Abby Morales, age nine, grew up just south of Mecca, California on the northern shores of the doomed Salton Sea. The shoreline was thirty-four miles of fish hooks, broken bottles, and car parts. If you believed everything people said, you’d think it was a truck-stop toilet.
Her abuelita forbade her from going. So she snuck out, hopped on her bike, and rode past Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the orchards of Grapefruit Boulevard, until she hit the outskirts of the Salton Sea. She tossed her bike on the ground–the front wheel still spinning.
She jumped a rusty fence and walked past abandoned RVs covered in graffiti. Murals of dead cartoons splayed out their bones and guts across decaying wooden siding. Did their insides really look like that? One time, Abby found a real skull with sharp teeth. It still had fur on it so she threw it onto an ant hill. The next day it was shiny and white like porcelain.
Abby picked up a rock and went looking for a window. No one could tell you what you could or couldn’t do out here. You were free to break your arm or throw rocks at windows. Abby broke several. The sound of shattering glass was liberating. Salton Sea wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was.
It wasn’t actually a sea. In 1905, engineers diverted water from the Colorado River leading to a catastrophic accident. They called it the “Great Diversion” like they did it on purpose. It took a year and a half to stop the flooding of the salt-rich sink. They started calling it the Salton Sea. The lake was fifty percent saltier than the ocean. It wasn’t a watering hole, but that didn’t stop Pelicans and Black-necked Stilts from descending on the beach in search of fish. Then came the tourists. They flocked to the accidental sea like it was a pop-up resort until it started to stink, and the fish began to die. They left in droves as quickly as they had come.
The abandoned boomtown wasted away in the desert sun, but the saltwater rift lake had no outlet, and continued to concentrate. The water levels were sustained by six and a half centimeters of rain a year and agricultural runoff that deposited heavy minerals, which sank into the mud, but were harmless as long as they stayed there. Then the California droughts hit. Every time the shoreline moved, it exposed more seabed that dried up and turned to dust. All it took was a strong gust of wind to kick it up into the air. Every summer the lake got a little smaller. A little saltier. A little more toxic.
Abby pulled a mason jar from her book bag, kicked off her sandals, and waded out into the water. Her eyes burned red from the chemical sting of sulfur and rotten eggs. In the summers the air stunk like a mass graveyard of dead fish, and after a die-off the shore was more fish bones and scales than sand, but there was a kind of beauty in the ruins. Dead oak trees with empty bird nests lined the shore–their white trunks and branches sprawled towards the sky like bleached coral.
She submerged her arm up to the elbow in the cobalt waves, and scooped up jarfuls of saltwater until she was certain she had collected the sea monkeys that needed rescuing. She threw the jar into her book bag and hopped onto her bike. A film of brine shrimp hatchlings stuck to her legs. Their tiny bodies squirmed around until the summer sun baked them into a crust like an extra layer of dead skin.
The next day, her little sea monkeys had turned a putrid black. Abby shook the jar, but her sea monkeys did not wake up. They weren’t swimming, or eating, or doing anything. There was a white fuzzy ball of growth at the bottom of the jar that hadn’t been there before.
She asked her abuelita if her sea monkeys had gone to heaven, and her abuelita said what she always said as she poured the contents of Abby’s mason jar down the toilet. “Dios mío, would you really have me wait in line behind all the pececitas you’ve sent before your pobre abuela?” With a wrinkled finger decorated in silver rings, she scooped out the last of the dead slop stuck to the inside of the mason jar and flicked it into the toilet bowl. “For my sake, I hope they are all going to hell.” She flushed the toilet, and yelled at Abby for making one of her mason jars smell like dead fish.
Abby ran to her bike, but when she cranked the pedals her front tire dug into the ground. She fell sideways and skinned her knee. Abby clenched her teeth, but didn’t cry. The last thing she needed was more trouble from her abuelita. She limped to the garage and scavenged through metal drawers until she found a pair of pliers. After one sharp tug, the nail dislodged from her tire. The rubber sealed back up, but her tire went flabby when she put weight on it. Abby snuck into the kitchen, hoping she wouldn’t get yelled at again for getting blood everywhere, and stole a piece of ice from the freezer. With nowhere to run, or a way to get there, Abby sat barefoot on her back porch steps and felt sorry for herself. The ice numbed her throbbing knee. She winced as she picked hard grains of sand from her wound. The ice slipped out of her fingers, and she watched it melt on the hot concrete within seconds.
At that moment, Abby decided she hated California. If she could, she would get as far away from this backyard as possible, somewhere where the sun didn’t beat the life out of you, and she’d never look back.
After graduate school, she applied for a job. They gave her a supplies checklist. It said to bring long underwear. Abby crammed several pairs of polar fleece and all of her excuses into a one-by-one meter box. She boarded a C-130 Hercules, four-engine turboprop military transport, along with other scientists, medical professionals and tradesmen from all over the world. Five hours later, they landed on an airstrip built from compacted snow. McMurdo Station, located on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, was a sprawling compound. The station served as the primary logistics hub for the U.S. Antarctic program.
Her contract was originally for one year, but she kept getting lucky, and her contract kept getting renewed. So far, she’d spent four summers and three winters drilling for ice cores in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. She had traded her California desert of dead fish and animal skulls for the Dry Valleys with their million year old glaciers and mummified seal carcasses. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
It was spring in the southern hemisphere, and her most recent expedition out in the field had hit a snag. Abby kneeled in front of an eight meter tall tripod. Her face and hands were numb. She mashed the giant red button on the control box with her whole palm. The winch squealed to a stop. Suspended from the tripod, a long metal tube dangled above the ice core annulus her team had been struggling to drill for the past hour. They were racing against time. The glacier they were drilling into had been buried for eight million years. The ice was like a time capsule waiting to be cracked open, but their mission was in danger of melting away.
Abby pulled the tube toward her and inspected the head of the thermal drill. It was shot. It had to be. She took off her glove and pressed the back of her hand against the rim of the tube. It should have burned her, but it was ice cold.
She kicked herself for not bringing a mechanical drill head. Mechanical drills used metal teeth. Her team usually didn’t bring one unless temperatures were below freezing. An annulus cut with a mechanical wasn’t at risk of refreezing like one made with a thermal drill. Mechanicals had more moving parts and were less reliable. They hadn’t brought one for the past two years. They didn’t need to, especially not in December. Now, her team was stuck out here wasting time and out of options.
Abby was ready to scream, when a continuous-track Snow Dragon pulled up to her dig site. The Chinese had built another dome near the south side of the Dry Valleys. It was Abby’s dumb luck that they had been passing by. The Snow Dragon’s door cracked open, and Xian called out in English, “Trouble?”
Abby shouted, “Thermal head died!”
“Okay.” Xian jumped out and rummaged around in the trailer his Snow Dragon had in tow. He walked over to Abby carrying a one-meter hand auger. “This one. We don’t use anymore.”
It was better than nothing.
“You’re a lifesaver.” Abby said.
These moments of international cooperation in the name of science were unique to Antarctica. The environment benefited from a shared goal and a distinct absence of world politics or wars.
Xian made some small talk. It was an opportunity to practice his English. Abby told him she’d got a lot of good reading in over the winter, but conversations between research teams always devolved into the same subject. How was your funding? She teased him for being able to give away equipment. Xian surprised her when he told her that his team was hoping for three more years of funding. Abby didn’t want him to know that her contract for next year hadn’t been renewed yet.
After an awkward silence, Xian jumped back into his Snow Dragon and disappeared over the horizon.
Abby looked at the hand auger. It was going to be a long day.
Later that night, she lay in her tent and listened to the glacier groan like a giant whale. She thought she could even feel her cot rise up and down like it was breathing. When you weren’t standing still, it was easy to forget you were floating on a slab of ice.
The next morning, her team packed their ice cores into a crate and waited for a helicopter to pick it up. Once the crate was secured to the helo’s winch, they waved goodbye to their precious cargo. They sat in a circle with their gear and waited for their ride home to McMurdo Station.
A few hours later, Abby was looking out of the helicopter’s window at the research station that she had come to call home. Her fellow Antarctic coworkers were pouring out of every building. They were scrambling to the dining hall at a pace that was criminal. Shipments of “freshies” were rare, and fruit was considered its own form of currency. This foot traffic looked like some kind of black market run on the banks–code for strawberries.
When they landed, Abby instinctively broke into a sprint.
The galley was packed. She still remembered the smell of crab legs and duck. Basically anything decadent and braised or browned, minus anything fresh like limes or avocados. Avocados. She would kidnap and sell babies for an avocado. But not a single tray or fork had left their stations. Someone had set up a small LCD screen hooked up to a cable box in the middle of the hall. The volume was maxed, and the tiny speakers didn’t quite fill the eerie silence of the galley. Abby sidled her way to the front of the crowd, and did her best to keep up with the tail end of the New Zealand news broadcast. It was politics; something about a trade deal and some kind of cold war arms buildup. She heard the word “pipeline” mentioned several times along with the name of a company: Palmer-Bak.
The crowd groaned collectively and slowly began to disperse. A lot of people lingered as if they weren’t sure what they should do with themselves next.
Someone said, “Relax, it don’t mean nothing.”
“Bullshit,” a man replied. “They’re kicking us out.”
Abby’s stomach turned. She felt sick.
The day after the news broadcast, Abby and her Antarctic coworkers were informed that their contracts were canceled and all government funding had ceased indefinitely. They were instructed that all research was to stop immediately. And that was that. Decades of international cooperation in the pursuit of science circled down the drain. Most of the contractors were phased out over the course of the next six weeks. Not all the contractors left. Some of the tradesmen got hired on by Palmer-Bak. It made for some awkward goodbyes. Abby was there long enough to watch the Palmer-Bak snow plows and giant sections of pipe start to roll in from the port straight off of Palmer-Bak freighters. It was a warm austral summer, which gave Palmer-Bak twenty-four hours of light to work around the clock. Three weeks into December, Abby saw the foundation of the oil rig starting to go up. The ice in Antarctica had remained untouched for millions of years, but it had been melting for decades. The pipeline had been inevitable.
On Christmas Eve, Abby and her research team printed out their unfinished research on the nicest stock they could get their hands on. They made camp with a propane stove and several bottles of champagne.
She wondered if, given a few years, McMurdo Station would look like the rusted-out RV park from her childhood. Abandoned Sno-Cats, collapsed warehouses, and deserted airfields. Had the scientists flocked here like the tourists to the Salton Sea? To something that was never meant to last? She hated the thought.
Nine-year-old Abby didn’t sit on her back porch steps for very long. She snuck back into the kitchen to steal another piece of ice, but she didn’t get that far. Abby took a mason jar from the cabinet, filled it with water from the tap, and threw it into her book bag. She didn’t even remember running all the way to the shores of the Salton Sea. Out of breath, Abby twisted off the top of the mason jar and dumped the fresh water into the lake. She put her hands on her knees so she didn’t collapse and stared at her red-eyed reflection in the water.
Adult Abby was too old to do what she really wanted to do. She wanted to throw rocks at the Galley windows and spray graffiti of dead cartoon seal carcasses on the Sno-Cats. Maybe skin her knee as her coworkers tried to stop her. Instead, Abby held her research over the blue flames of the propane stove. She watched three and a half years of unfinished work crumple and burn into glowing pixies of light that flew up into the air. Bright orange ashes danced across a golden sky with a sun that would never set.
She didn’t expect what happened next. From somewhere deep down, a feeling she had forgotten came welling back up to the surface.
For a brief moment, she missed California.
Derrick Calkins enjoys writing about the sea, and is currently working on a short story collection. His debut novel will follow. Growing up, his creative writing assignments were always turned in late because he would have rather gotten docked a letter a grade than not turn in a mini-novella with a better story. This is Derrick’s first publication.