Contest #227 shortlist ⭐️


American Indigenous

“Give me that thing”

Chunhui grabs the cigarette from Bobby’s hand. There is a moment where their fingers touch, the warmest feeling in Alaska’s Northern Slope, and then it is gone.

“No need to get handsy,” Bobby says to her. His voice is a dead whisper against the sweeping brown coastline, but she can hear him. They’re sitting shoulder to shoulder on the dried-out vertebrae of a bowhead whale.

“You wish, cheechako.” Her lips are around the filter now, pursed in a way he has never seen. Bobby is glad to be under six inches of parka- his boyhood is screaming.

“What does that mean?” Bobby asks.

Chunhui puts the cigarette in one hand and grabs his red jacket in the other. Their faces are eight inches apart, and she bridges the gap with a long push of tobacco. Then she smiles. “It means you don’t belong here.”

It’s like static on his face, the heat traveling across his ruby nose and down to his pants. Her eyes are browner than moleskin. “Is that a bad thing?” Bobby says.

“Depends. Are you a jerk like all the other guys in this town?”

It’s now Bobby’s turn to smile, and he takes the opportunity to show it off, white and gritty. Chunhui laughs and turns out towards the slushy whitewash. The scene is strips of pink and yellow against a descending orb, the sea a million snowy molehills separating the two teens from the Artic tundra. She pulls on the cigarette again.

“You never forget your last sunset,” Chunhui says.


“Never. For two months, it’s all you have.” Chunhui’s exhale is silvery, like an invisible fox. He wants to steal it from her. “So you gotta savor it.”

Bobby leans a little closer, his hand moving atop the girls. She doesn’t pull away. One day, Bobby thinks, they will end up like the bones they sit upon. But it won’t be today.

“Trust me,” Bobby says. “There’s no chance I forget this.”


Sakari walks up the frosty shore, as far as he can go. He is completely alone for miles. In front of him is a drop off, a collection of tan and black rocks that drift into the sea. It is the northernmost point of the Western Hemisphere- the locals call it “The End of the World.”

His long flowing hair bounces to a stop as he saddles five feet from the edge. He slips his hands into his kuspuk and takes a deep breath. Sakari knows the air is different out here, yet today he feels no spark. He lets it out slowly, disappointed.

Things in Utqiagvik have felt like this for a while- sparkless- and despite the shifting colors above him, he can’t seem to recapture it. The realization had come unexpectedly months prior, on an ice fishing trip with his brother.

They were huddled together in a small blue teepee, the wind hard and angry against their tent. Miku, who is two years younger, had thrown white lima beans in the fishing hole, and always enjoyed staring into the blue pit, waiting for the break in color. “Oh! Here one comes!” he said in a whisper, feet doing a little patter like some antsy sled dog.

The rod was in Sakari’s hands, and it began to bend, not violently but with delay, as if something was chewing instead of swallowing. Sakari waited a few seconds, then began to reel at the same pace as the fish’s bite. Halfway up, the creature realized its mistake, and began sprinting back in forth, slapping the roof of the ice floor. It only took ten more seconds before the head of the artic char was breaching their little hideout, a beautiful orange 33 incher.

Miku grabbed the line and pulled the rest of the fish out of the water. “Nice, Sakari! This might be our biggest yet!” Sakari dropped the rod, and Miku handed the fish over.

Sakari was smiling at first- that he remembered. But when that cold slime ran over his fingers, and those orange-spotted muscles began fidgeting and flexing, he felt a sudden drop in temperature within him. Sakari looked into the eye of the fish, an open black hole the size of a dime, and saw there was nothing. A trickle of blood fell from its gill flap and puddled in his frozen palm- that seemed to make it worse. He pushed the fish away, afraid and disgusted by his lack of excitement.

“Are you OK, Sakari? Did you hear something?”

He shook his head, wiping his hands on the ice, but his eyes were locked on the flopping fish, and its cold, dead, upward gaze. They didn’t camp for much longer that day.

That was where the stain began. It drifted over everything- the deckhands on his whaling boat, the diner waitresses, his snow-shoveling neighbors- and corrupted them. Where there once was life, and personality, and fulfillment, now reeked of a truth only he seemed to be aware of. That all of this- this frozen, aquatic existence- was just a passive march towards fish eyed emptiness.

At the End of The World, Sakari ponders his next move. The dancing kaleidoscope above him is dimming into night, and on his shoulders he can sense the coming of a heavy snowfall. In the morning, he won’t be able to see it- there will be darkness for sixty six days, and for the first time in his life, the idea of a full Polar Night scares him.

Outside his vision, a bowhead whale breaches the surface. There is a faint sputter of broken water, and a louder pshhhh from its blowhole before things are quiet again. As darkness comes closer, and Sakari turns towards home, he makes a note of the giant mammal, and wonders if he’ll be around when the light can reconnect them.


Nanook wheels Yuka to their living room window. In front of them is a mural they are familiar with- the bright cream hues of an Alaskan sunset- and on ordinary occasions, they would take a stroll out to the beach to celebrate another notch on their long post of revolutions together. Yuka can’t keep her eyes open, though, and her feet are crusty and bloated. So their tradition will have to wait.

“It never gets less beautiful, does it, Yuka?”

She says nothing, but answers via a small squeeze on Nanook’s palm. It is so weak that it feels like a newborns.

Nanook continues to speak in their quiet home, the crackling fireplace his only narrative aid. “Remember the year after we got married, Yuka? The sunset came early, and we were upset we missed it- too busy working in the shop, both of us.” Nanook pauses, as the sun marks its halfway journey beneath the horizon’s maw. “Remember how this one ends?”

Another squeeze.

“We walked outside that night, with our hands coated in that thick motor oil that they always shipped in frozen from Anchorage. A glob of it had stained your cheek, and I remember how it felt to not recognize you. My love, turned into some greased-up motor monkey.”

The sun is three quarters gone- a sliver of bright red licks their snowy encampment like raspberry glaze.

“We were desperate, overworked, exhausted. And then- you remember this, Yuka, as we left that garage? The black sky ignited into neon, right in front of us, with wavy crystal ribbons that intertwined like loose balls of yarn. A cheechako might have mistaken it for the rapture, given how bright those gemstone colors pranced across the stars.”

Yuka squeezes hard, and Nanook feels a pull on his vision.

“And then I turned to you and grabbed your hand-“ Nanook leaned over and grabbed her other hand, standing behind the chair- “and felt the sticky lock of our fingers in the negative fifty freeze. There was a hundred shades of purple across your face, and this time I failed to recognize you in a different way. You were a goddess, a primitive spirit with no ties to the living. You were up there with those ribbons in that moment, I could tell.”

No squeeze, but a small grin across a thousand wrinkles, illuminated by a dying sun. There is morning dew across his cheekbones.

“And do you remember what I asked you?” Nanook says.

Yuka moves her shriveled lips delicately, each word a raspy, singular effort. “Can… anyone… exist… as… perfectly… as… you… do?”

The sun is subsiding off the coastline, leaving a dusty orange residue that is being cleansed by an oncoming storm. Nanook holds Yuka’s hands, tight as he knows possible, and quiets the whimpers in his chest. Together, they look out into the departing sunlight, and wait for harder days to come.


When Randall told his beer friends that he was moving to Alaska, their reactions were mostly the same. “What they got in the Tundra that they don’t got in the South?”

Randall lined his pool cue up to the ball, the tip compacting on the glossy face as he spewed his holiest dream. “I want to run the sled dogs.”

Brant, the loudest in their crew, chuckled so hard that the stretched pitbull on his tee shirt began to rumble and growl. “What you know bout’ sledding, boy? The only sledding you done is with your nose down the bar line!” The rest of them, equally obtuse and disgusting, giggled in agreement.

“I kicked that shit, long time ago. I’m done with the drinking, too.” Randall powered through the last of his frosty Miller. “Starting now.”

Brant moved from the booth, his knees buckling under his own forgotten weight, and waddled behind Randall, slapping two thick hands on his shoulders. “You’re a fine man, Randall, for an Alabama hick. You should know, though…” Brant brought his lips behind Randall’s ear, his breath an acrid, hair-frying heat.

“You ain’t ever gonna make it out this town,” he whispered.

It wasn’t a moment Randall thought about very often, those nine words in a locals-only backwater saloon. But today, as he pets Kamona’s head in the pale shiver of November, it strikes his mind like the presentation of some great achievement.

There was nothing easy about it- the first challenge was finding this town, the coldest gulley in all of Alaska if you account for the onshore wind chill. Then he had to find an elder to learn from, in a language he was not familiar with. That took ages, sweeping bars and online forums, pulling for a lead. Turns out, all he had to do was wait outside and listen.

A mile from his house was a barking place that set eruption to the empty land. Randall chased the noise one morning, and met twelve leaping huskies, all riled and untethered in the six-inch sleet. It must have been strange for Sitka to witness a redneck being absorbed by the bouncing pelts of his kin. It was why Randall had to answer to Sitka’s glistening bolt-action before they could discuss apprenticeship.

Sitka was a good man, and Randall was a good worker. That was six months ago, and they’d shared a lot of coffee and frostbite since then. On his birthday, Sitka pieced him in on some good news- Kamona, the dog Randall had grown fondest of (every sledder has a favorite), was pregnant. She was due in January.

Up above him, the sky skims and twirls in a million different arcs, like a boy learning to scribble in his coloring book. The high mountains shiver in gold tinfoil, and a small sneeze leaps from Kamona’s nose. Randall pats her belly slowly, feeling the gurgle and tensity of her chest through his mittens. This is the time of day he feeds the dogs and puts them to rest, but Randall knows that can wait. For a kid from the sticks, this is all he’s been waiting for.


It is January 23rd. The town of Utqiagvik is quiet, almost to the point of religious divinity. Snow spreads across the ground like frosting, and on the exposed parts of buildings, a thick layer of white freezer burn rides up the wooden edges.

These are not developments anyone can notice. The sun, a shy schoolgirl, has avoided this town for two months. The others make fun of her- the wind screeches laughter on worn-out haunches, the storm clouds dump their misgivings onto those unlucky enough to be below them, the sea continues its eternal bubbling hiss. None of this encourages her to show her face again.

Today is a new day. It is expected she will be back, recovering a flash of braveness after a dark, lonely hibernation. The townspeople cower to their windows, peeling back the frost using only their breath. Utqiagvik has been patient, patient as a town can be, and they expect to be rewarded.

Her entrance is grand- she’s always been an agent of class, and today she shows it, warming up the sky like a pot coming to boil. The darkness fades to gray, fades to blue, and then sparks of orange and pink begin to pop between the clouds, hidden kernels against solar heat. It is an articulate dance that she’s curated, and it scares the elements away. There is no more wind, no more churning sea. Only a white canvas for her to perform against.

The first civilian makes their way outside. A little girl opens the front door, a slip of red nose peaking from her parka as an offering. The sun takes it, climbing a little higher and shining some hotter rays across the one-story homes, which swim over the rigid mountaintops like unseen ocean tides.

A bark cracks across the quiet space, and then another. The sled dogs billow out Sitka’s door, their coats downy and hungry for a good shine. Randall follows the crew, and in his arms are two pups, their eyes clipped fingernails, their fur gray as the past. Behind him is Kamona, heavier and milk-laden. She rubs against Randall’s side like a housecat, knowing his smell as closely as her young.

The sun continues to stretch and rise, a lump of sourdough set to proof. It ignites Barrow High School, then the Whaling Museum, and finally the town common, where fifty men and women stand within kissing distance. There is heat as the sun arrives, but with the temperature still in the negatives, no one is tempted to stray from the pack.

This is good news for Bobby and Chunhui, who stand face to face in the coming light. Bobby’s skin, almost transparent from the lack of Vitamin D, pulls tight against his lips as he sticks a tongue out, the red wet flesh baring small, smoky trails. Chunhui giggles and grabs his hands. It is these little faces, these passing glances, that have taught Chunhui what she’s been missing all her life. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks- she drags him in until his tongue is within her own.

Another man hangs inside the crowd- Miku. He is a man now, and the others recognize it, like the horns of a freshly matured elk; only Miku wears it in his grizzled beard, and his creased cheekbones, and his eyes that sing like judgement day. On his shoulders is his brother’s kuspuk. The sleeves are knotted tight against his chest, medallion-like, and in his pocket he chokes a cell phone. He winces constantly at the touch of it, as if it is made of something molten. Except it’s not a physical pain- it’s a spiritual kind that comes from waiting, from not knowing. Miku stares up, into the open blue sky, and lets the heat wash over him like a winter storm. There is a twinge in his eye, and then it comes, unexpected, a forgotten feeling. It is hope, overflowing his long empty cup.

Away from all this, and the last one to be touched by the glowing sky, is the farthest home on the hemisphere. Inside is a dusty living room- a covered sofa, an old rabbit-eared television, an empty wheelchair. The door is wide open, yet the wind doesn’t catch it, so it stays that way, a bright blue gullet with one man within its lips.

Nanook steps across the beach. Each movement is slow, and as his boots break the skin of the icy soil, there’s a loud crunch. He has never done this walk alone- never dreamed he would have to. But it isn’t as bad as he thought it would be. The warm feels good on his joints.

As he moves, he holds onto each crunch like he does with everything else- the patter of her eyelashes, the meeting of their noses, the soft sigh as she lowers into bed. And for a moment, it’s as if she’s behind him, walking in his trail, her skin a golden fire and her gaze a neon sky.

Nanook wants to turn around, to catch her in his tracks. He doesn’t. Instead, he moves forward, chasing the unbroken snow in front of him, and blesses the light that shines upon their small, little world.

December 09, 2023 01:43

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Graham Kinross
23:56 Apr 10, 2024

Bringing all of the characters together with such poetic description like this is no small achievement. No wonder you were shortlisted. Congratulations.


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Story Time
04:38 Dec 21, 2023

I could feel the setting here so clearly. You did a great job evoking all the elements, and I found that the story moved along at a great pace. Well done.


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Philip Ebuluofor
18:34 Dec 18, 2023

Congrats. I can see your descriptive ability is on high.


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Kristi Gott
21:21 Dec 16, 2023

Wow, this is an incredible story with amazing vivid details and imagery. I love this. It's a winner for sure! I admire the writing very much and it inspires me with the creativity of this story. This is unique and wonderful.


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David McCahan
10:58 Dec 13, 2023

Nicely captures several lives experiencing the same moments. The cold and darkness is palpable. Well done.


David McCahan
11:46 Dec 16, 2023

Congrats on the Shortlist! Well deserved!


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