Length: 2060 words
Author’s Note: Written for the inuvikdotcom challenge, mainly because I cannot bear the shame of sharing a room with the mods at MJ without having posted at least one story for their challenge. Much thanks to debris_k who did an amazing beta job in addition to providing the title and some great info on the Inukshuk. Even though I'm a "Canadian" from "[Northern] Canada" and should know this stuff already :-)
81. Inuvik’s Inukshuk A traditional symbol of Inuit culture, the inukshuk was used as a landmark and navigation aid. The statue represents the form of a human with outstretched arms and is known as a symbol of hospitality and friendship in the north. Located at the corner of Mackenzie Road and Distributor St.
Ray woke slowly, squinting and rubbing his eyes in the weird blue light of pre-dawn that filtered through the nylon walls of the tent. Everything was quiet and cold and still, and Ray glanced around to confirm what his body already knew. The sleeping bag next to his own was empty. It probably had been for a long time.
He was alone.
The feeling of aloneness intensified as he struggled into his many layers. Soon he felt suffocated in fleece and nylon, a thick, unwieldy version of himself. Before finally crawling out of the tent he donned his knit cap, two pairs of mittens and his scarf; all that remained of Ray Kowalski were a pair of blue eyes peering over the high collar of his parka.
The chill of the tent seemed positively sauna-like compared to the sharp bite of the arctic wind outside. Ray’s cheeks and nose were flash-frozen; he reminded himself to check any exposed skin for signs of frostbite.
The dogs were already stirring, burrowing out of the snow in a burst of white powder and offering friendly “Good morning” yips to Ray. He set to work staking and feeding the team, pausing for a moment to stare at the empty last stake usually reserved for Diefenbaker.
Ray shook himself and moved on down the line. The furball wouldn’t stay away long, not when breakfast was on the line.
Once the dogs were fed Ray started the little kerosene burner that doubled as camp stove and space heater. He played with the gas knob on the side, watching the pale blue flame grow and shrink back down to almost nothing. Once he’d set a pot of snow to melt down for tea and provide water for a freeze-dried breakfast of powdered eggs Ray sat back on his haunches and finally allowed himself to scan the horizon.
False dawn was giving way to a frozen sunrise of gold and pink light far to the east. As soon as the sun was up, he’d need to wear his sunglasses. The light would be blinding when the sun reflected off thousands of miles of snowy tundra. But for now, in between the blackness of night and the pale dawn, he could take a long look at the landscape without anything in between.
Not that there was much to see: an occasional hill of snow would swell up in the distance, receding back to join the rest of the flat, featureless landscape. Travelling for so long in a place devoid of any natural landmarks had been disorienting at first; later, any slight change in the configuration of rocks and snow and sky seemed overwhelming, almost disorienting.
Two days ago, they’d passed an Inukshuk and it had seemed enormous: the pile of rocks seemed to fill up the whole world and Ray hadn’t been able to look at anything else as long as the Inukshuk was in view. He’d craned his head to stare back at it long after the sled had passed it by.
But there was another figure on the landscape now, just a few kilometers off in the snow. Ray deliberately turned his head, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to look away for very long. His eyes would be drawn there again and again because it was the only thing to see in the miles and miles of white nothing.
The snow he’d set to melt was warm, clear water now, steaming away in the freezing air. Ray made sure the dogs had enough to drink before settling down on a campstool with a hot mug of tea. It felt warm cupped against his layers of mittens but in only a few minutes the condensation from the steam would coat his outer glove in a faint layer of ice. His hand would crack when he flexed his fingers.
Ray checked over his shoulder. The figure far off in the ice field hadn’t moved. The sun was well above the horizon now, so Ray could make out the ramrod-straight set of the man’s shoulders and the faint outline of the impractical Stetson he’d worn for the last month and a half.
Something nudged his elbow and Ray glanced down to meet Dief’s worried eyes.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, scratching behind Dief’s perked-forward ears. “I’ll go get him soon.”
This promise seemed to appease the wolf. He grunted and returned to the other dogs, who growled and then went back to their breakfasts of kibble and snow-water. Ray knew the team was eager to break camp and continue the long journey south to Norman Wells. Fraser had said they might reach it in a week’s time, less if the weather behaved itself and they didn’t run into a blizzard or a rapid temperature drop. Ray had been hoping to see a storm cloud heavy with snow appear on the horizon; instead the day looked clear and fine like all the others.
Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer. Ray stepped into Fraser’s heavy old-fashioned snowshoes and called for Dief. They set out together towards the stiff figure in the snow, man and dog small against the white landscape that surrounded them.
Fifteen minutes of snowshoeing brought him parallel to the man who had sat alone for so long to watch the sun rise.
“Hey,” Ray said. His voice seemed to echo in the emptiness. He sat down next to Fraser, wincing a little as he lowered himself down to the hard-packed snow.
Fraser did not turn to look at Ray. There might have been a flicker of movement in his eyes, and perhaps the single stolen glance told him everything he needed to know.
“I’m sorry,” Fraser whispered. That sound too seemed to echo.
Ray shrugged and stared at his feet. They looked tiny against the wood and leather snowshoe frame. “Doesn’t hurt, Frase. Not like you’d expect.”
Fraser’s head seemed to dip a little and he kept his eyes on the clear, cloudless sky and the white hills rolling away to nothing.
“You didn’t hurt me, Fraser,” Ray repeated, angry now. Why did Fraser always have to–
Again the other man’s head dipped, his shoulders dropping low and rolling away from his neck like the snow hills did as they were shaped and moved by the wind. Far above the two men arctic terns wheeled in slow, deliberate circles. Everyone and everything seemed to be holding its breath. But what could happen in this nothing world, so removed from the sound and fury of life?
Ray frowned and rubbed at his neck. There was a mark there, a passion bruise, dark against Ray’s golden skin. It was neatly concealed by the collar of Ray’s parka and his scarf, and it was shaped like Fraser’s mouth.
“How long are we gonna sit?” Ray asked, something of his former crackle-and-pop energy returning to his voice. He even managed a half-hearted slouch and a fidget, if only to pretend for a moment that the weight of empty snow and hollow sky weren’t crushing him, grinding him down to bone and flesh and marrow. Ray wasn’t sure what new thing would be forged when the crushing weight of this place lifted, but he doubted it would resemble anything like the former Ray Kowalski. This place – Fraser’s home – had a way of swallowing a person whole unless you were already bigger than it. And Ray felt small, so small. Just a blip on the horizon.
The wind picked up and its sharpness stung the exposed cheeks of both men. Ray’s eyes felt wet and hard.
“You’ll be home soon,” Fraser said, his voice not even trying to fight the quiet that surrounded them.
“Yeah, right. Less than a week. If the weather holds.”
“Do not.” Ray reached out to put his hand over Fraser’s mouth. But it was just synthetic wool against fur-trimmed muffler and too many other layers in between. “Do not apologize to me. If you say you’re sorry one more time I’ll–”
But he couldn’t think of a single thing worse than what had already happened and what was going to happen next. So Ray dropped his hand and made a fist. The ice that had formed over his glove crackled.
“Just don’t say you’re sorry.”
The wind made his eyes burn with cold; it was the wind that made his eyes water and a single trail of moisture slip out and down his cheek.
“Why didn’t you move?” Fraser asked, so quiet that Ray almost didn’t hear him over the silence. “If you had moved perhaps–”
“What?” Ray whipped his head around. “You think it was my fault that–”
“No, of course not. The fault was mine. Mine entirely.” And Fraser certainly sounded like he believed it. But Ray knew it wasn’t true. They had – Christ, they’d gone after each other like wild animals, barring their teeth and rutting against each other so hard Ray thought there’d be blood. They’d just been wound too tight, need and longing packed up and carried two years and two thousand miles from Chicago to a snowfield in the Territories, and all that time and movement had created a pressure cooker. They’d boiled over, that was all. And it’d been fine, hard and hot and dangerous and so damn much after all the empty nights and then…
It hadn't been bad. Not exactly. Just too fast and desperate and Ray had asked and Fraser had spit on his hand but... but neither of them had known what to do. So Ray had swallowed the urge to buck with his hips or twist or do anything that might make it better because he didn’t know and Fraser had thrust blindly, helplessly, clumsily, and it had taken forever and..And it had hurt, which was something Ray hadn’t expected. It had hurt so much, but he’d meant what he’d said before. It had hurt, but not in the way Fraser thought.
It was the nothing. Miles of it, deep and wide as the Arctic itself. Maybe in a week Ray would be back in Chicago, the pain and awkwardness of waking up alone afterwards pretty much forgotten. But the nothing would still be there, waiting to crush him.
“Could you ever–” Ray broke off. Like the snow and the sky the words he wanted to say seemed too big, too overwhelming. “It can’t end like this,” he finally said, clapping his mittened hands together. He still couldn’t look at Fraser but at least it was something to put out there that wasn’t made of ice and air and rock.
Ray turned to look at Fraser. He was miserable, face gaunt in the pale morning light, eyes red with sleeplessness and fear.
It occurred to Ray then, looking at this man who had come to fill up his whole world, that if things were allowed to end neither of them would survive it. They were both strong, strong enough to survive almost anything. But not that.
“Hey,” he murmured, grabbing Fraser’s thick mitten. Despite the cold wind he used his teeth to pull off his other glove and laid shaky fingers up against Fraser’s beard-rough cheek. Fraser’s eyes drifted shut and Ray realized that they’d missed this. The desperate fumbling of last night hadn’t left room for tenderness, and suddenly this one touch – Ray’s hand on Fraser’s cheek – felt as large and powerful as that Inukshuk standing up against the bearing-down sky. Just a little thing, but it was Ray’s bid for survival, a landmark in a whole world of nothing.
“We’ll try again, yeah? In a hotel room this time, with a real bed. Nearest place is, what, Inuvik? It won’t be so–”
Fraser’s eyes snapped open. There was a mixture of heartbreak and hope battling it out on his face and Ray couldn’t breathe because he didn’t know which would win. Neither did Fraser. Ray just watched, waiting for the final decision. Would they swing south to Norman Wells and Ray’s plane ticket home, or head north for their second chance? If the world had been holding its breath before, now it took a deep, heaving sigh as Fraser smiled and said,
“Inuvik, Ray. I’m for Inuvik.”
And they made their way back to the camp, two tall figures moving against the white snow.