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Ice, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  Instead, she saw the anger drain out of her father’s face. He dropped his clipboard to the table, and he hugged her. “I could have lost you,” he said.

  This was new. “Dad,” she said, squirming. Anger she had expected, but hugs? They were not a hugging family. “Dad, please, I’m fine. I know what I’m doing. You don’t have to worry.”

  Dad released her. He was shaking his head. “I should have known this day would come,” he said. “Your grandmother was right.”

  Awkwardly, she patted his shoulder. “I’ll bring backup next time,” she promised. “I’ll catch the bear. You’ll see.”

  He didn’t appear to be listening. “It’s too late for application deadlines for this year, but some of my friends at the University of Alaska owe me favors. You can work in one of their labs and apply for undergrad next year.”

  Whoa—what? They’d agreed she would take courses remotely. She wasn’t leaving the station. “Dad . . .”

  “You can live with your grandmother in Fairbanks. She’ll be thrilled to say, ‘I told you so.’ She’s been pushing for this since you were five, but I selfishly wanted you here,” he said. “I’ll contact Max to fly you there.”

  She stared at him. “But I don’t want to leave,” she said. She loved it at the station! Her life was here. She wanted—no, needed—to be near the ice.

  He focused on her, as if seeing her afresh. “You’re leaving,” he said, steel back in his voice. “I’m sorry, Cassie, but this is for your own good.”

  “You can’t simply decide that—”

  “If your mother were here, she would want this.”

  Cassie felt as if she’d been punched in her gut. He knew full well how Cassie felt about her mother, how much she wished she were here, how much she wished she’d known her. To use that as a weapon to win an argument . . . It was a low blow. Cassie shook her head as if she could shake out his words. “I’m not leaving,” she said. “This is my home.”

  Her father—who shied away from feelings so much that he had delegated her childhood to her grandmother and had left her puberty to a stack of bio textbooks—her father had tears in his eyes. “Not anymore,” he said softly. “It can’t be anymore.”


  Latitude 70° 49’ 23” N

  Longitude 152° 29’ 25” W

  Altitude 10 ft.


  What were they doing? It sounded as if the whole station staff were stomping around outside her door. She could have sworn she’d even heard a plane engine. She tossed off her covers and raked her fingers through her hair. She knew she looked like a redheaded Medusa, and she was sure she had bags under her eyes the size of golf balls. She was wearing long johns, mismatched socks, and an oversize T-shirt that read: ALASKA—WHERE MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN WIN THE IDITAROD. Cassie yanked on pants and a sweater over her long johns and T-shirt before she stuck her head out her door. She spotted Owen scurrying down the hallway. “Hey,” she called to him. “It’s three a.m.” She nearly added, And it’s my birthday.

  “Max’s plane is here,” Owen said. “Just landed. We’d have had more warning if you had fixed the antennae instead of going off to chase trouble.”

  She winced. She deserved that. After all, she’d wrecked his equipment. His crankiness was justified. But what did he mean that Max’s plane was here? Max wasn’t scheduled for a visit. . . . Oh.

  He’d come for Cassie.

  Her heart sank. How had Dad convinced him to come so fast? Before the budget cuts, Max had been on the station’s staff. He’d flown his Twin Otter for them when Cassie was little; he’d been her earliest babysitter, practically an uncle to her—but now he worked for a commercial runway in Fairbanks. He couldn’t take off on zero notice. She hadn’t imagined Dad would call for him immediately.

  Cassie brushed past Owen and headed for the research lab. She had to put a stop to this right now. She had to talk sense into Dad and convince Max to return to Fairbanks without her.

  Before Cassie reached the lab door, she heard boxes scrape across linoleum, and the door flew open. “Cassielassie!” Max bellowed. He strode down the hall and scooped her up into a bear hug. He swung her in a half circle, then thumped her shoulder blades as if he were burping her as he set her down. “Did you find the Abominable Snowman?” he asked, their old routine.

  “Stuffed and mounted,” she said, on cue. He grinned at her, his white teeth startlingly bright against his dark skin. She automatically grinned back. She’d forgotten how much she’d missed seeing him.

  Maybe this is a normal visit, Cassie thought as Max beamed at her. Maybe it’s unrelated to my argument with Dad. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.

  And maybe there really is an Abominable Snowman. She shook her head at herself. Max wasn’t here by coincidence, not within mere hours of Dad’s pronouncement. She shouldn’t bother trying to fool herself.

  “Got a surprise for you,” Max said.

  “Yeah?” He hadn’t said it like it was a bad surprise, but her stomach knotted as if it knew this couldn’t be good.

  Cassie heard a familiar tap from the doorway—a cane. Gram. Max had brought Gram. Cassie wished she could be happy. She hadn’t seen her grandmother in months, and now she was here. Ordinarily, this would have been a wonderful surprise: Max and Gram, her two favorite people in the world, were here. But now she was going to have to tell her grandmother face-to-face that she didn’t want to live with her in Fairbanks.

  She shouldn’t have told Dad about the bear walking into the ice. If she had simply left that detail out of her report . . .

  Gram hit her mahogany cane sharply on the floor. “I haven’t shriveled to nothing. Come hug me.” She held out her arms.

  Forcing herself to smile, Cassie bounded the remaining steps to the lab door. She wrapped her grandmother in her arms. It was like holding a bird. Gram was almost as tall as Cassie, but her bones were tiny. She felt breakable. Cassie released her quickly.

  “You’ve grown,” Gram said.

  “You’ve shrunk,” Cassie responded automatically.

  Gram frowned and shook her head. Like Cassie, she had a fierce frown. Both of them had strong faces, but Gram’s skin hung loose over hers, and her hair, once as thick and red as Cassie’s, rustled like an old curtain. “Nonsense. I’m as beautiful as the day your grandfather met me. First time in the back of his pickup, do you know what he said? ‘Ingrid,’ he said. ‘Ingrid, God himself could not have more perfect breasts than you.’”

  Cassie couldn’t help laughing. “I’ve missed you.”

  “Oh, my Cassandra.” She hooked her arm around Cassie’s waist. “Let me look at you. So grown-up. Such a fine young woman now.”

  Cassie swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. “Gram . . . ,” she began. She stopped. How did she say this without hurting Gram’s feelings? The last thing in the world she wanted to do was hurt her grandmother. “How . . . How was your flight?”

  “Idiotic FCC almost didn’t let us lift up,” Max said. “No Fed can tell me how to fly safe. Thirty years flying in the bush, and I can smell ice. It’s not like flying in the lower forty-eight. . . .”

  Only half-listening to Max’s rant, Cassie watched her grandmother’s face and tried to read what she was thinking. “Gram, what did Dad tell you?”

  Max fell silent.

  Gram plucked lint from Cassie’s wool sweater. For as long as Cassie could remember, Gram was always tidying. Gram herself was as neat as a soldier. Her white shirt was pressed with a crease down the sleeves. She looked her neatest when she was most upset. She was looking very neat now. “Ah, my Cassandra.” Gram adjusted Cassie’s sweater, and then she took Cassie’s face in both her hands. Gram kissed her left cheek, and then her right cheek, an oddly formal gesture. Cassie pulled back. “Gram, what is it?”

  “You found him,” Gram said. “You found the Polar Bear King.”

  Cassie flinched as if she’d been slapped. Of all the things she’d been expecting Gram t
o say, that wasn’t one of them. “That’s not funny.”

  “I wasn’t joking,” Gram said.

  “Did Dad tell you I also saw Elvis?” Cassie said. “Oh, yes, the King’s taken up dog mushing. Saw him last week racing the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.”

  Gram gripped Cassie’s shoulders. “Cassandra . . .”

  Dad had told them . . . what? She’d been hallucinating? She was crazy? That was how he had convinced Max and Gram to drop everything and fly here?

  Max inched backward down the hallway. “I’ll just . . . let you two talk. . . . Yeah. Takeoff will be at six a.m. Um, happy birthday, by the way.” He fled through the lab door.

  Some birthday. Why was everyone she loved and trusted acting crazy? First Dad, and now Gram. . . . Gram steered Cassie away from the lab door. “Come, let’s go to your room,” Gram said. “This isn’t a public conversation.”

  Yes, that was a good idea. She’d talk to Gram alone—find out what was really behind all this. There had to be an explanation for Dad’s uncharacteristic overreaction. Cassie managed a smile and tried for normalcy: “My room isn’t exactly Gram-ready.”

  “I’ll be the judge of that,” Gram said.

  Cassie banged her hip on her bedroom door, and it popped open. Socks spilled into the hall. She kicked them out of the way and switched on the bedroom light. Long johns were draped over the dresser. Her bivy sack was wound around the bed frame. On her pillow, Mr. Fluffy, her old stuffed fox with the chewed ear, sported a roll of duct tape around his neck. Gram surveyed the wreckage. “Mmm,” Gram said. “You didn’t make your bed.”

  “You can see the bed?”

  Using her cane, Gram picked her way over a nest of climbing ropes. She scooted a heap of maps off the bed and onto the floor and spread the comforter. “Fix your side, dear.”

  Cassie really didn’t want to talk about the state of her room. She was sorry she’d mentioned it. “Gram . . . ,” Cassie began.

  “Dear?” Gram repeated, more steel in her voice.

  Cassie knew her: Gram wasn’t going to talk until the bed was made. Dad had learned his implacable resolve from her. Sighing, Cassie tugged the comforter straight. “Tuck in the corner,” Gram said. Cassie obeyed. “Very nice,” Gram said. “Now, fetch your bag, dear. We need to get you packed.”

  “Gram . . . It’s not that I don’t want to live with you. I just don’t want to live in Fairbanks. I want to stay here.”

  “You’ll need sweaters and underwear.” Gram plucked a backpack out of the mess. She laid it open on the bed.

  Stay calm, Cassie told herself. This is Gram. Cassie continued in a reasonable tone, “It’s prime season—bears are migrating back onto the sea ice. I’m needed here.”

  Gram poked her cane into Cassie’s closet. “Clean or dirty?” She extracted a wool sweater and sniffed it. “You need to take better care of your clothes.”

  “Gram, talk to me,” she pleaded.

  Gram handed Cassie three sweaters. “Fold.”

  Cassie dumped the sweaters onto her bed. Gram gave her a look, and then neatly folded the sweaters and placed them inside the backpack. Cassie fished them out again and tossed them back into the closet.

  “Don’t be difficult,” Gram said. She fetched the sweaters. “Your father worries. He has always worried, the stubborn fool.” Gram refolded the sweaters. “He wanted to shield you. He thought ignorance would protect you . . . but that’s an old argument, and the point is moot now. The important thing is to get you to Fairbanks. I’ll explain everything once you’re safely there.”

  Cassie felt a chill. She didn’t need protection from a fairy tale. There was no Polar Bear King. What was Gram hiding behind this ridiculous lie? “Gram, what ‘everything’?”

  “You aren’t going to make this easy, are you?” Gram said.

  No, of course she wasn’t. Gram was asking her to leave her life, her home, her career, and her future. “What aren’t you telling me?” Cassie asked.

  Gram sighed. “Oh, my Cassandra, he should have told you the truth a long time ago. He only wanted to protect you. We both only wanted to protect you. We merely disagreed on the best approach.” She sounded tired. Old and tired. Cassie had never heard Gram sound like that.

  “What truth?” Cassie asked.

  Gram sat on the edge of Cassie’s bed like she used to when she’d tuck Cassie in at night. Gram held one of Cassie’s sweaters on her lap. “Your mother,” Gram said gently, “was the daughter of the North Wind. She bargained with the Polar Bear King, and now, on your eighteenth birthday, he’s coming for you.”

  Cassie heard a roaring in her ears as her pulse pounded. Her mother, the daughter of the wind? That was only a story.

  “You know it’s true,” Gram said. “You’ve seen him.”

  She’d seen a bear, larger than any on record, who’d walked into solid ice. But that didn’t mean . . . Cassie shook her head. Why was Gram doing this? It wasn’t funny. Teasing her about the Polar Bear King, teasing her about her mother . . . It was cruel. “Don’t do this,” Cassie said.

  “Cassandra, it is true,” Gram said. “You know I left the station because your father and I had a disagreement. This was what we fought about. I believed you should have been told the truth.”

  Gram’s expression was grave. Her eyes were kind and serious. Her hands were nervously flattening the sweater on her lap. Cassie stared at her. For a brief, marvelous, crazy instant, Cassie thought, What if . . .

  But no, it wasn’t true. Her mother had died in a blizzard shortly after Cassie was born. She wasn’t at some troll castle. If she were . . . If she were, if there were even a possibility that Gram’s story were true and her mother was a prisoner somewhere, then Dad would have rescued her. Cassie wouldn’t have had to grow up feeling like she was missing a slice of herself.

  “You need time to think,” Gram said kindly. “I understand. It’s a lot all at once.” She patted Cassie’s shoulder. “You rest. We’ll leave in a few hours.”

  Before Cassie could object again, Gram left her alone.

  Cassie tossed her backpack into the closet and deposited the sweaters onto her dresser. Why had Dad and Gram invented this lie? They’d never lied to her before. But they were either lying to her now or . . .

  Cassie blinked fast. Her eyes felt hot as she stared at her bed. Years ago, Gram used to sit there, a profile in the dark. Her voice, telling the story, was as familiar as a heartbeat. She’d told it every time Dad had been away from the station. Cassie had always thought that was because Dad had disapproved of fairy tales. His idea of a bedtime story was Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica. Now she was supposed to believe he’d objected to Gram telling her the truth?

  She wished she’d caught that bear. If she had, they could’ve run tests on him, taken a blood sample, even tagged him with an ID and tracked his movements. She could have proved he was ordinary.

  Maybe she still could. If she called their bluff, they’d have no excuse to force her to Fairbanks.

  Without waiting for second thoughts, Cassie tiptoed out into the hall and then cut through the research lab. The fluorescents were off, but the computer screens glowed green. She heard hushed voices from the direction of the kitchen. If she were quick enough, no one would even notice she had left her room. She exited the lab, closing the door softly behind her, and then flicked on the light of the main room.

  Someone stirred. “Whaa . . .”

  Cassie froze. It was Jeremy. He’d fallen asleep at his desk again. “Go back to sleep,” she whispered.

  “Mmmuph,” he said, closing his eyes.

  She held her breath. He was the newbie—the cheechako, to use Max’s native Inupiaq. Dad and Gram wouldn’t have told him anything, she assured herself. If she acted normal, he wouldn’t be alarmed, and he wouldn’t fetch her father. She moved slowly to her desk and pulled on her Gore-Tex pants. The pants rustled, and Jeremy’s eyes popped open again.

  Jeremy peered at her blearily. “Where are you going?”

  “Repair work,” she lied. “Nothing to worry about.” She shoved her feet into her mukluks and secured her gaiters over them.

  “Don’t know how you can stand it out there,” Jeremy said. “It’s a wasteland. An ice desert. At least you’re getting out, eh?”

  Her fingers faltered as she fixed her face mask. “Who told you that?” she asked, trying to keep her voice calm and casual. She pulled the hood up over two wool hats—almost ready. She felt as if her insides were shouting, Hurry, hurry!

  “That plane guy, Max, said you were going to undergrad.”

  “Max talks too much,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.” She Velcroed the throat gusset of her hood shut and then fetched her emergency kit. The small pack held a flashlight, her ice axe, extra flannels, and a few food rations. With this, she could search the pack ice for several days, if that’s what it would take.

  “Just because this is all you know, it doesn’t mean this is all there is,” he said. “Don’t you want a normal life? You’ve never lived outside this station. You’ve been homeschooled your entire life. Don’t you want to get out there, meet kids your age, do what normal people do?”

  She loved the ice. She loved tracking bears. “This is home,” she said shortly.

  “I thought this would be my home. Coming here was my dream, you know, for years. But now . . . Hey, whatever, dreams change. Nothing wrong with that. I’m applying for a nice, cozy postdoc back at UCLA.”

  “Good for you,” she said. Her dreams weren’t changing. Nothing and no one—Dad, Gram, Max—could force her to leave her life here. “I’ll just be a minute,” she said as she opened the inner door and shut it behind her.

  For a brief second, she debated staying inside and trying to talk sense into Dad and Gram, but words had failed to convince them before. No, she thought, if I don’t act now, I’ll be on a plane to Fairbanks in three hours. she couldn’t let that happen. She opened the outer door and stepped out into the Arctic.