“Tyler, get your butt up. Your dog needs a walk,” the old man yells up the stairs. “I don’t want to tell you again.” I hear his footsteps fade as he walks back to the kitchen.
Slowly I throw my legs over the edge of the bed. The clock reads 6 am.
Kiro stands waiting. His bushy tail thumps against the cold floor.
“Ready to catch that fox boy?” I reach over and scratch his soft white chin. He tosses my hand aside with his hard black nose and pushes against my knee. “OK, let’s go.” I grab my jeans at the foot of the bed and pull them over long underwear. I add a pair of wool socks, a T-shirt, hoodie, liner, parka, gloves and thick black boots.
Through the tiny crack at the bottom of my bedroom window, I smell another December storm coming. Even on the coldest days I keep the window open just a little so I never forget how truly shitty Barrow is.
Kiro heads down the stairs. His paws slip across the slick wood. I follow close behind.
“Morning son,” my mom says as I grab a piece of bacon from the plate on the counter. She pretends not to see that my right cheek and eye are swelling into black and blue.
My dad, Barrow’s high school football coach, sits at the kitchen table. It’s Saturday morning; time to clean his 30/30. He has the usual whiskey in his coffee and a task light positioned over his work. Grizzled and the other side of fifty, his graying crew cut is stiff and shiny. Lovingly he takes his rifle apart. His calloused hands touch it with a tenderness that scares me.
“Don’t take him to see Ivan,” is all he says as we walk by.
It’s December in Barrow and the middle of 64 days of darkness. The skies are lead. Snow and grit swirls. My skin burns from the cold. My spit freezes in mid-air. It’s easy to forget if it’s morning or night.
Kiro’s on his back legs pawing at the front door. As soon as I open it, he scrambles across the small wooden porch. An Alaskan Husky, Kiro is a good-natured, happy dog. Everyone in Barrow loves him. More wild than tame, he was born to run and would rather be outside than in. With another month of cold evil darkness ahead, I hate the thought of going out. But Kiro needs his walk. We go every day.
As soon as we get outside, Kiro hunts down the arctic fox he has been tormenting. He finds him and begins the chase. Two hundred yards away from the house, I light a cigarette while Kiro plays. A few minutes later he’s back; it’s time to move on.
In the darkness, my dog’s fast moving white and black speckled body stands out against the dirty snow. His first stop is always the sign. The one Butch painted with the names of cities and how far away they are. Seattle. New York City. Port Au Prince. Places I will never go. I don’t know why Butch bothered with the miles. He should have just painted the words “Too fucking far.”
After Kiro pees at the sign, he runs past the auto parts store and the one and only gas station. I follow. At the police station, he stops to lift his leg on a fire hydrant. As I light another cigarette, the door opens and Chief Barnhart steps out. “Hey Tyler, how you been?”
“I’m good.” I keep my face pointed on Kiro.
“How’s that crazy old man of yours?” As if he needs to ask. They’ve been to our house often enough to know the facts. But I play along.
“The same.” I smile and flinch from the pressure on my swelling cheek and eye.
Barnhart shakes his head. “Your dad is something else.”
Too cold for Barrow gossip. I stomp my feet to get the feeling back and let out a long whistle for Kiro. He runs to me, tail wagging. Eyes begging. More ground to cover.
“Wait, Tyler.” Barnhart presses his gloved hand on my sleeve. “We care, you know, about you and your mom.”
I shrug him off, and call to Kiro to move on. We stop at the trading post, where Frank comes out to give Kiro a treat and a scratch behind the ear. We move on. Time to visit Ivan, Smith’s dog.
It’s Kiro’s favorite part of the walk, but today, I go the other direction, back towards our house. Kiro looks at me, cocks his head at a steep angle, his fluffy black tail curls into an ‘S.’ “We should just go home today boy.” Turning on my heel, I walk purposefully away from Smith’s where Ivan waits for us.
After ten steps, I turn around. Kiro’s nowhere in sight. I whistle. Nothing. Then barking erupts down the road. Ivan and Kiro. I take off in a jog, but my boots are stiff and slide over the permafrost. My feet fly out from under me, and I throw my hands out to catch myself. Hands, butt and legs scrape across the grey-black gashes of frozen sand and rock. My ungloved hand is cut from top to bottom. Blood dripping, I wipe it against my jeans, get back up and start running again.
I slow down as I approach Smith’s house. It’s hard to see in the dark, but I know what it looks like. A sullen wooden structure on stilts. Trash piled up on the small porch, a set of rickety stairs leading to the gravel front yard. Ivan on a line outside. He and Kiro are playing. I stand still, let my eyes adjust. There’s a figure on the porch. It’s Smith, wearing a heavy parka, a knit cap on his head. It’s ten degrees below zero and my brain is almost frozen, it doesn’t even register at first that he’s holding a shotgun.
“I told you and your dad to keep that goddamn dog at home. You should have listened.”
He raises the rifle to his shoulder and takes aim at my dog.
“Don’t!” I yell as loud as I can. But it’s too late. He squeezes the trigger.
I run to Kiro. He’s lying on that cold, black ground. Gobs of blood are flowing into the lush tangle of his fur. His belly open. His face oddly relaxed.
My chest stretches uncomfortably, a knot expanding in my lungs. I kneel down and carefully slide my arms under his body. He weighs almost 50 pounds, and my legs wobble as I lift him. I bend my elbows slightly to rest his body against my chest. Turning toward our house, I start walking. My mind is numb. I just want to get him home.
Smith yells to my back. “I told you and your old man. Look what you made me do.”
I cut through a small row of houses. The farther I go the heavier Kiro gets. About half way there, I have to stop and lay him down on the ground for a minute. I catch my breath and keep going.
As I approach our house, I remember when I was ten and we found Kiro shivering and practically starving at our back door. His fur was matted. He smelled like the road kill he had been surviving on. We took him in and he’s been my best friend ever since. Later Smith said Kiro was his. That’s when this whole stupid mess started.
Holding back the tears my father will never allow, I set Kiro down gently on the porch.
Throwing the door open, I shout, “Smith shot Kiro.” The words fly out in clumps like my brain can only process this in pieces. Because if I think about the whole fucking thing, I don’t know what I will do.
The plate my mom is drying falls to the floor. Shards scatter around her feet. I step over them and walk to the kitchen table where my dad is reading the newspaper. He throws it down and stands up—knocking the wooden chair to the floor. “That’s the last straw. That man is a fucking psycho.”
Suddenly tired of it all, I sit down.
My dad walks to the family room. He turns the key to the gun cabinet and opens the door. Reaching in, he takes out the 30/30 he cleaned this morning and grabs a box of cartridges from the shelf.
He opens the box, takes out six cartridges and loads them into the rifle. “Here.” He shoves it at me. I don’t move. I just stare at the walnut stock glowing under the light.
He shoves the gun at me again. His face so close to mine that his whiskey coffee breath is hot on my face. “Son, what are you going to do? Someone has to make this right.” His gravelly voice, destroyed by cigarettes, booze and football, is inviting and terrifying. I lick my lips and hold out my shaking hands. He rests the rifle between them. I hold it for a minute then set it down and push away from the table.
I walk down the narrow hallway stopping at the large mirror. A stranger stares back. Snarled hair. Ashen face. A camo down parka smeared with blood.
At this moment, I know what I will do.
I go back to the table and lay my hand on the rifle. Its steel barrel pulses under my fingertips.
“Go ahead son. You know what needs to be done.”
I pick it up and rest it low in the crook of my arm. He’s right, it feels good.
I walk through the kitchen to the back door. The only sound in the tiny house is my boots crushing the broken pieces of the plate against the linoleum floor. I open the door and arctic cold rushes past my face. Jagged chunks of air that I can’t quite catch escape from my chest. My legs wobble. Then I see Kiro’s still body. Blood clinging to his fur in frozen clumps. Adrenaline surges.
“I’ll go with you,” my dad offers. But I shake my head.
“Tyler, you don’t have to do this.” My mom’s thin voice shakes. I know that if I turn around I will see her standing at the door, the small bible tucked into the pocket of her pink housecoat.
“Doris, leave the boy alone,” my father tells her as the door slams shut.
I scan the horizon. Endless miles of white, gray, flat land. The tundra is our world. Empty and lonely, Kiro and I survived it together. A dry east wind blows across my face, freezing the tears against my cheeks.
I’ve hunted with this gun for six years. Always heavy for me, now it feels light. The steel is cold to the touch, the barrel gleams. I walk. My boots slide on the permafrost but now I lift them with care. I have a job to do.
Each breath I take is heavy and separate. Loud in my ears. I walk with purpose. Nearly there, I want to stop, to turn around and end this, but when I look down at my gun, it urges me on. I feel powerful. A single hawk circles the sky. Overcast. The storm is almost here.
I hear Ivan bark. I’m close now. Fighting the urge to puke, I keep going. Like my dad says, “An eye for eye.” That’s how it works on the North Slope. We make our own rules. Smith shot my dog. Just another day in Barrow.
I approach the house. Ivan’s under Smith’s porch sniffing the ground and pacing in circles. He’s a beautiful, pure white husky. Thick fur. Deep blue eyes. Playful, a swift and strong runner. Prized by his owner.
With each step, my boots get heavier. Nearly there, I can hardly lift my feet. Sweat gathers under my hat. My breath stinks. Tinny and bitter. I have to pee.
Snow starts to fall softly.
Ivan sees me. I can’t look at him or the dark red snow where Kiro bled to death less than an hour ago. As I get closer, I think, Oh God, I can’t do this. Then I hear my dad’s voice, Make this right.
Ivan runs to me, his tail wagging. I almost reach out for him but stop. I raise the gun to my shoulder. Immediately I put it down, unable to hold it. Then I hear the echo of Smith’s shot from this morning; the smell of gunpowder still in the air. I pick the rifle back up.
Instinct takes over. I place it on my shoulder and breathe deep. Let half of it out. Center the gun on my target and close my eyes.
I squeeze the trigger.
Ivan lets out a strangled high-pitched yelp. Then nothing. I open my eyes. He’s on the ground. Whimpering, his blood draining into the dirt. His back legs jerk as if he is running. Then they stop.
I run to Ivan, throwing myself on top of him. His body is still warm. His white fur is soft and thick. Steam rises from the huge opening in his neck. I fall over, curling my legs, folding my arms around them. A long scream travels through the thin air. I can’t stop. Fuck, fuck, fuck, what have I done?
I feel a shadow over me. Instinctively, I roll away and pull the rifle up into the firing position. I lay my finger alongside the trigger. The snow is coming down harder. All I can see is someone tall, dressed in camouflage.
I lift my head and blink hard. Tears push onto my cheeks, and now I see him more clearly. Calmly I put my finger fully on the trigger. And the rifle explodes in my hands.
Gretchen Knox lives in Dallas and is a leader of global corporate communications for a Fortune 500 company. She is a wife, mom and owner of two goofy dogs. When she’s not working, writing or at the baseball field with her family, she enjoys running, boot camp and Pilates. She also has been published in Thematic Literary and the blog Tiny Buddha. She can be found at gretchenknox.com.