The following is from Emma Törzs’ Ink Blood Sister Scribe. Törzs is a writer, teacher, and occasional translator based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her fiction has been honored with an NEA fellowship in prose, a World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, and an O. Henry Prize. Her stories have been published in journals such as Ploughshares, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and American Short Fiction. She received her MFA from the University of Montana, Missoula.
Esther couldn’t get over the blue of the sunlit sky.
It was a variated blue, almost white where it met the snowy horizon but deepening as Esther’s eye followed it upward: from robin’s egg to cerulean to a calm, luminous azure. Beneath it the Antarctic ice was blindingly bright, and the scattered outbuildings Esther could see from her narrow dorm window drew stripes of indigo shadow on the white ruts of the road. Everything gleamed. It was eight o’clock in the evening and not discernibly darker than it had been at eight o’clock that morning.
“Excuse me,” Pearl said, and hip-checked Esther to one side so she could fit a piece of custom-cut cardboard in the window frame. Esther fell backward onto her unmade bed and propped herself on her elbows, watching Pearl lean over the tiny, cluttered desk to reach the glass.
“If you’d told me two weeks ago I’d block the sun as soon as it came up, I would have laughed you off the station,” Esther said.
Pearl ripped the tape with her teeth. “Well, two weeks ago you were sleeping through the night. Never say the dark did nothing for you.” She applied the last strip and added, “Or me.”
“Thank you, darkness, and thank you, Pearl,” Esther said. Though she had indeed been sleeping badly since the sun had reappeared after six months of winter, it was still somewhat dispiriting to watch the light and the distant mountains vanish, plunging her back into the realities of her cell-like room: the bed with its rumpled purple sheets lit by the baleful overhead bulb, the scuffed tile floors, and the plywood desk piled high with scattered papers, most of them notes on the Mexican novel Esther was translating for fun. The novel itself was on top of her dresser, safely out of range of the collection of half-full water glasses leaving rings on the notebook paper.
Pearl sat opposite Esther at the foot of the bed and said, “So. Are you ready to face the unwashed masses?”
In response, Esther threw an arm over her eyes and groaned.
Esther and Pearl had spent the past winter as two of just thirty others holding down the small South Pole station, but November had ushered in the summer season and over the past few days, small roaring cargo planes had disgorged nearly a hundred new people into the station’s hallways. Now scientists and astronomers filled the dorms, the galley, the gym, the upper workrooms; strangers who ate all the late-night cookies and booted up long-sleeping computers and asked constant, anxious questions about what time of day the internet satellite went up.
Esther had imagined she’d be happy to see all these new faces. She had always been a natural extrovert, not the typical candidate to be locked away on the ice in a research station that much resembled her tiny rural high school. She’d lived in Minneapolis for the year before she’d come here to the Antarctic, and her friends there had reacted with honest horror when she’d told them she’d accepted a job at the Pole station as an electrician for the winter season. Everybody knew someone who knew someone who’d tried it, loathed it, and flown home early to escape the crushing isolation. But Esther hadn’t been worried.
She’d figured Antarctica couldn’t be that much worse than the isolated, extreme conditions in which she had grown up. It’d be good money, it’d be an adventure—and most importantly, it would be completely inaccessible to most every other person on the planet.
Sometime over the long winter, however, Esther’s extroversion had started to atrophy and with it the mask of good cheer she usually donned each morning along with her uniform. Now she gazed up at the ceiling, industrial white like the industrial white walls and industrial white hallways and her industrial white coworkers.
“Have I actually been an introvert this whole time?” she said. “All these years, have I been fooling myself? The real extroverts are out there like hell yeah, fresh meat, nonstop party, bangtown USA.”
“Bangtown Antarctic Treaty International Territory,” Pearl corrected. Pearl was Australian with dual citizenship.
“Right,” said Esther. “That.”
Pearl got to her knees and crawled down the length of the bed toward Esther. “I imagine,” she said, “that six months of unwanted celibacy plus a planeful of new faces could make an extrovert of anyone.”
“Mmm,” Esther said. “So you’re saying I’ve become an introvert through the sheer power of . . .”
“My amazing body, yes, obviously,” said Pearl, whose lips were now trailing along the sensitive shell of Esther’s ear.
Esther reached up and helped herself to a handful of Pearl’s blond hair, which somehow always looked sunkissed despite the utter lack of sun. Australians. So indefatigably beachy and up-for-it. She wove her fingers through those tangled strands and tugged Pearl down to kiss her, feeling her smile against her mouth as Esther pulled her closer.
For the past decade, since she was eighteen, Esther had moved every November—moved cities, states, countries. She made friends and lovers breezily, picking them up like other people picked up takeout and going through them as quickly. Everybody liked her, and like many well-liked people, she worried that if people really got to know her, if they managed to penetrate that glancing shield of likability, they wouldn’t actually like her one bit. This was a benefit of never staying in one place.
The other, vastly more important benefit: not being found.
Esther slipped a hand beneath the hem of Pearl’s sweater, fingers finding the smooth dip of her waist as Pearl nudged one of her long legs between Esther’s thighs. But even as she moved her hips in friction-seeking instinct, her father’s long-ago words began to echo unbidden in her head—a cold glass of water thrown in the face of her subconscious.
“November 2 by eleven o’clock p.m., Eastern Standard Time,” Abe had said on the last day she’d seen him, ten years ago at their home in Vermont. “Wherever you are, you must leave on November 2 and keep moving for twenty-four hours, or the people who killed your mother will come for you, too.”
The summer season had officially begun a couple days ago: November 5. Three days after Esther, according to her father’s urgent edict, should have been long gone.
But she wasn’t. She was still here.
Abe had been dead two years now, and for the first time since she’d started running a decade before, Esther had a reason to stay. A reason that was warm and solid and currently kissing her neck.
Technically, Esther had first met Pearl at the Christchurch airport, as part of a big group of workers waiting for their flight into the Antarctic. They’d both been hidden in the many layers required to board the plane—wool hat, huge orange parka, gloves, clompy insulated boots, dark-lensed goggles pushed up on their heads—and Esther had gotten only the briefest impression of sparkly eyes and a full-throated laugh before the group was ushered onto the plane and she and Pearl were seated on opposite ends of the cargo hold.
Because of their different duties and different schedules, their paths hadn’t really crossed again until the end of the first month, when Esther had hung a sign in the gym looking for sparring buddies. Boxing, Muy Thai, BJJ, MMA, Krav Maga, let’s fight! 🙂 🙂 🙂 She’d added the smiley faces to counteract the aggression of “fight,” but had immediately regretted it when another electrician—an obnoxiously tall white guy from Washington who insisted everyone call him “J-Dog”— saw it and began giving her endless shit.
“The Smiley Face Killer!” he’d crow when she walked into their shift meeting. If they crossed paths in the galley at lunch, he’d pretend to cower. “You gonna hit me over the head with that big ol’ smile?” But the final straw came when he started loudly telling everyone about his black belt in karate, and how he’d love to find a sparring partner who was “really serious about the sport.”
Honestly, he gave Esther no choice. After a week of this, he approached her one day in the galley and planted himself in her path so she couldn’t get to the pizza, grinning at her so widely she could see his molars.
“What are you doing,” she said.
“Fighting you!” he said.
“No,” she said, and put down her tray. “This is fighting me.”
A few minutes later she had J-Dog on the floor in a headlock, one of his arms trapped in her hold, the other swatting at her face, his long legs kicking ineffectually at the tiled floor as onlookers hooted and cheered. “Not gonna let you go until you smile,” she said, and he whimpered, pulling his lips up in a forced approximation of his earlier grin. As soon as she released him, he bounced to his feet, brushing himself off and saying, “Not cool, dude, not cool!”
When Esther turned back toward her abandoned lunch tray, suppressing her own very real smile, she found herself face to face—give or take a few inches—with Pearl. Shucked from her plane layers, Pearl was tall and tough, with a pile of sun-streaked hair wadded into a precarious knot that seemed in danger of sliding off her head. Her brown eyes were as sparkling as Esther remembered. More so, because now they were sparkling right at Esther.
“That was the most magical thing I have ever seen,” Pearl said, and rested a slender, long-fingered hand on Esther’s arm. “You wouldn’t consider giving lessons, would you?”
Pearl was terrible at self-defense. She had no killer instinct and always second-guessed herself, pulling her punches and dropping her kicks and making herself laugh so hard she went weak in Esther’s grip. Within three lessons, the “training sessions” had turned into make-out sessions, and they’d moved from the gym to the bedroom. The first time they’d slept together, Pearl had asked, hitching her hips as Esther began to slide her jeans down, “Have you ever been with a woman before?”
Esther looked up from between Pearl’s legs, affronted. “Yes, plenty! Why?”
“Calm down, Don Juan,” Pearl said, laughing. “I’m not questioning your technique. You just seem a little nervous.”
This was when Esther had realized she might be in trouble. Because not only was it true, she was nervous, butterfly-stomached in a way she hadn’t felt for years . . . but Pearl had noticed. Had read it somehow on Esther’s well-trained face or in her well-trained body. Esther wasn’t used to people seeing what she didn’t want them to see, and the way Pearl looked at her, saw her, was unsettling. In response, she’d given Pearl her most confident, reassuring smile, then set her teeth very gently to the inside of Pearl’s bare thigh, which had been enough of a distraction that the conversation ended there. But even then, at the very start, she had suspected how difficult Pearl might be to leave.
Now, a whole season later, thinking about this—about leaving, about staying, about the lasting echo of her father’s warning—had the unfortunate effect of breaking her current mood. She rolled Pearl over onto her side and carefully ended the kiss, lying back against the pillows, and Pearl settled against Esther’s shoulder.
“I’m going to get so drunk tonight,” said Pearl.
“Before or after we play?”
“Before, after, during.”
“Me too,” Esther decided.
Esther and Pearl were in a Pat Benatar cover band that was scheduled to play at the party that evening. The whole long winter they’d been practicing and putting on shows exclusively for the same wearily supportive thirty-five people, and by this point it was like playing the recorder in front of a parent whose pride couldn’t outweigh how tired they were of hearing “Hot Cross Buns.” Performing for new ears and eyes felt as nerve-racking as climbing the stage of Madison Square Garden.
“We should drink water in preparation,” Pearl said, “so we don’t end up puking like beakers.”
She fetched them two glasses and Esther sat up on her elbows so she didn’t spill it all over herself as she gulped it. This was the driest place she’d ever been, every last bit of moisture in the air frozen into ice. It was easy to get dehydrated.
“Do you think the scientists drink so much because they’re making up for all the years they spent studying?” Esther said.
“No,” said Pearl without hesitation. She herself worked with the carpenters. “Nerds are always absolute party freaks. I used to go to these kink nights in Sydney and it was all surgeons, engineers, orthodontists. Did you know that people who’re into BDSM have notably higher IQs than their vanilla counterparts?”
“I don’t think that’s a testable hypothesis.”
Pearl grinned. She had unusually sharp canine teeth in an otherwise soft mouth, an incongruity that did funny things to Esther’s blood flow. “Can you imagine the variables?”
“I’d like to,” Esther said, “but not right now. We need to get a move on.”
Pearl glanced at her watch and jumped. “Shit! You’re right.”
They’d been holed up in this hole of a bedroom since dinner a few hours ago, and Esther stood to stretch before jamming her socked feet into her boots.
“God, I’m so glad you agreed to stay on,” Pearl said. “I can’t imagine facing this without you.”
Esther wanted to answer but found she couldn’t quite look at the woman in front of her, this person she liked more than she’d liked anyone else in a very long time. She felt a tight longing spread through her chest; not desire, but something even more familiar, something that was always with her. It was that she missed Pearl despite her presence. An anticipation of missing, like her emotions hadn’t yet caught up to the idea that this time was different, this time she was staying.
Her father’s paranoia had begun to hiss again in her ear, telling her to go, telling her she was making an abominable, selfish mistake; that she was putting Pearl in danger, and Pearl was still looking at her, face open and affectionate but starting to shutter a little at Esther’s lack of response.
“I’m glad, too,” Esther said. She had practice around Pearl now and could trust her own face not to betray any of her sudden, melancholy mood, and she watched Pearl relax beneath her smile. “Come get me when you’re dressed,” she added. “We can fortify with a shot.”
Pearl raised her hand, those long fingers wrapped around the stem of an imaginary glass. “Here’s to the crowd. May they love us.”
From Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs. Copyright © 2023 by Emma Törzs. Excerpted by permission from William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.