Base A: The Post Office at the End of the World

Submitted into Contest #212 in response to: Set your story in a post office.... view prompt

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Fiction Adventure Contemporary

The icy waters crackle as the cruise ship enters the harbor off the notched and ragged coast of Port Lockroy. There is a hectic roo, roo, roo from the calling Gentoo penguins, and there is a fussy cow, cow, cow from the snowy sheathbills as they tap the windows of the Post Office. It is ironic that we are located out on the polar shelf—literally set apart from the whole world, and yet, the world comes to us daily. 


I rise from my bunk drenched in sweat. My veins ache as if tensed by electric current. My head is burning but my hands are ice cold, holding my anxieties in clenched fists. I spread and stretch out my fingers as wide as I can and try to breathe. It is another nightmare. What is it, three nights in a row now? Reliving the humiliation of being canned and censored, receiving subpoenas and summonses to boot—and the lawsuits. It is years later, and I still cannot escape the events that led me to leave journalism, and the rest of it, behind. The threats and backlash are still coming daily. And every day since I lost Michael, I’ve questioned my dogged pursuit of the truth—which has cost me nearly the whole world—but not quite all of it.


The wind usually whips at forty miles an hour for days at a time, but it is eerily calm on the island this morning, has been all this week. It is nearly Christmas, but it is summer down here in Antarctica, and we are in the midst of the Midnight Sun where daylight never ends. Come February mostly everyone will leave for winter. Right now, temperatures are in the mid 30s Fahrenheit and reach the 50s midday, and it is clear, crisp, and pleasant.


It is hard to believe that I have been here for three years. That the island has become so crowded that instead of just collecting postcards from tourists, we now have our own mail routes across Wiencke Island and down to Hope Bay. Things have changed so much that there are expeditions here in the winter from various space agencies, testing out standards and methods for colonization of the Moon and Mars under rugged and inhospitable conditions. There are also immunologists that come to these islands to set up research labs to perform research in a frozen sterile environment, away from the hubs where a stray virus or strain of influenza could wreak havoc on the world. It is almost as if my former work is seeking me out, even to the ends of the world.


* * *


I head out to man the postal counter, donning my name badge ‘Nellie Ainsley.’ This morning, even before the cruise ship has docked, the little bell on the door rings to announce that we have our first visitor.


“We’ve been getting the wrong mail again Nellie,” Marge huffs. Marge is in her seventies and her skin is taut and sheen like parchment paper. Her blue eyes are determined bustling mirrors. She maintains the commanding presence of an athlete ready to explode off the blocks. She was one of the first prominent female distance runners back in the 1970s and 1980s, and she is still just as feisty as she was then.


“You aren’t getting your mail?” I ask.


“Right, Jim and I aren’t getting our mail. We are getting Ann and Rob’s mail. And they are getting ours.” 


I immediately know that this mystery has everything to do with Tom Curtin, our postie, and local teller of both tall tales and true ones. 


“Ann and Rob that live next door—that’s what we are talking about Marge,” I ask, knowing where this is going. You see, Marge and Jim moved here from Colorado a few years ago and live in a cabin they call the Penguin Pagoda. It is the largest house on the island and a veritable hub for guests, so you can see how they’d be particular about everyone knowing it and bending the proverbial knee to their seniority. Making matters worse, Rob Karr and Ann Boulet are a much younger couple. Rob is a famous long-distance runner from Colorado who works as our Town Pharmacist and Ann is a young schoolteacher from Colorado who teaches English classes from her home. The two came here to stay only two months ago, and that meant adding a new stop on Tom’s postal route. They had been training snowshoe racing and built themselves a proper cabin—Leadville South—right up the road from Jim and Marge Hickman, which must have thrown Tom off his normal routine. Truth be told, Jim and Marge seemed a little jealous of their neighbors giving their home a name, so close on to their own infamous abode.


“Yeah Nellie, Tom keeps leaving us Ann and Rob’s mail, and they keep getting ours. It’s a problem. We go next door and trade them up, but we are getting sick of it, ay,” Marge grunted and flexed her forehead to really let me know she meant business.


“So, you are getting your mail in the end, right? What’s the problem?” I respond, pursing my lips and squinting, extending my arms onto the counter and into her space.


“The problem is that Tom is getting us mixed up and we aren’t getting the correct mail,” Marge says.


“But you said you trade up for the right mail, so you are getting it,” I tell her.


“Yes, but it’s not our responsibility to finish the mail delivery process. It’s Tom’s!”


“I’ll tell Tom to be more careful. You do know he’s delivering mail by foot for the whole island, right! There’s really no issue if you’re getting your mail in the end.”


Marge stormed out less than pleased, and I added to my ‘to do’ list giving Tom a thorough talking to about this ‘issue’ with the great mail mix up of 2026.


As Marge left a ship hand came in and delivered us fresh sausage and egg platters and told us that the passengers were shoving off in about forty-five minutes, and to be ready to put on a show and deal with the rush.


In the meantime, Tom rolled in looking like he’d been out in the wilderness for a month, with his furry Cossack trooper hat and his signature lightweight Canada Goose puffer jacket. He was chewing on some beef jerky as he said, “Marge is in an uproar that I’ve been giving her the wrong mail, is she?”


“You know she is,” I say.


“Shhhh,” he says putting his finger to his lips, “don’t tell her I’ve been doing it on purpose just to ruffle the old battle-axe’s feathers.”


“Tom! That’s awful,” I say.


“Ehhh. There are worse things.”


“I guess so,” I say, drooping my head and thinking of the mail I’ve been receiving.


“You holding up okay? I saw you got more love letters from those lovely pharmaceutical companies about those old articles,” Tom said.


“It’s been getting to me. I’m not going to lie. After all that research and the findings of the doctors, three of them—Lewis, Levy and Kiko—and the whistleblowers from the lab that knew about the bad batches—I thought people would want to look at why thirty-year-old men were falling down dead with heart attacks—that maybe someone would give Michael’s family some answers. But I got blackballed instead.”


“And it just doesn’t stop does it,” Tom said.


“No, I mean, they are coming for me—still. It is like those expeditions when you would say that the reports when someone died would go on for months. In my case, it may just go on forever,” I told him.


“You know, I once travelled 160 km towing my fellow explorer Evans on a sled, with nothing but a few pints of brandy, some chocolates, three biscuits and a tent—


“—Because Evans had succumbed to scurvy and snow blindness—the latter being an affliction I sometimes wonder if our whole society has become afflicted with—” I interrupted, having heard this story a hundred times, and knowing it by heart.


“—I just barely made it to Hut Point in a fit of total exhaustion and collapsed in the snow while we waited for the rescue party. And I say that to say, soldier on lassie! It aint over as long as you still have breath in your lungs and a smile on your face.” And this was just one of Tom’s many close calls that have left him a hunched and haggard man at forty whose beard is dark and patchy and whose grizzled and ice-stained mien resembles an ornery old white wolf, well-scarred and well-marked from his travels.


“I wonder if it is harder to walk a hundred miles through the polar terrain or to be cast aside for exposing corruption that the powers that be wish to keep buried,” I tell him, emphasizing, “when you know you are right.” It is ironic, I think, that society can be more isolating than the farthest reaches of nature.


“You, Nellie, are a girl in need of adventure. Rob and Annie and I are taking a small boat to Jougla Point and camping out for the night under the ahem—stars, and we’ve got everything we need for a proper cookout—you have to come,” Tom said, being ironic, because obviously you can’t see any stars when its daylight twenty-four hours a day.


“When does this party get started?” I asked.


“Six.”


“I’ll be there.”


* * *


As I pack my camping gear, I think it is ironic how time seems to stop on these summer nights just before the winter solstice with the Midnight Sun hanging like a kite from a string directly above us. Yet our posted letters still travel outward incessantly to the far reaches.


Expedition ships transport the mail to the Stanley Post Office in the Falklands, from which it is carried by the Royal Air Force to the UK where it enters into regular postal channels and reaches the far corners of the globe, just as that same sun hanging motionless above us lights the whole globe each day.


I’d come here feeling abandoned by my editors and my profession. All I had wanted was an explanation why my fiancé Michael had suddenly fallen dead from a heart attack after taking a simple vaccine. All I had wanted was to get answers for anyone else who’d experienced the same thing. The editors of the paper came to heel under the influence of those same corporate and political forces that wanted to control the news and suppress the truth—the truth that we had been careless—the truth that we hadn’t been honest about the risks. The paper followed orders and marked me as a pariah, as they were meant to do, leaving me alone to face the weight and venom of the very corruption I sought to root out. Leaving me alone in my grief.


Though I had come here to escape to the wilderness and strengthen my resolve among the icy cliffs and frozen plains—I had kept my daily journals without fail. I had continued my research. I had delved deeper into the corruption. Not just of the pharmaceutical stories I had started with, but into financial stories, and a myriad of other instances of power run amok. And now it seemed that the world would pull me back against my will—summoned to Parliament—summoned to Court in Washington, DC—summoned back where I did not wish to go. But what I had failed to do was to experience nature, as I had at first planned, at least until now.


Tom knocked on the door, and we ventured out to the little skiff waiting in the harbor. Rob was there with his scruffy blond hair and bright Hoka racing shoes. Ann was there with her dark long brown hair and bright cheeks, huddled up in a parka jacket. Tom led us across to Hope Bay through the throngs of penguins and sheathbills and the still quiet waters.


As we disembarked in the still of the evening, we trudged through the snow of a steep uphill that left us in the shadow of the towering unnamed mountain of Wiencke Island. The mountain stood in the distance like a sentry watching over the edge of the world.


Everyone began setting up camp on a dry grassy knoll in the shadow of the unnamed mountain, and Tom fired up a Camp Chef propane powered grill with its cast aluminum burners glowing in the shadows. Tom then pulled out steaks and set them on the grill to cook. Rob began passing around a bottle of Vodka and we all drank out of coffee mugs while Tom cooked, huddling around an impromptu fire pit that Ann had made with kindling she had brought along and lighter fluid from her sack.


“It’ll be time for us to shove off in just eight weeks,” Rob said.


“I can’t wait to get back to the mountains and spring training,” Ann said, taking a healthy swig of Vodka and leaning into the fire.


“The Rocky Mountain Rumble,” I said, referring to the race the two of them talked about last year, and which they brought back belt buckles from when they returned back to the island to stay for summer.


“That’s the one,” she said. “One hundred miles over the Rocky Mountains on foot—what an adventure!”


“Are you recovered from your medical situation,” I asked Rob.


“Pulmonary embolism. Can you believe it. I guess running up the Rocky Mountains and taking on the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc in the Swiss Alps a week later wasn’t the smartest thing to do for a former flatlander like me—and four months later—I’m right as rain,” Rob said.


“There’s nothing like being out all day and all night and coming into a new day without sleep,” Tom said.


“Life in a day,” Annie affirmed.


“Life in a day,” Tom said. “Only, for me it wasn’t running, but getting from Point A to Point B in the wilderness. Moving forward when you can’t even see where you are going. A hell of a thing.”


At that moment we heard the crush of snowshoes and some hearty voices down the valley, calling out, “We’re coming.”


It was Marge and Jim. Another moment and they were at the camp.


“What are you two doing here,” Tom asked.


“You know you’ve been mixing up our mail with Rob and Annie’s, don’t you, ay” Marge barked.


“Oh, come off it, we’ve got that all sorted,” Tom said.


“Hi Robbie, Anne,” Marge said, and noticing the buckles in their bags, she continued, “back at it again this year with the Rocky Mountain Rumble, ay”


“You know it,” Robbie said.


“You know Marge won that race back in 1985—ran it in with a time of—what was it dear, twenty-six hours, plus or minus?” Jim added.


“26:57,” Marge said.


“I didn’t know that,” Robbie said.


“A lot you don’t know, sonny,” Marge said back, and continued, “a lot of controversy around that race—hell—I guess there’s a lot of controversy around any race.”


“I heard that the race directors were playing favorites or there was some accusation about who they let into the race,” Annie said.


“It’s not important now,” Marge said, “I’m retired.” But I wasn’t so sure Marge wouldn’t be lacing up and toeing another start line.


While they talked about the race, I thought it was ironic that this group who had come here from the far reaches all shared this common experience of a race or an exploration and being awake more than a full day. It was ironic that the same controversies that dogged them back home were alive and well on this frozen tundra.


“Are you going to start writing again,” Tom asked.


“I don’t know if I can—but—I have to go home this winter to deal with some legal matters, so who knows. I mean, if I am going to be attacked and smeared and made to have my face rubbed in it all anyway, when I am basically living on the moon, what sense is there not standing up and facing it?”


“Bravo! Well said,” Tom clapped.


The Midnight Sun appeared like a moon behind a cloud as its rays were cut by the unnamed mountain, leaving us in a valley of shadows. The still waters and the serene whistle of the uniformly north breeze caused goosepimples to rise on my arms. Everything was perfectly still.


Above the horizon line a bar of thin gray clouds stretched out, and the stripes of long numinous rays of the polar aurora formed arcs and bands of neon green.


Tom pointed out at the light show above, saying, “There it is.”


The ovular whips of neon green phosphorescent light brought to mind the very real fact that the entire world was just an island in a vast sea teaming with energy. And these energetic particles were posts from a distant sun, coronal kisses blown in the winds of space, arriving before us like letters that said that everything is connected.


“Tom,” I whispered. “I need your help with something.”


“What is it,” he said.


“Look inside,” I said, pointing at my camping bag and finishing a half cup of vodka in one swallow.


“Are those—”


“—Michael’s ashes.”


“Will you help me take them out to Hope Bay and scatter them.”


“Of course,” Tom said.


As the two of us walked to the skiff, I thought that I was not just setting Michael free, but I was free too to pursue the truth, even if my message had to travel across the cosmos before it found an island to illuminate.

August 21, 2023 07:42

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3 comments

Jonathan Page
07:43 Aug 21, 2023

https://www.ends-of-earth.com/adventure/penguin-post-office/

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09:22 Aug 21, 2023

Fascinating tale Jonathan. Theres a reality tv competition show called the Amazing Race and I think they stopped off at this location, or somewhere similar to it, in an early season. I remember the teams having to sort through mail in a post office like this looking for specifically addressed letters. That's completely irrelevant of course but it just meant I was able to picture the scene easily! A strange life out there but possibly quite relaxing and stressfree.....unless of course your problems from the past refuse to leave you alone, wh...

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Jonathan Page
02:43 Aug 26, 2023

Thanks Derrick! That is really cool that you saw something with this very location. Thanks for reading -- I think these type of remote locations really have a lot of creative potential wrapped up in them! I can totally see why the Amazing Race would put that on the itinerary. Btw, I was reading your Hazard 3000 Story and got a good laugh when you inserted the line about thinking up an idea for this weeks writing contest! Adding a little meta into the plot.

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