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Harbinger

by Lauren Triola 7 months ago in Historical
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Daily Flash Fiction Challenge: Story #7

The graves on Beechey Island, drawn by James Hamilton from a sketch by Elisha Kent Kane

Beechey Island is a small speck of land within the Arctic circle. It would be unworthy of note if it had not once been the winter harbor for the Franklin Expedition. The expedition left England in 1845 to seek the Northwest Passage. They never returned. What happened to them is still a mystery, but Beechey’s place in history was cemented by a particular relic—the graves of the first to die.

January 1, 1846

Captain Crozier slept fitfully. The crew had rung in the New Year below deck, the temperature outside cold enough to give a man frostbite in minutes. The days were dark, the sun having set for the winter. The ships, Erebus and Terror, had become frozen in off the shore of Beechey Island. The bay here offered a safe harbor until the ice broke and the waters ran free again. This was not the first time Crozier had watched the water below his ship freeze it in place, but he wondered if perhaps it would be his last.

The celebration that night had been subdued. Terror’s leading stoker, John Torrington, had been ill for some time. Consumption, Dr. Peddie had said, made worse by his job shoveling coal to tend the engine. He had grown thin, frail over the past few months, his already short stature seeming to shrink. Torrington had slipped into unconsciousness days before. Ringing in the New Year when death waited on board felt inappropriate.

Crozier had visited Torrington, but he did not wake. Crozier had left quickly. He’d never gotten to know the boy—he avoided that blasted engine room—but when a member of his crew fell ill, he felt responsible.

That image of Torrington, skin pale, eyes closed, mouth gaping as he struggled with each breath, was branded into his vision. Whenever he shut his eyes, he saw him lying there, at death’s door. Each time he drifted into dreams, that face haunted every moment. Jolting awake once more, Crozier sat up, frustrated. He lit a lantern, illuminating his cramped quarters.

Torrington stood beside his bed.

Crozier’s heart leapt. The pale face he’d seen sleeping, slipping into death, hovered above him. His blue eyes were open and bright, as if with fever. He wore a white shirt with thin blue stripes and gray linen pants. His feet were bare. Torrington stared at him with an intensity that did nothing to calm Crozier’s hammering heart.

“Torrington,” Crozier said, “does Dr. Peddie know you’re out of bed?”

Torrington continued to stare at him. He did not blink.

“Captain,” he said, voice low, scratchy, “it won’t be much longer…”

Poor lad. He was probably right, it wouldn’t be much longer for him.

“I know.” Crozier held up a calming hand. “John, let’s get you back to bed—”

“I wanted to see my sister again,” Torrington whispered. “She’ll be married in May…a son in July…pity he won’t live…”

Something cold clenched around Crozier’s heart. The boy was raving. “I need to return you to sick bay—”

“I’d ask you to send back a message, but you won’t be able to. No one will. The ice will keep you.”

“John, please—”

Something shifted in Torrington’s face. His blue eyes glazed, the lids half closing. His lips pulled back, stretching into an unnatural grimace, his teeth exposed. His skin yellowed, his forehead darkened as if stained.

The face of a dead man.

Crozier jumped back, away from that terrible face, and knocked over his lamp. The light went out and Torrington disappeared in the darkness.

“Captain? Captain, are you all right?”

Crozier’s steward, Jopson, was knocking on the door.

“Bring a light!” Crozier called out. He could see nothing. That face, that awful face…

Jopson opened the door, lantern in hand. It lit the corners of the tiny sleeping quarters.

Torrington was gone.

“Are you well, Captain?” Jopson asked, worried. “I heard noises when I was at the door…”

“I’m not sure… Why were you at my door? It’s late.”

Jopson bowed his head. “John Torrington died.”

Crozier got to his feet, unsteady. “When?”

“Minutes ago.”

“No, that’s…that’s impossible…”

Crozier stumbled out of his quarters. Jopson followed, imploring him to make himself decent, but Crozier ignored his pleas. He burst into the sick bay, where Peddie and the assistant surgeon, Alexander MacDonald, were tending to a body.

It was Torrington. He was dead.

Crozier stared in disbelief. Torrington could not have been speaking to him just now. It must have been a dream…

“Captain,” Peddie said. “We wanted to clean the body before anyone saw him. He still had coal dust beneath his nails even though he hasn’t worked in weeks…”

“Did he leave this room?”

Peddie stared, taken aback. “What?”

“Did he leave this room at all?”

“Captain, he has been unconscious for the past week. At this point, I doubt he could have stood.”

Crozier breathed heavily. He knew he looked wild, unhinged, standing there with wide eyes in his night clothes, but he didn’t care. It had felt so real…

“We’ll bury him in the morning,” Crozier said. “As soon as we can hack through that frozen stone on Beechey.”

He took one last look at the body, at the pale face. MacDonald had tied a polka-dotted kerchief around the head to keep the jaw from falling open. He could not possibly have been in his quarters. Dead men can’t move…

“Tie his limbs.”

“Captain?” Peddie raised a confused eyebrow.

“Tie his limbs,” Crozier repeated. “It’ll be easier to place him in his coffin.”

Peddie nodded in understanding and Crozier left, returning to his room. He bid Jopson goodnight and sat on his bed.

Before turning out the light he saw something on his pillow. A black smudge, like a thumbprint. He rubbed the substance between his fingers.

Coal dust.

Historical

About the author

Lauren Triola

I'm mostly a fiction author who loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but I also love history and archaeology. I'm especially obsessed with the Franklin Expedition. Occasionally I write poetry too. You can find me at my blog or on Twitter.

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