Read an Excerpt
November 19, noon
the doorbell was ringing, and even though Michael heard it, he did not want to wake up; the dream he was in was too comforting. Kristin was with him, and they were driving in his Jeep on a mountain road. She had her bare feet up on the dashboard, the radio was blasting, and she was laughing, her head held back, her blond hair blowing in the wind from the open window.
The doorbell rang again, a series of short bursts. Whoever it was wasn’t going away.
Michael lifted his head from the pillow—why was there an empty bag of Doritos next to his face?—and glanced at the lighted numerals on the clock—11:59. And then, even as he rubbed his eyes, it flicked over to noon.
The doorbell, again.
Michael threw the blanket back, dropped his feet onto the floor. “Yeah, yeah, hold your horses,” he mumbled. He grabbed a bathrobe off the back of the door and shuffled out of the bedroom. Through the opaque glass in the front door, he could see a shape—somebody in a hooded parka—standing on the stoop. Michael moved closer.
“I can see you, too, Michael. Now open the door—it’s freezing out here.”
It was Joe Gillespie, his editor at Eco-Travel Magazine.
Michael turned the bolt and opened the door. A cold rain spattered against his bare legs as his visitor hustled in. “Remind me to get a job on the Miami Herald next time,” Gillespie said, stamping his feet.
Michael picked a sodden copy of the Tacoma News Tribune from the stoop, then gazed off at the shrouded peaks of the Cascade range in the distance. That was why he’d originally bought the house—for the view. Now it was just an awful reminder. He gave the paper a shake and closed the door.
Gillespie was standing on the threadbare hook rug—the one Kristin had made—with water dripping from his parka. He brushed the hood back, and what was left of his hair fuzzed out around his head.
“You ever check your e-mails anymore?” Gillespie asked. “Or maybe your answering machine?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Gillespie blew out a frustrated sigh and looked around the messy living room. “Jesus, Michael, do you own stock in Domino’s? You ought to.”
Michael did note a couple of pizza boxes, and some empty beer bottles, scattered around the coffee table and stone hearth.
“Get dressed,” Gillespie said. “We’re going to lunch.”
Michael, still barely conscious, just stood there with the wet paper in his hand.
“Come on, I’m paying.”
Michael said, “Give me five,” tossed the paper to Gillespie, and went to get started.
“Take ten,” Gillespie shouted after him. “Throw in a shave and shower.”
Michael took him at his word. In the bathroom, he switched on the space heater—the house was always cold and drafty, and though he often swore to himself that one day he’d do some insulating and basic maintenance, that day never came—and turned on the hot water. It would take a minute or two to get warm. The medicine chest above the sink was open, and half a dozen orange prescription bottles sat on the shelves. He grabbed the one on the bottom shelf—the latest antidepressant the therapist had prescribed—and downed a tablet with a handful of the now-tepid water.
Then, much as he dreaded the prospect, he closed the cabinet and looked at himself in the mirror. His shaggy black hair was even more unruly than ever this morning, curling off his head on one side and mashed down flat on the other. His dark eyes were red-rimmed and cloudy. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and he could swear—was this possible?—that even though he had just turned thirty, a couple of the chin whiskers were coming in gray. Time’s winged chariot . . . damn. He slapped a fresh blade into the razor and made a few hasty swipes at his stubble.
After a lukewarm shower, he put on some jeans, a denim work shirt, and the cleanest, driest pair of boots he could find by the front door. Gillespie was sprawled in his worn leather armchair, carefully peeling the pages of the newspaper away from each other. “I took the liberty of raising your blinds and letting in some light. You might try it sometime.”
They drove in Gillespie’s car—a Prius, of course—and went to the same diner they always did. Though there wasn’t much to recommend the place in the way of décor—vinyl booths, linoleum floor, and a pastry carousel with garish white lighting—Michael liked it at the Olympic. It was about as far from a chain restaurant, or God forbid, a Starbucks, as you could get, and it had the added virtue of serving breakfast all day. Michael ordered the lumberjack special, and Gillespie had a Greek salad with a side order of cottage cheese and a cup of herbal tea.
“Whoa, there,” Michael said. “Sure you’re not overdoing it?”
Gillespie smiled while pouring half a packet of Equal into his tea. “What the hell—it’s on the expense account.”
“In that case, I’m having dessert.”
“Good idea,” Gillespie said. “I dare you to order a slice of the lemon meringue.”
It was a running joke between them, that the lemon meringue pie on the top shelf of the carousel had not budged, much less been replaced, in the five years they’d been coming here.
While they ate, Michael couldn’t help but notice that Gillespie had placed a FedEx envelope on the seat next to his thigh. Occasionally, Gillespie would reach down and touch it, just to make sure it was still there. Must be something important, Michael thought, and since it hadn’t been left in the locked car, it was probably something that was going to involve Michael somehow.
They talked about the magazine—a new photo editor had been hired, ad sales were up, the good-looking receptionist had quit—and the Seattle Mariners. Sometimes, Gillespie and Michael went to the games together at the Safeco Stadium. What they didn’t talk about was Kristin—Michael knew that Gillespie was steering clear—and they didn’t talk about the envelope either, until Michael, mopping up his egg yolks with the English muffin, finally broached the subject.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” he said, gesturing with the crust of the muffin. “The suspense is killing me.”
For a second, Gillespie pretended to be uncertain of what he was referring to.
“Is that the layout for my Yellowstone story?”
Gillespie looked down at the envelope, pursing his lips, as if still trying to come to some decision. “No, the Yellowstone story ran last month. Looks like you’re not even reading the magazine anymore.”
Michael felt caught out—especially because it was true. For the past few months, he’d hardly ever read his mail, checked his AOL account, called people back. Everybody understood why, but more and more he felt the world was losing patience.
“This is something I think you should see,” Gillespie said, sliding the envelope across the table.
Michael wiped his fingers on his napkin, then opened the packet and took out the papers inside. There were photos—some of them, in black and white, looked like satellite reconnaissance shots—and a sheaf of papers with the National Science Foundation name and logo on top. Many of them were datelined “Point Adélie.”
“What’s Point Adélie?”
“It’s a research station, and pretty minimal at that. They study everything from climate change to the local biosphere.”
“Where is it?” Michael asked, reaching for his coffee cup.
“The South Pole. Or at least as close to it as you can get. The Adélie penguins migrate there.”
Michael’s coffee cup stopped in the air, and despite himself, he felt a quickening in his blood.
“It took me months to set this up,” Gillespie went on, “and get the necessary clearance. You have no idea the kind of paperwork and red tape you have to go through to get somebody onto the base down there. The NSF makes the CIA look friendly. But now we’ve got it—permission to send one reporter to Point Adélie, for a month. I’m planning on getting an eight-to-ten-page spread out of it—four-color photos, maybe three or four thousand words of text, the whole enchilada.”
Michael sipped the coffee, just to give himself a second to think.
“I’ll save you the trouble of asking,” Gillespie said. “We’re paying the usual rate per word, but I’ll bump you up on the photos. Plus, we’ll cover your expenses, within reason of course.”
Michael still didn’t know what to say, or think. Too many things were tumbling around in his head. He hadn’t worked—he hadn’t even thought about working—since the Cascades disaster, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to take up his old life again. But another part of him was vaguely insulted. The project had been in the works for months, and Gillespie was only now mentioning it to him?
“When do you need it by?” he asked, just to buy some time again.
Gillespie sat back, looking just the littlest bit pleased, like a fisherman who’s felt a tug on the line.
“Well, there’s the catch. We’d need you to leave on Friday.”
“Yes. It’s not easy getting down there. You’ll have to fly to Chile—Santiago—then on to Puerto Williams. From there you’ll take a Coast Guard cutter as far as the ice allows, then they’ll chopper you in the rest of the way from there. It’s a very narrow window of opportunity, and the weather can close it at any time. Right now, it’s summer down south, so there should be days when it’s actually well above zero.”
Michael finally had to ask. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I knew you weren’t interested in working just now.”
“Who was what?”
“Come on, Joe. If you’ve been setting this up for months, you must have had somebody else lined up to do it.”
“Crabtree. He was going to do it.”
Crabtree again—the guy was always breathing down Michael’s neck, trying to snag his assignments. “So why isn’t he going?”
Gillespie shrugged. “Root canal.”
“He’s got to have a root canal, and no one’s permitted to go down there unless they’ve got a complete bill of health. Most of all, since there isn’t any dentist on call, you’ve got to have a note from your dentist saying everything’s in perfect working order.”
Michael couldn’t believe his ears. Crabtree had lost the assignment because he had a gum problem?
“So, please,” Gillespie said, leaning forward, “tell me you don’t have any cavities and your fillings are all intact?”
Michael instinctively ran his tongue around the interior of his mouth. “As far as I know.”
“Good. So, that just leaves the main question. What do you think, Michael? Are you ready to get back in harness?”
That was indeed the million-dollar question. If he’d been asked last night, the answer would have been no and don’t call again. But there was something stirring in him, something he could not deny—a flicker of that old excitement. All his life he’d been the first one to accept any challenge, to climb the sheer cliff, to bungee jump from the top of the bridge, to dive for the bottom of the coral reef. And though he’d tamped it down for months, that feeling was welling up in him again. He glanced at the satellite photo on top of the pile—from above, the base looked like a bunch of boxcars, scattered on an icy plain close to a rocky, barren shoreline. It was about as bleak a picture as could be, but it called to him as if it were a beach in Brazil.
Gillespie watched him closely, waiting. A wintry gust blew raindrops against the diner window.
Something started to turn in Michael’s mind. His fingers rested on the grainy photo. He could always say no. He could go back to his place and . . . what? Have another beer? Beat up on himself some more? Throw away some more of his own life, to make up for what had happened to Kristin? (Though how that would make up for anything, even he could not say.)
Or, he could accept. He glanced at the next photo in the pile. This one, taken at ground level, showed a hut, raised on cinder blocks a few feet above the ice. A half dozen seals were lying around it like sunbathers.
“Do we have time for some pie first?” Michael asked, and Gillespie, after smacking the table in triumph with the palm of his hand, signaled for the waitress.
“Lemon meringue,” he called, “all around!”