He comes home from the clinic to his apartment of unwashed dishes and the faint odor of his own acrid sweat. He wraps himself in a blanket and collapses on the couch. He has tacked a dark sheet over the window, so only a sliver of light comes into the gray-dark room. He coughs—a ripping, wet noise—and he spits red phlegm into a tissue. He keeps a grocery bag of blood-flecked tissues next to the couch, and he tosses the new one there. He closes his eyes and breathes; it’s surprising how truly difficult it is, this unconscious act he used to take for granted. He is thirsty—his tongue like a dehydrated fruit—but once he is lying down, he doesn’t want to rise and walk to the kitchen. He doesn’t have the energy.
He is thirty years old, and he is dying.
“You beat death before,” the doctor said, “but this is something different. Do you have someone you can call?”
He closes his eyes and thinks about the person he would like to call—whose smile used to light up the darkness inside him like a torch.
He reaches for the laptop on the coffee table, which he’d bought with his travel money. He works slowly, using Google to try to find an e-mail address or a phone number. When that doesn’t work, he signs up to a Facebook account and writes “friend requests” to the handful of women with the same name. With each one, his fingers linger over the keys for a long time—as he reads her name over and over—until he finally presses “send.”
He sets the laptop aside and notices a few drops of blood on the carpet. He looks at his arms, searching the various Band-Aids for whichever sore is leaking this time. He finds it and dabs a tissue over the blood dripping down his forearm. He lies back on the couch and breathes, pushing the air out of his lungs and pulling it back in with great effort. His eyes drift to the large framed photograph hanging above the couch—a spectacular shot of Antarctica’s “Blood Falls.” The image shows a glacier perched above a frozen sea, with a vein of rock between them. With no reference points, it’s hard to judge distance in the photo, but the cliff of ice is five hundred feet tall, and streaming down the white face is a wide, trickling cascade of red liquid that looks like blood.
He took the photograph himself. He had once been a portrait photographer, back before he was sick the first time. After his remission, he was full of adventurous vigor. He had the naive idea that, with the new chance at life, he would visit every continent before he died. He tackled the hardest first. He applied to work in an international research station in Antarctica. The scientists come and go, but they need a base of people—cooks, janitors, maintenance workers—to keep the place running. He didn’t have many skills, but he could wash dishes, load and unload supplies, empty garbage cans.
He signed a one-year contract, took a flight to South America, then another in a prop plane to the Amundson-Scott Station on the central plateau of Antarctica. The bottom of the world.
He arrived during the sunny period, cold clear days with nothing but whiteness below and blueness above. He’d work a shift, spraying plates and scrubbing pans, and then he’d dry off, bundle up, and step outside for fresh air. Each inhalation hurt his lungs; each exhalation frosted his beard stubble.
The station was made up of a cluster of buildings, each connected by walkways of metal leads. In a snowstorm, the people there had to attach themselves to the cords with carabineers if they crossed from building to building. Otherwise, they would get lost in the blinding whiteness. You could die fifteen feet from shelter and no one would know you’re there.
When he met Ava, the two of them were crossing one of the paths, going in opposite directions in a storm, and they did an awkward dance as they shifted and moved and unhooked and rehooked their safety lines. They became so tangled that he gave up and followed her back to the building he’d come from. They pulled back their hoods and took off their masks, and they shook hands formally. Her smile was big and genuine. He liked the way her freckled nose scrunched and the way dimples appeared on her cheeks out of nowhere.
They flirted and spent their free time together. A hydrology doctoral student, she took trips out onto the plateau and examined ice cores. He pulled extra shifts when she was working so he could have time off when she wasn’t. He asked her questions and memorized every detail about her. She read science fiction novels, she liked to eat plain popcorn without salt or butter, and she quoted Latin in day-to-day conversations. She listened to the Foo Fighters obsessively and played air drums unselfconsciously. She preferred vanilla to chocolate. When she was a little girl, she stepped on a rusty nail and had to get a tetanus shot; for a long time after, she worried that rust was spreading inside her foot. She used a mango-scented lotion that smelled beautifully out of place on a research station in the middle of nowhere. She laughed at his jokes, and when he told one that was particularly funny, she would always reach out with her hand and touch his arm or shoulder, and he could feel the connection through his limbs and in his guts. He photographed her and little else.
In March in Antarctica, the sun sets and doesn’t rise again for half a year. The sky is black twenty-four hours a day. The station became a ghost town in the days leading up to the darkness. Most of the two hundred scientists left. Ava stayed. She said she wanted to use the downtime to finish her dissertation. He hoped it was because she didn’t want to go back to her husband.
After the last plane left, those who stayed went outside to watch the sunset, an orange ball skirting the horizon until finally sinking like a torch extinguished in the snow.
“There’s something surreal,” he said, “about watching the last sunset for months.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “It feels like the end of the world.”
That night, those who were left sat together and watched a double feature of The Thing and The Shining, a station tradition. When the dog’s head split open and the tentacles came out, she grabbed his hand and didn’t let go. When he walked her back to her room, they talked at the threshold for forty minutes. They repeated this nightly for a week, talking at her doorstep, until finally she stood on her toes and kissed him on the mouth and pulled him inside.
She wrote while he worked, and they spent the rest of the time in each other’s arms, making love or curled up watching whatever DVD they could get their hands on. Once you’re deep into that darkness, a month, two months, you begin to feel like maybe the sun will never rise again. It feels like the blackness will last forever. The old timers who had been through it before, the few of them there were, warned the two of them about how the extended darkness could affect them. “SADOS,” one of them called it: “Seasonal Affective Disorder on Steroids.”
But the darkness never bothered him.
He was alive.
He was in love.
Both of those outshined any shadows threatening to creep into his happiness.
When it wasn’t snowing, he and Ava would bundle up and step outside. There were more stars than he had ever seen. Looking at them, and holding hands with Ava, he thanked whatever higher power there was—God, the sun, the earth—for giving him a second chance.
One night they were out there, with a full moon lighting up the snowscape, and Ava told him about an Arthur C. Clarke short story about the end of the world.
“The stars just started blinking out,” she said. “One by one.”
He told her about his illness. Lying in bed, she would trace her fingers over the paths of his surgical scars, still inflamed and red as if his body was angry with him for keeping it alive. He told her he felt he was meant to meet her—that he was given a second chance for her.
“Don’t say that,” she said.
Two months into the darkness, Ava began talking about her husband. She told him about how they could hardly speak to each other now, how every attempt at communication turned into yelling. She recounted all the details of her marriage’s slow destruction, but she progressed backward in time as she talked, and soon she was reminiscing about how happy they had been at the start. His insides roiled as she talked, as if someone was stirring his stomach with a stick. But he listened, not knowing what else to do. She told him about their first date, the way he asked her out, the way he proposed, the puppy they adopted and saw grow into adulthood before it was hit by a car. She told him about their wedding day and how she had spilled wine on her dress. She had been so happy that she had simply laughed it off and paraded around the reception with a stain on her breast like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.
“That was the happiest day of my life,” she said.
“The happiest day of my life,” he said, “was when you kissed me for the first time.”
Time went by—days, weeks, months, all of it in darkness. She stopped smiling. She broke down crying every two or three days. They continued their routine, eating together, watching movies. But she had a lost look in her eyes. The vivacity he had first seen was gone. They would sit in bed, watching a movie, and he would always be the one to move in closer, to put his arm around her as she sat limply.
She said the ice cores were oracles, and she told him their prophecies. She talked about the industrial revolution and carbon emissions. Species extinction and anthropogenic ecological catastrophe. Omnicide.
“Humans are a disease,” she said.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” he said.
“We’ve polluted everything,” she said. “The air you breathe, the food you eat, the water, it’s all polluted. There are chemicals everywhere, in everything, mixing and reacting. You can’t see it, but it’s there.”
She explained that it had taken two hundred thousand years of humans living on the planet, until the year 1804, for the world population to reach one billion people. It was up to seven billion now and adding another billion every twelve or so years.
“There are more people alive now than have ever died,” she said. “We’ve passed the point of no return. The disease has metastasized.”
Whenever he tried to calm her, she only became more aggressive.
“Don’t you get it?” she said one day. “The apocalypse isn’t going to come overnight with bombs or an asteroid. It’s going to happen over hundreds of years—and it’s already begun.”
From then on, he let her talk, not knowing how to respond.
One day, deep into the darkness, as they ate a breakfast of powdered eggs and sausage plasticized with preservatives, she blurted out, “I’m late.”
He smiled. He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to hug her, but restrained himself. He told her that she should get divorced and they could raise the baby together.
“We could have a family,” he said.
“I can’t imagine bringing a baby into the world just so it can die.”
Toward the end, they spent their days together but barely spoke. They would lie on the bed, with the TV on, watching DVDs they’d already watched, neither of them actually paying attention. He would hold her in his arms, but she would sit with a blank stare, and he knew that her mind was thousands of miles away. His mind was on the future; he couldn’t help himself. Her perspective would change once the dark period ended, and she would realize how much she loved him. She would see how great their life together would be. He pictured images—like photographs from the future—of the two of them, together, with a baby. At the hospital when it was born. Waking in the night to warm a bottle of milk. Teaching a little boy to ride his bike. Walking to the bus stop on the first day of school, holding hands with a little girl. Cheering at soccer games. Taking pictures before prom. College graduation. Grandchildren.
But he also pictured an amniotic bath with a child sleeping in it, warm darkness where the boy or girl’s fingers and toes would begin forming, where lightning would begin to flash inside the developing brain. He was in love with the baby already, even if it was only an idea.
He came to Ava’s room one day after work, and she was smiling again. A new kind of smile he hadn’t seen before: she was smiling and crying, as if her relief and regret had fought to a stalemate.
“I got my period,” she said.
That night, she laughed and laughed as they watched a romantic comedy. He was the one who sat in silence.
A week later, they watched the sunrise together, holding hands. The sun lit up her face, and her mouth curved upward into a bright, joyous smile. She dropped his hand, held up her arms, and stood in the sunlight, drinking it in.
“Thank you for getting me through,” she said.
He squinted and put on sunglasses and stayed silent, pretending not to understand the subtext of her words.
The station began repopulating. All the talk of global destruction—the human infection—seemed to be a distant memory for her.
The darkness was replaced with constant, blinding light, reflecting off the snow brighter than it came from the sun. She and her colleagues spent long days out on the glaciers. When she would come back, he would greet her with a borrowed DVD in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
“I’ve got to get some sleep,” she would say. “Another big day tomorrow.”
Now he was in a dark place.
He prepared a speech, and he insisted on delivering it even though she didn’t want to hear. He told her that if the world was doomed, then they should not deny themselves what they knew they wanted.
“Forget society and expectations,” he said. “Forget obligations. Just be with me. That’s all I want. I know you love me.”
She smiled and shrugged, and said, “I’m sorry. You knew what you were getting into, didn’t you? Can’t we just stay friends?”
For his final effort to save them, he paid a helicopter pilot to fly them out past the Asgard Mountains to Taylor Glacier. When they first met, they had talked about wanting to see Blood Falls, and so Ava agreed to come, reluctantly. The whup-whup-whup sounds of the helicopter blades drowned out any chance of conversation, and they sat in silence, looking at the endless white plains around them. He stared down into the wide crevasses, remembering how Ava once told him that the glaciers were a mile thick. The shallow clefts were filled with puddles of water that glowed with an aqua-blue tint. The deep crevasses were dark and seemed to have no bottom.
The sea was frozen solid along the coast and they landed right on the ice. They stood back from the icefall and watched the liquescent redness cascading down the rocks.
She told him that the substance was actually secreted from a microbial ecosystem that was locked in the ice for two million years. It evolved separately from the rest of the world. Nothing like it existed elsewhere.
“It’s primordial ooze,” she said. “Literally.”
“How do you know it isn’t blood?” he said. “If the world is dying, maybe this is one of the wounds.”
She rolled her eyes, and when he leaned in to kiss her, she pulled away.
“I can’t,” she said. “Not anymore.”
He had another two months on his contract after she left, and he could feel the new infection inside of him. The first time around, he never actually felt sick until the treatment. If it weren’t for a doctor telling him he was dying, he wouldn’t have known. But this time, he could sense the embryonic microorganisms multiplying and spreading.
When he returned, the world seemed different. The streets were more crowded, with cars bumper to bumper in traffic, sidewalks crammed with shoulder-to-shoulder congestion. News reports of pollution and violence seemed to be on every TV station. But he knew the world hadn’t changed that much in one year. He had been the thing to change. He deleted all his photos of Ava but then framed the one of Blood Falls because he wanted to be reminded of her. He wanted his memories to hurt as much as his body did. As he became sicker and sicker, he longed for the desolation and solitude of the glacial plateau.
Now Antarctica and Ava are dreams that couldn’t have happened to him but did. The sun sets, and the one slash of light coming through the window narrows and moves and becomes a blood-orange color before disappearing and turning the room first gray and then black. He reaches in the darkness for the laptop. He doesn’t expect a reply, but his heart pounds when he sees she has accepted his “friend request.”
The image of her on the screen is like a cold blade inserted slowly into his gut. His breathing accelerates, liquid and raspy, and he coughs and gasps, and his fingers work the keyboard frantically, looking for a way to delete his Facebook membership. Without success, he slams the computer closed and paces the apartment, holding it out like a dead animal.
Finally, he opens the door to his freezer and puts the computer inside on a shelf next to an old, frosted-over carton of ice cream. He falls into the couch like it’s a pit, and he coughs and breathes and coughs more.
He can’t get the image from the computer to leave his mind: Ava, with her husband, sitting in a park with warm fall-colored trees in the background. She is smiling, and he knows her well enough to recognize the true and complete happiness in her expression. Her sweater is tight against a distended and plump stomach, rounded like she is growing a new planet inside of her.
The picture stays with him in the days that follow, a final wound as he lies beneath Blood Falls, waiting for the next bloody nose or the next coughing fit to bring up a red phlegmy bolus. He thinks about Ava. He remembers the first time he saw her smile. He remembers the warmth of her body under heavy blankets in a cold room. He remembers holding her, thinking that he could be happy forever helping her through the darkness. And he remembers that day on the ice and how, after she climbed into the helicopter, he walked alone to the rivulets of crimson pooling at the base of the falls and he cupped his hands and drank because he wanted to taste the blood of the dying world.
Andrew Bourelle’s fiction has appeared in Hobart, Jabberwock Review, Red Rock Review, Thin Air, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in New Mexico with his wife and son.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I sometimes participate in “flash challenges.” These can be fun writing exercises and they occasionally lead to revised and expanded stories. In the case of this story, I was participating in a challenge hosted on the online forum of Shock Totem, a horror fiction journal. The prompt was a photograph of the Blood Falls referred to in the story. I don’t think any of the other participants actually wrote about the real location, electing instead to interpret the prompt more abstractly. But something about the idea of a waterfall of “blood” in Antarctica—and all that such a place could represent symbolically—intrigued me. I was not content with the first draft (written within the 1,000-word constraint of the exercise), but I revisited the story later, expanding it with additional research and more character development. “Blood Falls” shows how a story can come from anywhere. You just need a seed and the water of your imagination.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?
A: I was an avid reader growing up, and I always loved to write stories. Throughout my professional life, I have always written, whether news articles when I was a journalist or academic articles now that I teach English. It’s a privilege to be able to make a life working with language. However, when I write for myself—when I have the free time to sit down and write for pleasure and for no other reason—I usually find myself writing fiction, which is what I fell in love with as a child.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I like to get a full draft down on paper before making any revisions. I can usually write my first drafts pretty quickly, but they’re always very rough. I revise and revise, and slowly the mess of a first draft begins to take shape into something. One of the hardest parts is figuring out when to stop working on it and call it finished.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why?
A: Tobias Wolff. When I read a Tobias Wolff story, I feel like every word is perfect.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the Midwest in the 1980s. Like the best coming-of-age novels, I want to tell a story that evokes nostalgia for those who lived in that era while resonating with readers of all ages.