A Pile of
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.
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.
his second episode was finished and the work day felt
pleasantly distant, Jason walked over to the galley for
dinner. Perfect timing. The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
skuas,” he said.
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
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.
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.
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!”
grinned. “Not everyone can drive Ivan like I can.”
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.”
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!”
did hear the guy right behind him say, “Hey, dude, watch out
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!”
going, just keep going!”
“Drive, man, drive!”
can you see – did we hit it?”
“Flattened! Just a pile of feathers!”
got ourselves one Antarctic murderer on our hands, boys!”
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.” 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
at least he’d get to eat his lunch.
© 2011 Erin Popelka