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Frost forms on my lashes within minutes of my stepping outside. I am one of
six detainees in this detail, walking single file to the runway now. The
wind and snow may have died down since our arrival, but the cold continues
to make its mark. Even with the thermal head covers handed out to us, the
air out here bites into my lungs with every breath I take. The snow crunches
underfoot like ground glass. Despite the conditions, it's good to be free of
the artificial heat inside the cannery.
I blink rapidly for a moment to clear my vision, then dab my eyes on the
back of the gloves we've also been issued. It still feels like we're on the
cusp of dawn or dusk, even though we must be approaching midday, for our
shadows are tapered and stretched. I have to look around to spot the sun,
and find just the crest behind the pine trees that border the far side of
this headland. It seems distant and burned out, but still gleams through
the branches as I move.
Yesterday, having touched down in the heart of a snowstorm, it felt like I
had arrived on a different planet entirely. Without the thermal clothing
handed out to each of us for this task, all I could do was keep my head
down and pray that the subzero temperature didn't freeze my bones before I
made it inside. Now, having had some time to reflect and gather my wits, I
look around with interest.
Walking away from the cannery, toward the compound gates, I face a vast
white expanse banked by forested slopes and elongated shadows. The banks
appear to meet in the far distance, which makes me think we're situated at
the mouth of some glacial valley. Behind me the cannery juts into this
stretch of frozen water. It looks even more run-down from the outside.
Weather-beaten to the extreme. Out at sea, icebergs cut the horizon line.
Closer to the shoreline, the scuppered wreck of the trawler commands my
attention. Only the prow is visible, tipped back so the wheelhouse faces
the big sky.
"Eyes ahead, Hobbes. We're not on a sightseeing tour!"
Two guards are flanking us, with a third leading the way. All of them carry
assault rifles, while one glance at the watchtowers confirms that snipers
are indeed stationed up there. I can see one watching me right now through
a pair of binoculars. We stop before the main gates, which are closed. One
of the guards is repeating a request into his walkie-talkie and glowering
back at the frosted windows of the communications tower behind us. If
that's where the gates are controlled, I figure, someone up there must be
asleep at the wheel. As we wait in line, stomping our feet to stay warm,
the guard dogs in the kennel block go wild once again. This time I feel
some connection with them. The only difference between the detainees and
the animals caged in there is that the latter don't wear jumpsuits.
"I will not tell you a second time, Hobbes!"
Having come through the interrogation, I find this kind of barking doesn't
bother me so badly. I feel as if I've given them everything they needed to
know, even if it does seem crazy that I had to come this far to do so.
The way I see things, I'm helping to clear the runway just so I can leave
on the next flight out.
When the gates rock open for us at last, we trudge out and turn toward the
single-story building where Commander Stagger first addressed us.
Yesterday's aircraft is nowhere to be seen. Strangely, this comes as a
relief to me. It means at least I don't have to risk my life flying home
on that hunk of junk. I look around briefly, in case I've missed a hangar
where it might've been taken for repairs, but see nothing but a blanket of
"Sorry, sir." I look at the boot heels of the detainee in front of me. I
recognize him from the flight here, along with the guy leading the way. The
other four were in cages when we arrived, including the figure just behind
me. I don't bother to glance over my shoulder, regardless of the guard,
because I know she won't acknowledge me.
All I know about this girl is that she can bear a grudge. It almost makes
me feel some sympathy for whoever she believes me to be.
We're each handed a shovel outside the building. A guard is waiting with
them on the ramp to the main door, as are three dogs and their handlers.
"That's a dangerous weapon you have there." I turn around and find the
guard who has been keeping us in line all the way. He shows me the rifle
he's holding. "But this, my friend, is lethal."
He steps up so we're nose to nose. He's not much older than I am, I
realize, and sporting a fierce glare. "Don't you forget that, okay?
Because I'm watching you, punk. North said you were trouble."
I'm not stupid enough to break his stare with a smile, but privately I am
sure North can't touch me now. Not with my interrogation behind me.
Another guard with a dog sweeps between us just then, both of them barking
at us in different ways in a bid to assemble us properly. The guard who
just spoke to me fixes me for a moment longer and seems almost
disappointed when I fall into line as instructed. And so, with each
detainee assigned a section to clear, I chisel the edge of my spade into
the snow as instructed and make my first sweep across the runway.
The girl is working the neighboring section. I might as well be invisible,
for all the attention she has paid me, but I'm determined to change that.
As strangers we have shared an intense experience here. And I will not
leave until she knows this is the only time and place that our paths have
After ten minutes or so I have completed two thirds of my section. The
snow I've piled on either side of the runway is dense, like wet sand, but
the effort it took to shift has helped to keep me warm. The girl is about
halfway through her job. I try to catch her eye as she turns to clear the
next strip. She simply grits her teeth and pushes on. Even so, she is
forced to look up as the sound of another spade strikes the snow within
"Hi," I say, mindful to keep working as I speak. "You know I can safely
say we've never met."
She drives her spade onward.
"Is that a fact?" she mutters finally, which I take as a small victory.
The guards have split up to cover the length of the runway. Right now the
nearest one is observing the detainee two sections down from us.
"My name is Hobbes," I say, working toward the girl now. This close,
despite the half-light, I notice how dark her eyes are. "You can call me
Carl. Which would be a first around here."
Her attention is on the guards behind me as I say this. Then her shoulders
drop a little, and some resignation comes into her expression. "As soon as
they brought you in," she says in a strong Southern drawl, "I just knew
you'd blow it by talking to me."
"You're American!" I reply in surprise.
"Jackson, Tennessee." She leans on her shovel now, considering the icebound
horizon. "I'm a country girl, not a goddamn Eskimo."
I smile at this. Even if she doesn't return the gesture, I'm relieved that
we're making progress. I also realize we don't exactly have time for small
talk. "Look, I don't want to poke my nose into your business," I say
finally, "but you've got the wrong guy."
"No I don't," she says, addressing me directly now, and so close the vapor
from her breath hits my face with her every word. "I know who you
are. Why d'you think I've been freezing you out? I'm trying to
Such utter conviction leaves me smiling stupidly. I am exasperated now, and
beginning to think perhaps I really have done something to upset her.
"At least tell me your name," I reason. "Whatever it is that you think I've
done, we're both stuck here for the time being. If I knew what to call you,
then neither of us would feel so alone."
I wait for some kind of response, but she isn't the first to break the
"Hobbes! Put your hands in the air and shut your damn mouth! If you so
much as breathe another word, it'll be your last. Now get down on your
I'm about to comply, only to be shoved violently between the shoulder
blades. The impact jars my spine, and yet I can sense the guard behind it
has just held back from really laying into me. Nevertheless, I'm spread-
eagled in the snow within seconds, suffering the familiar sting of the
plastic restraints binding one wrist to the other. The dogs must have
picked up on the drama, given the surge of barking. As I'm hauled to my
feet, I catch sight of the girl I've risked so much for just to share a
few words. She has also been restrained, though the guards have seen fit
to allow her to stay on her feet. We exchange a brief glance before the
guard escorts me from the airstrip. As the shock of what's just happened
begins to sink in, amid the din from all the dogs, I hear a voice call out
"My name is Beth!"
I hear her clearly, but there isn't much I can do to respond. I just fix
my sights on the cannery and hope the snipers in the watchtowers don't
have me in their crosshairs.
Copyright © 2007 by Matt Whyman