by Rowan Hill
“Jason, I’m cold… and hungry,” my sister Katie whispered through pale lips. I shuffled across the couch and hugged her into my side, giving her arms a vigorous rub for warmth.
“Hey, it’s an adventure, remember?”
She grinned at our parents’ spiel consistently given while on this research trip, but she couldn’t hide the loud growl of her tiny stomach. I was about to tell her a joke to take our minds off our predicament when the thick door of the Antarctica Environmental Research Station opened to the howling ice storm. My parents quickly entered and I hugged delicate Katie closer in the cold, noticing both parents’ somber mood.
Mom sat while Dad remained standing. She took a deep breath, pulling her hood off. Her eyes were worn and her lips pressed into a thin line, as if she was trying to suppress a groan or keep something in. When was the last time she’d had her meds? Did she even have any left? Before I could ask, she took another deep breath,
“It’s gonna be fine, guys,” she exhaled, while reaching for and pulling Katie onto her lap.
“What did they say?”
“They said the storm is going to be over us for another ten days.”
“Ten days!” I exclaimed, shooting to my feet in a panic, my heart racing. “But… the University only gave us provisions for the two weeks! And that finished days ago!” My father shifted his weight between his feet, looking uncomfortable.
“Jason!” Mom chided. In her arms, Katie was wide-eyed and becoming distressed, nearly hyperventilating. I turned away, mumbling ‘sorry’ and walked to the small window. The blizzard blew viscously, and I heard Mom comforting Katie.
“Hey, we’re gonna be fine. We’ve plenty of gas so we aren’t gonna freeze. You think I would let anything happen to you? Come on, you know me. I’ve got backup plans and backups for the backups.” I turned and saw Katie smiling, a tear belying her anxiety.
“We’re just gonna have to tighten our belts a little for food, huh? Your dad has been practicing his fishing and I’ve got a good feeling about that second ice hole. I’m sure I saw more fish swimming underneath the ice, I didn’t recognize them but…”
I snorted. “Dad caught a total of one fish from the first hole. And it looked weird. Like, mutant weird. Those red spots on its belly weren’t natural. None of us could even keep it in our stomachs!” I shook my head with certainty. “The station’s over a pocket or something, there’s no water flow. There are no normal fish.”
“Jason, enough!” Mom commanded. I looked to Dad, who’d remained quiet. Classic Dad, always letting her take the lead in times of hardship. At least he looked worried this time.
The door opened and Dad entered with three small bowls in the crook of his arm. Katie and I were reading on the couch. Trying to take our minds off our grumbling stomachs and the incessant storm. Steam wafted from the bowls and Katie immediately perked up.
“You caught a fish!”
Dad’s lips twitched but he kept silent, handing us each one. There was a riot of color inside, the scent of sweet & sour wafting from the bowl. I used the accompanying fork and wiped away the sticky condiment, scraping it off the meat. A greyish texture vaguely like beef, but maybe a kind of tuna. I studied it warily,
“A normal fish?”
Dad nodded, “A variation of a codfish, I think.”
“No red spots?” I murmured, still inspecting the insides of the bowl.
Dad, a normally placid man, suddenly spoke with frustration and grumbled, “Its a fish is what it is, and I was very lucky to catch it, Jason. It’s hot and will save us until our ride comes in a week.”
I was surprised by his tone. Dad, a harmless environmental scientist, kept an irritated expression and took his bowl to the window to watch the raging storm.
“Where’s Mommy?” Katie muttered through her full mouth when the door opened and Mom answered.
“Here I am, sweetheart. How’s dinner? Make sure you eat while it’s hot.”
She had wrapped a full-length blanket around herself and sat next to Katie, rubbing her back and watching her petite daughter eat. Mom looked even more worn and gaunt. But not just a side effect from the cold and meager emergency rations. She was becoming sick. If I was right with the math, she maybe ran out of her medicine yesterday, today at best. I would have expected someone as prepared as she to have brought extra for the trip. But even she couldn’t have expected an extra 2-3 weeks, trapped. Eventually she looked at me, the fork still in my hand. “What’s wrong?”
I glanced at Katie, not wanting to bring up my mother’s chronic illness and make her upset again. I lied, “It’s too much sweet & sour.”
Mom looked hurt. “I know, the fish looked… stringy… when your father pulled it out of the ice, and we need to eat, so I drowned it in condiments. Tomorrow I’ll make it honey mustard, okay? But… I need you to get past the taste, okay?”
My stomach, not fed since yesterday’s last emergency SPAM, agreed and I began to eat the tough, grey meat. It had little taste beyond the tangy sauce. She watched us and I noticed she hadn’t eaten.
“Did you get any?”
She looked up from Katie with a weary smile. “I already ate, darling. And we will keep some of the scraps for bait. We’ll catch another soon.” She began to lovingly stroke Katie’s hair. “See, I told you two, everything’s going to be fine. Plenty of fish in the ocean. Only another seven days. They’re on standby in case the storm suddenly breaks, so who knows!?” She tried to exclaim energetically but failed. I wondered if she had really eaten or had just given her share to Katie, the miracle IVF daughter she would do anything for. Katie finished her bowl and leaned across her lap, while Mom winced through her smile.
“Is this the same kind of fish? The codfish?” I questioned, taking the bowl from Dad. He nodded as he sat. Today, the stringy fish was swathed in honey mustard. It wasn’t much but enough to keep starvation away and I did love honey mustard.
“Guys, Mom isn’t feeling well. I’ve rugged her up in bed. We’re just going to let her sleep, okay?”
“What’s wrong?” I mumbled with a mouth full of the sweet, drenched food.
“Well… she had a migraine for a while and she’s just drained.”
My brow furrowed as I started to ask, “She has run out of…”
“Jason!” Dad cut me off with a knowing look, confirming my suspicions.
Katie didn’t notice our exchange, “Did Mommy get dinner?”
He didn’t reply, merely nodded and stood to return to the window and the storm holding us hostage.
After dinner, I knocked on the bedroom door. There was no response, so I opened it, finding Mom in bed. Her eyes were closed with a pained expression on her creased forehead. I shut the door to the freezing hallway quietly behind me.
She shifted at the noise and in the weak fluorescent light, I could make out a sheen of sweat glistening on her brow. On the table were several neon-orange pill bottles, still half-full. I sat on the side of her cot and felt her forehead. She had a fever. I came out of my lean, accidentally putting weight on her legs and she flinched, groaning in her sleep.
I frowned, remembering the wince through her smile, and I stared at the blanket covering her legs. With a gentle hand, I lifted it to peek underneath, only to be met with a layer of white gauze. Confused, I tossed the blanket away, not caring about the cold or her comfort.
My mother’s bare thighs and calves were swathed in white wrappings and individual adhesive pads. Deep, saturated, red spots bleeding through in multiple places. My mouth gaped at the unexpected gore and moist wounds on my mother’s limbs and I gently reached out to touch them.
The wounds weren’t deep, but wide and long. Like she had road rash, or had been cut with something even…
Like she had been filleted.
The random thought shifted my stomach, gurgling its contents of the mysterious ‘fish’ I’d just devoured.
“I’m gonna throw up,” I whispered.
“Don’t you dare,” a harsh and angry voice retorted. I looked up to find her staring at me sternly. She pushed herself up on her elbows, “We’re still nearly a week away from rescue. That’s enough to do serious damage to Katie at her age without food. Understand?” I stayed silent, feeling my mouth salivate at the word ‘food’ but then gagging at the thought.
She slapped my face, “Stop it and grow up.” Nausea subsided with the pain and I stood, backing away from my sacrificial mother. I headed toward the door in a daze.
Katie’s stomach loudly rumbled as she hugged it, “How many more days?”
“Four maybe,” I muttered.
The door opened and Dad came in with the steaming bowls. I now understood his permanent grim expression. As he handed us our meal, I saw his dirty, brown fingernails. Blood.
The grey meat was swathed again in a thick sauce, all texture and density hidden. But my mother’s flesh was all I saw and had to push the bowl away, murmuring that I wasn’t hungry.
My father had a dripping fork-full raised to his mouth when we locked eyes. I was disgusted watching him chew. Always letting Mom lead. Whatever she thought was best. He suddenly looked down in shame, soon pushing his own bowl away.
The door suddenly opened and Mom entered, visibly limping, a fake smile plastered on her face. She sat next to Katie and rubbed her back lovingly. Together we three watched young Katie, halfway through her bowl of grey meat. She had sauce around her lips, and they smacked together loudly as she still hadn’t learned to chew with her mouth closed.
I spotted a grey thread of flesh stuck between her small teeth and had to look away, still listening to the sounds of her devouring her dinner. When she finished, she asked me, “Can I have yours?”
Rowan Hill is a dual national writer currently living in Southern Italy. She enjoys writing over a range of genres, but Horror by far is her favorite. Lately, she has found herself writing female villains and hopes to create a truly chilling one in the near future. She tries to use her many experiences living in many places in her writing and is set to have her first publications with Kandisha Press and Curious Blue Press in the upcoming months. She can be found on Twitter @writerrowanhill.