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Water is my Favorite Molecule

Alan Wor is the pen name of Ryan Row. His work has been previously published, or is forthcoming, in Glassworks Magazine, 94 Creations, Danse Macabre, and elsewhere. He is currently studying Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Alan Wor is the broken down superhero who's lost his powers and now lives inside the hollow of Ryan's breast bone. About the Story: I've always been a little afraid of ice. Something about it, pretty and strange in the light, always made me feel a little trapped. Cool and still. Like I was inside it looking out. Anyway.
Pac draws the short stick. Pac goes out into the sideways ice. In a snowstorm, you lose your sense of direction. In an ice storm, you lose your sense of gravity. Everything is a razor rainbow about to shred your eyes or your tongue when you open your mouth to speak. Swirls of chewed diamond choke the air. Uneven shards of flying ice. We're out of masks. We're out of rope. Lost it in the last failure of an expedition to the main camp. 300 blind meters west. Compasses we have, but that's a false hope in the shifting world of ice. We're in a prep shed. Personal and equipment lockers, showers, and a tiny office with a broken radio. The whole place smells like old sweat and weak, Army surplus deodorant. The tunnel to main is gone, collapsed under the blast of ten sticks of industrial dynamite. I was proud of that one. I controlled the blast so it collapsed the tunnel and shot the excess force into main, with the crazies. Bloody mouthed and screaming God, a language none us can understand.
Anyway, the tunnel's gone, and we keep the door closed cause it makes the place stink like sulfur otherwise, so someone has to walk it. Chase puts everything we've got into two piles on the floor. Extra parkas. Sleeping bags. First aid kits. Bottles of iodine. A hundred and one useless things. Photos of home and adventure journals and letters with faded ink and pay stubs and cash and everybody's ID cards. Smiling faces with names that are no longer familiar to me. Jason Fields. Mary Berch. Smile, click. Next.
We emptied every locker in search of something distracting.
Pac wraps an extra parka around his neck and face. Uses his goggles to secure it up and over his head like a Middle Eastern burka, a suffocating veil. The hard light from the fluorescents make us all look like corpses.
I tell him to drag his feet through the rocky drifts of ice. "Then follow the path you make back. I've done it before," I say.
I haven't.
The hailing pings from the wall and door are so constant I hardly hear them anymore. I say anything that's left in my empty head.
Chase chimes in without stopping, still wandering from room to room gathering our things to add to the pile he intends to burn if Pac doesn't come back. "Dry foodstuffs. Dry. Can's weigh you down. We have water. We have fuel. Dry foodstuffs, that's it. And a radio."
One pile is made of memories. The other of necessity. Things that will keep you warm and healthy while you starve. Antibiotics, gauze. Fire extinguisher, fireman's ax. Thermal blankets shining like squares of crumpled tinfoil. Two shots of epinephrine. Later, I decide, I will stab myself in the thigh with one and use the energy to dig my way out of my head.
We don't expect Pac to come back.
Pac's a short man who shaves himself hairless, even his eyebrows. He's got a gut, but I suspect that's just the way he's built or the way he stands. He's a hard man who hurts my fingers when we shake hands. Squeezes the bones. I have a secret thought that he can dig and eat dirt like a mole rat. And that he will save us all.
Pac says, "Keep the light on. I'll come back with music."
At least, I think that's what he says. It's hard to tell through his jerry-rigged burka.
He pushes the door open. It swings easily out into the million teeth of the world. The edges and hinges are heated. Pac's dark form is lost in seconds, and the flying ice cuts my hands and arms as I pull the door shut.
Chase wants to burn the memory pile right away. And I do too, but someone has to defend the past. It can't defend itself.
So I say, "No. We wait twelve hours. That's the deal. The bargain we struck. We shook on it."
"We didn't shake shit."
"We shook our heads."
And that gets him laughing, sort of. And everything's okay for a while. For a few hours as empty as our laughter.
"We should burn it now." Three hours gone. Nine remaining.
"He said to keep the light on."
Chase lays on one of the narrow benches in the locker room and sleeps without moving. I pick through people's memories. Mathew was from Omaha. He had a girl named Marylou. There is a picture of him in plaid and overalls. Hands sheepishly stuck into his pockets, tails of wheat yellow and alive behind him, bending in a wind. I drop his things and they clatter down the pile. Stick the photo in my pocket. David was a scientist, excited by the ancient ice. He wore glasses. I try them on and the world blurs. I take them off. Jon scrapped lame phrases into his Zippos. "Studying climate change is my business. And my business... is going okay." And, "Water is my favorite molecule." I want to hurt someone, but there is no one here to hurt but me. And I am afraid of Chase.
Six hours gone and no more illusion. We're ready to burn.
Chase sprinkles a little of Jon's lighter fluid on the pile, then hands the bottle to me. I pocket it. Flick the water molecule lighter to tiny life in my hand.
Then three dull pounds come from the door, like a bell, sweet and iron, breaking through sleep. Chase is at the door and I am on top of him.
Pac, burdened with two bulging duffle bags, emerges from the shining ice like a diver bursting out of the chaotic surface of the sea. Gasping, out of breath. Coat torn in places and tongues of foam and white cotton sticking out like the mouths of angry children.
Chase rips one duffle from his hand. I can hear him chewing on something brittle behind me. Dry noodles maybe. It sounds like sticks or the breaking bones of small birds. But I can't take my eyes off Pac.
"If you made it to main, why come back?"
"Had to," Pac says, setting down the other bag and unwrapping his face. "Crazies still running the place over there. Setting fire to everything. Had to hide in a closet for hours."
Something about that doesn't sound quite right, too ordered and short, rehearsed, maybe. I can smell ash on him, something burned, but I don't press him. My teeth ache with hunger.
We eat dried meat and fruit until Chase vomits in the shower. My own shrunken stomach rolls, but I keep it down, taking great gulps of rust flavored water from the showerheads. Pac gives away nothing. As little expression on his face as hair. He chews with his rat eyes open and blank. Neither sick, nor sated.
When we're all full, we turn on the small radio Pac managed to smuggle out. We sift the static like we're panning river sand for gold. The sound painfully mirrors the ice. We find a station. News. We lean in like children. And we hear all the things we are afraid of. A wide spread of contamination. Military zones, constantly in flux. Huge areas gone dark. Infections from bites. Infections from scratches. Incubation periods as short as two hours, as long as two weeks. Aggressive behavior. Bleeding from the eyes, mouth. Incoherent babble. Loss of color.
The ice, as colorless as dreams, continues to pelt the walls in a soft language I feel I can almost understand.
It is not news, I realize, slowly, but a recorded message. A PSA on a loop. The realization is crushing.
I look up from the radio, and spot a coin of blood growing on Pac's coat. Opening like a flower. Like a full moon. Like a red eye, huge and lidless. I catch Chase's eye and nod to the spot. Chase goes even paler, if that were possible. Pure, sunless white to, what? What's whiter than white? Transparency. Nothingness. The color of ice.
"You hurt, Pac?" Chase says, inching towards the fire ax sticking out of the necessity pile.
"I'll live," Pac says, and smiles. One of his eyes is leaking a clear fluid, and the pupil is huge. It makes me think of a solar eclipse. Of a solid shadow swallowing the sun.
I feel light, slipping free of gravity. In one, clumsy motion, I whip out the bottle of lighter fluid. Spray Pac like it's a squirt gun, like it's all a game we're playing.
The confusion in his face is painful, familiar. Like looking into a hairless mirror.
Chase is struggling to free the ax from the necessity pile. So.
The spark of the lighter sounds, to me, like laughter. Strange that it doesn't stop. Strange that it seems only to get louder and mix, singing and mad, with the silver static of the endless ice.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 4th, 2015


Alan Wor is the pen name of Ryan Row. His work has been previously published, or is forthcoming, in Glassworks Magazine, 94 Creations, Danse Macabre, and elsewhere. He is currently studying Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Alan Wor is the broken down superhero who's lost his powers and now lives inside the hollow of Ryan's breast bone. About the Story: I've always been a little afraid of ice. Something about it, pretty and strange in the light, always made me feel a little trapped. Cool and still. Like I was inside it looking out. Anyway.

- Alan Wor

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