Martin had to finish siphoning fuel from the last 42 gallon barrel of oil with a screwdriver, mallet, funnel, cork and tin bucket—something taught to him by Mags on his first day—before pouring its contents into the boiler at the far end of the foil-lined bunker. Alaska turned out to be much colder than he ever would have anticipated, and it was a mistake to have left the fuel so close to the door where air could get in and freeze anything that wasn’t well-covered over. A mistake he wouldn’t make again.
Once he was finished, he made sure that the tassels on his gloves were well pulled, the thermal-scarf stretched tight above the tip of his nose and snow goggles securely fastened on his head, before venturing out into the freezing white and trudging back along the twine that led the way to his bunk.
Winter on North Shore normally meant visibility of no more than a few feet. Mags told him that several of her predecessors had been lax about taking such precautions and had either lost body parts to frostbite or worse, had wandered off into the white never to be seen again. It was this that scared Martin more than anything during his first few months at the outpost, and now he didn’t take any chances. He didn’t consider himself completely safe until he saw the caribou antlers mounted above the door of his living quarters—even when the weather was clear—and further still, until he was sat in front of the stove drinking coffee from Mags’s So Fucking What? Metallica mug. The first sip always tasted like Heaven.
When he was safely installed, Martin hung his wet clothes up and changed into his sweats. Blizzard conditions were meant to last for another couple of days, and in the meantime there was nothing more could be done, but he had enough fuel to see him through the rest of the month and enough food in the cabin that he didn’t have to step outside again for most of that time. He just wished that the weather would let up a little so he could check his Facebook account and maybe put in a radio call to Mags. It was his niece’s 5th birthday back home and he wanted to leave her a message, or at least look at some of the photos his sister, Allie, had put up on her page. Life at the outpost was tranquil much of the time and was an opportunity he was grateful to Mags for having given him, but it was also cripplingly lonely and unforgiving if one was unprepared to truly let go.
Days like these were particularly long and tedious. Even in good weather the landscape on North Shore was nothing but ice and rock for miles around, with the occasional sprig of hard grass or willow bark—which Mags said could be made into a tea that promoted sleep.
Fairbanks had been much more to his liking; anonymous but just civilized enough that he could forget himself in a warm wood-panelled bar with a TV and jukebox, and maybe a good-time girl who wanted to know what things were like elsewhere. It was much easier to forget in that sort of environment.
On North Shore however, even the frontier idea of Alaska was betrayed by the constant snow. There was no game-hunting or log-chopping or trading ice-fish for whale blubber; not even domesticated husky dogs were suited to this kind of weather. One could not do anymore than sit inside the cabin drinking coffee, playing with the comms radio, reading, watching movies or masturbating. Mags had told him it was mainly reading that kept her sane during her time there, and that there was an almost full library of paperbacks stacked on a cinderblock shelf constructed near the window.
But Mags’s taste was not Martin’s taste. Everything left behind seemed a direct aggravation of his loneliness—Dostoevsky, McCarthy, Baudelaire, The Shining by Stephen King. Martin wanted something that affirmed the natural goodness of life; finding nothing but horror and nihilism in the things he’d already run away from. So films passed most of the time, among which Frozen and Home Alone 2—both of which reminded him of his niece—were unlikely favourites.
Today though, he could not concentrate on film-watching. Before the storm he noticed a small, indistinct black shape circling the compound about a mile from the delivery runway, and knew immediately that he was being tracked by either a wolf or a grizzly bear. This was the first such encounter he’d ever experienced, with Mags doing little to allay his fears when she finally arrived in her battered old bush-plane to deliver Martin’s heating oil for the Winter.
‘Yeah,’ she said pointing out to the middle-distance, squinting hard from the noontime glare of the snow. ‘That’d likely be Old Fatback. Son-of-a-bitch came through the wall of my cabin last time I was here, snapped my leg in half and took a big old bite outta my neck. There was blood all over the fuckin’ place before I managed to get two rounds off in his back and he scampered back into the night with his tail between his legs. Probably got wise to my comin’ back to visit you.’
‘Is that why you left?’ Martin asked.
‘Among other things, yeah.’ She patted the side of the plane when she said this. ‘I suppose it just finally made me realise that I’m too fuckin’ old to be fightin’ Mother Nature in the Middle-of-Goddamn-Nowhere… I mean shit, Marty, I’ve got grandkids, and I wanna be alive to see at least one of ‘em graduate college, y’know?’
‘I guess,’ Martin said.
That had been three days ago, and every night since he’d spent sleeping with a cocked .44 Magnum—hung from the bedpost nearest his head—in a leather holster given to him as a gift by his sister. Above the bed was a 45-70 bolt action Springfield rifle mounted just below the roof, with a box of ammunition kept in the top drawer of his bedside table. Indeed, Mags had warned him that the storm should not make him complacent about any potential predators. Bears and wolves were smart, she said, and would seek to draw their prey out into open combat to be picked off; even if it took days. They were patient, she said, because there was nothing else to eat on North Shore.
Still, as hard as life could be in Alaska, it didn’t compare to the hardship Martin had already endured; nor were the sparse luxuries of the compound any different from the time he’d spent as an inhabitant of the Tent City back home.
There he’d lived for six months—after running away from his father’s trailer at 17—and building a wooden shanty using pallets stolen from a nearby railway yard, which he covered over at night with a blue tarpaulin. Electricity was rigged into the camp by an out-of-work electrician, using a series of stripped cables taken from some local boarded up houses and connecting them to a pylon through a network of cut-up garden hoses. He learned the art of survival quickly, scavenging for empty beer cans and tins of beans which he’d then cut in half, wash and use to boil stew or percolate coffee.
Life during the first summer months had even been good, with one of the campers managing to procure a baby-grand to lead sing-alongs as the sun went down, and another who built a makeshift aviary for carrier pigeons. It was the first and only time he felt part of a community. Sometimes even being allowed to drink beer with the older campers, who viewed him through the prism of vulnerability and protected him from the outside world by accepting him as part of their own. Problems only arose later, when Allie—who was still just 16—arrived with a 2 year old child in tow and nowhere else to stay.
Then winter kicked in, and suddenly Martin found himself in conflict with other campers, who—like him—were competing for the portable gas burners and electric stoves used for heat in the evenings. Fist fights and stabbings became commonplace, and he learned quickly to be brutal and sometimes cold in order to keep his sister and new niece safe from harm. Several good friends died from exposure, and it was not uncommon to step outside in the mornings to the crunch of snow and pipe-glass strewn on the ground from the night before. Things were desperate enough then that people did anything to stay warm.
Indeed, it had been this ingenuity and strength of character which Mags had recognised when she first passed the North Shore job over to Martin. Already he’d converted the shell of an old schoolbus on the compound site—which had been half buried in snow and no-one was quite sure how to use—into a loading dock for the efficient and dry storage of wood for the stove. And that was after a further two years of wandering around Washington State and Vancouver in Canada, before finally coming north to Fairbanks and replying to Mags’s ad in the local paper.
He also used the bus as a kind of watchtower; occasionally climbing onto its roof and looking out over the vast snowy plains in search of any incoming storm clouds or predators who might be on their way. And it was here he stood now, taking advantage of the passing calm afforded by the eye of the storm, to look out into the distance and see if he could spot Old Fatback before nightfall came and the conditions were too dark or too unsettled to take a fair view.
‘Nothing,’ he said to himself, as he stepped down off the roof onto the snow-covered barrel he used as a step. ‘The fucker’s probably in hiding.’ Then, almost out loud, ‘Just like the old man.’
Night had already started to fall over North Shore by the time he reached his cabin, and in the dying flat light, he noticed that the camp had suddenly taken on the ethereal royal blue richness of an underwater aquarium; likely attributable to the night-sky reflecting off the ground. Stars were nestled in a hole straight overhead—as North Shore passed through the eye of the storm—and Martin knew that he had to get inside quick, before the blizzards started again and he froze to death on the front step of his shack.
He hoped that where his niece and sister were was warm and that they were well-rested and safe and happier in their memories than he was now. Soon he’d be turning in, and unless he drank some willow bark to help him drop off to sleep, he knew he’d lie awake all night worrying about Old Fatback coming through the door of the cabin.
When he woke later he was dreaming of home, and imagining Allie and his niece under the same blanket—in front of the TV—the way they used to in his shack when they dropped off from exhaustion and knew they were protected and safely away from Him.
The blizzard had temporarily died down and the wind that howled between the barrels and storage containers was still, so that—when he heard the sound of rustling coming from outside the cabin door, by the corner of the front wall—the only explanation to Martin’s mind was that Old Fatback had finally wandered into camp to take him out and claim his meal.
Slowly, he sat up in bed and put the lamp on—being careful all the time not to make any sudden movements—before setting his laptop to one side, closing the screen and slipping into his high-top Timberland boots, which he wore over a pair of thermal long-johns and pyjama trousers. Next he grabbed his rifle and laid it on the bed, then fastened his sister’s holster around his waist before checking the revolver to see if it was fully cocked and loaded. Last, he put on his overcoat and monkey-hat, then made for the door humming ‘Let It Go’ and praying silently that the noise he’d heard was an arctic fox, or maybe a wren who’d been blown off-course by the wind.
Nothing moved, but through the window—at the foot of the mound of snow banked against the side of the outhouse, which served as the compound’s boiler room—Martin thought he could see the impressions of animal feet pressed into the ground. His heart thundered in his ears. He could see nothing but white in every other direction.
Visibility was even poorer than it had been during the day, and as he opened the door and stepped out into the void, feeling for the twine that guided his way between the outhouses of the compound, he discovered to his dismay that it had been severed. Its frayed ends already starting to harden with frost when he picked it up and turned it over in his hands.
Tentatively, he walked out into the night and approached the outhouse as best he could; making sure that what he’d really seen were the footprints of a bear and not just shadows created by a fevered, sleep-addled mind.
You won’t die if you just go a little further, he thought, coming to the expected spot and finding nothing but white enveloping him from every side. Just a little further and you’ll meet him and show him exactly who’s king of the castle. Show him that you’re not just a scared little boy anymore.