By EJ Stark
There wasn’t much at the end of his directions from a drunk bush pilot to confirm he was in the right place. A small cabin, a windmill, and a couple of outbuildings protecting the equipment necessary to sustain life all the way out here, all dangerously close to the bottom of a snow covered ridge. The wind was picking up, already starting to obscure the top of the ridge as snow began to fall. A snowmobile was parked near the front door. Good sign someone was home.
He knocked on the door and it swung open as his knuckles left the wood. She matched the picture and she didn’t. Somehow, she looked younger than the dust jacket photo from five years ago. He hadn’t expected her to look so…. normal. She was wearing a gray hoodie and jeans, he could be standing anywhere in the Midwest, instead of here at the end of civilization.
They were both too young to be here, snow swirling around their ankles.
“I’m from the publisher.”
She rolled her eyes. He followed her back inside, stacks of books on the floor up to his waist. Waves of dust floated in the sunbeams streaming between hardbacks from years ago mingling with new releases.
“Why are you here?”
“Why did you decide to live all the way out in Antarctica?”
“It was cheaper than moving to the moon. And I like the snow.”
The moon was the next place he was going to be sent, given how these assignments were going.
She snorted. “Alaska hasn’t been remote since the 2050s. And the snow melts.”
Enver ran a hand through his hair. He knew it was going gray, even if the mirror kept lying to him. Em settled into a ratty chair next to a desk invisible under books. He’d never seen so much paper in his life. The never-ending wind rattled the windowpanes.
He’d been in the remote town for a week and, until now, unsuccessful in finding the author he’d been sent to track down. He’d gotten his hands on a possible location last night by bribing a crusty old pilot with copious amounts of whiskey. So here he was, in the blinding white of the late Antarctica summer and the literal middle of nowhere.
“So…. what’s your name?”
He’d forgotten his manners in his disgust for this entire trip. There was nothing he hated more than being cold, and he hadn’t felt his toes three days. The Antarctica chill had seeped through every layer of clothing specifically rated for extreme temperatures, and there was nothing he could do to get it budge.
“Enver Ristovski, you go by Emily?”
Enver settled into a chair at a rickety table.
“Research for the next novel?” he asked, trying to smooth the internal harshness the wind had whipped up on the ride here. His ears were still ringing despite the supposed ear protection from the helmet.
A gust of wind shock the whole cabin. The skies were continuing to darken, the light through the window beginning to fade.
Em kept staring at him. Enver sighed through his nose. These things never got easier. A former solider reduced to deadline wrangler. But that’s what happened to special forces who couldn’t hack it. To the soldiers who weren’t supposed to burn out.
They were supposed to pivot. To smooth the situation over and take back control.
“Everyone’s worried about you, you haven’t responded to any of our communications in months.”
Em raised an eyebrow.
He’d never been a very good liar. Probably the reason for the lack of surprise on his commanding officer’s face when Enver walked into his office on a cold January day, letter in hand to resign his commission.
“Ok. Fine. Your books sell. You’ll never make the New York Times bestseller list, but you keep the lights on.”
“Good for them. They’ll get the next manuscript when they get it.”
Em glanced outside at the dying sunlight. Twisting her mouth, she started moving books off what he now realized was a couch. They landed with a thud on the wood. He stared at the floorboards, a harsher gray than the rest of the cabin. They looked worn, almost like they were older than the walls. Enver stamped a heel on the floor.
“How old is this place?”
“It’s an old homestead site. The cabin is mostly new.”
“What happened to the previous owners?”
“They froze. No one found them until spring.”
Enver swallowed, forcing the rising horror down.
She started to say something else, but her gaze snapped over his shoulder. Enver turned and saw nothing but what he’d seen since landing in this God-forsaken corner of the planet. Whipping sheets of white. Another blizzard in the making.
“You’re stuck here for the night.”
She dropped the statement like a lead balloon.
Back to moving books, she didn’t look at him.
“You’ll get lost trying to get back to town. The blizzards mess with the satellite connection.”
He did not get paid enough for this.
“And what if I just leave now?”
Enver was calculating the distance back to town, mentally mapping the terrain and looking for problems. She looked at him like he was a person for the first time.
She’d dug a blanket out of the cabinet and was clutching it in the middle of the sea of books. He glanced at the growing blizzard. The room was growing dark as the snow thickened. The idea of going back out into the wind made his skin crawl.
Besides, he couldn’t go back to the publisher empty-handed.
The sun set thirty minutes later, complete darkness spreading fast. The world outside the windows narrowed to a few stray flakes of snow, emptiness beyond. They settled into a tense silence, Em bent over her desk and Enver slumped on the couch, cursing the intermittent satellite coverage. He didn’t realize the wind had stopped until it came back with a vengeance, sounding vaguely like screaming. Em’s head snapped up. Her eyes unfocused, listening.
“We good?” Enver asked.
Em didn’t answer for several moments.
“ Yeah,” she said finally, rubbing her temples.
The windmill screeched.
“How’s the latest novel going?”
Em ignored him. Dragging himself off the comfortable couch, he swept a few books to the back of her desk and leaned against it. She was scribbling in a physical notebook. He craned his neck, trying to read it. He didn’t know anyone who knew how to write in cursive anymore. Em slowly stopped writing, glaring out the window.
“You can kick me out at dawn, I’ll just be back.”
“How about you don’t. One sleepover is enough.”
“Listen.” Enver folded his arms. “I have to take something back to the publisher.”
“You want your royalties to keep coming, yes.”
That got her attention. Though he couldn’t tell if she was about to agree with him or punch him.
“You can make a copy of this tomorrow,” she said, clipped.
Enver backed off, but he didn’t move. He didn’t want to. Her pen hovered above the page. Snapping himself out of it, he went back to the couch. The cold was sinking into his bones, the entire continent messing with his head. Exhausted by the lack of data coverage, he tossed his phone and reached towards the nearest stack. Em caught him out of the corner of her eye, but she didn’t say anything. He rubbed the back of his neck as he cracked the cover of some dust covered hardback.
Lovecraft. Fitting. Peering over the ancient copy of Cthulhu, he wondered how she didn’t creep herself out constantly. Living alone in the eternal winter writing horror novels couldn’t be good for anyone’s mental health.
“Would you stop staring at me?”
“Sorry.” Enver darted his eyes back to the page. He couldn’t read more than a few words without looking around the cabin and shifting in discomfort. He hadn’t grown up in a place that got snow in the winter, and he didn’t understand how the raging storm outside wasn’t stressing her out more.
The rest of the night passed in silent unease until Em abruptly announced she was going to bed and they awkwardly settled into their sleeping arrangements.
He woke up at three am. He knew the time in the instinctive way anyone who wakes up precisely at that hour knows. The witching hour was not meant for humans, his grandmother used to tell him. The wise keep their eyes shut and go back to sleep, she’d say. He looked straight across the room at yellow eyes staring back through the window.
He blinked and then screamed. Military service aside, he knew it was a bad idea, but he let it rip from his throat. Around the rest of the cabin, shadows danced but stayed put. Em sat up, whispering for him to be quiet.
Enver jumped when she crouched next to him.
“Did it wake you up?”
“There’s something outside,” he hissed.
“I know. Did it wake you up?”
His brain wasn’t moving fast enough. He didn’t understand. She pulled him up and towards the bathroom.
“You weren’t supposed to look at it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that!?”
“I didn’t think you’d wake up at the worst possible moment!”
“What. Is. It.”
“Not important right now,” Em said. She shuffled him into the bathroom, locking the door with her thousand-yard stare back, head tiled. Everything was quiet, wind whispering around the siding.
A stack of books fell over. The wind picked up, wood creaking. It was impossible to tell if it was the floor or the walls. Em held one finger up to her lips and motioned to keep his eyes on her. He nodded.
Enver kept his eyes glued to her until movement crept into the edge of his vision. Long, thin shadows were creeping under the door like fingers.
“I see them.”
Enver dragged his gaze back to Em’s face, her own fixed on the door.
“What do we do,” he whispered.
“I don’t know.” Her voice was strained. “It’s never gotten inside. Hiding away from the windows always solved the problem.”
His head was spinning. Identify the threat. He couldn’t breathe. Pinpoint the weakness. Shove your fear down to your soles and let it melt into the ground. Unless, of course, the ground is frozen and bounces it right back into your throat.
“You need to close your mind off to it.”
“Why am I the one who has to keep doing things?”
“It woke you up, not me.”
The door knob turned. Em hissed something at him, fear muddling it into gibberish.
The handle stopped. Em pulled him backwards until they hit the wall, her hand brushing over his face until it clicked she was frantically telling him to close his eyes. The door hinges creaked. Rasping breaths followed a chilling breeze into the room. It took everything he had not to open his eyes and bolt. He could hear Em hyperventilating.
“If you don’t start breathing slower, you’re going to pass out,” she whispered, contemplating letting his eyelids flutter open.
It wasn’t the wind. It was rasping laughter.
“We gotta run,” he said, unsure if it was out loud or just in his head.
“We can’t. It’s blocking us, and if we open our eyes, it gets worse.”
Enver was willing to test that theory. He was willing to do anything to get out. Em threw her hand over his eyes.
Out. He needed out.
“Trust me,” she said, raw emotion bleeding out of her voice. That fear he was feeling, he realized, wasn’t just his own.
His throat closed like a bad reaction to shellfish.
“Just don’t acknowledge it,” Em whispered, as her hand falling away. If she was trying to sound anything other than petrified, she was failing.
Close off his mind. Enver dredged up the most sunlight memory from his childhood. Yellow daisies in tall grass. White sheets on a clothesline. The fear didn’t leave. Yellow daisies, tall grass. White sheets. There are no yellow eyes. Don’t open your eyes.
The floor creaked in front of him. Yellow daisies, tall grass. White sheets. Sunlight bathing mom and grandma in hazy gold. Laughter from his cousins. He was warm and happy, not freezing in a remote cabin in Antarctica. He was safe in the backyard, picking flowers while his mother hung sheets on the line. Yellow daisies, tall grass.
Cold air drifted across his face, like breaths made of ice. Yellow daises. If he looked, there would be yellow eyes. Tall grass. White sheets. His hand burned, like he’d stuck in it hot water after making snowballs. It took a minute to sink in that Em was squeezing his hand.
He couldn’t breathe. He had to get out.
Yellow daises swirling around yellow eyes. He was staring into darkness, clinging to bones that creaked like the floorboards as white sheets stretched into a grin. Ice encircled his throat.
Probably as tight as she was screwing her eyes shut. White sheets. Tall grass. Yellow daisies. The feeling of mom tucking him into bed, as he stared into the eyes of the monster from under the bed.
It took every once of strength to force his eyes closed as he struggled to breathe. The creaking bones around his throat were closing. He focused on the summer sun while the lack of oxygen set in. Heat curled up his arm from her fingers, childhood memories spreading peace. The ghost of a smile danced on his lips, hallucinating yellow eyes in hollow sockets.
The next thing he knew, Em was shaking him awake. They were still in the bathroom, curled on the floor.
“We good?” he asked groggily.
“Yeah, we’re safe.”
She got up. Enver dragged himself off the floor and followed her out to the kettle. He stood in silence as she moved around the kitchen.
“Why would you stay?”
Coffee finished, she set two mugs on the table and sat down.
“Why not?” Last night’s terror had vanished. She leaned back, coffee untouched. “There’s two rules; don’t go outside in the dark and if you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t open your eyes.”
The caffeine was clearing the cobwebs from his mind.
She paused, hand part way to her mug.
“You were watching for things out the window, in the daylight. You saw something over my shoulder.”
Her face scrunched up.
“Having another person around makes me jumpy. That’s all.”
Em didn’t answer, instead reaching for her coffee.
“It’s breaking your rules.”
The wind had died down sometime after he passed out from exhaustion. Without the constant rattle, it was silent. So quiet his ears were ringing. Enver stared into the coffee, trying to conjure up the image from the night before. Yellow eyes set in the void were all he could remember.
Em snapped her fingers under his nose.
“Are you trying to summon it back?” she asked, her voice as sharp as her fingers.
He tried to shrug nonchalantly and ended up rubbing his throat instead. Em stared at his neck. Self-conscious, he covered it up.
She snapped her eyes back to her coffee.
Enver pushed his chair back. He let his hand go in front of the bathroom mirror. Any lingering doubts vanished at the sight of bruises around his neck, ending in fingerprints.
“What the hell is this thing?” He hadn’t intended to yell, or storm back into the room, but here he was.
“It’s a thing in the dark and it’s not nice.”
Enver pinched the bridge of his nose.
“What, in your horror author opinion, is it?”
Em raised her eyebrow. “You actually think because of what I write, I know what it is?”
Enver stood there, arms crossed, shivering. The room was so cold.
Em grabbed a physical off a stack.
“Em, I made it mad last night. It’s coming back—before dark.”
“It never left.”
“I thought you said we were safe once the sun came up.”
“Safe as in no imminent threat of death,” she said, picking up a book and flipped through it. She tossed it aside, picking up the next in the stack, and repeating.
“What are you doing?”
It repeated the question. She repeated the question. Something was whispering in his ear, and dripping down his back. Like sweat.
Or snow. Melting behind his ears, and dripping down his back.
“Enver. Come on, listen to me.”
She was shacking his shoulder. He took a deep breath, coughing as he partially inhaled snow.
“Enver, what are you doing?”
Lying face down in a snowbank for fun, apparently. Losing his goddamn mind, for fun.
Em pulled him somewhat upright, although he didn’t understand why she hadn’t just done that before.
All he could see was snow, snow on the ground, and snow in the air, filled with a weird hazy sort of light.
Like the sun was just about to break through.
Em was pulling him to his feet, dressed in warm clothes like a sensible person, while he was wearing t-shirt and couldn’t feel his feet.
“Come on, let’s go.”
She looked him like he was crazy.
“Oh, no, I wanted to freeze in a snowbank,” he said, stumbling. Walking without feeling his own feet was hard.
She wrapped an arm around him.
“Well look at that, he’s got a sense of humor.”
“So do you, apparently.”
There was something off. Or rather something not-off anymore.
Em hummed an response, but didn’t answer. Inside, she wrapped him in a blanket and set about making coffee. It had stopped snowing outside, the sunlight was breaking through the clouds. The glare off the endless snow was blinding. Enver winced and shifted away from the window.
She kept glancing at him while the water boiled.
“Wasn’t sure if I was going to find you, or a dead body when I realized you’d run out of the cabin sometime last night.”
“I feel fine.” Shaken up, a little like the morning after pysops training during basic. But fine. He was always fine.
“You’re about to be in pain, once the feeling comes back your extremities.”
“Cheery,” Enver said, watching her take two mugs out of the cabinet, and realizing only part of her hair was wet. Like she’s woken up with the side of her face shoved in a snowbank. “Especially considering last night.”
“Yeah,” she said, measuring coffee into the French press, “The wind can really mess with your head sometimes.”
“That’s what the townspeople say.”
“They may have a point.” He dry sarcasm was interrupted by severe pain shooting up from both of his feet.
“At least you know you don’t have frostbite,” Em said, as he doubled over in pain.
“Ok.” He moved to the table, plunking down in a rickety chair that felt like it had been sitting here since the last owners, “Why are you down here, in Antarctica, literally suffocating yourself with other people’s work?”
“Do they matter?”
He stopped struggling to get his socks back on.
“Not my stories,” Em continued, waving her hand, “Just writing. There’s so much of it at this point. Everyone and their mother is a writer.”
“For the record, I read your books.”
“Oh I know. You just don’t like them.”
He laughed, the absurdity of the last twenty-four hours unhinging him Laughed, as a creeping sense of dread set back in while the world outside remained silent.
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