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Thriller Science Fiction Coming of Age

"What would you say if I told you I think there's a pattern?" We were laying in bed, the blanket pulled up over our heads against the cold. Jane was wrapped around me and she was speaking into the nape of my neck. The freezing soles of her feet were pressing into my ankles. We'd been here for a year.

"A pattern to what?"

"To the earthquakes. What would you say if I told you that I think there's a rhythm?" She sighed and I felt a rush of heat from her breath. "Like they're intentional. Would you say I'm crazy?"

Yes. I'd say there's a doctor in Oslo who's prescribed you two milligrams of risperidone that you're not taking, and we haven't seen another human being in two months. I'd say you're seeing ghosts.

"Of course not. What do you mean? Intentional how?"

I could feel Jane's mouth open to say something, but then the baby monitor on the nightstand came to life with an electric buzz. I pulled the blanket down and see Maggie illuminated in night vision green, standing in her crib, grasping the bars in her little fists.

Jane jumped out of bed and the cold rushed in. "Is she standing?"

When the first tremor hits I'm in bed. I'm alone. I'm dreaming that Jane and I are at Lake Cuomo. It's late summer and she's reading a book, her head in my lap. The book is not about tectonic irregularities, and I'm eating from a bowl of over-ripe figs. She is telling me she wants to have a baby. We are younger and deeply content.

I wake to gray Arctic winter half-light and realize I must have slept in; if it is light at all, it must be almost noon. It's not the earthquake itself that woke me, but the gust of frigid air. The outermost pane of the triple-insulated window has shattered in its frame, and frost is spreading over the glass like an inkblot painting of a spiderweb. I pull on a pair of thermal pants and a thermal shirt, a polar fleece, a knit cap I keep in the bedroom for just such an emergency. I find the flashlight.

I'm alone, obviously; the bed is empty. Jane is gone. Jane's been gone for years.

When Maggie was four Jane started teaching her to drive the green ATVs that she used on her rock-collecting expeditions.

“It'll be an adventure!” Jane said. She bundled Maggie up in layer after layer, then put a tiny parka on her and pulled up the hood. “Isn't that right, my little explorer?” Maggie smiled up at me, then lifted her miniature ski goggles onto her head, adjusting the strap so they fit snugly around her little face. She followed Jane everywhere. She'd learned to read two years ahead of schedule, and now all of her books were children's guides to plate tectonics and thermodynamics made simple.

Jane walked over and gave me a kiss on the cheek, taking my hand in her giant padded gloves. “We'll be back in time for dinner.” Then they were off. I watched them from the kitchen window, two small specks growing smaller and smaller against the white, until they vanished entirely.

There are no – or few – wild animals this far north, but for the next six hours I will worry that wild animals are eating the two of them alive, tearing through their windproof layers to get at the soft, warm flesh underneath. There are no – or few – ravines or crevasses in the foothills that surround us, but for the next six hours I will picture the two of them plummeting to their deaths, breaking arms and legs so that they are unable to make it back to the house. The ATVs have plenty – or at least lots – of gas, but for the next six hours I will picture them running out of fuel miles into the snowy nothing, freezing to death.

“I'm not saying I understand how.” Jane was in her lab. She started spending more and more time there the year before she vanished. She rubbed her eyes. She wasn't looking at me. She was looking at a computer screen showing a readout of methane measurements found in a core sample she'd taken earlier that day.

I'd brought dinner, but there was no space for it. She was sitting at a desk covered in printouts and charts, notebooks full of notes, rocks with little labels attached to them marking the precise coordinates where she'd collected them. The walls were covered in topographical maps of the hills and valleys surrounding us. Jane would put a little pin in the maps after each earthquake recording to record its exact epicenter. “But I am saying this isn't natural. I'm saying there's something doing this.”

I'd heard this before – more and more often.

“There's some kind of pattern here. It's shifting – it seems like it's different in the summer and winter, for example. I don't understand why. But I'm certain it's there.”

This is the point where we usually started fighting, but this was the year we both became too tired to fight. We would reach the same impasse again and again: She was certain there was meaning, and I was certain there was not. She would look at this collection of data points and see a puzzle she could solve; and I would look at the same data points and see random upheaval, the earth throwing us up into the air and crashing down on our heads again.

“I think you're looking at this too closely,” I said. “Or too much. Too often. You're in here all the time, and when you're not you're out there gathering rocks.”

She finally turned to look at me. “This is important to me. This is why we came here.”

And I said, “I came here for you.” I stood up. “You and Maggie – and I only see the two of you when you're bent over this stuff.” This was an exaggeration, but not a large one. Jane had installed a cot in the lab for the summer nights when she'd work through the gray twilight of midnight. I'd find her in the morning covered in a thin blanket, shivering in her clothes.

“What if it means something? What if we're the only people in the right place to see it?”

I gathered the plates and got up to take them to the kitchen. “What if it doesn't? And what if you're the only person who can't see it?”

I check the other windows, but it seems mine is the only one damaged. I flip the living room lights on and off to check the generator, then run the tap in the bathroom to ensure that the water pump wasn't damaged. None of these systems have ever actually failed in an earthquake – the house was designed for this research – but survival beyond the Arctic circle inculcates a certain cargo cultism. You develop little rituals to stay alive.

Then I go from room to room to see what's broken. A few plates in the kitchen have fallen from a shelf and broken, and an abandoned mug of tea has fallen from the coffee table in the living room and soaked through the carpet. A minor mess to clean up later.

A framed photograph of my parents has fallen from the mantel, the glass front shattering on the floor. The photograph shows my parents in the Alps, sitting at a picnic table on the side of the highway near Lugano. Jane and I had just gotten engaged; they were driving down to meet us in Milan. We were supposed to spend a week there before Jane and I started packing our apartment to go north. A few hours after this picture was taken a truck carrying flatpack furniture would graze the side of their car on a narrow switchback, the driver missing their little sedan in the late summer twilight. My parents' car tumbled off the side of the road and dropped seventy feet. It was totaled on impact.

Earthquakes come out of nowhere. There is no pattern, no logic – sometimes the ground just swallows you up. This is something I have always known, and something I always loved Jane for denying.

I knock on Maggie's door to check on her and survey the damage in her room, but there's no response. Maggie has always been a deep sleeper. I knock again, then call her name. I ease the door open.

Maggie's bed is empty. I run to the front of the house, my eyes and nose unprotected and burning in the cold. One of the ATVs is gone, a set of tracks leading away from where it was parked and away to the hills.

The week before Jane left we fought again.

I'd found her in her lab that morning, nearly frozen to death. It was the dead of winter. She'd obviously worked until she passed out, then crawled into the cot without even putting on her thermal night clothes or turning on the space heater. The thermostat in the room read fifty degrees. Her teeth were chattering, her face was almost white, her lips and the beds of her fingernails dark blue. She was barely conscious.

I called Maggie to get the electric blanket from the linen closet, then gingerly lifted Jane up and moved her to the living room, laying her on the couch and wrapping her up. I surrounded her with space heaters. Then I sat in the armchair across from her and watched her as the color began to return to her face and her breathing began to slow to a regular rhythm.

When Jane could speak again, I asked Maggie to go to her room so that her mother and I could talk. I had to fight my own fear to control my own voice; I was scared, and I was furious.

“You can't keep doing this,” I said. “Not to yourself. Not to me. Not to Maggie. I know your work is important, but this is insane.”

What I don't say: It doesn't matter how important your work is if you die before you finish it. And also: I don't care how important your work is if it takes you away from me.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “It's just – “

“No.”

“I'm close. I'm close to figuring this thing out.” Then she turned to look at me. “And I need to figure it out. To know I'm not crazy.”

“What if you are?”

I regretted saying that immediately. Jane looked as if I'd slapped her. But then she said, in a quiet voice, “I need you to look at what I've been working on.”

So we returned to her lab. I turned the heat on, and Jane pushed the cot away and sat down at her desk. She pulled something up on her computer. It looked like the display of an EKG monitor showing a death in reverse – a straight, unwavering line, then suddenly a collection of spikes and valleys that continued to the end of the screen.

“I've been looking at patterns of sediment deposits here, trying to establish the region's seismic history. I thought what I'd find was how the history of the fault line has changed over time – if there is a pattern, how it's been changing. But I found something else.” She pointed to the straight portion of the line. “The earthquakes start here. A few hundred years ago. Before that – nothing. The samples show seismic activity that far back, and no farther – like there wasn't even a fault line here before.

“So then I re-checked some of the samples I've taken, and – I don't know how to say it, but I don't think there is a fault line here. We've always assumed there was because of all the activity, but all of these stones are too similar. They don't look like they came from different tectonic plates. They look like they all belong to the same one.”

She pushed back from the screen and looked at me. “I don't think it's possible that any of this is naturally occurring. I think it started when it did because someone started it.”

She paused and looked down.

“I need to figure this out. And I'm going to. And if you can't handle that, then – “

She was looking past me. Maggie was standing in the doorway.

“ – then I'm sorry.”

Jane took another few days to recover before she started collecting samples again. And one day she went out to collect samples and never came home. And that was that.

I take the other ATV. She can't have been gone long. The trail she left in the snow is still clear. I follow it north, towards the hills.

After Jane left, Maggie would barely speak to me – and when she'd talk at all, it was about her mother's research.

“What if it's like whale song?” she'd ask. “What if you just need to speed up the readings to make any sense of them?”

“Your mother tried that,” I'd say.

Or: “What if it's Morse code?”

“How could it be? It started centuries ago. Morse code isn't that old.” She'd purse her lips in frustration.

Maggie started spending her time in Jane's lab, pouring over her notes, inspecting her maps. I let her go out on the ATVs on her own, but only for a few hours at a time; even so, she started bringing home samples of her own, and learned to use Jane's machines to analyze them.

Then one night she burst into the living room carrying a collection of rolled up papers under her arm. She unrolled the first few on the coffee table, and I recognized her mother's topographic maps.

“I got it,” she said. “I know what it is now.

“Remember when Mom used to say that the pattern changed with the season? So I was wondering about that – and then I found this.” She unrolled another sheet of paper. It was a star map, showing all the constellations visible from the valley. “How do you explain where you are? You do it in relation to something else – something the other person has to have seen.” She was speaking quickly now. Her face took on a look of determination that I recognized. “I looked at all the seismic readings, and I realized they were a sort of binary code describing the stars, moving in concentric circles away from a fixed point. They've been changing with the seasons because different stars are visible.”

She looked up from the star chart. “The fixed point isn't far from here. It's a few hours' drive.”

I realized what she was proposing.

“No. No. You're not going out there to look,” I said.

“I have to. We don't even know where she – “

“She's gone. I won't lose you too.”

Maggie gritted her teeth and stared at me. “You already have.”

I find the ATV abandoned at the foot of a hill and leave mine next to it. I start walking, following the footprints up the hill for twenty minutes, then thirty, then forty. I don't know how she made it this far in this cold, but the footprints keep going, as assured as ever. I've walked a mile or more, then the footprints lead into a cave in the side of a wall of solid rock. I keep going.

And then I see it.

Just ahead of me, twenty or thirty yards, there's light coming from a rectangular opening. I approach it slowly, and discover a doorway carved into the rock wall. The door is ajar, and light is pouring out of the opening, so bright that I can't see what's inside. The one thing I can see: a wet, snowy handprint where someone pushed their way inside.

September 18, 2021 01:15

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3 comments

Leah Bartleson
14:38 Sep 24, 2021

Great job! I really enjoyed this story. I could see it in my mind perfectly-- there was just the right amount of description. And in such a short time, the characters have already begun to develop well. I could see their lives and they felt real because of the narrator's memories and worries. I loved the lonely setting, the narrator's fear, and the ending that was so subtle it left me wishing for more! It was great that you could give the reader that feeling without relying on cheap action. Don't change a thing.

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Joseph Isenberg
21:54 Sep 23, 2021

This is a very good story, very well constructed and well plotted. I always find it difficult to work in first-person present; yet it managed to work very well here; it would, I think, work very well as a screen play if expanded out. I would like to see more.

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John Hanna
17:37 Sep 22, 2021

What a thoroughly engrossing story! Please don't stop.

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