With his face in the snow, Colby thought of plan after plan and they all ended in death. Six soldiers pointed flamethrowers at him. What could he do?
The Svalbard reindeer around Norway are fluffy white darlings often with brown or gray backs and even muzzles. The markings are more pronounced on calves. Around harsh Christmases, their hoof rims cut into ice so they can easily dig for lichen. The cows shed their antlers later in the spring when the pads of their hooves have gone spongy for better traction hiking across the tundra. Rodents devour the antlers for calcium.
They aren't skittish, but Colby first met them through the Sami reindeer herders, native Scandinavians who sleep in the midnight sun during summer weeks 200 miles north of the arctic circle. Their day-night cycles are dictated by the reindeer migration. They're fair-skinned people blushing for warmth beneath pelt hats and traditional clothing that's often red and blue, trimmed with white and accented green or yellow. Though many trapped in endless Arctic sun cannot cope, suicide rates at 12.0 per 100,000 people (Sweden), 14.4 per 100,000 (Finland), and 83.0 per 100,000 (Greenland), Norway, Sami population included, is ranked 102nd in the world at only 9.3.
Colby was thankful for the trip through the snow to capture people and animals and the two living with one another, but he had been prepared for that weather and hated it still. Now, he didn't risk cursing it.
In the dark, in the cold, expecting only an hour out in them, he waited for that thing to leave. Quinn, Rosie, Damion, and Roger ran out the back of the lodge. Tony had chased them. Margie fled the other way. Hunter had chased her. Their tracks so fresh and their panic so apparent, loud, tempting, that Colby thought himself hidden by his silence in the forest.
But he couldn't stay.
He crept through the snow, occasionally crossing a path torn up by dragging boots, and he'd go the other way. And he'd come upon another, and again he diverted his course.
There was nowhere to head but away. Away was safety.
He didn’t know that the black specks on his pant-legs resonated, quietly crying out, “He’s over here.” He just knew he had to go.
That was how Colby wandered for the hours that followed. Through the wind and snow. Through the cold he hated. Shivering beneath his beard.
Then he came upon a fairy circle. Brown grass dead from flooding with no snow cover. He walked towards it, slowly, because leading to it, like some ritualistic dais, were mounds of snow. Uniformly spaced and sized half-buried spheres that came to his belly button arcing on either side toward a dead grass patch. He crept closer.
He reached it.
With one foot, he tested the ground. Solid. Dry.
He bent down. Looking side to side.
Reached out a hand.
And felt the crisp blades of grass flake at his touch.
Nothing around him still. Just the mounds.
He stood in the circle.
And walked back the way he came, feeling foolish for making a big deal of it. It was odd but nothing, and after tonight, even nothing made him jump.
So when the ground trembled and men rushed from crumbling dust to surround him, pointing long metallic nozzles attached by insulated accordion tubes to canisters on their backs. The gauges pumped into the red. Pressure ready. Fingers on the triggers.
The men were silent as Colby dropped to the floor. Their gator masks and goggles held in their cold glares. Gloves, hats, hoods, thick coats, layers of pants and shirts, every inch of their skin was covered.
He needed a plan, but what could he do?
"Please help me!" Colby screamed. "I was hiking and got separated from my friends and I don't know how to get back or even where our lodge is. I'm not very good at this outdoorsy stuff."
They stayed silent, but behind their goggles, their eyes darted to neighbors and those across the way and then to one woman pulling down her mask to speak clearly. “Gunny?” one asked.
"Name," she barked.
"Colby. C-C-Colby Davis. I'm a photographer. Mostly weddings and senior portraits."
She bit her lip while considering his answer. "The quadratic equation."
It took him a minute to even place what that was. He got it wrong. "I haven't taken a science class since high school. Probably 15 years ago."
"First line of Moby Dick."
"'Call me Ishmael.' I read it twice.” In the panic, he blathered and could not stop. “High school then college. I appreciated it more the second time. Still a bit long. Dry. Dense."
"What was your last name again?"
In the circle of soldiers, the six with flamethrowers lowered them. The others were unarmed. None broke formation.
“So why are you pointing weed sprayers at me?” Colby asked as the gunnery sergeant or Gunny whispered to her men, saying more with glances than words. “Not actually weed sprayers, huh?”
Two men unzipped him and pulled it off as he spun around from the rough treatment. And the one warm area of his body felt the agony of his legs and toes and cheeks, both sets, heat leaving him and the shivers coming on stronger. “Wait.” Colby grabbed a puffy sleeve.
But the Gunny commanded him, “Let go.”
The polyester ripstop fabric fell away from his fingertips.
Colby backed up, prepped to resist being stripped bare in this weather. “Can you please tell me what’s going on or who you people are or what your name is?”
Her stares, though, neutral and mysterious, were enough encouragement that he listened, pulling off his many layers, getting to his tube socks and boxer-briefs and seeing all eyes on him, Gunny’s included, and so he continued pulling them off. He covered himself, both from embarrassment and for warmth.
Two soldiers escorted him by his elbows to a mound of snow where one grabbed him by the back of the neck and pushed him to bow before it. The snow drifted atop the monument. Both soldiers kneeled for the ceremony, their gloves buried.
Glancing behind him for answers, Colby saw soldiers hang his puffy jacket between two iron rods and the soldiers that had stripped him aimed their flamethrowers to sacrifice it.
He started to sweat.
He remembered the videos from history class. Back in World War II those things could cut fifty feet across the muggy Pacific island and the jungle hiding enemies would go ablaze. Seventy years ago! What modern innovations had they made since? He couldn’t run. He couldn’t fight. He could only bow before one of their gods.
Each soldier raised a hand to the heavens--holding elastic nylon strings that’d been staked to the mountain so snow wouldn’t get inside the tent. They folded over the fly. Unzipped part of the door. Waved Colby into the warmth. Then they left.
A portable space heater in the center of the room danced blue onto the nylon walls that would’ve been translucent, hinting at life outside, but the thick shell of snow gave occupants privacy. Even kneeling and hunched, he felt the ceiling lifting his hair.
He poked his head outside the flap. To either side were soldiers, armed with their flamethrowers and he got a closer look at the canisters on their backs. Padded hard shell containers for the fuel, humming and dry.
They turned toward him but the nozzles were holstered.
These could have been the same soldiers that escorted him in. Maybe the same that had stripped him. Behind the masks, they were interchangeable intimidating presences save for some inches up or around.
He slid back into the tent and zipped it.
Naked, he could only obey. And shiver.
In a few minutes, two soldiers opened the flap. Maybe the same ones as before. Maybe the guards. One backed in and undid his boots outside and set them in a plastic bin.
“Can I have my clothes back?” Colby asked.
He lowered his mask. Snot was frozen in his nostrils. “No can do, bud, but don’t worry.”
He pulled inside a metal briefcase that, when the buckles unlatched, popped open to release that new car smell. There were vacuum-sealed bags stacked inside and one had a corner caught by the edge when it was last closed and the seal was broken. The soldier tossed it outside. He opened another with the edge of a key. Like the briefcase, it popped open, and the contents sprung out. A thermal shirt. Long underwear. Thick pants. Three pairs of socks. Gloves. A mask. All fluffy and warm, waterproof even, but a little tight.
“What about a coat? Or shoes?” Colby asked.
“Coat’s coming up but no extra boots so we’ll get yours back. They’ll be a bit frosty so make sure you put on all the socks. Colby, right?”
“And what’s your name?”
The ginger bearded soldier just smiled and covered it with his mask. He swung his legs out the flap to put on his shoes and then threw a coat in for Colby. When Colby left, same way as the soldier, his shoes were out there--frozen.
He put them on. The insides were chipped clean of any ice.
Hanging from the iron rods were his boxer-briefs. A soldier aimed and fired a steaming mist that crystallized upon his dirty undies.
The ginger soldier and his partner led Colby to a bigger tent that peeked out of a snowdrift. It was the Gunny’s. He tried to make a joke, “She must be cold sleeping here alone,” and the ginger one maybe smiled behind his mask but no one said anything.
The soldier stamped his foot outside and the gunny told them to enter, but they just parted the door for Colby then stood outside.
Her tent had the same blue heat with a map laid out before it. The contour lines were hard to see, but otherwise it worked. The folds had been so worn that it stayed flat on the floor, a slightly thicker material than the walls, but it had to get cold at night, even in the bag. Colby counted the number of soldiers he’d seen and the tents and thought two to a tent was a cozy fit, good for the weather, but if they kept him till morning, all the free space would be taken except here. And with her mask down, he saw reason to turn up his charm.
“Lovely place you have here.”
“A wedding photographer.”
“And senior photos and some people even want professional pet photos, which are my personal favorite but I don’t have any with me to share. You could try my website sometime but be warned, there are some boudoir sets.”
She wanted none of it. “Why are you here?”
“I got lost. I told you. Glamping with friends, still a bit rugged for my taste, but till tonight, it’s been fun.”
“Point out your cabin and I’ll send an escort back with you.”
He studied the heavily annotated map, not letting his eyes rest on his cabin for too long, finding the other markings important mysteries to be solved, really squinting and contorting his mouth and concluding, “I don’t really know. I haven’t used a map… ever, I don’t think. Always had GPS.”
“Try.” She was at least 20 years older than him. Maybe she couldn’t imagine growing up never stopping at a gas station for directions, or maybe she knew not to trust him.
“Maybe it was…” He shook his head and traced his fingers along trails. He even wandered as far over as the ski lodge. He perused every circle and alphanumeric code scribbled on the map, trying to tease out the information. The ranger’s station was obvious but what were these Xs? These initials? EW? JW? They just south of his lodge. “I’m trying. Can I ask about the change of clothes?”
“Yours were wet.”
“Not as wet as after we--oh, that sounded bad,” he said with a laugh. She maybe didn’t get it, he thought. “What was with that anyway?”
Her words and looks, while short, were never harsh, just neutral. A wall to run up against that killed conversation. As much as he wanted to scale it, to crack what was behind, he couldn’t find a ledge.
“It just seems like a lot of unnecessary drills.”
“Regulations keep a squad alive,” she said. “However unnecessary they seem, we run through procedure until it’s routine.”
“I’m sorry. Have you lost people?”
“Even me.” He scooted closer under the guise of looking at the map from her angle. There was one suspicious area left unmarked but a series of Xs fanned out from it. She caught onto his curiosity so he started checking elsewhere. “Tell me about it?”
But that neutral stare curdled.
“Obviously the people I’ve lost--that stuff has a different weight. Anyway, I don’t see my lodge. I’m sure it’s here, but I just don’t recognize it. Maybe in the morning I can help find the way back? But it seems like all the tents are full and I don’t want to kick anyone out.”
“We’re not staying till morning. Camp should already be broken down and we’re just waiting on you.”
Colby quickly memorized the path and location of the suspiciously barren area. “You know, I think I can trace my path back. Thank you so much for the clothes. You probably hear this all the time but thank you for your service to our country and thank you for tonight. You probably saved my life.”
Outside, the soldiers had packs on that must’ve weighed seventy pounds and the several with water-throwers strapped on sleeping bags and tents. The mounds, like the one he prayed to and changed in, were shedded clumps around flat holes in the terrain. As the soldiers gathered in a two-by-two line, Colby saw their boots sink deep into fresh snow.
With hand signals, the Gunny called for two soldiers to escort Colby.
Does he let them take him back or does he insist on going by himself?