Forests of Antarctica
by Courtney Watson
The night before Sam left on his trip to Anvers Island, a research outpost on the northern-most fringe of Antarctica, was one of their worst. Diana listened from the kitchen as Sam walked down the hall and dropped his old duffel bag by the front door. She wondered what he'd forgotten this time.
“That's it. Three weeks worth of stuff packed in twenty minutes. It might be a personal best,” Sam said, hovering in the doorway. It was after midnight when Sam walked into the kitchen of their cottage, where Diana liked to do her work at the massive butcher block table, and he looked tired but there was a warm glow in his cheeks. Diana stared at the screen, typing things that she would have to erase later and making notes that meant nothing.
“Are you coming to bed?” Sam asked.
They were a year into a research trip that was supposed to have lasted two months, and it was on nights like this, when all the empty weeks stretched in front of her, that Diana hated Sam. And Ushuaia, the town where they rented a cottage at the southern tip of Argentina. It was the gateway through which thousands of tourists and scientists passed every year, following the ghosts of Magellan and Drake, Darwin and Amundsen to what was once the edge of the known world. In a letter she wrote not long after her arrival, Diana told her brother about the town's motto: the end of the world, the beginning of everything. Back then, she'd thought that it sounded romantic. Diana knew better now. “They have the end of the world part right, anyway,” Diana thought to herself, running her fingers over her too-hot keyboard. And Sam was leaving her here alone, again.
Sam ran his hands through his auburn hair, which had thinned in the past few months. “I can't do this tonight, Diana. I don't want to...”
She glanced at him, and then back at the screen.
“I asked you to come with me. You hate the boat. You hate the island, and the cold, and everything about what I do down there, and I still asked.”
Diana said nothing, kept typing. Sam made a laughing, choking noise. He was wearing an old college t-shirt and the red plaid pajama pants from a set Diana's mother had sent for Christmas. He knew Diana liked them.
“It doesn't matter. This'll be the last trip anyway. If we don't make some progress, they're going to pull our funding. You know that, right?” Sam said.
Diana did know that, of course she did, because it was all that Sam had talked about since his last two trips to the sites off Anvers Island, where he and his crew had discovered a lot more of the same stuff they'd been finding for months.
In the beginning, Diana had been fascinated by Sam's research, and she still loved the way his face lit up when he talked about his diving expeditions into the polar algae forests. In Diana's mind, they were ghostly and beautiful, haunting meadows of underwater flora that shone in the water like spun glass. When she finally visited the lab and saw the specimens for herself, she'd been a bit disappointed to see the slimy masses of red and brown kelp that looked exactly like all the other seaweed she'd ever seen.
“Whatever, I'm going to bed. Maybe we can try this again in the morning,” Sam said. He hesitated at the doorway, left, and then came back again a few moments later. He crossed his arms in front of him. Diana looked up from the screen and raised her eyebrows.
“I'm sorry I'm leaving again. I know you don't like it here and that you don't know anyone, but you knew about this project when you agreed to come with me. It's taken a few months longer than I thought it would, but I told you that might happen. I told you what to expect. You knew what you were getting yourself into. You knew what my job was like when you married me.”
Color rose in his cheeks and he crossed the kitchen so that he was standing in front of her, over her. Diana looked up at him, at his tired gray eyes and at the lines tracing his forehead and the mouth that so readily formed the crooked smile that she loved. Sam wasn't smiling now.
“I knew what your job was, Sam. I just thought you were better at it,” Diana said.
After Sam left, shaking his head, Diana stared at the clock on her computer as her vision blurred. “I hate myself for saying that,” Diana thought. “I hate him for making it feel good to say something so mean.” Diana pressed her shoulder blades into the kitchen chair, feeling more relaxed than she had all day—like a pressure valve had been released.
It was an agony that Diana had stupidly assumed would be alleviated by marriage: the question of whether or not the person she loved was truly hers. Only hers. Before Sam, the answer had always eventually been no; the truth revealed itself in sly fingers sliding across touch screens craving missed texts and e-mails. Like she wouldn't notice. Sam wasn't like that, though. He still wasn't like that. It would have actually been easier if her competition had dewy skin and a winsome smile. Did the universe really expect her to put up a fight against kelp?
Sam hadn't been lying. Diana hated the expeditions to the algae forests. “Does he know how hard it is to get on a boat knowing that you're going to be wet and freezing for the next three weeks?” Diana had asked herself as she stuffed sweaters and thermal socks and battery-operated heating pads into a suitcase that looked a whole lot bigger on the outside. Diana distinctly remembered that it was the day before her second, and last, trip to Palmer Station, which served as a base camp for their ventures further south. Sam, who had once been able to deal with Diana's abundance of luggage with good humor, had eyed her stack of stuff with dismay.
“What is all this? You can't possibly need all of this stuff. What on earth is that?”Sam knelt down and touched a blue nylon vest equipped with a small battery pack that looked like a heart monitor. He raised his eyebrows, but he was smiling.
“It's insulated with gel. The battery heats it to warm you up. I found it in SkyMall,” Diana said.
“I love you, Diana. So much.”
“I got you one too.”
Sam stood and looked at all of Diana's stuff with what she assumed was renewed interest.
It was late, and Diana had been doing what she called “panic packing”. It was hard to say what she'd find when she unpacked them on the boat.
“It's hard, because I never know what I'll need once we get down there,” Diana tried to explain. “I'm not cut out for your white world, Sam. Couldn't we find a nice spot on the equator to drop anchor? Let the sun pin me to the sand on nice beach and you won't hear a peep out of me, I swear.”
Sam had smiled. “I doubt that.”
It wasn't just clothes and cold-weather implements—Diana brought other stuff too: pictures, beach-scented candles that smelled like sunlight and hot sand, books that helped her feel at home wherever she went. Somehow, Sam didn't need any of that.
“Pare down. Get rid of everything that you don't absolutely need. That's what I do. Try it. You'll be surprised at all the things you can learn to live without.”
Call it prescience, or perhaps paranoia, but Diana hadn't liked that statement when Sam said it all those months ago. She'd found it oddly hurtful. She liked it even less now. Diana thought about the single duffel bag sitting by the door and her throat burned. She stared at the screen until the colors melted together like stained glass.
As Sam's boat pulled out of the harbor the next morning, all Diana felt was relief. She'd apologized for being mean and Sam said he was sorry for leaving her, again. They would work it out when he got back. They always did.
Diana watched the boat until it disappeared into the Beagle Channel, and then she walked into the main part of town. Ushuaia was a place where locals and tourists alike got started early, and the street along the harbor's promenade was already crowded with elbows and voices echoing in half a dozen languages that Diana didn't understand. Though some English was spoken in the tourist district, the prevalence of Spanish, Portuguese, and German made it difficult enough for Diana to accomplish day-to-day tasks like going to the store, much less making friends.
Diana stopped at the bakery down the street from her home and ordered a fried pastry filled with sticky-sweet guava paste for breakfast and an empanada for later. The bakery was full of regulars—a mechanic who sat at the bar and flirted with the waitresses, an elderly man who ate his eggs slowly and poured honey over toast, a young man with his body curved over a sketchbook, his fingers black with charcoal. Something in Diana throbbed with the desire to talk to them, any of them, about anything. Somehow, none of them seemed to be alone.
“You'll eat here?” the woman behind the counter asked, already reaching for a square of wax paper to wrap up the pastries.
Diana shook her head. “Not today.”
“I'm home,” Diana said to no one after she walked into the house. It felt much emptier in Sam's absence. The small blue clapboard rental cottage reminded her of a house in a fishing village in Maine. Diana went straight to her bedroom. The bed was unmade and the air was still humid from the shower Sam had taken earlier that morning. The phone base on the nightstand was blinking red, but Diana ignored it and laid down. The pillows smelled like sea salt and aftershave, and Diana went to sleep thinking about her husband and his spectral forests of polar algae.
When Diana woke up many hours later, the red light was still blinking. She reached for the phone and dialed for her voice mail. There were seven messages. Sighing, Diana reluctantly pressed the button and listened to the first one. A moment later she sat bolt upright in bed and grabbed a pen and paper off the nightstand. It was about Sam's daughter.
“Your ex is in rehab. Melissa's dad called and said she entered a 90-day program,” Diana said. She was sitting in her favorite spot in the cottage, on the stone hearth as close as she dared to an old radiator, which blazed all year round.
“Jesus. What happened?” Sam asked. His voice barely cut through the sat-com static of the phone they used aboard the ship; it was like having a conversation with someone underwater.
“I'm not really sure. George was more concerned about Lara.”
“Is she okay? How's she taking it?” Sam's voice echoed amidst a background of blips and buzzes. There were other voices too; scientists and excited grad students talking over one another in the close quarters of the interior of the ship. It was a nice enough boat, funded through a sizable commitment from the University of Alabama's marine science program, whose support Sam was afraid of losing. The cabin was noisy and crowded, but it was the only haven from the wind shears that cut through clothes and skin like icy teeth. From the warmth of her kitchen, Diana shivered at the remembered chill.
“Well, that's the thing,” Diana said.
“What? Isn't she with George and Linda?” Sam asked.
“She was. She has been for the past year, actually. Did you know that?”
“Yeah, she mentioned it.” Sam's voice rose and fell with the motion of the boat, and the thought of bobbing up and down in the cold black water for weeks on end made Diana feel seasick.
“Sam, Lara left this morning,” Diana said.
“She what? Like she ran away?”
“No. Well, sort of. She's coming here. She had a layover during her flight from Chicago to Miami. She called me from Atlanta. Lara said she wants to see you.”
All Diana heard through the phone were waves of static and wind. Silence is an
expensive commodity on a satellite phone, and Sam was rarely inclined to waste research funding.
“Damn it,” Sam finally said.
“I know. It's not a great situation.”
“Who let her get on a plane to South America by herself? She's 14.”
“She's 15. And apparently her mother got her a passport when they went to Cozumel a few years ago. They didn't even know where Lara was until she called them from the gate.”
Sam groaned. “I do not need this right now.”
“I pulled up Lara's flight information. She has an overnight layover in Panama City and another in Buenos Aires, and then a straight-through to here on Tuesday morning,” Diana said. There was no such thing as an easy trip to the end of the world. She waited for Sam to say something, and when he didn't she continued.
“I told Lara that you probably wouldn't be back yet and that I'd pick her up at the airport. She said that was okay,” Diana said. It was the first time she'd spoken to Sam's daughter, ever. He talked to her every few weeks or so. All Diana had to go on were bits and pieces from Sam: Lara liked swimming and reading, and she'd loved riding horses ever since Sam had started sending her to sleep-away camp on a ranch in Wyoming every summer. Lara had been the product of a college relationship that soon fizzled, and Sam hadn't ever been a big part of her life. There was no formal custody arrangement, and Sam rarely saw the girl, but Diana could tell that he loved her. He just seemed unclear about how to fit her into his life.
“Well I can't leave. We just got started,” Sam said.
Diana paused. “You're not coming home? Seriously?”
“We just got here. What do you want me to do, have them turn the boat around?”
Yes, Diana said silently, of course that's what you're supposed to do, but aloud she said nothing. Sam's silence was equally expectant.
“What am I supposed to do with her? Lara's coming down here to see you, not me. She doesn't even know me.”
“I'm sorry. I'll figure something out when I get home, but I can't deal with this right now. I have to focus on my work. You know that I might not get another chance if this project doesn't get completed. We're so close to getting the specimens we need. It's going to happen this time, I know it.”
“Alright,” Diana said.
“Really?” Sam sounded surprised, but Diana knew that he wasn't.
“Thank you. Tell Lara I'll be home in a couple of weeks or so. Tell her I'll e-mail her. I've got to go.”
“Okay. Love you. Bye.”
Diana was going to say something else to her husband, but Sam was already gone.
In person, Sam's daughter looked older than Diana had expected. In the pictures he'd sent from his computer on the boat—blurry images transmitted from a research vessel hundreds of miles away, somewhere off the coast of Antarctica—Lara had looked no more than ten. Diana rubbed her eyes and leaned against her car, which she'd pulled into the lot right next to the tiny private airport.
Diana felt a familiar sense of panic expand in her diaphragm and block her airway until she was gasping for breath. She inhaled through her nose and watched the seconds tick by on her watch to calm herself down. Kids were an unknown quantity for Diana, and the idea of Lara made her nervous.
Diana didn't remember sleeping at all the previous night. There were only three photos of Lara. Diana had sat on the bed the night before, studying the soft-cheeked child who looked nothing like Sam. The girl walking down the steps of the small plane was taller than Diana and thin in the way that only teenagers can be, flesh pulled taut over bone. Lara stepped onto the tarmac at the airstrip and looked around uncertainly until she was nudged in the back by the person coming off the plane behind her and forced to move out of the way. Lara stood there, looking lost and bewildered, but for some reason Diana couldn't move. The gray-veiled sky gave no hint as to where the sun might be, and a light but persistent mist seeped through Diana's clothes and raised chill bumps on her skin. Mentally, Diana cursed her husband.
Finally, as the passengers cleared the tarmac and the lone flight attendant got off the plane, Diana couldn't handle seeing the girl standing there by herself any longer and she walked toward her. Even at thirty yards, the terrified, oh-no-what-have-I-done look on Lara's face was plain, and Diana certainly couldn't hold that against her. Her mother was locked away she had traveled over seven thousand miles away from home to see the father she barely knew and instead she got Diana, who she knew not at all.
“Lara?” Diana called out to her over the sounds of people greeting each other and the dry whir of an ascending plane. The girl looked up and nodded, and Diana could see the disappointment on her face.
“I'm Diana,” she said. She didn't know what to do with her arms.
“Hi. It's nice to meet you,” Lara said.
“Sam—your dad wanted to be here but the boat was already so far away when I got the call. Sam's really sorry. When he heard, he'd wanted to come and get you himself, but it all happened so fast.”
Lara looked at Diana. “It's fine. Really. I just wanted to get here.”
Lara looked nothing like Sam or the pictures Diana had seen of Melissa. Her coloring and features were her own. The girl's face was dark and memorable, with olive skin and high cheekbones and a wide mouth that she hadn't quite grown into yet. Lara's eyes were dark and there was a depth and richness to her coloring that reminded Diana of an oil painting.
“Sam isn't coming, is he?” Lara asked. After they dropped Lara's bags off at the cottage, Diana had taken her to a small 1950s American-style diner around the corner. A neon jukebox blared Jerry Lewis through the greasy air and a waitress brought them warm glass bottles of Coke with long candy-striped straws. The diner was tacky, yes, but it reminded Diana of the tacky fifties-style diners at home. And the food wasn't bad.
“Not right away. He's stuck out in the field with his research team. He wants to be here, though,” Diana said. She stared at her menu, even though there were only about four items that she recognized.
“You said that. What's a barros luco?” Lara asked. She pointed her finger at a sticky spot on Diana's menu.
“It's sort of like a cheeseburger. They're pretty good, actually. Do you eat meat?”
“That's good. Argentina has some of the best beef in the world.”
“So where is my dad exactly?” Lara asked.
Exactly? Diana had no idea. Sam's office was full of maps and graphs and tidal charts and he had marked the coordinates of his field research parameters with strings wrapped around tiny red-tipped pins, but to Diana the project looked inconceivable. One map was the size of a parking space and took up the better part of a wall, and on it Sam's research sites looked like tiny, haphazard fingernail clippings.
“Right now, I'm not sure. They'll spend a few days diving and collecting specimens in the shallower waters along the coast and then they'll dock at Palmer Station on Anvers Island and run some tests and then they'll go back for more samples.”
A waitress in a bright pink dress with a white apron came to their table. She was young and gave them a bored smile and said hello and how are you in rapid Spanish. She smelled like hairspray and with her thick fringe of black bangs she looked like Betty Page. She'd waited on Diana before and knew that she only spoke English, and she just nodded when Diana pointed at the items they wanted—two barros luco—and collected the menus. Once she left, Diana returned her attention to Lara. It felt odd to be sitting across the table from her husband's daughter.
Lara stared at Diana, who sensed that she was about to be interrogated. That was fine. Diana had questions too.
“How long have you known my dad?” Lara asked. She was sitting on her jacket in the cracked red vinyl booth and Diana was pleased to see that she'd had the sense to wear layers. It was the near the end of the austral summer—the only time of year that Sam could conduct his research out in the field—and the temperature was in the low fifties. Six hundred miles south at Palmer Station, where Sam and his team would bring the specimens they collected during their dives, it would be in the thirties. Winter was much, much worse.
“Two years. What's your favorite subject in school?
“Italian. Do you have a job?”
“I copy edit articles and manuscripts for a publishing house in Miami. That's how I met your dad, actually. We did a profile on him. You speak Italian?” Diana asked.
“Not yet, but I really like the sound of it. How old are you?” Lara asked. Her eyes were bright, curious. Diana noticed that she had a habit of pulling at the corners of her eyebrows. Sam did something similar with his hair.
“You're a lot younger than my mom. She's 37. My dad's 35.”
Diana nodded. “I know. Did you tell your mother that you were coming down here?”
“No. We don't talk much. I mean, we didn't before...now we don't talk at all. I've mostly been living with my grandparents.”
“How's that going?”
“They're old,” Lara said. Lara put her arms down on the table in front of her. On one of her wrists was a beaded turquoise bracelet with a tiny hummingbird charm, carved out of bone, which Diana recognized from her last trip to the famed street fair in Buenos Aires. She didn't like the idea Lara leaving the airport during her layover and wandering around that city alone.
“What about school? Aren't you missing it?” Diana asked.
Lara shook her head. “I enrolled myself in home school. The box with everything in it for this quarter should be here next week.”
Diana wasn't sure what look passed across her face when Lara's long-term intentions became clear, but the girl's response was a look of pleading.
“Please don't send me back there. My dad will understand. I don't like living with my grandparents, and when my mother gets out I don't want to live with her either. I don't like her. We just don't get along.”
Two red spots appeared on Lara's cheeks as she became more anxious and she said once again, “My dad will understand.”
Diana wondered about that, and what Lara thought she knew about Sam. She thought about Sam's parents, Max and Lilly, who lived on a golf course in Clearwater Beach and who delighted in the adventures of their brilliant, intrepid son. He'd had good role models.
“Lara's, it's okay. You'll get your chance to see your dad. I get it. When I was your age, I didn't like my mother either.”
“Do you get along with her now?” Lara wrapped her delicate hands around her glass Coca-Cola bottle and Diana noticed that her fingernails were painted cobalt blue and it made her smile.
“Here comes our food,” Diana said.
In fact, Diana still wasn't on great terms with her mother, Goldie. They spoke occasionally and exchanged postcards when they traveled, but Diana, who had never known her father, had stopped depending on her mother for anything a very long time ago. Diana told Lara as much during a walk one afternoon about a week after Lara arrived. The sky was clear and the air was cold as they walked along the promenade that paralleled the harbor.
“She never got the hang of the whole parenting thing, my mother,” Diana said. She vividly remembered the vaguely puzzled look that Goldie got on her lovely face when their paths crossed. The problem wasn't animosity, but maybe ambivalence. Goldie seemed to love Diana, but she'd never really gotten to know her. For her part, Diana knew as much about her mother as she cared to.
“Was she mean? Or crazy? Mine is crazy,” Lara said. Diana had heard as much from Sam, and whenever he'd talked about his ex's struggles with addiction she'd wondered why he hadn't pushed Melissa for custody of Lara. Sam had always said that Lara's grandparents provided stability that he couldn't because of the amount of travel associated with his job, but he'd somehow missed the fact that she wasn't happy there.
They'd spoken to Sam twice and during their last, brief call he'd announced that his work was progressing. He didn't sound great. Sam and his team were scheduled to return in two weeks. As apprehensive as she'd been about being on her own with Sam's daughter, Diana found that she actually enjoyed Lara's company. It was nice not to be alone all the time.
“No, my mom wasn't mean or crazy. She did get married a lot, though,” Diana said. For the past six years, Goldie had been living in South Florida with her fifth husband, a retired textile manufacturer named Herb.
“It's really beautiful here. Dad never mentioned that,” Lara said.
“It is,” Diana agreed. The landscape was something that she'd never paid particular attention to, but the views were striking. The town was bordered by snow-capped mountains on one side and a deep sapphire sea on the other. Everything in between was green and vibrant. The air was savory with the crisp and char of street food and interesting people bustled about everywhere. Just that afternoon, Diana and Lara had been invited to share a table at a crowded restaurant with a group of chatty climatologists en route to the South Pole.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Lara asked. She stopped walking and took her digital camera out of the pocket of her jeans. Diana followed her gaze down to the beach, where a gang of small, fat penguins was gathered on the dark brown sand. It was a rare sight because they usually stuck to the outer islands, and Lara was delighted. Diana smiled and took out her own camera and took a picture of the penguins with Lara laughing in the foreground.
“I don't have any biological siblings, but I am really close to my step-brother Jack from my mom's third marriage. We grew up together and he's my best friend. He's a photographer in D.C. He came down to visit a couple of months ago,” Diana said. When Diana was 16 and fed up with living at home, Jack, who was only three years older than her, had taken Diana in and made her finish school. She didn't like to think of what could've become of her if Jack hadn't been around.
“He's the only one?” Lara asked.
There had been other kids, but none that Diana had cared to keep up with after their parents had parted ways. “Yep. Just Jack. Sometimes you have to find your family, I think. I have some really good friends though, too.”
“Are you and my dad going to have any children?”
“No, Sam doesn't want any,” Diana said. Thinking about what she'd just said, she smiled at Lara and added, “He's happy just to have you.”
After that day, Diana and Lara settled into a routine. Lara's box of home school assignments arrived on schedule along with a stack of manuals for Diana to edit. They worked in the mornings and explored in the afternoons. Diana was embarrassed when she realized how little she knew about the place where she had been living for nearly a year; she'd moved to Ushuaia to be with Sam and have an adventure, but instead she'd shut out the world.
With Lara there, Diana found herself suddenly interested in the town that existed beyond the cold and fog that she woke up to every day outside her kitchen window. With Lara there, Diana finally saw why the place had such a thriving tourist industry. Ushuaia wasn't a remote outpost of civilization, but a place rich in wildlife and history, exploration and myth. The town's motto didn't seem quite so silly now. With Lara's arrival, Diana sensed the possibility of a new beginning for all of them.
Lara reminded Diana of Sam. She was quiet, pensive at times. Lara looked on the Internet and found stables in the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park and talked Diana into going riding with her on the trail. It was a hushed, lovely place, cold and green, and the old horses—retired polo ponies from a local estancia—were slow and patient.
“Why didn't you go with my dad?” Lara asked. Her horse, a sweet palomino, clopped on the trail alongside Diana's. The air smelled like wet trees and moss and the green canopy overhead blocked the view of the gray sky.
“I didn't want to, I guess. I don't do very well on boats. And the air down there. It's very dry and so, so cold. The first time I went my nose bled every day for a week. And the boat is crowded, and you don't have any privacy at all. Anyway, your dad's always working on those trips, so it's not like I actually get to see him.”
Lara was quiet for so long that Diana thought the topic had passed, but then she said, “But still. It's a long time to be away from each other. If he ever asked me to go, I'd do it.”
Diana smiled. “I know you would.”
They continued on in silence for a while. Diana appreciated her horse's solid steadiness. Retired or not, he was a pro. She hadn't ridden a horse in years and though she knew that she'd be sore the next day, she was having a nice time and she thought that Lara was too. It might be a nice thing for the three of them to do together when Sam got back. A light mist of cold rain touched the top of Diana's head like a kiss and a chill pressed itself into her clothes.
“You never met my mother, did you?” Lara asked.
“Does my dad talk about her?”
“Not really,” Diana said.
“When I was younger, I always thought that he would come and get me if she went over the edge. Then she did, again and again, and he never came. He e-mailed me from all of these fantastic places and sent me souvenirs, but he was never there. When I moved in with my grandparents for good last year, I thought that then he would finally get it. That he had to do something. I wrote to him, I told him I wasn't happy, and do you know what he did? He paid for two extra weeks at summer camp.”
Diana cringed. “Did you tell him that you wanted to see him?”
Lara nodded. “Of course. But he was always busy.”
“I didn't know that you e-mailed him so much.”
“It didn't do any good. Most of the time, I think he tries to pretend he doesn't have a daughter.”
“That's not true, Lara,” Diana said, though the evidence against Sam was pretty damning. She hadn't known about the girl until months into her relationship with Sam.
“It is. You know it is. But I don't accept it, and I'm going to change his mind. He's going to hear me out.”
One week went by without a word from Sam. Then another. The phone didn't ring, and e-mails went unanswered. The day before his boat was scheduled to return, Diana received a terse e-mail from Sam, which she read with Lara looking over her shoulder.
I'm making progress with some colleagues at the station, and I won't be
returning with the crew on Saturday. I need more time. Please send Lara
home. I'll deal with it when I come back.
“Deal with it?” Lara said. It was morning, and they had been working across from each other at the big table in the warm little kitchen. Diana had been editing while Lara worked on an interactive language module where a voice spoke a simple phrase in Italian and Lara repeated it. Diana had no idea what was being said, but like her step-daughter she liked the way it sounded.
“Lara, I don't think he meant it that way,” Diana said. It had been another peaceful morning; they'd eaten breakfast and discussed taking a trip back to the park in Patagonia
with Sam once he returned. A knot of anxiety that Diana hadn't felt since the morning Lara arrived tightened in her chest.
“Diana, stop. It's bullshit.” Lara's face, usually so calm, was bright with anger. The knot in Diana's chest loosened and turned hot. Something changed inside of her, and Diana felt her loyalty shift.
“You're right, Lara. It is bullshit,” Diana said.
Lara moved through the cottage, grabbing an old backpack of Sam's and stuffing things into it: her purse, a jacket, her Kindle, her long brown hair whipping behind her. Diana followed her. “What are you doing? Where are you going?”
Lara shoved a scarf into the pack. “I'm going there. To the station. He can't ignore me if I'm right in front of him.”
At that moment, Diana knew two things for certain: Sam wasn't going to be thrilled about this, and she didn't care. Diana also knew that Lara wasn't going alone.
The Ellie Mae was a mid-sized supply boat that delivered scientists and equipment to the station on Anvers Island during the austral summer months. It was captained by a husband and wife team named Hans and Birdie. They were a sturdy pair—tall and blond, with glacial eyes—and while Diana was wedging her bags in the small stateroom she was sharing with Lara, the girl whispered that they looked like Vikings. They got to know Birdie over cups of hot tea and stale bagels.
“I'm glad we were running behind schedule, or I never would've gotten your call,” Birdie said. Unlike her husband, who sounded like he was Swedish, Birdie had a flat, Mid-western accent.
“I am too. We were a bit desperate. It was so kind of you to bring us,” Diana said. Lara sat very close to her, saying nothing, her arms wrapped around one of the thick polar jackets that Diana had lent her. They'd been on the ship for just over a day and already the temperature had dropped by twenty degrees. Diana didn't know how long they would be staying at Palmer Station, and she packed as much cold weather gear as she and Lara could carry.
“Sam will be so pleased to see you. Is this a surprise visit?” Birdie said. She wore layers of cold-weather clothing, but in another life Diana could see her as a woman who favored crocheted vests and sweaters with cats on them.
“I e-mailed him, so if he doesn't check his account it might be,” Diana said.
“Oh, well. It's nice to have some company, anyhow. Usually it's just Hans and I, unless we get lucky enough to have some passengers aboard,” Birdie smiled and sipped her tea. She had a warm smile, and Diana liked her.
“How long have you been doing this?” Diana asked. She held her warm mug of tea in her hands but didn't drink it. The constant motion of the boat and the faint, wet smell of mildew were doing a number on her stomach, and Diana's head had started hurting before they had cleared the Beagle Channel.
“Over 20 years, during the the summers. Hans used to work on the icebreakers down south during the winters, but now we lead tours closer to home,” Birdie said. She looked at Lara as if she were trying to find traces of Sam on her face.
“You know, I've known your dad for several years now. He's a brilliant man,” Birdie said. Diana guessed that she was probably in her fifties.
“Did he ever mention me?” Lara asked. Her hair was tangled and her eyes were red. Diana had suggested that she get some sleep, but she wouldn't go to bed. Diana had laid down in their bunk earlier in the day while Lara curled up with her Kindle, but she hadn't been asleep for more than an hour when she'd woken up with her nose bleeding. Lara had been alarmed.
“He did. Sam was in graduate school the first time he came down here, and Hans and I took him out to the station. I mentioned that I grew up in Illinois and he told me that his daughter lived there.”
“He did? Well that's something,” Lara said.
Birdie smiled. “Sam was so excited about his work in those days. He told me all about his research, which had something to do with potential pharmaceutical applications for compounds found in polar algae. He made it sound so interesting.”
Once upon a time, Diana had thought so too.
They arrived at Palmer Station two days later, and Diana had never been so happy to get off a boat in her life. Though it was summer, she and Lara were bundled up in their cold-weather gear; the temperature was in the low thirties, but the constant, driving wind skimming over the barren landscape made it feel much colder.
Lara looked surprised at the sight of Palmer Station, a research facility on Antarctica's northernmost island. When Diana had imagined the place before her first visit, she'd expected makeshift housing built on sheets of ice. In reality, the station looked like a small town, crowded with blue structures and out-buildings and stacks of pods from container ships. Palmer Station—which housed as many as fifty scientists from a variety of fields at any given time—was lively, busy, inhabited. The earth the station stood on was brown and dusted with snow that looked like powdered sugar, and vertical cliffs of ice loomed in the distance. People shouted over the growl of generators while weather balloons hovered high overhead like great jellyfish suspended in the sky. Palmer Station looked much the same as it had a year earlier, with the notable exception of Sam, who was standing on the dock that jutted out from the solid rock of the island into Hero Inlet.
A team of people in bright orange jackets came forward to tie up the boat. They laughed and greeted Hans and Birdie. Sam, clad in the same type of jacket and insulated khaki pants and a ski hat, stood very still. He looked thinner and apparently hadn't shaved since he'd left home. The look on his face was resigned, but he wasn't looking at Diana, who felt the girl beside her shift and fidget. Lara hadn't said anything in a while, but Diana could feel the tension radiating from her like electricity in the air before a lightning storm.
Sam met them when they came off the boat. He briefly hugged Lara and Diana and said, “So, you're here.”
Diana touched the side of his face. The patchy, auburn beard was unfamiliar and she didn't like it. “This is new,” she said.
“I forgot my razor,” Sam said. He looked like he was going to say something else, but he only gestured for them to follow him. They walked along a path of crunchy frozen dirt that led to a low blue building. Sam swiped a plastic card over a panel and the air-compressed locks released with a gasp. Inside was an anteroom with couches and tables and chairs, and through a doorway Diana saw a small kitchen, the counter lined with hot plates.
“Can I get you anything?” Sam asked. Lara shook her head. Diana sat down and Lara sat beside her. Sam stood for a few moments longer and then took a seat across from them. He looked at Lara.
“You came a long way,” he said. He leaned forward and folded his hands together.
“Eight-thousand miles,” Lara said. It was the first time she'd spoken since they saw Sam.
“You ran away from home,” Sam said. “You dropped out of school.”
Lara shrugged. “I don't live there anymore.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. “Lara, you can't spend high school in Antarctica. You can't stay here.”
“I'm not going back. I want to stay here with you and Diana,” Lara said.
Diana thought about all of the things that she'd learned about Lara in the past few weeks. She was kind and sweet and funny and so brave, and Sam would never know any of that if he didn't listen.
“Sam, she could stay with us. We have the house in Ushuaia through the fall, and you'll be back soon, anyway, right? Lara can stay with me until then,” Diana said.
Sam pressed his lips together. His eyes were a true gray, the color of concrete, and she'd forgotten how cold they could be.
“There's a boat leaving for Ushuaia in a couple of hours. When you get back, Lara needs to be on the next flight to the U.S.”
Diana shook her head. “That's not fair, Sam. You're responsible for her. And Lara's great. If you had any idea what you're missing out on...”
“You learned that in your three weeks of parenthood?”
“She's better at it than you,” Lara said.
Sam looked from his daughter to Diana. “Oh, that's great. Look, Diana, I'm glad you finally found a friend, but please don't use my daughter to make yourself feel better. That's not how it works.”
“Sam—” Diana said.
He stood up. “No. I can't do this. Lara, I'm sorry. I need to get back to work.”
Lara's face was pale, and zipped up in Diana's polar coat she looked a lot more like the child Diana had seen in those first three pictures.
“This isn't about your work, Sam. It's your life, our life. You'll see when you come home,” Diana said.
Sam looked down and then back at Diana. “I'm not coming back. My work is here, Diana, and it's finally going well. I'm making real progress. I can't quit now. I'm staying until winter, maybe longer. Maybe a lot longer.”
Diana stared at him, at first not understanding. Sam held her gaze and Lara shivered beside her, and then everything became very clear.
Palmer Station was far behind them when Lara walked out on the deck of the supply ship going back to Ushuaia and sat down at Diana's feet. Lara leaned against Diana and curled her long thin legs to her chest and propped her chin on her knees. The boat was sailing with the current and the sky above them was a pearly pink and gray that looked like satin draped above the smooth cobalt ocean. They didn't say anything for a very long time.
Diana thought about her first trip to Antarctica with Sam. It had been a research expedition that had traveled very far south, almost as far as you can go. It was a world of snow and water and ice, and nothing else as far as Diana could see. One night, she was awakened by a violent tearing sound, like a sonic boom, followed by a great rush of air. Beside her, Sam never stirred, and when Diana described the sound to him the next morning, he said the noise was a small piece breaking away from an ice shelf and slipping into the ocean. He was sorry that he'd missed it. Diana didn't tell him that it was the most terrifying sound she'd ever heard, like the fabric of the world tearing apart. It was sort of how she felt now.
The sunset faded to a deep blue, cloudless sky. The boat guttered along, its engine loud and rusty-sounding. Finally, Lara spoke.
Diana sighed. “Me too. We should go inside, I guess.”
Neither of them moved. The boat was transporting a group of German astronomers back to Argentina who chattered and smoked on the deck while wearing t-shirts. Diana wasn't looking forward to the prospect of sharing a room with three of them. She just wanted to get back to Ushuaia and crawl into her bed and sleep for a very long time.
“There were so many things I wanted to say to him. And then when he was right in front of me, I couldn't say any of them,” Lara said.
“I know. I'm so sorry, Lara. I know this isn't what you wanted.”
“Did you mean what you said about letting me stay?” Lara asked.
Diana looked down at the top of her dark head. “I did. I do. I mean, I don't know if that's allowed or anything. I'm not sure how it all works.”
Diana was troubled by what Sam said about her using Lara to assuage her own loneliness, mostly because it was true.
“I don't want to go back to Chicago,” Lara said. She scooted around to face Diana. “I can't believe he really doesn't want me.”
Diana sat down on the deck next to Lara, her cold bones aching. “He doesn't want me either.”
“So what do we do now?” Lara asked.
“I'm not really sure. We'll figure it out when we get home, I guess,” Diana said. Nothing was settled, and yet Diana felt a bright relief—like she'd just reached the end of a long wait, and it was finally her turn.
Above them, millions of stars were closer and brighter than any Diana had ever seen. The air was briny and sharp with cold, and sheets of ice floated on top of the water. Antarctica was behind them, and so was Sam, maybe forever. In a couple of days they would be back in Ushuaia, the end of the world and the beginning of everything. Diana turned her face into the chill as the boat moved ever forward—first north, then east.
Courtney Watson is a graduate of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she won the Ben Mounger Rawls short story award, and is an Assistant Professor of English at Jefferson College in Roanoke, VA. Her writing has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review (online), 100 Word Story, The Inquisitive Eater, and more.
Dmitrii Smirnov is a hobbyist photographer who lives in an industrial town between Moscow and St Peterburg. He is a full time software developer who is fond of different types of art and traveling. View more of his work at Deviant Art.