The book full of dead men appears in the reading station the final week of third grade. It’s Corrine who finds it first, tucked behind a Berenstain Bears. Its title’s a description, a hook, maybe a warning: Buried in Ice! As to-the-point as the picture of the dead man on the cover, not a drawing, but a real full-color photograph. Corrine takes in his milky eyes and parchment skin, the lips that curl back over teeth frozen mid-chatter. His nose is black from frostbite. Corrine lifts a finger to her own nose, traces the scar she earned in January when her sled hit a thorn bush.
In the book, between a lot of names and dates and vocabulary words, she finds more dead men, just as ugly as the first.
She glances up, on guard but giddy, like when the girls found the porno under Amanda’s brother’s mattress. Her classmates are busy at the computer and Lego stations, all but Kyle, who skims a Zoobooks about gorillas, and Ryan, who’s got an issue of Cracked hidden inside an encyclopedia volume. Corrine snaps her fingers and motions the boys closer. When they come, she slips the book across the reading rug like contraband.
Ryan’s eyes pop wide. “What the shit is this?” Shit’s his favorite word this month. He’s already earned two detentions for saying it within earshot of Mrs. Lee.
Kyle lifts the book to his face to inspect more closely. He starts flipping through but then wrinkles his nose and tosses it back to Corrine. “Smells weird.”
Corrine buries her face between the pages. She smells rotten flesh and old pennies. “Blood.”
“Nuh uh!” says Ryan, though he tears the book from her hands anyway. He sniffs once, tentative, then again with gusto, like he’s appraising a wine’s bouquet. Over the summer, he will dream the dead men lie in coffins beneath his bed. He’ll wake screaming until his stomach cramps with the effort of forcing out all those screams.
“I bet they got blood all over the film when they took those pictures,” says Corrine. “Mummy blood.”
The boys nod. “Must’ve,” says Ryan. “Shit.”
They pass the book around, inhaling. They learn the dead men’s names, all the ways you can die on an Arctic expedition. What a stroke of luck to have found the dead men at all, when the rest of the expedition vanished, crew and ships alike. They learn the ships’ names, too, whisper them like curses. Erebus. Terror.
Kyle notices that one dead man has his limbs bound with strips of cloth. “In case he tried to get out,” he reasons, but the Arctic’s a desert. Where would he have gone?
At recess, Corinne lies down behind the playground’s maple tree. The boys grab fistfuls of mulch, sprinkle it over her. It’s sunbaked, smells sickly sweet. She pretends that it’s ice, bright and crystalline, enough to anchor a body right here for the next hundred years, maybe longer, maybe forever.
Sutton Strother is a writer and composition instructor living in New York. Her work has appeared or will appear in Natural Bridge, Longleaf Review, Ellipsis Zine, Citron Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere.