It is -30°F, and a transcendental winter sun pauses briefly on the horizon. Fred and I are tracking polar bears near Barrow, more than 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Alone and almost invisible in our cream-colored 4-wheel-drive Toyota, we are beyond the icy shores of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas when a dense curtain of fog forces us to retreat toward the haven of the city.
Struggling over a steep incline, we fishtail into a snowbank and flip onto our side. My slightly dazed friend grabs some rope and a chainsaw from the back seat before clambering onto the snow. I check myself for broken bones and squash the queasy feeling in my gut, then follow him up and out the driver’s-side door. Biting winds burn my face and bring tears to my unprotected eyes.
Obeying Fred’s instructions, I secure our rope to the axles with a couple of hitches, keeping a double-length free. He carves a thick block of ice from the frozen snowbank on the other side of the road, chopping in a few grooves to prevent the rope from slipping when it tightens. My exposed fingers are shiny and numb by the time we wrap the rope around the block and back to the capstan winch on the hood.
“Damn, it’s cold.” My breath freezes over my collar when I exhale. The wind whistles sullenly through layers of power-stretch fleece covering my ears, and my thumb is turning blue from early frostbite. I shiver when my neck muscles tighten, a sure sign my brain has ordered surface capillaries to constrict.
The crunch of Fred’s boots disrupts the death-like silence fluttering across the frozen plain. He slides into the driver’s seat and starts the engine. The capstan turns continuously until the truck begins to list. With a muffled thump, we are on all four wheels again. I jump in and close the door, struggling to unzip my jacket before burrowing aching fingers, hard as tootsie rolls, into my armpits.
“Happy day,” my friend shouts after tearing off his ski mask. His handlebar mustache is white with ice. He turns the heater on full blast, and we roar over the snowbank. Fred’s mother was Inupiat Eskimo. His father worked in the oilfields north of Fairbanks. Coming home after Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fred left the Marines and settled in Barrow to become a hunter. I struggled another year in Special Forces, then drifted back to San Diego. Support from other vets helped, but I couldn’t get my act together. I figured it was time to hit Alaska for a visit.
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again,” I say.
“It’s like in the war, dude, but we’re lucky.”
“I’m glad you had the chainsaw.”
“Never leave town without it or my rifle.”
I wipe condensation from the frost-covered windows to admire the dusky landscape, then stick my hands back inside my jacket. “It sure looks different from Southern California,” I say.
Fred explains how sheets of ice collide over constantly moving oceans, piling into jagged pyramids called pressure ridges. They remind me of the concrete barriers we built to prevent car bomb attacks in Bagdad.
He points to a heap of five-gallon paint cans on a nearby trash dump. “Keep your eyes open,” he says. “Bears think there’s food in those honey buckets.”
“What honey buckets?”
“This time of year, it’s dark for ninety days and colder than hell, so whenever the pipes freeze, people crap in their cans and leave them here till summer.”
An arctic fox darts across the frost-covered road and melts into the polar twilight, invisible except for its short black ears and muzzle when it turns to stare. Our headlights catch a glimpse of gold in the foxe’s eyes before the animal vanishes into the wilderness.
We skirt the Heritage Cultural Center and drive south toward an area nicknamed Satellite City. A steel-gray forest of parabolic antennas the size of shipping containers points horizontally across the low horizon. A metal research hut stands high on stilts above the tundra. Except for a snowy graveyard garnished with a dozen crosses, the barren landscape of the arctic desert stretches on forever.
“Permafrost starts just below the surface.” Fred nods toward the cemetery. “We can’t dig deep, so we build mounds on top of the graves.”
“We didn’t bury anyone in Iraq, remember?” The scorching heat sucked moisture out of enemy bodies till they turned into parchment-covered mummies. Aeolian winds and sand did the rest.
“Kids launch their snowmobiles off those mounds.” Fred stops the truck in the blue-tinged shadow of a cluster of crosses. He keeps the engine running.
I pull my hands from my jacket. It’s as if a jackhammer is pounding on my heart. This can’t be happening. I blink my eyes to chase away memories devouring my brain.
“Maybe I should build a fence around those graves.” Fred’s words echo far away.
My throat is swelling—I can hardly breathe, but I won’t panic. PTSD is bad enough, and I don’t want my friend seeing me this way again. I muster a few words. “Hell, when you’re dead, you’re dead.”
Shit, I need to piss. I squeeze my thighs together, but a few warm squirts leak into my crotch. I’m trembling, squirming around. This car seat isn’t big enough. Tears are going to freeze on my eyeballs.
Fred pounds the steering wheel before grabbing me by the shoulders. “Don’t go there, brother. Get a grip.”
“But, he was a kid!”
“We thought he had a grenade, remember?”
“He was still writhing after I shot him.”
“We didn’t have a choice, okay?” Fred’s bellowing voice smothers the growl of our engine. Small icicles fall from his eyebrows. His massive palm is wrapped around the nape of my neck as he shakes me reassuringly. “We’re alive, aren’t we.”
He floors the accelerator. Our tires spin wildly before gripping the icy road.
“But he was just a kid, and we dropped him in a shit-pit!”
Fred shrugs, like it’s our little secret.
Henri Colt is a physician-writer and wandering scholar whose passions include mountaineering and tango. He is the editor of Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies (Oxford University Press). His short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fewer than 500.