Erin Popelka




A Pile of Feathers


            All he wanted was a dark room, Season Four of “24” on DVD, and dinner, in that order.  Jason couldn’t bear another whining passenger, another person who called to have a ride from one building to the next, just three hundred yards apart, or another comment about how cold it was outside.  He wanted to scream, “It’s Antarctica!  What did you expect?”  But he didn’t do that.  He smiled, said something about how at least the sun was breaking through the clouds, and tried to dawdle between drop-offs to let his blood pressure relax. 

            So at 5:30 pm, finally done with his twelve-hour shift, Jason walked straight to his dorm room.  He didn’t want to deal with the 5:37 dinner rush, didn’t want to talk to another soul if he could help it.  Thankfully, his roommate wasn’t home.  He velcroed black canvas over his window to keep out the constant sunlight and fired up his laptop.  Agent Jack Bauer was waiting.

            When his second episode was finished and the work day felt pleasantly distant, Jason walked over to the galley for dinner.  Perfect timingThe subdued late dinner crowd, no lines, and I’ll just bring the food home and watch another episode or two before heading to bed early. 

            He took his time on the walk, enjoying the first shock of cold as he came out of the dorm.  He felt it most on his legs even through long underwear and jeans.  He took a moment to admire Ross Island’s seaside view.  Mount Discovery looked rounded and bold as usual, standing its vigil across McMurdo Sound.  Scanning right, the Royal Society Range followed, and Jason let their ancient lines calm him.  Maybe there will be freshies.  A salad would make everything better.

            There were freshies.  The cherry tomatoes were gone, but the lettuce, green peppers, and carrots were still going strong.  With a bit of Ranch Dressing, his bowl of salad looked perfect.  At the hot line, he piled a mound of rice on his plate, scooped up the Teriyaki Sauce from the bottom of the pan, and placed his chicken breast right on top.  Then he grabbed a brownie, and went to wrap it all up with plastic wrap.  As he walked out, they’d started to put the food away.  Just in the nick of time before dinner closed, he smiled to himself.  Four weeks here and I can already work the system.

            He moved with purpose on his way home.  He had time for two more episodes, and now he had his dinner.  The wind had picked up, bringing some volcanic grit along with it.  Jason kept his mouth closed and was grateful for the three layers of plastic wrap protecting his food. 

            Ten yards from his dorm, he felt a different kind of wind over his shoulder.  The massive bulk of a bird flew in front of his face, over his dinner, and was gone, chicken breast dangling from its beak.  He was so startled he almost dropped the rest of his food.

            “You horrible skua!!” he screamed.  One hand balanced his tray and the other shook in a fist.  He glared at the mottled brown bird as it circled in front of him.  “I hate you!  You and the Antarctic Treaty!!”  If it weren’t for the stiff $10,000 fine, he’d chase down the bird, rip his chicken from its nasty beak, and beat it to death with his blue cafeteria tray.  Feathers would be all that was left.

            Back in his room, he ate his dinner grudgingly.  The salad was just a little too wilted; the sauce over the rice tasted straight out of a can.  Each bite mourned the loss of his chicken.  To tide himself over until breakfast, Jason had to heat up a bag of microwave popcorn to go with his brownie.

            Life didn’t improve the next morning.  Jason was tasked with driving the Ice Runway route in Ivan the TerraBus.  Jason hated driving Ivan.  Just standing next to it gave him chills, its overwhelming bulk as the largest vehicle on the continent.  He hated how you had to start twisting the steering wheel before you could even see the turn.  He hated that he had to make small talk with all 58 of the passengers as they came on and off the bus.

            But he didn’t show it.  He was always the first to volunteer to drive Ivan, always talked about how much he loved the domineering height, the mind-dizzying weight driving on frozen ocean.  He bragged about being able to make the turn from Dorm 210 to Derelict Junction in one swoop.  He claimed he always made it on the first try.  It was still too early in the season for people to call him out on the lie. 

            He walked out to Ivan, did the routine checks of fluids, and drove to the McMurdo bus stop, Derelict Junction.  The Air National Guard guys loaded in.  Jason ignored how sweaty his hands had become, how hot he felt under three layers of clothing, not including his overalls and parka. 

            A skua landed on top of the roof of Building 155.  He saw the bird’s body, as big as a seagull back home, and the mottled brown of its feathers.  He saw its beady eyes, its insatiable beak.

            “Damn skuas,” he said. 

            Jason forced himself to look away, focus back on the task at hand.  He saw that all the passengers had loaded and the clock read one minute past.  He pulled the lever to close the door and started turning the steering wheel to begin the route.

            Behind him, Jason could hear some of the ANG guys talking amongst themselves: some murmured about the bar last night, others about their flights today.  Some were headed to South Pole.  He tried not to be jealous.  He’d give anything for a trip away from this place. 

            He focused instead on the last turn out of town, the sharp one, and he only had to back up twice.  Maybe it was going to be a passable day after all.

            “Not bad,” whistled the guy in the seat just behind him.  “That’s better than the girl from yesterday.  She worked that turn for like ten minutes!”

            He grinned.  “Not everyone can drive Ivan like I can.” 

            The transition was next, the touchy spot where the volcanic rock of Ross Island met the road of sea ice.  With the November thaw, it was getting pretty swampy.  Fleet Operations claimed it was still safe for Ivan, all 67,000 pounds of him.  That didn’t offer much comfort.  Driving up at 5 miles per hour, Jason watched carefully as the deep brown volcanic rock disappeared under mushy gray slush.  Massaging the brake, he searched the slush, looking for the firmest pack, the best spot.  He was so focused on the road one hundred yards ahead that he didn’t hear the guy in the middle of the bus say, “Look at that skua.  Just hanging out in the middle of the road.” 

            He didn’t hear as the conversation continued, “Wow, doesn’t seem like it’s gettin’ out of the way.”

            “We’re headed right for it!”

            He did hear the guy right behind him say, “Hey, dude, watch out for that…!”

            He saw the bird at the last instant – it stared right at him.  It gave him a calm look, like a seagull on the beach, sizing things up.  It even cocked its head.  The $10,000 fine!  His foot slammed down on the brake. 

            Ivan’s wheels were too big to feel an impact, but the ANG guys were all over it.  “Don’t look back, dude!  You didn’t see it there!”

            “Keep going, just keep going!”

            “Drive, man, drive!”

            “Jim, can you see – did we hit it?”

            “Flattened!  Just a pile of feathers!”

            “We got ourselves one Antarctic murderer on our hands, boys!”

            “Your secret’s safe with us, dude.  We won’t tell a soul!”

            Shit shit shit.  He couldn’t stop the bus.  That would be an admission of guilt.  And it was flattened, no help for the bird now.  Sweat poured out from under his winter hat.  Why didn’t it move?  Ivan cruised over the sea ice.  Shit!  I just broke the Antarctic Treaty!  I owe $10,000 for one shitty bird!  James Sopinski is going to have my head.  They could send me home.  SHIT!! 

            Before he knew it, they were at the Ice Runway.  He pulled open the door to let them out. 

            “We’re gonna call you the Bloody Baron from now on.”

            “Don’t worry.  Our lips are sealed.”

            “Heh, heh, heh.”  Some of them just chuckled or punched his shoulder as they walked out.  The sweat was starting to soak into his third layer.  All he wanted was a shower, a moment alone.  But the night shift of ANG guys were loading in, and he would have to drive them back, see that puddle of feathers, then return the vehicle and face his crime.  He could only assume that someone in Dorm 209 saw the accident.  He’d have to tell his boss, she’d have to tell James Sopinski, and they’d send him home or give him that huge fine.  All station would be laughing about him at lunch.

            But at least he’d get to eat his lunch.

 Copyright © 2011 Erin Popelka

Erin Popelka has spent the last few years exploring, from Washington, DC to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  She now makes her home in Oregon.  Her writing has been published by Johnny America, Collective Fallout, and The Externalist, and she serves as a reader for CALYX: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women.  "A Pile of Feathers" is one short story from a collection set at McMurdo Station. Read more at