The Cold Pools

by Chris Ward

Coming up to the cold pools along the main approach road it was difficult to see anything other than the huge bluff that formed a natural barrier against the heat rising up from the valley as thick as smoke. Already, cheaper tourist hotels were beginning to make an appearance, with their gaudy facades and neon signs and promises of low-cost bus tours up to the main site itself.

Karen and myself, however, had a better room in one of the larger resorts up on the bluff. The brochures promised the best views of the valley, and the freshest, coolest air that only the pools could provide.

We were heading uphill past the first cluster of hotels when the car began to choke. ‘Damn it,’ I swore, punching the dash. Karen reached over and touched my arm, and when I looked towards her, her smile calmed me. My own cold pool, I thought. My very own.

‘We’re almost there,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry.’

I smiled and felt a welling in my throat. She smiled back, but her grin was just a little too wide to be safe and I saw one of the sores along her jawline break open and begin to trickle pus down her neck. I didn’t want to say anything, but she had obviously felt it and reached up with a tissue to dab it dry.

I watched her as she arched her neck and tried to assume a swanlike posture of elegance and grace. She glanced out of the car window and then back at me, her eyes defiant, but it was too late. Feeling hopeless, useless, I began to cry.

‘Oh, Lewis, don’t,’ she hushed me. ‘I can’t bear it.’

I swallowed down a sob and tried to be brave for her, but I knew that it didn’t matter, it was a waste of time. Nothing I could do or say would ease the variant of skin cancer that ravaged her body; nothing would make this trip anything other than the last wish of a dying woman. Karen had dreamed of seeing naturally cold water for the first time, and it was only with sizable donations from friends and family that we could make this trip and afford the high prices at all.

I urged the complaining car on up the steep road that jagged back and forth across the bluff’s face. Karen, ever cheerful, leaned forward in the seat, eyes straining for the sign the brochure had promised we would see about halfway up.

‘There it is!’ she shouted, and I smiled at her joy as I wiped away a tear with one hand. ‘Quick, turn it off!’

I flicked off the air-con and together we lowered our windows. At first I didn’t feel it, perhaps because we’d started too early, but then, as we passed the sign I felt the cool breeze brushing against my face.

The only breeze in the world beneath seventy-seven Fahrenheit: optimum room temperature. For the past twenty years even night had been over eighty. You could replicate the conditions of course, but here, on this bluff, was the only place you could feel it outside the comfort of your own home.

Okay, so I had friends that claimed the peak of Everest was cooler, but as the road being built to the summit was barely half done and the plateau itself sat like a dead king in the middle of the most scorched of lands, it wasn’t really accessible for the masses.

No, here was the only recognised place in the whole world where the air was cool, and as we finally emerged at the top of the bluff, we saw the reason why.

My breath caught in my throat, and I heard Karen gasp beside me. There, ahead of us, still some ten miles off but looming like a great blue-white cliff, was the world’s last glacier.

‘Oh my,’ Karen said. ‘It’s even bigger than I expected.’

I just nodded, speechless. The road moved down a slight incline into a valley where dozens of hotels dominated the small town of Cold Pools, named after the lakes and pools that had formed at the foot of the glacier, a town so close to the glacier’s front that it remained in shadow for most of the day. The brochure also told us that every year the glacier’s slow advance meant a dozen hotels were pulled down; those that could afford the high land costs were repositioned, and those that couldn’t forgotten for all time. The entire town was gradually shifting back towards the bluff edge, the brochure said, and one day, in perhaps no more than a couple of generations, it would spill over completely.

Karen and I had no children; we’d refused to bring them into such a world. Several of our friends did, and while I could admit the kids were a delight I couldn’t help but wonder at the selfishness of it all.

‘It’s beautiful, Lewis,’ Karen said, her voice barely a whisper.

‘Like you are,’ I said, immediately regretting such a corny retort.

She smiled. ‘Was. I’ll let you have was.’

We checked into our hotel half an hour later. Karen was a little disappointed to find that our room on the third floor looked out not on to the mighty glacier but back towards the bluff edge, back towards the red sun that hung high above the Antarctic sky, swollen and sore. Those rooms with a glacial view were beyond our price range, I assumed, but from the restaurant at least we could see the white wall that fed the town, and we ate a modestly priced meal of beef and potato pie beneath its shadow.

After dinner we took a walk into the town, feeling the cool air and I guess I could say wintery gusts of wind wrap around our faces. I held Karen’s hand by the finger tips, aware that the sores on her palms caused her pain. We hadn’t made love in three months, not since the worst of the cancer began to show itself. Intimacy was too painful for her, and in a different way it was painful for me too. Each touch might be my last; Karen was on borrowed time: given six months a little over eight months ago.

‘I want to swim,’ Karen said suddenly.

We were passing a row of cafes and wine bars. I smiled. ‘Wouldn’t you prefer a drink?’

‘Only of cold water.’

We walked on through the town towards where the pools began on the outskirts. The brochure had told us how some were exclusively for bathing, with big complexes thrown up around piped water fed into landscaped pools, while others were nature reserves for what birds and fish were still left. Further on, we knew, right at the foot of the glacier, was a huge lake. In the shadow of the ice very little could grow or live, but the waterfall that fed it was a popular sightseeing spot and where organized climbs to the top of the glacier itself began. I didn’t like the idea of Karen slogging her way up a two hundred meter staircase carved into the ice, but nevertheless she had insisted and we were booked on a tour for the day after tomorrow.

I realised suddenly that we had walked right out of town. Ahead of us, the shell of an abandoned hotel rose out of the ground beside the road, looking almost insignificant beneath the towering glacial face that rose into the air not a mile distant. Here, the sound of water was everywhere, and the air had a remarkable chill to it that I’d never felt outside of a cold room before.

‘There,’ Karen said, pointing down a dirt trail that ran behind the hotel. ‘Down there. It leads to the lake.’

‘I’m not sure this is a good idea . . .’ I started, but Karen was already ahead of me, treading carefully through the weeds that had grown up over the trail. An old maintenance access, I was sure, leading to the kitchens or whatever. I wasn’t sure what Karen hoped to find, but maybe –

‘Look, Lewis! Oh my God!’

Around the back of the hotel, Karen was pointing. Here, the lake shore came right up into the old gardens, the waters lapping around the base of an old terrace. Karen pulled a rusty chair off a stack by the wall and sat down looking out at what had once been a sprawling garden, but had now been eaten up by the lake.

The waters stretched away from us like a dark sheet towards the huge wall of the glacier, the ripples on its surface flickering beneath the glow of the rising moon. Occasionally we saw a splash as a fish jumped, or heard a bird calling from the shrubs and bushes that encircled the lake.

‘We’re alone out here,’ I said, looking across at Karen’s silhouette. ‘All the other tourists are in restaurants or karaoke bars.’ I smiled. ‘It’s just like the real world.’

‘Nothing changes,’ Karen said. ‘Except everything.’

‘The whole world was like this once,’ I said.

Karen reached out a hand and brushed the side of my head. I felt the calluses and sores on her palm rough against my skin, but beneath them was only tenderness. I could feel her eyes on me, and was thankful that the darkness hid my tears.

Antarctica was the only heavily populated continent now, containing a string-bean two hundred million people. The Himalayan Plateau and parts of northern Russia were home to a scattering, mostly research teams and treasure hunters. There were rumors of die-hards surviving in the desert wastes in the very middle of the planet, but most were just stories, and no one cared to go and find out. And even our continent was close to dying, with the rains coming less and less, the vegetation that could survive the harsh temperatures shrinking year by year. And the people too, exposed too often to the sun’s harsh rays, were going the way of Karen, or worse. By luck or fate I had escaped it so far, but my time could come any day.

‘Thank you,’ Karen said at last.

‘What for?’

I sensed her smiling. ‘You know. For bringing me here.’

‘I just wanted you to be happy.’

‘I am. And it doesn’t matter . . .’

‘What doesn’t matter?’

She looked away from me. ‘Lewis, I know.’

‘What do you . . .’ I began, and then understood.

She held up a small glossy pamphlet and waved it back and forth as though fanning herself: the tourist brochure the travel agent had given us. ‘I know about this place,’ she said. ‘I looked on the Net. I was excited, and I couldn’t help myself. They don’t really try to hide the fact.’

I sighed. ‘It’s still cold, though.’

‘And that’s good enough for me.’

She leaned closer and I slipped my arm around her. Looking out on the lake, I felt for the first time that everything was perfect. It didn’t matter that Karen was dying, or that I soon would. It didn’t matter that everything at Cold Pools was fake, that huge machines had built the entire glacier, that massive, hidden turbines up on the mountains behind the bluff kept the air cool, that if I walked up to the glacier and pressed my hand against it the surface would feel dry and cool to the touch, would feel like the mixture of stone and plaster that it was, this monstrous white wave in the middle of this construction of the end of the world.

‘I want to swim,’ Karen said again, untangling herself from me and standing up. ‘I want to swim right up to it.’

‘No, no, you can’t.’

‘Lewis, I love you. I’ve always loved you and I always will. Please, if you love me, let me swim.’

‘Karen . . .’ I began, but I made no move to stop her as she walked to the edge of the terrace.

The moon broke through the clouds long enough to light her undressing, and I looked upon her silhouette as she stretched out her arms over her head and then reached down to touch her toes. Her body looked as lithe and firm as it had the day I’d met her, and I knew Karen was thankful the night hid the scars and the sores that covered her beautiful skin.

‘Goodbye, Lewis,’ she whispered. ‘I’ll see you soon.’

‘Take care, Karen,’ I whispered back, and for a moment I thought I saw her smile. Then she was gone, diving into the lake, breaking through the surface with a soft splash and then reemerging a few meters out, her arms working in lazy strokes as she kicked away from me. I watched for a few minutes as she moved out into deep water, the sound of her splashes growing fainter, her body no more than a disturbance among the ripples. Finally, as the clouds closed in and she disappeared from view, I turned and walked away.

I glanced back at the black wall of the glacier as I headed back up the overgrown trail, feeling a mixture of awe and disappointment. It did move, as the brochures claimed, but I knew that after a handful of years they moved it back again, reopened the “abandoned” hotels and began the process again. It was all part of the big illusion, the work of far advanced technology that could create an elaborate theme park but could do nothing about the burning sun smiling through the thin glass that remained of the atmosphere, as it slowly cooked us off the world.

Mankind would survive a while, I knew. Fighters, always, if not against each other then against attacks on their lifestyle. Mankind would go underground, living in tunnels as the Earth’s surface baked and crusted, surviving on life-support technology to provide water or food. One day, though, it would all end, maybe five hundred or a thousand years from now. None of that was my concern, though, as I pushed back through the doors of our hotel and headed up to bed.

The next morning, there was no sign of Karen, as I knew there wouldn’t be. I got up and dressed, went downstairs and ate a light breakfast of toast and bacon. In the warm light of day the glacier looked more fake than it had under twilight, the surface cracked and glistening, but too cracked, too glistening, to be real. People liked to pretend, but when you knew the truth you could see nothing but the lie.

Outside, the air was cool as I’d known it would be, as I’d paid for it to be, and I felt strangely comfortable as I headed out of town, retracing the way we’d walked last night. The bath houses and karaoke bars and nightclubs rose up on either side, gaudy and classless, divided occasionally by thin, tree-lined roads leading out to bigger, expensive country club resorts that ringed Cold Pools like a group of overpaid sentries.

The town was fading behind me as I came to the abandoned hotel on the edge of the lake.

In the daylight it was obviously fake, a mock up building with nothing but plaster walls behind the broken plastic windows, brown, crumbly rust made of plaster-cast on the chairs, cracks in the wooden terrace made by paint and power tools. A few hundred meters distant, the glacier rose up magnificently, glimmering in the sunlight, and I was sure I could make out tiny people climbing up the steps built into its face. That we would never do that now, didn’t matter. Whatever was on the other side was no longer important, and I felt numbness wash over me as I slumped down into a chair and looked out at the lake.

In the air I heard the occasional pre-recorded bird call, in the lake I saw the occasional splash caused by what was probably a timer set under the surface, and around the lake at regularly intervals I saw the signs that warned strictly no swimming. The small print told of chemicals in the water and of toxins discharged as a result of efforts to keep the water cool. The brown crud at the edge of the water and the meter-wide ring around the lake which was devoid of plant life were a message that told me Karen wasn’t coming back.

She had known, as I had. But she had chosen to swim anyway.

I looked up at the blue-white wall of the glacier, then back at the red sun pushing through thinning clouds. I felt the chill of manufactured air around me and thought back to the night before, when we had walked together, when we had stood by the lake, alone in the perfection of it all.

‘Goodbye, Karen,’ I said to no one, wondering when it would be my turn to swim.

2 Responses to “The Cold Pools”

  1. Disko Troop says:

    Nice one Squirrel

  2. carol phillips says:

    Hi Chris, this is so sad! Beautifully written!
    I love the realistic account of the fake world – so believable…. mankind so often massages the symptoms of our imapact on the environment/people’s lives and maximizes on the opportunity to make a buck!
    I look forward to reading more of your work.

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