1st Place – January 2024

This is Barrow

by Gary Christenson

Barrow is the northernmost village on the north slope of Alaska. The biting cold of winter and months-long darkness bring out the worst in people. I know.

I hadn’t intended to hurt Sam. Killing Brandi didn’t bother me, although slicing her made a bloody mess.


As I trudged home from my carpenter job, Sam, my bootlegger neighbor, carried a case of Calvert’s whiskey into his three-room shack. My mouth watered. I needed booze to pacify my demons, and I was running low.

After finishing my last drop of alcohol, I peeked through a frosty window of my ancient, rented hovel toward his house. A nasty wind howled, leaked under the door, and through a crack in the north wall. The outside thermometer read thirty-seven below on this fourteenth day of December 1995. Wind dropped the effective temperature down to ninety below. The sun hadn’t risen above the southern horizon for twenty-one days. It wouldn’t be visible again until late January, and Barrow’s brutal winter would drag into June.

Rufus, the psychopath who has lived inside my head since my uncle molested me, swore.

It’s frigging cold. This house leaks, and you’re the fuckin’ moron who moved to Barrow. Is your crappy carpenter job worth suffering in darkness, isolation, and freezing weather?

“Calm yourself. Sam will sell me a bottle. Whiskey helps us forget the cold and to deal with your craziness.”

Someday, I’m gonna kill you if you don’t leave this God-forsaken place. I’m not kidding. We’re both going wacko, and I can take you out whenever I want.

“Rufus, control your urges.”

I zipped snow pants over my jeans and long underwear. Lined boots and two layers of wool socks were normal footgear. A parka, scarf, and mittens would keep me warm on the short walk to buy a bottle from Sam. I could taste the bite of cheap whiskey as I marched across the snow-covered tundra.

I banged on his unpainted wooden door. A blast of warm air escaped as he opened it. “Ralph, you looking for a bottle? Come in. Uhh, I’ve got company.”

I stepped into the kunichuk, his arctic entry, filled with parkas, mukluks, caribou skins, and junk. I hung my parka on a peg and removed my boots. As I walked into his tiny living room, I heard someone peeing into a honey bucket. Odors from human waste confirmed Sam needed to empty the bucket. A bottle-blond woman pushed the white privacy curtain aside and emerged.

Sam stroked his long beard and smoothed his Carhartt overalls. “Ralph, meet Brandi. She’s visiting tonight.”

Brandi sneered. “I know him. He’s a crazy, violent jerk. Kick his ass out or I’m leaving.”

When I clenched my fists and narrowed my eyes, Brandi turned pale.

Sam growled, “It’s a hundred bucks for a bottle. Then buzz off.”

“Yeah, gimme one. And screw you, Brandi. You’re a pathetic hooker and you were a waste of time in the sack.”

 “You’re a perverted sicko, and you hurt me!”

 “Bitch! You’re crazy,” I yelled.

Sam shook a finger in my face. “Hey asshole, don’t talk to my girlfriend that way. Get out!” He grabbed a kitchen knife, ready to defend her dubious honor.

My anger exploded, an uncontrollable fire blazing in a pile of dry lumber. “Screw both of you.” I grabbed my caribou skinning knife from the leather holster on my belt, leaped at Sam, batted his arm aside, and sliced him in the gut with the four-inch blade. His blood poured onto the cold linoleum floor. Brandi screamed. I kicked her in the stomach and then cut her throat. The sickly-sweet odor of warm blood overpowered the smell of human waste. The sight of that much blood made my hands shake so violently I dropped the knife. I grabbed an open bottle and swallowed a much-needed drink.

Idiot, now you’ve done it. Fix this mess!

My gut turned ice cold. “I’m gonna report these deaths to Public Safety and swear it was self-defense.”

Right, and the officers will see through that lame-ass story in three seconds. You’re such a fuckin’ loser.

“Okay, smartie, what do you suggest?”

I saw a roll of black plastic in the kunichuk. Wrap the bodies, drag them outta here, and clean up the mess later. That way, we might survive. Your way, and we’re dead meat.

“Rufus, it’s all your fault. You’re a violent maniac. I’m a nice person.”

You’re stupid, and you’re homicidal. Who is the wacko alcoholic? Whose knife sliced them?

He was right. I broke down and cried like the spoiled child my mom spanked when she caught me kicking Charlie, our little dog. Two bodies taunted me. “What am I gonna do?”

Wipe up the blood. Wrap their bodies and the towels in plastic. We can’t dig a grave in frozen ground. I’ll think while you work.

I did as Rufus suggested. “So, smartie, what now?”

You haul your stupid ass back to the house, hook the sled to your snow machine, grab a shovel and flashlight, and come back here. Tie both bodies onto the sled. Ride out of town and bury them on the back side of the gravel pit. It could be years before they’re discovered.

I snatched the bottle of Calvert’s and sucked down several inches, savoring the burn. Then I followed his instructions. Struggling, I dragged bodies out of the house and tied them onto the sled. Two miles past the south end of town, I reached the gravel pit.

Ice stuck to my eyebrows, and I could barely feel my fingers as I parked near the fifty-foot-high mound of gravel the North Slope Borough used for new construction. After dragging their bodies off the sled, I grabbed the shovel, and shined the light toward the snow-covered gravel pile. Because I didn’t have diesel excavating equipment, I dug like a crazy person, overheating in the arctic night. As I dug, the holes in the gravel collapsed.

Hey dumb ass, you figured it out yet?

“Stop bitching. What’s your bright idea?”

Dump the bodies at the base and let gravel slide down and cover them. Scoop until it looks natural.

By the time I finished, the weather had deteriorated into a nasty blizzard. My stomach growled like a starving polar bear. I had soaked my long underwear with sweat, enough that my perspiration might freeze on the ride home. Getting lost in white-out conditions with hypothermia would kill me quicker than the death penalty for double murder.

After a scary trip, I parked behind my house, half frozen, shaking, hypothermic, and worried I had frostbitten hands.

Listen stupid. Go inside and warm up. Brew coffee, eat, and then we walk back to scour his house for blood, DNA, and prints. It’s got to look like Sam just left.

Hours later, my hands shook, and my vision was blurry, but Sam’s house showed no obvious signs of blood or violence. I stole his whiskey and cash, trudged home, and flopped into bed.

Days later, two Public Safety officers searched his house. They questioned Sam’s neighbors and me. I acted dumbfounded.

They don’t believe you. Look sincere. Act stupid. You’re good at it.

“Everybody knew Sam was a bootlegger. People came to his house to buy booze. I haven’t seen him in a couple weeks.” I shrugged. “Somebody at work said he heard Sam and a hot babe had flown to Vegas to get married. I don’t know where he is.”

 I worried they’d uncover the bodies and connect me to the murders. To avoid attracting attention, I waited until April before I quit my job and moved to Anchorage. My nightmares about frantically mopping up blood on a cold linoleum floor faded into the arctic night. I was home free ­- maybe.


One snowy evening many months later, someone knocked. I set my whiskey glass on the table and opened the door. Two burly cops from the Anchorage Police Department stood on my porch. “Mr. Johnson?”

 “What do you want?” Oh my God!

“We think you know why we’re here.”

My mouth flopped open. Public Safety in Barrow had found the bodies.

Hey stupid. Play it cool. You don’t know nothing about dead bodies.

I clasped my hands and sighed. “Righto. I drove through a mid-town stop sign a month ago. A traffic camera probably filmed me. You’re here to collect the fine. Right?”

The cops smiled. “Nope, we’re here to sell tickets to the Policeman’s Ball. They’re a hundred bucks each. How many do you want?”

My shoulders relaxed. “I’ll buy two.”

I handed them cash, and they gave me tickets with smug smiles.

Pretty good performance for a dumb ass! You’re getting smarter.

Anchorage’s weather was dark and cold, but pleasant compared to Barrow. I sucked down more whiskey and smiled, safe in my apartment.

“I’m a nice person. Rufus, you’re really smart, but you’re the homicidal maniac, not me.”

Keep telling yourself that story.

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