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"NORTH OF THE END"

Written by Mason McDonald

When the temperature drops low enough, the cold turns to acid. It scalds you. Melts your flesh away like the surface of the sun. The air freezes you from the inside out, crystalizes your lungs, so that each breath only serves to kill you further. Living becomes suicide when you can’t get warm.

Liev was pondering this when the last of his food ran out.

He chewed the nub of a granola bar and wondered how quick he would die should he leave the lab. It would be painful. The most pain he’d ever felt for sure. In an instant he’d be in agony. But for how long? That was the key question. Hypothermia isn’t decided by simple math. Sure, there are guesses for how long you could last, but every human is made different. Maybe he’d last five minutes. Maybe five hours.

The truth was, he needed to die quickly. Just get the whole mess over with. The alternative was to starve in here. God knows he wouldn’t die of thirst, they had a water supply to keep an army going into the new year. Some sort of unit that melts and cleans collected snow from the roof and turns it into drinkable water. As long as the generators were going, and they were showing no signs of stopping, he would have water.

This wasn’t what he had signed up for. Contemplating suicide by frost as an alternative for starving to death? He was a mechanic for Christ’s sake. He fixed engines. When he was offered the job, it seemed easy enough—help keep a crew of lab freaks alive for six months as they studied weather patterns in the far north. He hadn’t realized just how far north they’d been assigned until he got there, but even when faced with the absolute definition of barren, he still wasn’t turned off. It was easy money. More money than he’d make in two years before. And for what? Keeping the generators, snowmobiles, and trucks in working order. Most of the time that meant no more than turning them on, running the engine, and keeping ‘er warm. Of course he said yes.

Look at him now. This wasn’t in the job description.

When Harvey, that pompous little fuck, said he found something, he took a crew with them. He said it was just beyond a glacier a half mile to the north. Liev didn’t think there was anywhere left to go north without suddenly going south. About half of the team left with him. He left behind instructions to find them should they not return. Liev thought all of it was quite strange, as up until then, Harvey’s studies had been harvesting a block of ice every day in different areas and measuring their thickness and chemical levels. What could he have possible found doing that?

And wouldn’t you know it, the group never returned. Another, smaller group went out after them. This left Liev, Darla, and Monty behind. A mechanic, a medic, and a communications expert. Finally doing his job, Monty began radioing back for help. All the good that did. Nobody ever answered. Monty said it was strange but not unheard of. Liev thought Monty, short and redheaded and full of all the zest of a turnip, was in a bit over his head. Hell, so was Liev.

There never was an answer. And they tried for days. A couple times Liev said fuck it, he was taking a truck and getting the hell out of there. “Where you planning on going, huh?” Darla said, blocking the door. “We are multiple days out from the nearest road and that’s even if it was a straight shot, which it isn’t. Have you even looked at a map out here? You can’t go five miles without having to jump a chasm or some sort of frozen river.”

“They got trucks out here, didn’t they?” Liev argued.

“They airlifted them, numbfuck.”

Liev liked Darla. Hated that she was right, but he liked her. She was what his mother would call “full of piss and vinegar.”

Liev mentioned leaving a couple times after that, on a snowmobile maybe, but it never happened. Couldn’t. A storm rolled through and buried them. Without the proper manpower, it would have taken them days to dig themselves out. Maybe more.

They were trapped.

That night, Liev and Darla huddled around a space heater and passed a bottle of booze back and forth and swapped war stories. Darla told him about the time she had to cut a man’s arm off in the middle of a desert with a combat knife and rubbing alcohol. Liev told her about the rich prick in the white suit who hired him to rebuild a baby blue ‘56 Bel-Air from scratch.

Different wars.

Halfway through the night, they heard mumbling from Monty’s room. They checked in on him and found the small man huddled over the radio whispering like mad. He hadn’t even realized they’d entered. They listened for a while and couldn’t hear another party. Just dead air.

“Monty,” Darla said, “who’re ya talking to?”

Monty turned, his eyes bulging and red, mouth wide in a smile, and simply said one word. “Them.”

Of course, this excited Liev and Darla. Had Monty finally reached someone? Had he gotten them help? Or was it the others, finally able to radio back and confirm whether they were alive or dead?

When pressed, Monty wouldn’t answer. He instead turned and continued mumbling into the microphone. Liev got frustrated and pulled the little man away from the desk and grabbed the mic, yelling into it.

“Hello? Hello, who's there? Hello?”

“You have to press the button down,” Darla said.

“Right,” Liev said and pressed it down, “hello?”

Nothing. He pressed it again.

“Hello? Can anyone hear me?”

“Anybody there?” Darla asked.

“Nobody yet. Hello? Hello? Monty, who the hell were you talking to?”

“He probably doesn’t even know. Look at him. He’s lost it.”

“Hello? Hello?”

“Might as well stop. There’s nobody there.”

“Damn. Fuck! Damning fuck! Can anybody hear me?

“Liev, let it go.”

“They want our skin,” Monty said, mouselike.

“I can’t let it go! If somebody is out there, we need their help!”

“Liev! Enough! Let it go.”

“Fine! Fuck! Fuck all this,” Liev said and tossed the mic down and stormed out of the room, shoving Darla out of the way. The medic stayed behind for a moment and observed as Monty slowly slid his computer chair back over to the desk, picked up the mic, and started whispering again, smiling the entire time. Not blinking.

“You okay, Monty?”

He didn’t answer. In fact, they never heard his voice again.

The next morning, Monty was gone. They’d found his room empty and a side door to the lab opened a half-inch from being wedged with packed snow. The snow outside was stained with red from where Monty had dug his way out with his bare hands, the cold peeling the flesh from his bones.

At his desk, a note. It read: I HAVE TO FIND THEM.

They both assumed it meant the lost crew and that Monty had lost his mind. “Surprised he lasted this long,” Liev said.

Darla hadn’t said much about it.

They lasted another few days together before Darla started talking in her sleep. They started sleeping in the main hall, as they could pile multiple heaters in there and really get the cold away. They pulled two cots in and slept across from one another. Liev would wake and find Darla facing him in her cot, her eyes wide but her mind lost in slumber, and she would be whispering to him.

Theywantourskintheywantourskintheywantourskintheywantourskin,” she’d say, rapid fire, her lips quivering. Liev woke her up the first couple times and she’d come to in a fright, eyes wide and scared, and she’d cry. She wouldn’t tell him what she was dreaming about.

Eventually he started to ignore her. When he began to hear the sounds, he’d instead turn his back to her and put a pillow over his head to drown them out. It was eerie, knowing she was staring at her, but he forced it out of his mind so he could sleep.

The last night, he knew she was standing over him. Talking to him. Staring down at him. He refused to look.

In the morning she was gone, just like Monty. Except she used the front door. Liev closed it tight after kicking out the fallen snow, and he went to get his last granola bar.

“Well,” he said as he crumpled the wrapper, “let’s see what all the talk is about.”

After bundling up in all the gear he could get his hands on, he ventured outside for the first time in weeks. It didn’t matter how many layers he had covered himself in. The cold ate right through it. He was beginning to think his initial assessment had been correct and he wouldn’t make it past the five minute mark, but then five minutes passed and he was still walking.

It was slow going. The snow was up to his hips at some points and he had no way of knowing if his next step would send him careening down an icy fissure to die a broken-knee’d, agonizing death, or if he would fall into a pit of soft snow and suffocate on white fire in his lungs.

Both sounded just awful.

He went north, per the instructions from Harvey. Most of the icy expanse was wide open and blindingly white. When the sun hit the surface at the right angle, Liev had to shield his eyes even through his goggles. Honestly, he’d much rather stare into the sparking end of a welding gun then look into the low northern sun as it beat down on the white.

Liev was starting to think Harvey had gotten the directions wrong when he came across the glacier. It was magnificent. As blue as anything he’d ever seen, it rose into the sky like a wall at the end of the world. Liev visited Toronto once and thought the CN Tower was the tallest thing he’d ever see in his life.

He was wrong.

The wall dwarfed the tower, easy. It wasn’t even close. Even from so far away, Liev had to crane his neck to see the top. And wide? It ran so far he couldn’t see where it ended, it simply faded into the grey.

How’d they not seen this from the base? How’d he not seen it during his walk?

These questions were second in his mind as he saw the one single split that ran from the ground to the top of the precipice and excitement began to brew inside of him. Even though each breath was like swallowing razorblades and his lungs felt like they were melting and fusing together, Liev still found his smile. If the others were alive, they’d most certainly be inside the split or beyond the wall.

He entered.

The tunnel was oddly bright from the sun reflecting and refracting through the ethereal blue ice. It was like a chapel for some frozen god and Liev felt himself an apostle. He didn’t walk through the split in the glacier, more he experienced it.

At times the path was thin and narrow and he had to turn sideways and squeeze through. Once, he was stuck and all he could move was his head and his fingers. The rest was wedged. He began to panic. He looked up and saw a lifetime of ice above him reaching above him to the sky and he felt the weight of the universe squeezing in on him. He panicked. He screamed. He cried.

He broke through and kept walking as if it never happened. A simple pop and he was free, continuing on his trek.

“I probably died a long time ago,” he said.

The glacier ended eventually and opened up into a wide, deep valley covered in frost and snow. There were trees—trees! Liev had never been so happy to see something that wasn’t white. Although they were still filled with snow, the green of their pines made him cry out in joy.

He was so taken aback by the existence of trees that he hadn’t even noticed the rest. For example, it was no longer day. In half the time of a finger snap it had turned to a calm night, the sky black and filled with stars. And the trees were more than just green—they glowed gold and silver, red and green and blue. Lights were strung through them in playful displays. A path was worn in the snow that elbowed through the drifts and hills and snaked around the trees and lined with lit posts to guide the way.

They led to a pair of log-built buildings. One was large and rectangular with a flat roof which featured a display of ornate decorations and lights atop it. There weren’t many windows in this building, but from the few visible, there was movement and life inside of them.

The other building was a small cottage with a sloped roof and decorative trim along the eaves. Almost every inch of the house was alight with colours and hanging bulbs. The windows glowed with a magical warm, yellow light. Light grey smoke puffed from the chimney.

Liev ran. He couldn’t help himself. He tripped and slid but kept going. He never noticed the glowing red light from the trees, or the massive set of antlers that disappeared into it.

Once at the cottage door, he pounded on it with both fists, begging to be helped. To be saved.

“Please!” Liev cried out. “Please!”

“I’m coming,” a deep, whimsical voice called out from inside with a bellied three-tone chuckle.

The door opened and a warmth he’d never experienced bathed him like the gold light that accompanied it. The smell of freshly baked gingerbread slithered into his nostrils. Behind the gingerbread was the scent of a cooked meal with all the fixings. Ham, especially.

The man who answered towered over Liev by at least a foot and had a belly to go with it. “Oh, well if it isn’t little Liev,” the man said and put a big, leather glove-clad hand on Liev’s trembling shoulder.

“Come in, son,” the man said and pulled Liev inside, closing the door behind him.

“My friends,” Liev said, shivering even though he never felt so warm in his life.

The big man laughed again and held his stomach.

“Oh, they’re all here. They’ve been waiting for you.”

mason mcdonald 01Mason McDonald is the author of A Time For Monsters. When not inventing yuletide boogeymen, he can be found drinking booze and fist fighting his own personal Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. He currently lives in Port Morien, NS, with his wife Jenna and their collection of animals.

You can pick up his collection by clicking one of the links below!

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