Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (12 page)

BOOK: The Great Alone: A Novel
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“Whaddaya mean?” Ted asked.

Dad looked … different somehow. Taller. His shoulders were higher and more square than she’d seen before. “Nuclear war. A pandemic. An electromagnetic pulse. Earthquake. Tidal wave. Tornado. Mount Redoubt blowing up, or Mount Rainer. In 1908 there was an explosion in Siberia that was a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There are a million ways for this sick, corrupt world to end.”

Thelma frowned. “Oh, come on, Ernt, there’s no need to scare—”

“Shush, Thelma,” Mad Earl snapped.

“Whatever comes, man-made tragedy or natural disaster, the first thing
that happens is a breakdown of law and order,” Dad said. “Think of it: No power. No communications. No grocery stores. No uncontaminated food. No water. No civilization. Martial law.”

Dad paused, made eye contact with each person, one by one. “People like Tom Walker, with his big house and expensive boats and his excavator, will be caught off guard. What good will all that land and wealth do him when he runs out of food or medical supplies? None. And you know what will happen when people like Tom Walker realize they aren’t prepared?”

“What?” Mad Earl stared up at Dad as if he’d just seen God.

“He’ll come
here
, banging on our doors, begging for help from
us
, the people he thought he was better than.” Dad paused. “We have to know how to protect ourselves and keep out the marauders who will want what we have. First off, we need to put together bug-out bags—packs that are already packed for survival. We need to be able to disappear at a moment’s notice, with everything we need.”

“Yeah!” someone yelled.

“But that’s not enough. We have a good start here. But security is lax. I think Bo left me his land so I would find my way here, to you, and teach you that it’s not enough to be prepared for survival. You have to fight for what’s yours. Kill anyone who comes to take it from you. I know you all are hunters, but we’ll need more than guns when TSHTF. Impact weapons break bones. Knives sever arteries. Arrows puncture. Before the first snowfall, I promise you, each one of us will be ready for the worst, every single one of you—from youngest to oldest—will be able to protect yourself and your family from the danger that’s coming.”

Mad Earl nodded.

“So. Everyone line up. I want to assess precisely how good each of you is with a gun. We’ll start there.”

 

EIGHT

By the first of November, the days were shortening fast. Leni felt the loss of every moment of light. Dawn came reluctantly at nine
A.M.
and night reclaimed the world around five
P.M.
Barely eight hours of daylight now. Sixteen hours of darkness. Night swept in like nothing Leni had ever seen before, like the winged shadow of a creature too big and predatory to comprehend.

Weather had become impossible to predict. It had rained and snowed and rained again. Now the late-afternoon sky spit down at them, a freezing mixture of sleet and rain. Water pooled on the ground, turned to sheets of dirty, weed-studded ice. Leni had to do her chores in muck. After feeding the goats and chickens, she trudged into the woods behind the house, carrying two empty buckets. The cottonwoods were bare; autumn had turned them into skeletons. Everything with a heartbeat was hunkered down somewhere, trying to get out of the sleet and rain.

As she walked down toward the river, a cold wind pulled at her hair, whined across her jacket. She hunched her shoulders and kept her head down.

It took five trips to fill the steel water barrel they kept at the side of the
house. Rain helped but couldn’t be relied upon. Water, like firewood, could never be left to chance.

She was sweating hard, scooping a bucket of water from the creek, slopping it across her boots, when night fell. And she meant
fell
; it hit hard and fast, like a lid clanging down on its pot.

When Leni turned homeward, she saw an endless black expanse. Nothing distinguishable, no stars overhead, no moon to light a path.

She fumbled in her parka pocket for the headlamp her dad had given her. She adjusted the strap and put it on, snapping the light switch. She pulled a pistol out of its holster, stuck it in her waistband.

Her heart was hammering in her chest as she bent down and picked up the two buckets she’d filled with water. The metal handles bit into her gloved hands.

The icy rain turned to snow, stung her cheeks and forehead.

Winter.

The bears aren’t in hibernation yet, are they? They are most dangerous now, feeding hungrily before going to sleep.

She saw a pair of yellow eyes staring at her from the darkness.

No. She was imagining it.

The ground beneath her changed, gave way. She stumbled. Water sloshed out of the buckets and onto her gloves.
Don’tpanicDon’tpanicDon’tpanic.

Her headlight revealed a fallen log in front of her. Breathing hard, she stepped over it, heard the screech of bark against her jeans, and kept going; up a hill, down one, around a dense black thicket. Finally, up ahead, she saw a glimmer.

Light.

The cabin.

She wanted to run. She was
desperate
to get home, to feel her mother’s arms around her, but she wasn’t stupid. She had already made one mistake—she hadn’t kept track of time.

As she neared the cabin, the night separated a little. She saw charcoal outlines against the black: the sheen of the metal stovepipe poking up
through the roof, a side window full of light, the shadow of people inside. The air smelled of wood smoke and welcome.

Leni rushed around to the side of the cabin, lifted the barrel’s makeshift lid, and poured what was left of her water into the barrel. The split second between her upending the bucket and the sound of the water splashing in told her the barrel was about three-quarters full.

Leni was shaking so hard it took two tries for her to unlatch the door.

“I’m back,” she said, stepping into the cabin, her whole body shaking.

“Shut up, Leni,” Dad snapped.

Mama stood in front of Dad. She was unsteady-looking, dressed in ragged sweats and a big sweater. “Hey, there, baby girl,” she said. “Hang up your parka and take off your boots.”

“I’m talking to you, Cora,” Dad said.

Leni heard anger in his voice, saw her mother flinch.

“You have to take the rice back. Tell Large Marge we can’t pay for it,” he said. “And the pilot bread and powdered milk, too.”

“But … you haven’t gotten a moose yet,” Mama said. “We need—”

“It’s all my fault, is it?” Dad shouted.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. But winter’s bearing down on us. We need more food than we have, and our money—”

“You think I don’t know we need money?” He swiped at the chair in front of him, sent it tumbling and cracking to the floor.

The sudden wildness in his eyes, the showing of the whites, scared Leni. She took a step backward.

Mama went to him, touched his face, tried to gentle him. “Ernt, baby, we’ll figure it out.”

He yanked back and headed for the door. Grabbing his parka from its place on the hook by the window, he pulled the door open, let in the sweeping cold, and slammed it shut behind him. A moment later, the VW bus engine roared to life; headlights stabbed through the window, turned Mama golden white.

“It’s the weather,” Mama said, lighting a cigarette, watching him drive
away. Her beautiful skin looked sallow in the headlights’ glow, almost waxen.

“It’s going to get worse,” Leni said. “Every day is darker and colder.”

“Yeah,” Mama said, looking as scared as Leni suddenly felt. “I know.”

*   *   *

W
INTER TIGHTENED ITS GRIP
on Alaska. The vastness of the landscape dwindled down to the confines of their cabin. The sun rose at a quarter past ten in the morning and set only fifteen minutes after the end of the school day. Less than six hours of light a day. Snow fell endlessly, blanketed everything. It piled up in drifts and spun its lace across windowpanes, leaving them nothing to see except themselves. In the few daylight hours, the sky stretched gray overhead; some days there was merely the memory of light rather than any real glow. Wind scoured the landscape, cried out as if in pain. The fireweed froze, turned into intricate ice sculptures that stuck up from the snow. In the freezing cold, everything stuck—car doors froze, windows cracked, engines refused to start. The ham radio filled with warnings of bad weather and listed the deaths that were as common in Alaska in the winter as frozen eyelashes. People died for the smallest mistake—car keys dropped in a river, a gas tank gone dry, a snow machine breaking down, a turn taken too fast. Leni couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without a warning. Already the winter seemed to have gone on forever. Shore ice seized the coastline, glazed the shells and stones until the beach looked like a silver-sequined collar. Wind roared across the homestead, as it had all winter, transforming the white landscape with every breath. Trees cowered in the face of it, animals built dens and burrowed holes and went into hiding. Not so different from the humans, who hunkered down in this cold, took special care.

Leni’s life was the smallest it had ever been. On good days, when the bus would start and the weather was bearable, there was school. On bad days, there was only work, accomplished in this driving, demoralizing cold. Leni focused on what needed to be done—going to school, doing homework, feeding the animals, carrying water, cracking ice, darning socks, repairing
clothes, cooking with Mama, cleaning the cabin, feeding the woodstove. Every day more and more wood had to be chopped and carried and stacked. There was no room in these shortened days to think about anything beyond the mechanics of survival. They were growing starter vegetables in Dixie cups on a table beneath the loft. Even the practice of survival skills at the Harlan compound on weekends had been suspended.

Worse than the weather was the confinement it caused.

As winter pared their life away, the Allbrights were left with only each other. Every evening was spent together, hours and hours of night, huddled around the woodstove.

They were all on edge. Arguments erupted between her parents over money, over chores, over the weather. Over nothing.

Leni knew how anxious Dad was about their inadequate supplies and their nonexistent money. She saw how it gnawed at him; she saw, too, how closely Mama watched him, how worried she was about his rising anxiety.

His struggle for calm was obvious in a dozen tics and in the way he seemed unwilling to look at them sometimes. He woke well before dawn and stayed outside working as long as he could, coming back in well after dark and covered in snow, his mustache and eyebrows frozen, the tip of his nose white.

The effort he made to keep his temper in check was apparent. As the days shortened and the nights lengthened, he began pacing after dinner, getting agitated and muttering to himself. On those bad nights, he took the traps Mad Earl had taught him to use and went trapping in the deep woods alone and came back exhausted, haggard-looking. Quiet. Himself. More often than not, he came home successful in the hunt, with fox or marten furs to sell in town. He made just enough money to keep them afloat; but even Leni could see the empty shelves in their root cellar. No meal was ever big enough to fill them up. The money Mama had borrowed from Grandma was long gone and there was none to take its place, so Leni had stopped taking pictures and Mama barely smoked. Large Marge sometimes gave them cigarettes and film for free—when Dad wasn’t looking—but they didn’t go into town often.

Dad’s intentions were good, but even so, it was like living with a wild animal. Like those crazy hippies the Alaskans talked about who lived with wolves and bears and invariably ended up getting killed. The natural-born predator could seem domesticated, even friendly, could lick your throat affectionately or rub up against you to get a back scratch. But you knew, or should know, that it was a wild thing you lived with, that a collar and leash and a bowl of food might tame the actions of the beast, but couldn’t change its essential nature. In a split second, less time than it took to exhale a breath, that wolf could claim its nature and turn, fangs bared.

It was exhausting to worry all the time, to study Dad’s every movement and the tone of his voice.

It had obviously worn Mama down. Anxiety had pulled the light from her eyes and the glow from her skin. Or maybe the pallor came from living like mushrooms.

On an especially cold late November day, Leni woke to the sound of screaming. Something crashed to the floor.

She knew instantly what was happening. Her dad had had a nightmare. His third one this week.

She crawled out of her sleeping bag and went to the edge of the loft, peering down. Mama stood by the beaded door of their bedroom, holding a lantern high. In its glow, she looked scared, her hair a mess, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. The woodstove was a dot of orange in the dark.

Dad was like an untamed animal, shoving, tearing, snarling, saying words she couldn’t understand … then he was wrenching open boxes, looking for something. Mama approached him cautiously, laid a hand on his back. He shoved her aside so hard she cracked into the log wall, cried out.

Dad stopped, jerked upright. His nostrils flared. He was flexing and unflexing his right hand. When he saw Mama, everything changed. His shoulders rounded, his head hung in shame. “Jesus, Cora,” he whispered brokenly. “I’m sorry. I … didn’t know where I was.”

“I know,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears.

He went to her, enfolded her in his arms, held her. They sank to their
knees together, foreheads touching. Leni could hear them talking but couldn’t make out the words.

She returned to her sleeping bag and tried to go back to sleep.

*   *   *

“L
ENI!
G
ET UP
. We’re going hunting. I’ve got to get out of the g-damn house.”

With a sigh, she dressed in the darkness. In the first months of this Alaskan winter, she had learned to live like one of those phosphorescent invertebrates that roamed the sea floor, their lives untouched by any light or color except that which they generated themselves.

In the living room, the woodstove offered light through a narrow window in the black metal door. She could make out the silhouettes of her parents standing beside it, could hear their breathing. Coffee gurgled in a metal pot on top of the stove, puffed its welcoming scent into the darkness.

Dad lit a lantern, held it up. In its orange glow, he looked haggard, tightly wound. A tic played at the corner of his right eye. “You guys ready?”

Mama looked exhausted. Dressed in a huge parka and insulated pants, she looked too fragile for the weather, and too tired to hike for much of a distance. In a week of rising nightmares and middle-of-the-night screaming, she wasn’t sleeping well.

“Sure,” Mama said. “I love to hunt at six
A.M.
on a Sunday morning.”

Leni went to the hooks on the wall, grabbed the gray parka and insulated pants she’d found at the Salvation Army in Homer last month, and the secondhand bunny boots Matthew had given her. She pulled down-filled gloves out of her parka pockets.

“Good,” Dad said. “Let’s go.”

This predawn world was hushed. There was no wind, no cracking branches, just the endless sifting downward of snow, the white accumulating everywhere. Leni trudged through the snow toward the animal pens. The goats stood huddled together, bleating at her arrival, bumping into each
other. She tossed them a flake of hay and then fed the chickens and broke the ice on their water troughs.

When she got to the VW bus, Mama was already inside. Leni climbed into the backseat. In this cold, the bus took a long time to start and even longer for the windows to defrost. The vehicle was not good in this part of the world; they’d learned that the hard way. Dad put chains on the tires and tossed a gear bag in the well between the front seats. Leni sat in the back, her arms crossed, shivering, intermittently falling asleep and waking up.

On the main road, Dad turned right, toward town, but before the airstrip, he turned left onto the road that led to the abandoned chromium mine. They drove for miles on the hard-packed snow, the road a series of sharp switchbacks that seemed to be cut into the side of the mountain. Deep in the woods, high on the mountain, he parked suddenly, with a jarring stomp on the brakes, and handed them each a headlamp and a shotgun before hefting a pack and opening his door.

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