'Ulit', by Chris Vaughan

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(Illustration by Eadie Newman)

 

 

I

One hungry polar bear with no zone and no feeder, no home, and so with untameable hunger, followed an open lead on thin ice. Over pressure ridges it rollicked like a tame bear assigned a good neighbourhood, except for the hunger. In and out of covets, under and up an abandoned ice cellar. Sniffing with its ears it heard a hum. It followed the hum, an igloo, right out of nowhere, an igloo, right after the hum. And the hum hummed from inside the igloo. Up, tacked to an arch of crossed whalebones the letters R E T H U L E: Greater Outer Inupiat Retreat. Around the whalebones it laid the meat on, this untameable hunger spreading to its eyes, it all looks good, this untameable hunger said, it’s all good to go, eat. It looked up at the letters and out at the white, and even the white ate itself, the ice looked good. Around an igloo: wires barbed every few feet with luminous orange bulbs glowing brighter as the bear and the hum came closer together, the bear closer to the igloo emanating mammal, food, family, red sex heat, Carnivora! Lumbering forward into the hum, right into a blinking orange Glo-Warning System!, shattering it. The bear corkscrewed in the fence, electrocuted, a 1200lb jumping bean, but then humped up and rallied forward, steered by this hunger, dragging on a tail of live wire to where it finally dumped down smoking on a big plastic mat that said

Cold Travels?

Warm Welcome!

“This ash cloud is harmless folks so chillax and get ready for The District Keystone Event – Carnivora Time! Voyagers, go to any resort near you for Carnivora Time! Eat, live, love with latitude…” Wundra, listening to Greater Outer radio through an earpiece, You Alaskan and yesterday’s Daily Voyager under one arm, coffee in hand, stepped outside the pod for a smoke and her shot of morning magnetism. Trying to light a cigarette with the Daily Voyager sheltering her face, she read the headline: SENIOR SUICIDE SPRING WATCH WARNS, SIGIFICANT MAJORITY OF NON-NATIVE SUICIDES ARE BEARDED, before she saw the phantom claws flex and dropped her coffee. With a last pull of untameable hunger, the bear’s paw grabbed for her ankle.

At the screaming Dragan climbed up the hatch with the gun. Wundra shook, holding tight onto the love handles of his Goretex dressing gown, her nose and eyes peering over his hard-earned Balkan shoulder. In this new morning light of overwhelming magnetism he stopped for a moment, supping the frozen air, walking his eyes over all that infinite fractal amazingness, The Lord Creator’s unfinished business!

Snapped back into the moment by Wundra tugging and yelping, he looked down. Since he was six he’d come from Belgrade to spend the last week of each May in this Alaska. He knew bears, these bears. Wundra tugged helplessly. He explained, “A dead bear, unassigned a zone. Poor orphan Misha.” Wundra’s little whelps told him she was another one of those like Eve. Another Connie, another Vera or, at worst, another Zara, whose frozen toes had literally meant the end of the world. Wundra would start off like Michelle at a porcupine. “A pissing porcupine for Chrissake!” he said out loud.

Squatting, a glister of frost on his thick upper lip, he looked up to give a final assessment: great sunburst skin, cute, cutesy, too cute in the mouth. He tried to smile back. She had no call of her own to answer. Vera’d had that. Not Wundra.

She squatted behind him and he laughed. Taking her hand he said “See nothing, neesh-Toh,” prodding the paw with the gun, which sent sparks up his arm, up her arm, and the last look on their faces was something like At least we’re here in all this magnetism, together. And this, this is, she thought is all this is. Sparks passed up their spines and they hugged the polar bear which was now a black bear. And they hugged each other like they were really freezing.

 

 

II

“This ash cloud is harmless folks, so chillax and…”

“Talk anaq out iqqug,” said old Byron in his Pall Mall voice, sitting in the back of the shack smoking. His grandson Alex watched an autopsied TV, letting his brain freeze over, listening to his dad Cliff outside, chipping the honey bucket with a tyre iron, grunting with the tarpaper frame as it leaned in the wind. Alex thought of his granddad as the joists of a half dozen tarpaper shacks and jigsaw garages groaned.

“Iqqug!”

Bi-planes slopped in the bed head of the storm, making emergency retreats from the ash cloud. During ascent the reservation below looked like an evacuated campfire. Planes synced and seemed to slide off the surface of the sky, gliding southeast.

A family of quail ducked under an old upturned umiak, dodging Ski Doos racing from the reservation, snow machines frothing with parkas, cut-and-shut job Audis towing makeshift sleds carrying dogs. Dora, pioneer widow and reservation matriarch, slipped protein jerky under her porch, where The Objectified Walrus simpered. Depressed walruses had always been a challenge to The District Keystone Attractions’ glacial epoch: Love with Latitude! Gradually they’d all be moved to Outer and Greater Outer.

Dora wanted to know more about the cloud and called out for Cliff, shouldering the tyre iron, to phone District.

The parachute on a pole that constituted the Town Hall leaned and collapsed. Twisted around its tether and rent from its pole, the parachute floated away and was followed by a tub full of cubs pulled along on a snowmachine. They slipped under Dora’s sub-arctic eyes, which traced them out as far as the silt line. There her eyes followed the pylons that, on a clear night, pointed to one side of Kaktovik, all lit up by oil rigs. Their flues rippling the thawed reflection of the Beaufort shoreline onto Kaktovik Bluff. Now it was all flyby mist. She watched Cliff run to Hadley’s bar to make the call, the only working line in the reservation.

Hadley’s boy stuck his head in through their shredded window and told Alex they were headed to the Waldo Holiday Inn. “Anaq!” Byron spat at the face. Cliff trod in, dripping. “No answer. No Dragan. He turned it off. He did it. He turned it off.” Dragan had abandoned his stay early the summer before, when he couldn’t help but call Zara, which ended in a big row and eavesdropping Vera left alone at RETHULE, twentysomething miles from nowhere. Shuttling their guest out to the retreat that year, Cliff thought Dragan looked like someone had dried out inside him.

“District says the cloud’s a blip, nothing,” said Cliff.

“You called Mom and Isaac?” Alex asked.

“Later. We will. We check the retreat first.”

Byron sat rocking, about to hock up something special. Cliff’s shag smoke diluted the honey bucket smell. Alex leaned his elbow on the windowsill looking at the last kids cut a route over the Jago River to the Waldo Holiday Inn. Dora’s Primus stove paved a ring of light around her big shack, slicking the walrus’s face a plotting orange where it sat under the porch, signing illegible threats, flicking the tip of its flipper open like a gangster.

“She was a Quaker missionary from Whittier, California. Pale little girl. She came from Whittier, California,” Byron said to the halogen heater. Maryanne had told Cliff she wouldn’t bring Isaac back to the reservation until they’d found a place to put Byron, but Cliff insisted at least Alex would stay as it’d probably be the last summer they had together the three of them – grandfather, father, son.

“Pa we’re going out. Up to the retreat. Dora, she’ll look in, okay?”

“Who? Inuk! It’ll kill off the Clamdigger Union if sonofabitches do it.”

“Pa we’re going outside.”

“Sonofabitches did it already?”

“We’re. Going. Out!” Alex imagined a beeline southeast from the tip of Cliff’s finger where he could see his mum and little brother Isaac at home, amid cedar walls and beneath solar panels. Isaac had a song-and-dance stint dressed as a baby bowhead in Junior Orientation. Three months more felt like another childhood to wait. He had nightmares they’d arrive home with not quite the same faces and radio voices.

“Roustabout! Honour the damn quota? Sonofabitches did it! Anaq out there! Anaq!-aq-aq.”

“Say goodbye to him.”

“Who?”

“Who? Grandpa.”

“Bye grandpa.”

Cliff stepped outside, followed by Alex in flabby moonboots and his old parka. An unwelcome reminder of Ice Safari Squad: Adventure Weekenders’ airbuses roamed overhead. Heavyweights left little room for the Greater Outer Inupiat retreats like RETHULE. The Real Native Act and Greenland’s Free Altitude Express overlooked private fjords, With Latitude from Labrador tours took everybody southeast, Nuna Land was funded partly by The District and possessed exclusive whaling zones. Without Dragan’s family history in the area, without fathers obscurely handing down a way of seeing everything that was half broken and falling down as solidly predictable and wildly romantic, staying at RETHULE wouldn’t have been worth the money that nobody but Dragan was paying for it. Alex’s grandfather sounded like a turbine from outside. Dora watched from her porch as they did little wheel dog, big lead dog, pushing the Ski Doo onto flatland.

Mosquitoes made a last ditch blitz for Cliff’s face. Outside the reservation, Barter Island drifters stood around in parachute ponchos with their filed-down fingertips pressed together, armoured in cardboard sandwich-boards. “Royal Fingers Restore You $2.”

“Original poverty is our original sin!”

And a woman sang.

“Add some to infinity take some away it’s all the same.”

Ptarmigans chased the two of them out as far as the wrecked fuselage, where they took a break. Alex looked down at a dead eider duck that had gotten lost honing its way home.

“Uglu mutha,” Cliff said. Alex’s hood tunnelled away from his face but Cliff saw smile vapour.

“When’s he going?”

“Grandpa? Soon.”

“I miss them.”

“I know. Soon.”

“He won’t.”

“He won’t be with us.”

“But they’ll be them.”

“They’ll be the same.”

“I know. Let’s go.”

**

Thirty foot drifts caught and capsized a Nuna Land junket, landing it on Kaktovik City pontoons. A tent resort was overturned into the Jago River. Four bi-planes made emergency landings on makeshift jetties in the Chukchi drill zone.

In minus-65°C wind-chill they arrived with brain freeze and so much absorbed shock that they felt numb and deformed finding their legs. Banks of ice as thick as trailers coated the pod up to its waist. The head of the igloo was mostly for show. First timers, whoever Dragan brought along, usually thought of some sort of militarized zone when they stepped over the Glo-! setup and into the hatch. Imagined themselves descending into a bunker out of which nobody was expected to resurface.

In the centre Dragan had set up a Coleman stove. Magazines, guns, Ziploc bags. Clothes postured in the bed or on the floor waiting to be picked up and lived in. Her sex still left a warm friction in the air.

“We can phone home to say.”

“No phone. Dragan cut it off.” He turned over the mattress and lay on the arch-pedic bed. In the bedside drawer he found a fox call and blew it. Alex flicked through their passports and then heaped his own gear on the other side of the bed. The compact kitchenette had thawed, leaving a smell of sour milk. Alex stepped on wet finger rolls, prowling the bedside, opening drawers. He stuck a lucky hand in Dragan’s suitcase and pulled out sunglasses and a pistol. Cliff wanted to smoke but had nothing to smoke so rolled jerky in his mouth cigarwise and gnarled at it.

“Damn Pillbillies,” Cliff said, taking from Ziploc bags reams of Oxycontin, Xanax, scrolls of papaveretum, chlorpromazine. “Smokes. We need smokes.”

“Smokes.” Alex tossed a red Russian pack from Dragan’s ski jacket. Barefoot — the first time he remembered being barefoot — he squeezed the concrete floor with his toes. He upended a rucksack of sunglasses and lotions onto the bed, followed by six bricks of euro notes wadded together with red rubber bands. A garbled Nordic voice raked the TV — Øystein — their eyes shipped to the screen — Øystein den nye — it went dead. They looked back at the cash.

“I’m going outside to smoke.”

“Dad?”

“Forget it. Clean it up.”

“Think.”

Some snow makes the world look new and is called arriq. Gentle snow is qannik. Ivu is ice-riding the ocean overnight like an occult submarine to tear it open. Cliff looked over multi-million acres towards where he’d find his wife and his younger son. Itraliq: hurting snow. A leaf of Daily Voyager flicked his toecap. SENIOR SUICIDE SPRING WATCH WARNS, SIGNIFCANT MAJORITY OF NON-NATIVE SUICIDES ARE BEARDED. He dug out another page. IT IS A STATISTIC UNIVERSALLY AGREED UPON THAT A SINGLE ALASKA GREATER OUTER GUARD IN POSSESION Of A GUN IS MORE LIKELY TO SHOOT HIMSELF. He’d spent so long downsizing the outside to fit in his grownup head that it’d become a small speculative moon. He needed Maryanne to tell him outside was all gone to shit, that the world Michigan, the world-city Detroit as she remembered it, was run by shit eaters. He’d not thought seriously about going anywhere since he was sixteen but now saw his soul was made up of moaning tarpaper and cardboard and a corrugated iron roof stuck to a view of Dora’s porch and that imperial walrus smirk beneath it. He poked two eyes, flaring nostrils and a mouth into the snow with the butt of his cigarette and climbed inside.

**

Aircraft rocked the sky. It shook Cliff out of dream terrain. Still drowsing, he peed halfway up the wall across the room and then sat smoking on the edge of the bed. Again unintelligible Nordic voices — Ice Scour — raked the TV — Strudel Current Scour! — and drifted off. Silence mopped up the room. On the CCTV the watchful white from outside poured over him. His eyes opened in degrees of gunge. The butt burnt into leaning-piazza ash. Before his body felt it or his eyes saw it his brain pounded awake with it. Ruffling the sheets he shouted in a sleepy mute voice he could barely hear or understand. He hadn’t understood what he’d lost until he woke himself up screaming for Alex, until he heard the name and saw no Alex in it. On the bed next to the last brick of cash written on the inside of the Kamel pack: Com to Mom. I know you 2 good. C U there.

The Ski Doo was gone. Outside in the morning thaw a panel of PVC had been singed away from the wall and now swung wide, making odd alienated creaks in the wind. Cliff pulled the loose Glo-! cord and Dragan’s head rose out of the ice.

Termination-dust danced to the strange steps of an ancient disco warriorship. It pulled off his hood and thwacked his eardrums. It tossed frozen flakes of Dragan halfway home to Belgrade. Cliff watched RETHULE’s one actual visitor vaporise in front of him.

When Alex was a toddler, the Annual Barter Island District Cub Race, from the shore he and Maryanne saw the umiak capsize. All the kids crowded into the sea and it was his head last, Alex’s pale bobbing gurgling nib sticking out of the water, and that feeling of streaming through a confetti of lifejackets to squeeze and safely paddle him home. That feeling now spread over a million acres.

With Isaac, when Maryanne’s first contractions came, she worried it was too early. Her waters broke before they got onto flatland. The midwife bombed miles from the closest reservation like a white witch to find Maryanne laying lopsided on a dirty blanket, eight centimetres dilated, eyes wide and casting for angels up in the ceiling. Alex squeezing one hand, chanting, and Cliff clutching the other had held back that feeling, spread over a billion acres.

 

III

“It is a statistic universally agreed upon that a single Alaska Greater Outer Guard in possession of a gun is more likely to shoot himself,” Chewy read in the Daily Voyager, reared back at his desk. “Even a muskrat, in a legislative hunting zone, is less likely to be shot at” by men like Ulf, Chewy, Ebbe or now Øystein “than an AGOG officer is to shoot himself.” Øystein, unaware of the statistic until Chewy read it out loud, also wasn’t let in on its double meaning. For the benefit of Ulf, napping in the middle of the small office, and Ebbe, face all covered by his flappy hunting hat but for a fertile knuckle of chin, Chewy decided Øystein should be left in the dark. He was replacing Gerhardt, who’d only twenty-four hours prior been wiped off the pre-divvied map of Alaska hung on the rear wall. And whatever spatter of Gerhardt was left there, crossing the North Slope or biting off the Brookes Range, had been bleached away less than thirty minutes before Øystein was officially introduced by Lt. Odd as AGOG’s latest recruit. Chewy had chosen to leave out one framed portrait of Gerhardt’s large, blind dachshund as a touching memorial. Øystein, right out of Stavanger University midway through a PhD in Granular Data, slipped it out of the frame and neatly slid in a photo of his girl Debbie.

Right when Øystein had crossed his skinny legs on the desk, had pulled up his newbie head to proudly survey his new corner of the world, which was no more formed in his head than a night-time flyover and a stay in the solar panelled southeast compounds, thinking of Debbie, right then is when AGOG top brass Lt. Odd whistled him out into the corridor to meet Sgt. Gunvor. Smug from being nine months in, Chewy, whose little Nordic tics were grossly affected and only believable to other amateur Midwesterners, said to Ulf who was twelve months past caring and growing a beard, “It’s time we made a wager, Ulf.”

Gunvor had an accent peculiar to getting understood by people who didn’t want to hear, booming down the phone “Ice scour, strudel current scour!” He held the phone to his chest. “Here you are. We have something for your induction. Odd, fill him in. Welcome to Greater Outer and we’ll be happy to have you. You’ll feel fine. Strudel current scour,” he said back into the phone.

Odd’s hair had recently reformed from Nazi middle- into nancyish side-parting. His cheeks were shaved red and white, and it was only Odd’s interior life of survivalist protocol that prevented Chewy pricing him anywhere under 4/1 against Gold, Dreyfus, Axel, Josef, Henrik or of course the late Gerhardt, who Chewy was still calling names in his head. He’d just lost two month’s salary and blown what he’d made on Henrik and Josef, because he’d bet on the over, picking pills and an outdoor venue. Gerhardt was only a day under and his twelve-month review was due the next day. Chewy thought it was a spiteful way to go.

Odd waited for Gunvor to nod or point before finally looking unofficially at-ease. “Seven zero dot seven zero two six stroke one four three dot five eight nine six eight. Coordinates. An unprovoked walrus-native attack. One elderly male. Deceased. The walrus is still missing. Head down there. Duty vest,” he saddled it on Øystein’s shoulder. “Taser. Phone. The phone won’t work. Don’t worry you’re not on your own. You’ll take the Ford. Come with me.”

“Assholes and elbows! Ebbe you’re up!” Odd bugled. Chewy slapped his desk so hard papers flew off like spooked geese. He blew a kiss at Ulf, counting phantom dollars, and shouted out the door, “Sayonara, goo naht, goo naht,” as they schlepped out. Ebbe had a limp from a bout of erysipelas he’d let spread when Odd and Gunvor misdiagnosed, and Chewy and Ulf both seconded, frostbite. He took up the width of the stairs. Stopping by their lockers in the hall Ebbe forced on a pair of Sorrell boots. Øystein had a full inch to play with if he were to take a guess at the actual size of Ebbe’s feet under however many pairs of socks. Ebbe wrapped himself up in thick Goretex bottoms, parka over liner, fleeces, arctic bibs and AGOG issue waterproofs, allowing Øystein, himself all in black Vaetrex on educational research expenses, a peek at the rough holy fiery skin on Ebbe’s legs.

Øystein sat inside the Ford watching Ebbe massage his joints microscopically. “Seven years I still feel it. It gets no better. Frostbite,” he raised his left foot, “and here,” at the tip of his right ear. Pointing at the windscreen he said as if it were another sign of his disease, “use this to scrape it off,” passing Øystein a can, scout knife and a rag. Øystein wanted the joke to not be on him for once. Ebbe looked forward into a broad and bored distance between Øystein’s chin and the entrance to the aluminium smelter. A stare so completely through him it chilled all Øystein’s bare bits to think what lay ahead on the silt line and however many hours hauling further Outer. He scraped the bonnet and unearthed AGOG’s Ptarmigan crest. “It’s no joke,” Ebbe said in Norwegian. “AGOG take a bang-in-the-shit Outer-induction very seriously. It might mean not being Gerhardt. It means the serious business of staying alive.” Øystein raked off the windscreen as Ebbe sat lee side, took off his glove and divined the wind-chill with his finger.

“Asshole isn’t he? Chewy.” Ebbe offered as consolation when Øystein hutched into the car. “All of them. Assholes. You have a taser?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Ever cruise control hard ice before?”

“Niy.”

A dog barked. The car heated up and a palsied wiper jammed in a half-smile. Ebbe leaned, chin on the wheel, scouting for signs of human dayliness before he felt safe in taking out a grub box of grass from the glove compartment. “Nobody expects us to hurry. There are no time zones here. Add some or take some it stays the same.” Two regular papers pasted L-wise, kneading the paper, bedding down dry tobacco with his steadier right hand, he tipped the grub box meticulously over the loose lip, toppling a neat line of ground bud into the mouth. Before lighting it, now an index finger measure but scraggily bananad, he took a fresh sheet of laxatives from his breast pocket and swallowed two, taking a long desperate drag as a chaser. His lips trembled. “It’s good but it’s grit. Schwag on steroids,” he said. “Louis Armstrong school of breakfast.” Of which Øystein understood neither the meaning of schwag or knew who Louis Armstrong was and became anxious that to know this might also mean not being Gerhardt.

How he’d spell it out to Debbie on the phone when they got back, feeling with mounting mellow the hot-boxed Ford like an extra body layer, was that he’d say this was Stavanger inside out.

A mutt howled at the car, setting something off in Ebbe that gave Øystein flight-or-die fright for a millisecond. Ebbe pulled a quick pistol from his sock shouting “Clusterfuck!” Øystein was caught in a neuro-eternity – he heard Debbie telling her friends how, sad as it was, Øystein was never really going anywhere. He saw his father’s thin face from the victor’s side of the Kjerag tightrope, pretending it didn’t really matter. But Ebbe turned from Øystein and leaned out the window. He said, “To hit a dog with a meat bun, say the Chinese,” aiming and firing off three rounds at a miraculous mutt which scat under the waste unit unscathed. Ebbe shifted in his seat and accelerated.

“I came to this place – to be without assholes.” Ebbe fixed on a bend where the road dusted over, near a creek where he’d spiked the car twice and broken Henrik’s nose once. The tread made roadkill of the sputtering slush and wet streams arced up, spritzing the windows. “Chinese say if heaven made him, Earth finds some use for him. You’re bored?” Walls of silver nitrate sealed them in. Øystein zipped up in it and the smoke. He wanted to nap.

“Niy.”

“You see my head is still clear, it’s terrible. Punch the numbers into Satan.” Ebbe wiped a moist film off the SatNav display. “You’re in the wild. You have one bullet, and you run into a Bear, a Walrus and a Yeti. How do you get away?”

“Niy.”

“Shoot the Yeti, drink the Bear and you give the Walrus your pills.” Øystein’s nose riddled the problem. “Few months you might get it. There’re more…”

 Ahead, an aborted truck had jacked off-road. “Last year at this time I had botulism.” As Ebbe slowed the weak headlights narrowed, swerving around the truck, and then crossed again way below the grey humpback horizon. Øystein followed the headlights like cosy strobes of home, his arms cast to his sides, which he was correct in thinking was a characteristic of the grit schwag, but it was also excruciatingly cold.

He thought of his hard-earned solitude and how his loneliness here was maybe more endurable than Debbie’s at home. She told him she’d be the one suffering and he thought it was a stupid thing to say. White silence, not to mention doubts drawn out by the schwag, made him think she’d probably be enjoying the absence of parts of him. Maybe she was enjoying herself in spite of herself. She was enjoying herself maybe more than she could’ve possibly imagined.

Soon enough the headlights trifled with the virgin blue of the spit leading up to the reservation. They passed over a dog corral brimming with motherless runts, yelping and piling over the sides. Ebbe staring square at him, Øystein noted how Ebbe’s left eye looked deorbited; Øystein couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the prolonged presence of the face.

“We need pit stop.” Øystein took the wheel and let it cruise free into a butte. Ebbe limped behind the car prospecting the ground, then squatted a few feet away where Øystein’s rear-view mirror showed him rooting into the snow. The laxatives did their work in four tremors that plucked up the ears of the pups. Waiting out false starts and feedback, until one last contorting pipsqueak signalled he was done, Øystein turned to see Ebbe stood as though at a graveside. Back at the wheel he was multi-dimensionally lighter. He straightened out onto the grey spit towards what felt to Øystein for the first time like the direction they were supposed to be going.

“This is the end of the Human Highway, Øystein. It’s all the same,” he said, as if he were looking down at the full length of that highway.

**

Floodlights and pylons leaned in like onlookers at an accident. Families were returning from visiting relatives in the city. Dora met them as they pulled up outside.

“Our walrus did it, but this is not the norm.”

“We would hope in the hell not ma’am.”

“He is not a volatile creature.”

“Bad habits.”

“He is not a dangerous animal!”

Øystein wound his window down so she was right in his ear. Ebbe got out. “Byron was not fit to be there alone. A danger to those boys. Why’d you think she left…?”

“The Alaska Volcano Observatory said that the Cleveland Volcano eruption in the Aleutian Islands shows signs of accumulating mass. The cloud, having now travelled a distance of three hundred kilometres, has earned a loyal following. But don’t forget, Voyagers! — just days away — The Great District Hunt. A Keystone Premium Event! Eat, live, love with latitude…” Byron’s radio was still on inside and Ebbe limped back with it to his ear, carrying a bloody Clamdigger Union badge. “Granddad Foot was eaten alive. This is all I got. Eaten alive by the Jesus Walrus.”

She ignored him and spoke only to Øystein, whose strain she mistook for native understanding.

“We need to try and contact his kin. Where’re his people?”

She wheeled off and came back with a RETHULE flyer and Ebbe punched the co-ordinates into Satan.

Dora draped over the car as they reared out and to Øystein her face, all lip and embossed eyebrows, displayed intimate mimicry of walrus. The sad imperial loss, the hunger. As they hugged the coast, Ebbe sung in Norwegian something Øystein had never heard. “I spy with my little eye something begins with N!” Ebbe rolled open an inch of window, hefting a rifle from under his seat. He aimed at a polar bear tracking by on an ice floe, before the bear signed something like Help on its way, thanks all the same folks. Tucking the rifle back, Ebbe looked dispossessed. His agitated nose rattled, he took out the grub box and steered with his knees.

They drove by a hard toxic crust, the scar tissue of an unmarked landfill sloping into the Chuckchi Sea. Øystein wanted to throw up but Ebbe smoked and in the fertiliser smell he held it down, picturing a long straight line. For the first time he really felt below the 18.5°C the Vaetrex guaranteed.

“Infinity is a tonic. Try to picture it. Does it look this way to you?”

“Niy.” Øystein wondered if the altitude played with his ears. He tried to bud his ear with a cord on his jacket and then popped them by holding his nose.

“I spy with my little eye something begins with I?”

“Niy.” The sky slacked off the clock.

“You’re a moron but you’re not an asshole Øystein.”

 

IV

Concussed air closed Cliff’s lungs and his brain perspired. Wherever he looked Alex shapes ran down the walls and danced in the wet margins. He bundled two ski jackets and a sleeping bag into one and tied them with rope. He stuffed his pockets with food — it was the third time he’d made the provisional action to leave — and, testing the weight on his shoulder again, he sat back down. With a barren Kamel hung unlit from his bottom lip, it was even heavier. He just sat squinting at the screen. AKDT took on the same supersubtleties as Alaskan distances, so any length of time could’ve gone by before he made out a car in the CCTV, and he hadn’t moved, didn’t know if this was a rescue or an arrest. Then he remembered Dragan, Wundra and the bear. By now it was so close he could see its reliable Ford shape and even the Ptarmigan crest on the bonnet, coming toward RETHULE like a squall.

**

“A Learjet on its return flight attempted to fly right through the cloud, but plummeted from its centre, crashing into the Jago River. The District confirmed that only direct contact with the cloud is dangerous. Fly around it, under or over it. Don’t fly into it folks. Eat, live, love…” Ebbe switched it off when he saw the bodies.

“Well I spy with my little eye, Mr and Mrs and what in the?”

“Bjørn?” Øystein said, then phrased correctively, “A bear.” He crouched beside the bear, flipping its paw over.

Moulded to the underside of the mattress, Cliff heard through an ear of Tempur their bubbled voices get excited, heard the TV flicked on and off, drawers being rattled, Ziploc bags emptied on the bed, the snick of the pistol being tested and loaded. Their voices were an altitude pressed against his ears. He understood two things – stor, big, and god jul, merry Christmas! Øystein hooted the fox call. A shovel shrieked on the concrete and finally, when he heard the hatch pop shut, he squeezed out and listened. They were digging. Eventually the car — Wundra and Dragan mooning from the backseat — became a reassuring dot on the screen, but parts of them wouldn’t leave.

Wiping his eyes again, he held the balls of his hands in his sockets — think — and took a minute — smokes — before looking again and seeing the screen fill with grey like someone pouring weak coffee over the TV itself, or all over Alaska. He felt his billion-acre feeling orbit the planet. And when the day lapped back to Earth there were people, maybe twenty people, marching with placards and pictures above their heads, strafing the screen from the top as if theatrically aware where the edges were. Droning along without any thought for where they were, going only where the cloud, now traveling northeast, bulking up, slowing down, went with them. As they danced closer he could make out the brown mallow of the cloud on their banners and some of their faces. They all looked idiotic and unleashed in the snow. They didn’t know where the cloud was heading but they were going there, caught up in an orbit they called Ulit. And he heard that this was what they were chanting as he opened up and climbed out and stood and waved. Ulit, they were singing. The world turned inside out. So he sang too, trying to hitchhike their frequency, and he ran, embraced among drifters, weightless mammals, a toothless walrus dragging along the back of a trailer. Some good looking people, resort workers and a hippie couple, called him over and hugged him between them and poured him tea in a plastic beaker, just smiling. They could see him surging. Ulit seemed to be accumulating impossible mass. He latched onto it, to them, moving so slow it felt like the cloud wasn’t moving at all. A short woman in a sleeping bag with legs cut out of it channelled him along behind a dozen others, each keeping the same inch-work pace and grace as the cloud. They passed around Clorox jugs and they sucked on squares of Maktak and they passed that around too.

**

“God jul! Ha – in all Alaska, Øystein! You don’t get lucky here. For all my disease, they’ve paid up! For all the Chewies and Odds and botulism and holy fire, it paid – God jul Øystein!” A wet note slapped the windscreen. Ebbe frantically pulled the wad out of his pocket to check, and then looked at the sky. He pulled himself around to look out the back window, which was blocked by a piece of Wundra. Ebbe stepped outside and Øystein leaned through his window but couldn’t see. He got out to find another graveside society standing over a rucksack spilling euro notes next to a Ski Doo and boy. They both decided he was dead already.

“Boy,” Øystein offered.

Ebbe picked at his face, trying to find something he recognised. Øystein held up the head and dropped him when the head coughed. They slid Alex to the car and laid him over both front seats. The eyes darted from Ebbe to Øystein to the back of his head, roiling for life. Øystein tried remembering some of Debbie’s children’s poetry but he only remembered that it was bad and serious. He kept a finger on Alex’s neck for a pulse and clutched the hood around his face. Ebbe asked him to reach around and find a kind of waterproof duffel bag he kept right there where he was pointing. Øystein reared around carefully, resting Alex upright on the seat, but as soon as he turned he heard the waterlogged Colt make a bath toy noise. Without time to consider how it would all turn out Øystein swung out a long arm and jacked his taser into Ebbe’s neck. Ebbe’s foot accelerated, Øystein’s nose messed the windscreen and Alex slipped onto the floor in a heap. Øystein saw through the bloody windscreen a walrus hold out its hand in Indian Cease! It smothered the fender, galumphing up and into and through the windscreen into Ebbe and onto Wundra and Dragan. The car breached, any attempt Øystein made to recover it only shrugged him off. It only stopped when its front stalled in an arrested free-fall over the edge of the landfill’s mouth. Suspended on that lip, water trickled over the seats and down Øystein’s back, which he half liked, but slick fur tickled the back of his neck jerking him forward, because he had no idea what was alive and what wasn’t.

**

In the company of Ulit they seemed so unfazed by the distance that might still lie between them and lifelines somewhere over the horizon that Cliff was sure there’d been some sort of amphetamine binge beforehand. He wished he’d brought some of the Ziploc bags. Not that they were fast – a different kind of forward motion, the faith of a crowd. The same small lady danced near his ankles and it was true, now that he looked a little closer, that her pupils mirrored the cloud. The hippies were just coming down from a two-hour gospel jag and looked forty years younger. Even the huskies and wolverines and the sappy walrus with no teeth or bodyweight all appeared to be chasing a dozen tails at once. Cliff kept up with them over the next buff, but when he tried sculpting his face in the clouds all he saw was Uglu Mutha penguin. Then he smelt it. Tearing away from the woman at his ankles, she looked distressed. He was veering away from the direct flight path, none of the others seemed to notice except for a dog that sat watching him straggle off toward the landfill. He knew how to trace his way back home along the scrapped coast where DEW crap and homes were hung to dry before a sheer of asbestos and, east and west, cordons of waste tumbled over the centuries into the sea.

Øystein felt himself immediately in orbit. Before trying to right his head he already knew the car was barely in the balance. Alex shivered at Øystein’s feet. If the afterlife is what we make of a final looping audiovisual brain-charge, as Øystein was certain it was, he knew there was a kind of hell in opening his eyes. Ebbe’s view into the mouth looked to Øystein at that moment like an objective lesson in what people mean to the sea and sky. Three porcupines poked their heads over the edge, which was enough for Øystein to call yelp.

Below, a grizzly groped for seagulls through a grille too small for its fingers. Family Quail took cover under the tailgate of an old biplane. The nose of an old excavator sunk into the sea and a muskrat drowned in gunmetal quicksand. Synclines of tar and composted rivers ranged down into mouths like starveling cryochicks. In the manner of a shoreline prospector, the grizzly shaded his eyes with his paw and stood upright, watching the car seesaw. Never very hungry for very long, industrially strong stomached, this lonely grizzly had a life no more complex than food joy. Unassigned a zone, it had made a life from Alaska’s junk history. It could sniff out live ones, lazy ones, mummified muskrats. Stepping downstream to edge around the fault lines of famine beyond which everything was inedible, it prowled back up to the face of the slope to size up the car, settling in a little dugout with dripping water and the freshly dumped contents of a middle-income household.

On the edge Cliff could still see the cloud. Its movement could only be traced in cosmic inches. It was almost not movement but gave a sense that it was Cliff pulling the cloud along by the power of thought alone. Suddenly he was passing sludged cars coated in feral white. The landfill bottomed out ahead. A frozen turd dropped right out of the sky.

Daddy Quail ushered out the kids first, mother next. The grizzly camped under an awning and snored. Daddy Quail’s head plume was glued to the floor. Cliff could see the back of one AGOG’s head in the passenger seat and the other pressed against the cracked back window. There were pieces of Dragan and Wundra in furs. And he saw Maryanne and Isaac and Alex whirling in the glycerine mist. Cliff drew the battle lines of land vs. sky, everything considered in one combustive moment to reveal what was left. Whatever wouldn’t burn would freeze. Thoughts swallowed his eardrums, whispering. The choice stuck out cleanly from the rubble of the moment, resistant to The District’s corporate ethic: survival trumped choice, survival meant keeping Alaska in an incubator. Suffocating lives so slowly that suffocation was itself a specimen of native life, the ice that preserved Alaska in the rigor before mortis. It whispered outside of himself. If they stood one chance not to be miniscule and apart, Isaac, Alex, Maryanne, even Byron…

Øystein’s feet had frozen cruciform. Silty yellow froth filled his boots and Alex swallowed some. As he rediscovered his neck Øystein saw from the corner of his eye a blue silhouette bend towards them. He tried again to shout but something caught and he puked. The noise of runoff water got louder. He felt it as a lifelong dreamer of falling. It felt like he’d been dreaming just to live it, belly tingling to brain and beyond. When his dad first took him to Kjerag a crowd watched a body bag being winched to the top. A line stretched the length of the edge. Never intuiting disaster, his father asked an Australian if it was a drill. All he told Øystein was that they’re unconscious when they hit the ground from shock because their hearts explode. A fleet of Sea Harvesters swayed into the horizon upside-down, and he couldn’t decide if he should close his eyes in neuro-eternity.

Up there all Cliff saw were breaks in the vessels of trash beneath, tracts of toxic disturbance. He kicked and shoved the car. He hoped to set off the celestial cycle of waste and renewal, wishing for the revocable, for the impossible fusion of his family coming together like cosmic dust in that eternity between particle and mass, crossing vacuum and chaos, collision and order. Stuff that made a planet, peopled a planet, and then demolished it.

The grizzly stopped eating the quail. Cross-legged and almost delicate, it traced the thick cloud shifting in the sky. A few scuds dissolved on Cliff’s lips. It snowed night again. He watched grey, green flakes, yellow, falling into place and he forgot the car jungling down the slope. The time was southeast. Synchronised jets hooped overhead. Standing in Ulit’s shadow people reported the sense of an end. The need to stop, watch and wait it out. The bear made the universal sign, paws over its brow shutting its eyes. Until it passed. Its appetite returned with the full glare of the sun as it steeled through grey, watching from under its moody fringe as the cloud passed over the lip out of sight.

 

 

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CHRIS VAUGHAN was born in Gravesend, Kent, in England. He has written about books and film for publications like The Rumpus and Bookslut. His fiction was most recently featured in The Warwick Review, based in the UK.