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Skull Slams

Shishmaref

Shishmaref, Alaska.

Laying on a mattress on the floor, arm shielding my eyes from the florescent lights above, a brass knocker pounds against my skull. A steady, heavy ramming of metal against bone. Each strike ripping a wave of nausea from my gut to my mouth as the smell of feces— my feces— slips beneath the door from the next room’s honeybucket, a trash bag hanging from a toilet seat.

What am I doing? I’m not cut out for this. I’m not a reporter. I want my Dad. I want my Dad to come in and rub my back and hand me tea and tell me he loves me. I want my Mom. I want my Mom to come in and hand my ginger ale and place her cool hand on my forehead and tell me to rest. I want the same pampering I received when I was growing up.

Now, I’m 23 years old on a tiny island 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle, laying sick and alone in a stranger’s basement. Why am I here? Why am I doing this? I’m a middle class girl from the lower-48. I’m used to showers, flushing toilets, and running water—drinkable running water. I’m not a reporter. A reporter sticks her unwavering hand in the lion’s mouth, looks into the beast’s eyes, and winks. I stick my hand in, feel a single sharp tooth rake my wrist, and run to my parents.

Why are you here?

Because I wanted the story.

No, not why are you in Shishmaref. Why are you here?

Because I wanted adventure. I wanted to travel.

No, why are you here with KNOM?

Because I wanted to write every day. I wanted to spend the best part of my day and not the stolen hours at night placing one word after another.

And it hits me. Harder than any migraine. After three months…I am a writer. I am a full-time writer. And snatches of conversation begin sounding through my mind.

Me 16 years old, arms spread wide, telling my parents, “I will live an unconventional life!”

Me 19 years old, walking into the Birmingham Civil Rights Archive, taking an oral history collection off the shelf, and telling my professor, “This is what I want to do. Ask questions and record people’s stories.”

Me 21 years old, looking into the eyes of a personal theatre idol of mine and potential employer, him asking me, “What do you really want?” And instead of answering, “Directing,” saying, “To travel the world and collect people’s stories.”

Me 22 years old, working my dream job at a theatre, and sitting backstage scribbling a letter to my friend reading, “I want to write. I want to write. I want to write.”

And for the first time, even though I accepted the job offer in April, even though I’ve been working with KNOM since August, even though I’m laying in the stench of my own excrement with a hammer slamming against my skull, for the first time, I realize, I did it.

I take a few deep breaths and groan slightly. Then I pull myself up, stomach lurching, head leaden and throbbing, and finish typing the story at my feet.