Short Story - Greenland
The air is getting colder. My exposed skin is numb, even under layers of winter clothes, yet I stand defiantly on our balcony overlooking the water. I glance right and left at the empty balconies of neighboring compartments along the side of the repurposed cruise boat. I’m glad everyone else is staying inside. I’m sick of them anyway.
When this journey to Greenland started, people spent much of their time out here. These balconies were the only places where families can keep to themselves and breathe open air. I listened to their conversations and realized that my daughter, Alice, and I are not like them. We came here to start over in a thawing northern frontier. Others, it seems, have come with some nationalist vision that the American empire is expanding.
Now that the temperatures stay well below freezing as we approach the Arctic Circle, it’s too much for most people to be out here. A man steps out to a balcony several compartments to my left. He is old, his face covered in a thick, grey beard. Steve is his name. He raises his hand in a stiff wave toward me and then looks out at the endless ocean. We had a kind exchange during the boarding process. He played with Alice during my final physical and health exam.
I glance back at her. She sits on the edge of the bed and changes from one channel to the next, hoping to find something new in the ship’s out-of-date media library. Her curly blonde hair bounces on top of her head as she springs up and down. It makes me anxious when she does that. I ask her to stop but she doesn’t seem to realize she’s doing it. She is getting cabin fever, constantly asking if we can go out. A whimsical labyrinth like this vessel was once a place of endless intrigue and escape for an 11-year old like her. I felt like Scrooge, stifling her excitement and telling her we needed to stay here in this suite.
Meals are delivered to us, along with pamphlets on what to look forward to on the eastern coast of Greenland. Once a place almost uninhabitable, the eastern coast has become moderate in the summer thanks to global climate change. Ships like this one were purchased by the government to shepherd new age colonists. I flip through the pages and see pictures of couples sharing drinks on a beach, outdoor shopping malls, and other things you would expect to see in a California tourism pamphlet. Lief Erikson used such tactics to bring people here the first time. Have we fallen victim to a similarly empty promise?
A distant shape forms on the edge of the horizon like a dark cloud in the overcast sky. It comes closer into view, becoming whiter and rougher, an iceberg. Many more once dotted these waters. I recall flying over them as a child when my family went back and forth from Europe. Such mobility cannot even be imagined today. The world is not what it once was. Maybe that is why I am bringing Alice all this way, as though this one-way trip can teleport us back to a different world where the walls don’t feel like they are constantly closing in.
“Alice,” I call out. “Come look, it’s an iceberg.”
A smile stretches across my face as I recall those youthful days when I believed my future was as bright as the prosperity of my parents’ generation. This simple thing stirs something in me, and I feel hope for Alice. She doesn’t respond.
“What are you…” I start, turning my head.
She is not on the bed. I look to the bathroom door, thinking she needed to relieve herself, but it is open and the room beyond it is empty. I rush inside, searching the other bedroom and the closet.
“This isn’t funny, Alice,” I call out, clinging to a desperate idea that this is all just a game that popped into her head.
I exhaust my options and look at the front door. The bolt, which is normally in a locked position, is open. She had to have opened it from our side. Where has she gone?
This isn’t happening.
The thought circles in my head over and over. I race down the empty halls of the ship calling her name. The air is icy, like they know people won’t be out here and don’t care to keep it hospitable. It’s how I imagine the mountain hotel from The Shining would feel. I come to a lobby. There are two stairs up and two stairs down, along with four elevators and an empty kiosk. A woman was sitting there when we first came onboard to help us find our cabin. I think a meaningless wish that she had been here now to tell me which way to go to find my daughter. Just this one fork in the road tells me that this ship is too large for me to have any hope.
A uniformed man in a mask turns the corner ahead and stops in his tracks when he sees me. I rush toward him.
“Have you seen a girl?” I choke, panicked. “She has blonde hair and is about—”
“You shouldn’t be out here,” he cuts me off. “Where is your cabin?”
He grabs my arm with a forceful grip to turn me around. I instinctively put my shoulder into his chest and push him away, freeing myself from his grasp.
“I just told me my child is lost, don’t you touch me.”
My bravado disarms him as he puts his hand on his hips.
“Ma’am,” he says in a condescending tone, “if she is out here she will be returned to your cabin.”
If? I scoff, like I just made it up to excuse a leisurely stroll down a prison row.
“I’m not going back until she is found,” I reply.
He steps forward again, this time prepared for me to resist. I turn and try to run, but he catches my arm and yanks me back toward him. I throw an elbow toward his face, and the last thing I remember is an arm raking across the side of my head as I lose all tension in my legs. I collapse to the ground. A dull pain fills my head. Everything goes dark.
I wake where I fell, only the man is gone.
There is blood on the side of my head, wet and still trickling. I see it on the carpet in a pool marked with a partial bootprint. A trail returns down the hall where the man first appeared. He must be going to get help. Or maybe in my desperate defense I hurt him as well. Either way, this is my chance. I stand and my stomach wrenches. I swallow hard to not throw up. The room spins. I lean against the wall and close my eyes.
Where would she have gone?
She stood on the balcony with me earlier before getting too cold. It was the last time she asked me to take her out, this time to see the top deck.
“For the last time, we can’t go out of the room,” I lectured her. “Especially not to a place where we will be in plain sight.”
“What are they going to do, Mom?” she questioned like I would have at her age. “Throw us in colonist jail? You’re a doctor. You are too important. Please, oh pretty please.”
“Enough, Alice!” I yelled.
I could hear the sniffles as she left.
I miss my husband so desperately. We balanced each other so well for her. Somedays I was the bad cop and he was the good. Then we switched, without words. We loved our little girl and would give up the world for her. Without him, I have to make her hate me to protect her. It tears me apart. How I wish he would have been here to sit on the bed with her and watch some old rerun. Then I could have joined them, and we would have laughed all together and forgotten whatever it was we were fighting about.
“Alice,” I cry to the empty hall. “Please, just be up there.”
I take the nearest stairs and run up flight after flight. I hear footsteps below me and angry voices. The air gets colder and colder with each level until I feel its icy hand reaching down into my lungs. Its touch makes me forget how to breathe. I cough as my anxiety and nausea lift bile from my stomach. Still, I pull my body up, dots of blood from my hair whipping onto my glasses. My hands stick to the rails just a little as I pull them away, using the strength of my arms to keep me on pace.
At long last, I reach the top and there she is, not in the clutches of some opportunistic sailor or balancing on the edge of a precarious beam, but laughing and playing some game with a young crewmember next to the frozen-over pool. She sees me and lifts her hand to her mouth. I feel joy and horror, collapsing to my knees in relief and bursting into tears. It is too much. Everything we are trying to leave behind is unbearable right now.
The footsteps stop behind me. I expect to be pulled to my feet and dragged away like a lunatic, but my pursuers have compassion. I can’t bring myself to look up. I just want to collapse here and be lost in a hole that swallows me from the deep below. No conduit ever opens, no cowardly escape. The only thing that relieves me is the press of a small, familiar hand rubbing my back.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Alice says. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
I look up and smile, freezing tears and snot stuck to my hair and lips.
“I am now,” I say, pulling here in and hugging her.
She squeezes back while I pick her up and stand. The uniformed officers on the stairs behind us part as I carry Alice down. The last of them, the one who attacked me, tries to cut in and apologize. I hide a grin seeing his bloody, mangled nose and upper lip and brush by him. Each step feels liberating. No one gets in our way before we reach our compartment, though I’m certain someone will come by later to talk about what happened. I push thoughts of how I will respond out of my mind for the moment. As I lock the door behind us, I look at Alice, who is already back on the bed flipping through the media library.
“The man on the deck said we’ll be there in a few more days if we don’t run into an ice storm,” she says in a hopeful tone. “He was telling me about some of the winter activities. There’s a theater with live shows and—”
She goes on to list a dozen things, but I stop following as my mind obsesses over a thought.
There is no hope for me in Greenland other than the survival we have done for so long. But maybe there is a real future somewhere out there for her.
It’s all I can think about the rest of the day, even after the ship’s captain visits and once again apologizes for how the man acted.
“I can’t take back what happened,” the old mariner says through his rich white beard, his friendly disposition reminding me of Christmas memories watching Miracle on 34th Street. “Maybe I can make it up to you with a tour of the bridge. I could even let your daughter sound the foghorn.”
He winks at Alice.
“That would be amazing!” Alice screams, rushing over to the table where the captain and I are sitting. “Can we do it now?”
He smiles at her.
“Why not?” he relents with a chuckle.
Alice screeches like a gerbil and grabs my hand to pull me to my feet. We lock eyes, and I feel something stir deep within me.
Nothing can stop me from giving her a future.