A while ago, I posted a portion of a story that I couldn't make go anywhere, a story about a little girl in a boat who witnesses a plane crash. (Ideas That Don't Go Anywhere) That particular idea came from a strange dream I had, so it never really surprised me that I couldn't make it go somewhere. (Not that I've stopped trying. I still have hope for the little girl and her dog.) But I have plenty of other ideas that don't go anywhere. The story that follows didn't come from a dream. It's an idea that formed after I started watching all those reality shows about life in Alaska. I'm fascinated by these people that can live so close to the top of the world, so far away from what I consider normal life. Life in the Arctic Circle is hard, so hard that I'm not even sure it's considered living so much as just surviving. But from my interest in these people and their way of life came a story idea. And it's just that - an idea. It's another story that I can't make go anywhere - yet.
Three Trees, Alaska
6:30 PM, 10o F
Village Public Safety Officer Jim Burke glanced at the ringing phone on his desk. Actually, it was just winking one red eye at him, assaulting his eyes with its brightness; he'd disabled the actual ring a long time ago. In a place where one spent so much time in a still darkness, the shrill ring of a phone could jar your senses like fingernails on a chalkboard. Burke frowned at the red eye. The sun had only been down for a few hours, and already one of the drunken village idiots was making trouble. Every damn night this week. If it was Tsosie again, Burke was going to punch him in the nose. He was getting sick of this shit.
Places like Three Trees, which saddles the Arctic Circle, tend to attract what outsiders affectionately call "crazies"; the people who firmly believe in and use their Second Amendment rights as Americans while simultaneously shunning the actual institution of government and its laws. Everyone Burke had met in this final outpost before the wilderness of the Ray Mountains carried a weapon or had a stash of meth in their glove compartment. And some of them were crazy; he'd once had a man tell him his name was "Nobody Jenkins" and refused to say anything else. He could have called himself Zulu Queen of the Dwarves for all Burke cared, if only Mr. Jenkins hadn't been walking down the main road of town stark naked at the time. Twice Burke had come across a fugitive from the lower forty-eight who'd come to Alaska to disappear; one tried to run from him and Burke ended up having to rescue him from a fall through a thawing ice road. Once he'd pulled over a guy who had a trunk full of antique swords and daggers. It was sometimes a dangerous place, more so in the dead of winter when the sun was only up for two hours a day. There was something about the darkness that made some people go a little nuts. Not all that long ago a man had killed several members of his own village and attempted to hijack a mail plane in protest of an oil pipeline. Some people just couldn't handle the cold and the dark.
And that was why Three Trees needed someone like Burke to keep them safe. But he still hated winter.
Burke reached toward the blinking light with one hand and stubbed out a cigar with the other. "Burke... Yep... Yep... Yup. Ayup." He replaced the receiver and sighed heavily. "Fuckin' Tsosie," he muttered and pulled open a drawer in his desk, staring longingly at a bottle of Jack Daniels he’d hidden at the bottom. He'd pulled it off of Randy Smith last month and, technically, it was evidence; hard liquor was prohibited in Three Trees. But, technically, he’d forgotten about Randy's female friend in his car who was not his wife, and so Randy had forgotten about his Jack Daniels, which he'd bought off of a smuggler for near a thousand dollars, Burke guessed. He was saving the bottle for his next quiet and lonely night in B.F.E., Alaska. Which he'd hoped would be tonight. He closed the drawer with a resigned sigh.
Burke left his desk and grabbed his belt from a coat rack. As he strapped on his pepper spray, baton, and TASER, he struggled with the buckle; it was getting a bit tight these days. Too many of Marie's pies. He grabbed his down parka, ignoring the Kevlar vest hanging next to it. It was bulky and uncomfortable, and just too much of a hindrance. Damn Marie. Besides, he told himself, he’d never once needed it. Not here. Three Trees, though remote – it was only accessible by land during the ice road months – turned out to be a lucky assignment for Burke. It was a village of about a hundred people who mostly kept to themselves. Aside from the occasional fugitive, Burke's job consisted of confiscating illegal alcohol or drugs, and breaking up fights caused by illegal alcohol or drugs. Mostly, people stayed inside by the fire. Mostly.
Stifling a yawn, Burke pulled a beanie over his balding head and stuffed himself into his parka. He pulled the hood up, cinching it tight, and zipped up. Next, he pulled on a pair of thick gloves and finished with the flip of a scarf his mother had knitted for him last Christmas. He left the comfort of the darkened police trailer, locked up standing in the near zero temperature, and hopped on his snowmobile. He steered himself toward Marie's at the other end of the main route through town, and thought about warm cherry pie.
* * *
On the other side of Three Trees, Marie Stevenson stood behind the bar of her restaurant, Marie's Place, "The best food in town because it's the only food in town." She leaned back against the counter with her hands in her apron pockets. On the other side of the bar, Frank Tsosie was flailing around like a drunken bull in a china shop. His girlfriend, Katarin, was crying hysterically, her black mascara streaming down her cheeks ala Tammy Faye Bakker. She was the only one near Frank now, trying to get him calmed down. The other patrons, three regulars who’d been laughing over chowder only moments before, were huddled at the other end of the bar, cuddling their beers like wusses. Instead of standing there while she called Burke, the three of them boys could’ve easily subdued Frank, stuck him in his truck with Katarin, and had them on their way home by now.
Behind her, Marie heard the clatter and clang of falling cookware ringing throughout the restaurant, quickly followed by Barry's swearing.
Frank suddenly turned toward the noise, whipping a large pistol from the depths of his parka, which he'd been sweating in since he arrived. He waved the business end of his gun toward the kitchen window and Marie's blood froze. "Goddammit Barry," she hissed at her younger brother. To Frank, she said gently, "Jesus, Frank, put the gun away. Take it easy. Just what's it that's got you all flared up? What can I do to help?" She was sincere; this wasn’t like Frank. He was usually harmless. She tried to keep her pulse under control. While this was not the first time Marie’d had a gun stuck in her face, it was the first time it’d been done by the unsteady hands of a drunkard.
Frank focused his dark, watery eyes on Marie. He stared at her from behind a full, black beard that was just beginning to get wild, and eyebrows that had never been tamed. Though he was only forty-five, his face was aged by a hard life, wrinkles pointing firmly down, even when he smiled. He swayed slightly in his snow boots, like there was a breeze rushing around him on the deck of an unsteady boat. He kept his gun pointed at Marie and laughed.
"You can't do shit," Frank shouted suddenly, his deep voice silencing Katarin's prattling, finally. "It's too late! It's all too late! The time has come!"
"The time has come for what," Barry shouted impatiently from the kitchen. “Crazy asshole,” he added under his breath, heedless of Frank’s gun.
"Shut up, Barry!" Marie clenched her jaw. Where the hell was Burke?
"It's Leap Day, guys! Don't you see! Don't you get it? The end of time has come! The end of time, man!"
"No one understands you, Frank!" Katarin had edged further away from Frank, scared by the sudden appearance of his gun and his violent outburst. "You're drunk! Put your gun away. Let's go home, please." Marie felt a little sorry for the girl, another native, but much younger than Frank. She could get much better, but for some reason she’d parked herself in this tiny village, away from all civilization and most decent men. The only kind of men hanging around a place as desolate and dark as Three Trees were the damaged ones.
“Why are you doing this Frank?” Katarin whined. “I don’t understand.”
"Oh, you're gonna understand it, sweetheart!" Frank turned on her unsteadily and stumbled toward her, a shaking arm pointing the gun at her. She cringed in on herself, covering her face with her hands, tried to be small, shrink herself into a tiny target. Marie gasped and took a step forward, horrified. What the hell was Frank playing at? Harmless drunk Frank Tsosie? Where the fuck is Burke?
"Frank," Katarin cried softly. "Frank, please. What are you doing?" Her big doe eyes were wide and frightened.
"Helloo! Village Safety Officer!" Burke announced his presence in a tone of carefully controlled cheerfulness as he pulled open the narrow door to Marie's, stepping inside the warmth of the restaurant. His heart racing, he had carefully observed the scene now before him through the trailer's windows before entering. He eyed it as one analyzes a fish bowl; the bright glass windows glaring against the starless darkness as he tried to figure out the best approach. Frank Tsosie, a native of Alaska who’d ended up in Three Trees following his discharge from the navy and suffered from PTSD, was usually pretty docile. He'd yell and rant and cry, sometimes throw up all over himself, but he'd never seen Frank become violent, or wave a gun around for crissakes. He didn't want to surprise Frank, but Burke saw no other way of getting into the building – the front door was the only means of ingress and egress aside from the door at the back of the kitchen, which was currently blocked with three feet of snow. He'd just have to go in and hope Frank didn't shoot him. Can't believe I didn't put on that damn vest, Burke chastised himself just before opening the door. Fucking Tsosie.
Marie's Place was a long and narrow trailer outfitted like an old 50’s diner. There was a bar with red stools spanning the width of the building, an open kitchen behind. This was broken briefly by a small glass display of freezer burned desserts and a swinging half door for Marie. Burke had just a split second of disappointment when he saw there were no fresh pies in the display. To the left and right of the entrance were five tiny booths each, all empty. Around the bar to the left was a tiny bathroom and the door to the kitchen.
Around to the right were Randy Smith, Thomas Dirk, and Kody Lee, huddled like babies against a window. Just in front of him, Frank had turned around, his gun wavering at him. Over Frank's shoulder, Katarin stared at the Village Safety Officer, begging for help with her eyes.
"Hey, Burkie!" Frank smiled, revealing a row of grime-caked teeth, one of his Dracula incisors missing.
"Hi, Frank," Burke said amiably, hoping his anxiety didn’t come pouring out of his fake smile. "What's going on?"
"I was just tryin' to explain–" Frank's sunken eyes unfocused for a moment as he tried to remember, and then seemed to come back to the present. "I was jus' tryin' to tell them about the Leap Day."
"Well you can tell them about Leap Day, Frank," Burke replied gently, slowly placing his hand behind him, wrapping his fingers around the stun gun as stealthily as possible. One quick zap outta do it, he thought; Frank wasn’t a big guy. Burke began working his way slowly toward Frank. He smiled at Marie, who looked petrified, and nodded to Barry, that fat idiot standing behind his sister with his mouth hanging open, his stupid fat head stuffed into a hairnet. "Who said you couldn't tell them about Leap Day?"
"Well they just wasn't listenin', Burkie. No one listens to me! They think I’m some kinda crazy idgit!" He whirled toward Katarin and the men behind her. All of them simultaneously flinched away, closing their eyes. “I ain’t no idgit!”
"Frank!" Burke shouted, edging closer. He was only three steps away now. "Talk to me, Frank. What were you trying to explain? Tell me about Leap Day." His hand felt sweaty around the stun gun and he prayed it wouldn’t slip right out of his hands.
Frank thought for a moment, his eyes going far away again, but then he shouted in frustration. "I can't remember, now! See what happens when no one listens to me!" He turned back around again, and this time Burke noticed that Frank's finger was on the trigger of his gun.
Burke struck like a snake, whipping out the stun gun as Frank turned away. He hit Frank in the ribs, right between the open zipper of his jacket. Frank screamed like a wounded yeti, but didn't go down. Instead, he swung back around with his free fist at Burke's head. Burke dropped the stun gun, both surprised and in pain. Frank leapt on him and began attacking him with his fists and screaming like an animal.
Burke fell backward onto the floor, his hands raised in defense while Frank pummeled him. "Goddammit, Frank!" Struggling to prevent any of Frank’s blows from striking home, he managed to get his feet under him and rose up against Frank's body, shoving him away with a punch to the nose. Burke steadied himself and stood only to face the barrel of Frank’s gun. He froze.
"I thought we was friends, Burkie," Frank said sadly, his free hand stemming the blood flowing from his nose. He pulled his hand away from his face, saw the blood and then put it back quickly. “I think you broke my nose,” he whined.
"We're friends, Frank," Burke said earnestly, raising his open palms in the universal sign of surrender. "I’m sorry about your nose,” he lied, “but I'm trying to keep everyone around here safe. It's pretty hard to do that when you're waving a gun—"
Burke flinched, convinced he'd been shot in the instant after the gun went off. He thought about his ex-wife, his elderly mother, his little red tricycle from his childhood, the Kevlar vest back in his trailer, Marie’s cherry pie. I don't want to die, he thought. Then he heard the tinkling of shattered glass hitting the floor.
Burke refocused his attention. He saw that Frank had dropped his gun and had both hands in the air, the whites of his eyes large as he stared toward the kitchen. Behind Marie, Barry had both arms raised, his fat hands around a smoking revolver. Directly behind Frank, one of the restaurant's windows had shattered and the frigid wind was whirling in around them.
"D-don't move, Frank," Barry shouted. "That was j-just a warning shot – next time I'll hit you in the gut. I swear!”
Recovering himself, Burke reached for Frank's arms and handcuffed his hands behind his back. He sighed heavily, trying to regain his composure; he'd almost crapped himself.
"Better put that gun down, Barry," Burke said. "I'll have to file a report and take the gun with me."
"What?" Barry protested petulantly. "But it's mine!"
Marie, who’d crouched behind the bar in the melee straightened. She turned around and snapped the gun out of her brother’s hands, laying it on the counter for Burke. If he hadn’t been so scared, he might have laughed at how easily Barry lost his gun to his sister.
"Shut the hell up, Barry! Jesus, you could have killed someone!" Marie shouted. "And it ain't like you don't have five more layin' around."
Burke was sure many of Barry's guns weren't registered, but he didn't really want any more paperwork tonight. "It's alright, Barry," he said, holding tight to Frank's arm. "You'll get it back. Eventually." He picked up the revolver, dumped the remaining bullets into a pocket of his coat and placed the gun in another, then bent to pick up Frank’s gun.
Behind Marie, Barry pouted. Marie snapped her fingers at him and Barry sulkily slid a pie through the window.
"Pie, Jim?" Marie asked. "It's cherry."
Burke smiled, momentarily distracted by the scent of the fresh pie. But then he looked at Frank, thought about the paperwork he’d have to do tonight, and about how tight his belt was. He sighed. "Not tonight, Marie, but thanks." To Randy, Thomas, and Kody, still huddled in a corner behind Katarin, he said, "I'll expect witness statements from all of you in the morning."
"What's gonna happen to Frank," Katarin asked, crying and shaking.
"I'll hold him in the trailer tonight. He'll sleep it off there and we'll talk about the consequences in the morning. In the meantime, why don't you have one of these brave gentlemen here drive you home, okay?" He turned away from her and hauled Frank to the door. As the two went outside into the cold wind, Burke got a whiff of something awful.
"That you, Tsosie?"
Frank smiled slightly. “That shot scared the shit out of me." He laughed.
Burke sighed. "Of course it did, Frank. I've got a towel you can sit on in the car. I might have an extra pair of pants back at the trailer for you too."
"Thanks, Burkie. You're a good friend."
"Try to remember that in the morning when I have to book you on public drunkenness, consuming illegal alcohol, and threatening people with a loaded gun."
"Nothing, Frank." Burke surveyed the immediate area as he led Frank to his snowmobile, his nerves on edge. He hadn't had a night this exciting in a while. He wasn't sure his heart could handle it; he wasn't young anymore. As he swiveled his head around, he caught sight of something dark lying in the snow outside the window that Barry had shot out. He tried to ignore it, really wanted to, but the more he looked at the shape, the more it seemed to look like a pile of clothes - a human shaped pile of clothes.
"Sit down, Frank," Burke said, leaning Tsosie's rump into the snow. "I'll be right back."
Frank hiccupped and closed his eyes.
Burke walked slowly toward the dark mass, examining it carefully. He saw a splay of long dark hair beneath the hood of a parka lined with fur, and he felt his body break out in a cold sweat.
"Ma'am," Burke said tentatively, a sick pit opening up in his stomach. "Village Safety Officer. Ma'am, can you hear me? Are you alright?" When there was no response, Burke quickened his pace. He approached the woman, who lay curled up on her side, and touched her shoulder.
The woman rolled back to reveal two dark eyes, frozen open, and a neat round hole in the middle of her forehead.
Burke sucked in a gulp of burning cold air. "Holy shit.”
Marie was wiping down the counter as a means of calming her nerves when the front door opened and Burke reappeared with Frank. The other men had retreated to their booth, talking quietly about what would happen to Frank. Katarin was sitting near comatose in the next booth as she waited for a ride home, a steaming cup of coffee untouched in front of her.
"Change your mind about the pie, Jim?" Marie asked without surprise; Jim loved her pies.
Burke threw the handcuffed Frank onto his stomach in a booth so he wouldn't soil it with his emptied bowels. He turned to Marie with a frown and sat on one of the stools in front of her.
"Jeez, Jim," Marie said, "what's wrong? You look like you've seen a body or something." Marie started to laugh, but stopped when Burke pressed his lips together instead of joining in. Barry's head reappeared in the kitchen window and Katarin and the other men grew quiet, looking to Burke for an explanation.
"As a matter of fact, Marie, I have."
"What?" The blood drained from Marie’s face.
"It would seem," Burke explained, "that while Barry missed Frank with his bullet, he didn't miss a woman walking by outside. I just saw her laying in the snow with a bullethole in her forehead."
There was a sudden clatter behind Marie as Barry dropped a couple of dishes he'd been washing. "This some kind of joke or somethin’," he finally managed to shout.
"No, Barry, it isn't," Burke replied sternly. "I wouldn't joke about something like this."
"Well who is it," Randy shouted from his booth. "Who's dead, Burke?"
"Well, that's just it," he replied, rubbing the stubble on his chin. "I know every resident of Three Trees, make it a point to – and we haven't had anyone new in town in a few years. But, I swear, I have no idea who she is. I've never seen her before."
"Oh God," Katarin began crying again.
"Better bring me the phone, Marie," Burke said. "And I'll take that pie now."
The problem with my little story here is that I've tried really hard to make it go somewhere because I actually really like the characters. I love Jim Burke. I want to know why he came to Alaska, why a man who hates winter and snow and ice would choose the isolation of Three Trees (not a real place, by the way). Why would someone purposely go to a place they hate? I'm not sure yet. I like Marie (and cherry pie) and her hapless brother Barry. But why do they choose to run a diner in a place so small and dark? Don't know that either. I even like poor drunk Frank Tsosie. What happened to him in the navy? Why does he have PTSD? ...? These are characters that I feel I can really develop, really create for a reader to enjoy as much as I do. My problem is that I don't have a story for them. There are too many questions that I can't answer.
Who's the woman outside the diner? What was she doing there? Don't know. I do have a few pieces of the plot, just nothing that I can string together (yet). For example, Barry didn't shoot her. She was placed outside the diner for Burke. But who put her there? Why? Was she really shot? (Probably not - I have the inklings of an idea there, but nothing worth sharing yet.)
Why is Frank going on about Leap Day? Is that going to play some part in the lore of Three Trees? (Of course Three Trees has a lore. It was founded by natives of Alaska many years ago. But what is the lore? Don't know.)
What is the story of Three Trees - the lore? It's named after three specific trees, but where are those trees and what makes them special? Not sure yet.
The idea for the story in Three Trees really came from the idea of isolation and how that can affect a person. People react differently to living in a place so isolated, a place only accessible by land during the warmer months (thank you Ice Road Truckers). A place where the sun only shines two hours a day for six months of the year. Have you ever thought about how important the sun and its light is to your daily life? What if it suddenly wasn't there? How would you mark time, mark the days? Could you? Some people can, but I'm not one of them.
For now the story has been shelved, but I'm still thinking about it. I'm still thinking about Burke and Tsosie, Marie and Barry. I want to know what happens next. And as soon as I figure that out, I'll let you know.