Cold
Jimmy Hicks

It’s become hard to remember what this station was like when it was alive. When it had an actual team of skilled people in it. The last time this seemed like a proper expedition and not a sick endurance test of human will. Supposedly, when it was first built, this was the finest research station in the Arctic Circle. Its original purpose was to map out the area and conduct research on the local animals, geography, and whatever else people used to care about. The quest for knowledge, one of the noblest things humans have found to do with themselves since awakening on this earth. By the time our expedition came along the goal had shifted to slightly more materialistic concerns. Find oil and bleed it dry before some other fuckers do. Noble in its own right, we all assured ourselves. We were ensuring our modern way of life was sustainable and securing the future of our homeland. Plus, the pay wasn’t bad either.

    I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t been strange, being one of only a few women on an expedition team of mostly men. It wasn’t long before I could feel their eyes on me all the time. Given how cold it was even before the madness started, I suppose my layered attire gave their imaginations quite a workout. Everyone behaved decently, professionally even, before the power outage, but it was still attention I didn’t really want nor need. It’s funny how much you can miss things you never thought you would. I’d give anything for things to be like that again. Bargaining stage now, is it? 

    Now this once well-lit and reasonably warm station is in ruins. The only light source comes from the oil lamp next to me at the station entrance. The only reason I haven’t frozen to death yet is because I managed to get one of our old kerosene heaters to work. At least he didn’t take everything. Now the heater burns through the last remnants of the fuel left after the collapse of our little anti-society. When the mushroom clouds went up and the power went down—well, it doesn’t take that long for people to discover their true selves. When did the food run out? Days ago. No, that’s impossible, I don’t feel that weak—the proper food ran out days ago, you—it ran out yesterday. I try to keep my back from touching the frigid wall, tempting as it is to lean back against it and drift off to sleep. I might even think I could just let go and wake up somewhere better if I believed in it. The only “better” place I can feasibly get to be Johan’s bunker. Hmph. “Better.”  For all I know he’s already eaten all the food he stole. He could be out of fuel too. Maybe, just maybe, he locked the damn hatch to his bunker, put one of his stolen guns in his mouth, and made a nice pattern on the wall ensuring all his treasures go to waste. 

    I can hardly believe I’m thinking of facing him. It’s crazy. He has all the guns, he’s insane, he doesn’t mind killing, and I should consider it a miracle he didn’t kill me with the rest. Well, maybe not a miracle… The bastard has the rest of the food, too. And the fuel. He has everything I need to survive in this godforsaken frozen wasteland. He’s the most dangerous thing in the station, hell maybe the world, but the only choice that seems worse than facing him is to sit here and die. Same outcome either way. Time to knock on the devil’s door. Maybe I can reason with him. Kill him. 

    It takes more time and strength than I’d like to admit dragging the heater over to the entrance door, melt enough ice off of it, and pry the door open to make my exit. I’m already a little short on breath. Before I leave I glance over at the switchboard barely illuminated by the lamp. A lot of fucking use that turned out to be. Stupid to think help would ever come. Outside it’s a blizzard, as it always is. I can barely see anything in front of me, and the fact that there’s no one to maintain the outside lights anymore doesn’t help the situation. At least I still remember my way around here. I suppose I’ll never forget that much. Left out of the main entrance, and then cover about, what, fifty yards to the corner of the building, take another left, and then it’s just a few more yards to Johan’s bunker. I’d take in the scenery while I’m out if there was any to speak of. Snow, ice, wind, steel, and tall fences. It looks almost like a prison from out here. I wonder if that was a conscious decision by the architect.

    The tin shelter over the bunker is visible now, which means I’m practically right on top of it. I can see the hatch, and there also appear to be two bodies off to the side of it. So, this is what happened to those guys. We had all seen the bombs go off together. We weren’t close enough to any of them out here to suffer burns or radiation poisoning, but our power still died. N-EMPs some guessed; others claimed that didn’t explain i.e. figured there was no use arguing about it if we couldn’t fix it. 

    Most of us kept it together well at first, considering. What the hell do you think or do when you see what may be the extinction of your people? How do you cope when you imagine your family dead and have no way of finding out about them? Some didn’t. Some blocked it out. One day at a time. It’s amazing how fast self-preservation can overpower other concerns. Johan, one of our biggest and physically strongest crew members, had the fortune of going off the deep end before anyone else. 

    “They really did it! They’re all dead, don’t you understand?! Everyone’s fucking dead! There’s no help coming! It’s every man for himself!” Just a few choice phrases of typical mad raving and ranting. Under conditions as miserable as ours, it didn’t take long for these kinds of thoughts to become contagious. Our captain did about as well of a job as I imagine anyone could keeping people’s heads together under these sorts of circumstances. We must band together, fighting amongst ourselves will lead to ruin, if we panic we’re dead, blah, blah, blah. Johan’s brand of lunacy quickly became more popular. He and a few men who shared his “every man for himself” mentality managed to kill the captain and several other crew members. They took all the supplies they could from the rest of us before Johan turned his pistol toward his own men and showed them what “every man for himself” really means. Understandably, after this animalistic display, the few surviving crew members wanted to kill him. 

    The plan was for the three most able-bodied men left to go out into the snow and ice to face Johan at his bunker. They were to kill him, come back for us, and then we would all bring his stolen supplies back to the station. We would then try starting the generators and attempt to make contact with the outside world again. There were various problems with this plan. The generators hadn’t worked up until now, so I’m not sure why they thought they would magically work after Johan was dead. There was also the cheery notion that the “outside world” no longer existed. My opinion wasn’t highly valued at the time, to say the least, so I just kept quiet about it. None of this was ultimate of much consequence, as the three men never returned. After what they did to me after the captain was killed, part of me was glad to see them gone. As I look down at the bodies of two of the men now, I can say my feelings on the matter have not changed. I don’t see the body of the third man. Must be buried off in the snow somewhere. They got what they deserved. 

    I’m staring at the hatch of the bunker armed with only a knife kept in a sheath under my jacket. It’s a big knife, but I know Johan is armed with what must be every firearm we brought with us—not that there were that many. He’s not going to burst up out of there with an assault rifle in each hand and a cigar in his mouth ready to take over the world, but there’s still plenty of cause for worry. I’m fucking scared. Because I’m long out of good ideas, and even bad ones, I stomped three times on the hatch and wait for a reply.

    For several seconds, I hear nothing. I stomp down on the hatch again. The force sends a painful vibration through my leg. Damn this cold. It’s hard to notice over the wind, but I can hear the clanging of metal from below. He must be on the ladder. Sure enough, I hear the lock of the hatch release, and a huge arm bursts up through the hatch, followed by another with a revolver in hand. He pulls himself up, closes the hatch, and faces me. 

    I remembered he was big, but he seems even more enormous than I recalled as he slowly walks towards me keeping me carefully within the revolver’s sights. As I study his colossal frame, not just height but width too, I see he really doesn’t need the gun. He could snap me like a twig. I wonder if that’s the same gun he killed those three men with? Like anyone in or out of their right mind in this environment, he’s covered from head to toe, certainly in multiple layers of clothing. His face is the only part of him that’s somewhat exposed. I can’t make out much beyond the fact that his beard seems longer than I recall. Has it really been that long? That and his eyes. They look unfocused. Almost…dead. He looks horrible. I try to remind myself that all this chaos, every hellish thing I’ve been through, it all started with him, and I despise him. The truth is we all became monsters before it was over. There’s blood on both our hands. 

    “Well…are you going to say anything?” he asks while waving the revolver at me. His voice comes as a shock. It’s been so long since I’ve heard someone speak. Since I’ve even seen anyone standing in front of me. We must have been standing here longer than I realized; I don’t even remember what I had planned to say to him. This is where he kills me.

    “Do you remember who I am?” I ask him, every second anticipating that he’s going to add me to his body count. He just stares at me, eyes as blank as a doll’s. 

    “I remember the screaming,” he finally tells me. “I remember doing…what I had to do to survive here.”

    What you had to do?! You snapped before anyone, you crazy fuck! You didn’t have to do any of this! “I’m unarmed,” I tell him while holding up my hands, “will you lower the gun?” 

    He studies me for several seconds, tilting his head slightly before finally lowering the pistol to his side. “I don’t know if I remember you,” he says after a long pause. “What’s your name?” 

    “Natasha.” Goes without saying that anyone would remember a piece of shit like you. 

    He stares into space for what must be half a minute. As I stand here shivering and waiting, I almost believe he’s gone comatose right there. I reach up under my jacket and grip the handle of my knife. Can I really do this right now? Can I kill the bastard? “Natasha,” he finally says. “Yeah…I remember now.” He chuckles. I hate the sound. “You were one of the more vocal ones,” he says waving the revolver in my direction once again, “siding with our good captain. We must keep our heads! Help could come!” He raises his arms and laughs. I hate this sound more. “All that good shit. Ah well, I don’t suppose they sent you to kill me, huh?” 

    I don’t say anything. I am here to kill you. 

    “Well…where are the others?” he asks me, now with fatigue in his voice. As if he’s the one who’s suffered the most. 

    The others you murdered, you mean? Or the ones who died after you left? The ones I killed? “They’re dead,” I tell him. That covers them all, I suppose. 

    “What?”

    “They’re dead. We’re the only ones left.” 

    “That’s impossible. Show me.” 

    “Show you?”

    “Take me to where they are!” I step back and hold my hands up after he bellows this command. 

    “Okay, okay…I’ll show you. Come on. This way.” I figure it’s best not to argue with him, at least until I have a plan. I lead him around the corner of the compound and towards the main entrance. He walks slowly. He seems weak. I really hope he hasn’t finished all the food already. Maybe it’s just cold. I’m not sure how long we’ve been out here. After spending a certain amount of time trying to get used to the cold, you realize it’s a pipe dream. Even when you’ve weathered what you think is the worst of it, it will still get you. You feel it start to creep into your bones. It starts flowing through your veins. It’ll stop your fucking heart. We arrive at the station door. You’re not going to like what you see. You and I really are the only ones left. 

    I pry open the door, a little easier this time…the big, murderous, muscle man was no help at all. I step through the door and wait for him to follow. 

    “You think I’m stupid?” he asks. “That I should just follow you in there while the rest of you ambush me?” 

    His concern is well-founded, but unfortunately unnecessary. “There really is no one else,” I tell him. “And even if there were, they’d have no problem rushing you right now. Come on in. See for yourself.” What the fuck am I going to do?

    He comes through the door after me and starts looking around at what little there is to see from the one oil lamp that’s somehow still going. He’s cautious. He keeps his revolver up ready to fire in case of an attack. If he doesn’t see any of the bodies yet, well…when he gets farther in he’ll find the cold can’t hold off the smell completely. Then he’ll see the holes in them. From his bullets. Some from my knife. Some from…other things. Teeth. We’re all just meat in the end.

    “Looks like you might be telling the truth,” he mumbles. “What happened?” 

    “What?” 

    “What happened? How are you the only one left?” 

    “You know damn well what happened,” I tell him through gritted teeth. 

    “No, I mean after that. After I went into the bunker, yeah? What happened after those three came to kill me?” Johan walks over to the switchboard and begins wiping the dust off of it. 

    Oh, if I could, I’d kill you slowly. 

    Johan sighs. “I don’t suppose there’s been any luck with this? Or anything else?” 

    “No.” You daft bastard. 

    “Ah! So, you can answer questions. So, I’ll ask calmly one more time,” he starts holding his arms out, pistol still in hand. “How is it that you’re the only one left alive? Hmm?” He walks a couple of steps closer. I take one back. “I mean, I remember there were a few who just…gave in at the beginning. You do too, I’m sure. The ones who just couldn’t cope.” 

    You are fucking hypocrite. “You were one of those,” I tell him, trying to keep an even tone. I have to hear his stupid chuckle again. “You were the worst of them all.” 

    “Oh, I know what you think of me,” Johan says taking a few more steps towards me. “That I’m a monster who killed all those innocent people. That I doomed everyone.” More or less. He steps toward me again. I take another one back. “But you and I both know they were already doomed. We all are, really. There’s no help coming. We die here. Don’t act like you don’t know it.”

    “And that’s supposed to justify what you did?” 

    “It seems I’m a survivor at heart. I knew we didn’t have enough supplies to last all of us for much longer. Not even close.” I can see the first signs of life coming into Johan’s eyes. “So, I solved a problem. How long do you think any of us would have lasted if we all kept dipping into the supplies? I ensured my future.” 

    “You’re fucking crazy.” 

    “Is that really a fair judgment, coming from you?” He keeps getting closer. “You still haven’t answered my question, but that’s okay. I’m not a fool. I know how you’re the only one left. You killed the rest. You killed them to save yourself.” 

    “I had to.” They fucking had it coming. “You don’t know what they did after you started cowering in your bunker. You don’t know what it was like here.” 

    Johan nods. “I can guess.” He steps forward and holds his revolver out to his side. I stand my ground. Might as well get this over with. “Look…I mean you no harm, yeah?” He starts lowering the gun to the floor. “We’re the only ones left. We’ve survived. There’s no need for both of us to die alone in the dark and cold.” 

    “And how could I ever trust you?” 

    “I’m trying to make a gesture of good faith,” Johan says still holding the gun out. Like you’d need that to kill me.“But I know you can’t really. You know as well as anyone what people are like.” Just set it down, you stupid fuck. “So I can go back to the bunker. Spare you some food and fuel. I’m sure you’re nearly out or you would never have come for me in the first place. And then I can stay there, and you can stay here.” He places the gun on the ground and holds his hands up. Good. “We can just speak every now and again, yeah? Surely you’d prefer the company of even me to going insane here by yourself?” 

    “I don’t know.” Come on, what was that? Now or never!

    “Come now…” Johan walks within arm’s length of me and extends his hand. “Don’t be unreasonable, hmm?” 

    “Never,” I say while taking his hand. I take my knife from its sheath while pulling him forward, and I slash up at his eye. He brings both hands up to his face while he screams and stumbles backward. I take the opportunity to dive for the revolver and take it from the floor before he realizes it. I still have the knife gripped tightly in my right hand, so I aim at Johan with my left. Not the best shooting stance, but it’ll get the job done. Johan takes his hand from his face and looks at me. Is that fear I see in his remaining eye? I hope so.

    “You deserve worse,” I tell him. BOOM! Click, click. One bullet?! Are you fucking serious?! 

    Johan’s down on the ground. I saw the blood come out of him. I walk over to check on him, and I see a small hole in the right side of his chest. Damn, missed the mark. It’s hard to see if he’s breathing. I should just stomp down on your—

    Before I know what’s happening Johan swings his right arm to hit me in the back of the leg, and I hit the ground hard. I manage to scramble away before he can get a hold of me. I turn around and see Johan sitting up. He’s coughing. It sounds bad. Maybe I hit a lung, at least. I look around for my knife and see it on the floor a few feet away from me. My leg hurts from the impact. I don’t know if I can stand, so I crawl over to it. Could I force myself up and charge him? Do I have time? 

    I look back to see Johan’s up to one knee. I see hatred and rage in his good eye. I pick the knife back up, and for a second I consider leading him around the hallways of the compound. He probably doesn’t remember the layout as well as I do after being stuck in that bunker. The bunker! He left the bunker unlocked! 

    I force myself from the ground. It hurts, but I can’t care about that. I start limping toward the door. My leg has seen better days, but it’s safe to say I’m better off than him. After a few steps, I start to move more naturally. I hadn’t expected it to be much of a race, but Johan is starting to stand as I get the door open. He shouldn’t be able to even move after what he’s been through! What the hell is he?! By the time the door is open, Johan is back on both feet and lumbering at me with surprising speed. We run outside towards the bunker, each of us falling in the snow and fighting to our feet. I can hear him wheezing. I look back and see Johan had picked up his revolver and has it pointed at me. Click, click. Can’t blame him for trying. As I pull open the hatch to the bunker, I feel a sharp pain in my right shoulder. He must have thrown the useless gun at me. There was no time to close or lock the hatch; Johan was right on top of me. If I had taken the time to do anything else he would have pulled me up and—I don’t want to think about what he’d do. 

    When I land in the bunker the impact knocks me down, but I keep my grip on my knife. I look up to see Johan attempting to climb down the ladder. He loses his footing and falls to the bottom, landing hard on his back. Of course, luck wouldn’t allow him to just die. He tries to get up but is only able to get in a crawling position. He coughs hard, and blood leaks from his mouth. I need to finish him off now. 

    I move towards him with the intention of sticking the knife in his neck, but he catches me off guard. With amazing speed, he grabs my leg, pulls me down towards him, crawls on top of me, and wraps his hands around my neck. He’s heavy. They’re always heavy. He’s not as strong as I thought he would be though. I lift my knee up under him and push. It doesn’t move him much, but it buys me enough room to slide my knife up into his chest. Again. Again.

    I don’t think I’ll be able to stop him. He keeps squeezing, I can’t breathe, I keep stabbing and nothing happens. I keep stabbing anyway. Again. Again. I feel warmth leak over me and almost instantly turn cold. My vision starts to blur and then starts going out altogether. I keep pushing the knife upwards. Again. Again. I’m certain I’m going to die here, and then his hands relax. I gasp for air, and my vision starts coming back. It’s still a struggle to breathe under him; now he’s all crushing weight. Even in death, the son of a bitch is trying to murder me. I push up on him as hard as I can and attempt to slide out from under him. I don’t know how long I struggled as his blood started to freeze. 

    When I finally free myself from his stupid, unrelenting weight I wheeze, and gasp, and cough. I breathe deeply as if I’m taking the last breaths I ever will. After recovering a bit, I look back into the bunker. Propped against the wall not five feet away from me is a double-barreled shotgun. The sound of my laughter echoing off the wall startles me. I haven’t heard that in a long time. I wonder if I ever will again. 

    It dawns on me how well lit the bunker is. I struggle to my feet and walk deeper into it and see that Johan had three oil lamps burning throughout it. I had one measly dying lamp up in that station, and this asshole’s been burning three at one time?! There’s food on a shelf. All cans. A kerosene heater to the left of the shelf. I take a can of tomato soup and put it on the heater. I spend about a minute searching around for the rest of the guns he took, but I have no luck finding them thus far. Bastard must have hidden them. I’ll find everything later. I warm myself by the heater, attempting to dry my clothes. As disgusting as they are now, I can’t help but think it would be even worse to take them off. I take the can of soup off the heater and cut it open with the knife trying my best not to think of the sanitation implications. It’s still not very warm. It’s cold, the can is jagged, the soup smells strange, and I don’t care. It’s delicious. 

    I eat the rest of it sitting near the ladder watching the snow fall down from the hatch opening and onto the floor as it mixes with Johan’s blood. I look at his body. You liked it, didn’t you? It’s sort of pretty coming out of him, isn’t it? I look from his body up towards the opening knowing there’s no way I can carry him up that ladder. I stare at my knife reluctantly contemplating what I’ll have to do about that. 

    There’s no sense letting any colder in now, so I close the hatch, step back over Johan’s body, and warm myself by the heater. I’ll deal with him tomorrow. I look back over at the shelf to see what I fought so hard for. 

    It’s not much. But it’s mine. 

I earned my MA in English from East Carolina University, where I served as editorial assistant for North Carolina Literary Review. I currently teach English at Wake Technical Community College. My work has appeared in Renaissance and Foliate Oak Magazine. 

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