, he ran back into the shed, shaking the frozen sleep from his companions.  His voice cracked with emotion as he relayed the joyous news to each of them.  The chopper crew soon landed, and in minutes the three were loaded into the cramped rear compartment, watching their shelter grow slowly distant.

The lead researcher watched with rapt attention, until at last the tiny shed vanished from view.  He looked back into the cabin, gazing off into space, reflecting.  All of his thoughts and experiences of the past twenty four hours were fairly easy to summarize.

I hate it here, he thought.


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