Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (2 page)

He pulled Mama to her feet with an eagerness that made her stumble, fall into him. Leni saw the desperate edge of his enthusiasm. “I need this, Cora. I need a place where I can breathe again. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my skin. Up there, the flashbacks and shit will stop. I know it.
We
need this. We can go back to the way things were before ’Nam screwed me up.”

Mama lifted her face to Dad’s, her pallor a sharp contrast to his dark hair and tanned skin.

“Come on, baby,” Dad said. “Imagine it…”

Leni saw Mama softening, reshaping her needs to match his, imagining this new personality: Alaskan. Maybe she thought it was like EST or yoga or Buddhism. The answer. Where or when or what didn’t matter to Mama. All she cared about was him. “Our own house,” she said. “But … money … you could apply for that military disability—”

“Not that discussion again,” he said with a sigh. “I’m not doing that. A
change is all I need. And I’ll be more careful with money from now on, Cora. I swear. I still have a little of the bread I inherited from the old man. And I’ll cut back on drinking. I’ll go to that veterans’ support-group thing you want me to.”

Leni had seen all of this before. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what she or Mama wanted.

Dad wanted a new beginning. Needed it. And Mama needed him to be happy.

So they would try again in a new place, hoping geography would be the answer. They would go to Alaska in search of this new dream. Leni would do as she was asked and do it with a good attitude. She would be the new girl in school
again.
Because that was what love was.

 

TWO

The next morning, Leni lay in her bed, listening to rain patter the roof, imagining the emergence of mushrooms beneath her window, their bulbous, poisonous tops pushing up through the mud, glistening temptingly. She had lain awake long past midnight, reading about the vast landscape of Alaska. It had captivated her in an unexpected way. The last frontier was like her dad, it seemed. Larger than life. Expansive. A little dangerous.

She heard music—a tinny, transistor melody. “Hooked on a Feeling.” She threw back the covers and got out of bed. In the kitchen, she found her mother standing in front of the stove, smoking a cigarette. She looked ethereal in the lamplight, her shag-cut blond hair still messy from sleep, her face veiled in blue-gray smoke. She was wearing a white tank top that had been washed so often it hung on her slim body, and a pair of hot-pink panties with a sagging elastic waist. A small purple bruise at the base of her throat was strangely beautiful, a starburst almost, highlighting the delicateness of her features.

“You should be sleeping,” Mama said. “It’s early.”

Leni came up beside her mother, rested her head on her shoulder. Mama’s skin smelled of rose perfume and cigarettes. “We don’t sleep,” Leni said.

W
e
don’t sleep
. It was what Mama always said. You and me. The connection between them a constant, a comfort, as if similarity reinforced the love between them. Certainly it was true that Mama had had trouble sleeping since Dad had come home. Whenever Leni woke in the middle of the night, she invariably found her mother drifting through the house, her diaphanous robe trailing open. In the dark, Mama tended to talk to herself in a whisper, saying words Leni could never quite make out.

“Are we really going?” Leni asked.

Mama stared at the black coffee percolating in the little glass cap at the top of the metal pot. “I guess so.”

“When?”

“You know your dad. Soon.”

“Will I get to finish the school year?”

Mama shrugged.

“Where is he?”

“He went out before dawn to sell the coin collection he inherited from his dad.” Mama poured herself a cup of coffee and took a sip, then set the mug down on the Formica counter. “Alaska. Christ. Why not Siberia?” She took a long drag on her cigarette. Exhaled. “I need a girlfriend to talk to.”

“I’m your friend.”

“You’re thirteen. I’m thirty. I’m supposed to be a
mother
to you. I need to remember that.”

Leni heard the despair in her mother’s voice and it frightened her. She knew how fragile it all was: her family, her parents. One thing every child of a POW knew was how easily people could be broken. Leni still wore the shiny silver POW bracelet in memory of a captain who hadn’t come home to his family.

“He needs a chance. A new start. We all do. Maybe Alaska is the answer.”

“Like Oregon was the answer, and Snohomish, and the seed packets that would make us rich. And don’t forget the year he thought he could make a
fortune in pinball machines. Can we at least wait until the end of the school year?”

Mama sighed. “I don’t think so. Now go get dressed for school.”

“There’s no school today.”

Mama was silent for a long time, then said quietly, “You remember the blue dress Dad bought you for your birthday?”

“Yeah.”

“Put it on.”

“Why?”

“Shoo. Get dressed now. You and I have things to do today.”

Although she was irritated and confused, Leni did as she was told. She always did as she was told. It made life easier. She went into her room and burrowed through her closet until she found the dress.

You’ll look pretty as a picture in this, Red.

Except that she wouldn’t. She knew exactly what she’d look like: a spindly, flat-chested thirteen-year-old in a dowdy dress that revealed her scrawny thighs and made her knees look like doorknobs. A girl who was supposed to be standing on the cusp of womanhood, but clearly wasn’t. She was pretty sure she was the only girl in her grade who hadn’t started her period or sprouted boobs yet.

She returned to the empty kitchen, which smelled of coffee and cigarette smoke, and flopped into a chair and opened
The Call of the Wild
.

Mama didn’t come out of her room for an hour.

Leni hardly recognized her. She had teased and sprayed her blond hair back into a tiny bun; she wore a fitted, buttoned-up, belted avocado-green dress that covered her from throat to wrists to knees. And nylons. And old-lady shoes. “Holy cow.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mama said, lighting up a cigarette. “I look like a PTA bake-sale organizer.” The blue cream eye shadow she wore had a little sparkle in it. She’d glued her false eyelashes on with a slightly unsteady hand and her eyeliner was thicker than usual. “Are those your only shoes?”

Leni looked down at the spatula-shaped Earth Shoes that lifted her toes the slightest bit above her heels. She had begged and begged for these shoes
after Joanne Berkowitz got a pair and everyone in class oohed and aahed. “I have my red tennis shoes, but the laces broke yesterday.”

“Okay. Whatever. Let’s go.”

Leni followed her mother out of the house. They both climbed into the ripped-up red seats of their dented, primer-painted Mustang. The trunk was kept shut by bright yellow bungee cords.

Mama flipped down the visor and checked her makeup in the mirror. (Leni was convinced that the key wouldn’t turn in the ignition if her mother didn’t check her reflection and light up a cigarette.) She applied fresh lipstick, rolled her lips, and used the triangle tip of her cuff to wipe an invisible imperfection away. When she was finally satisfied, she flipped the visor back up and started the engine. The radio came on, blaring “Midnight at the Oasis.”

“Did you know there are a hundred ways to die in Alaska?” Leni asked. “You can fall down a mountainside, or through thin ice. You can freeze or starve. You can even be
eaten
.”

“Your father should not have given you that book.” Mama popped a tape into the player and Carole King’s voice took over.
I feel the earth move …

Mama started singing and Leni joined in. For a beautiful few minutes, they were doing something ordinary, driving down I-5 toward downtown Seattle, Mama changing lanes whenever a car appeared in front of her, a cigarette captured between two fingers of the hand on the steering wheel.

Two blocks later, Mama pulled up in front of the bank. Parked. She checked her makeup again and said, “Stay here,” and got out of the car.

Leni leaned over and locked the car door. She watched her mother walk to the front door. Only Mama didn’t really walk; she sashayed, her hips moving gently from side to side. She was a beautiful woman and she knew it. That was another thing Mama and Dad fought about. The way men looked at Mama. He hated it, but Leni knew Mama liked the attention (although she was careful never to admit it).

Fifteen minutes later, when Mama came out of the bank, she was not sashaying. She was marching, with her hands balled into fists. She looked
mad. Her delicate jaw was clenched tightly. “Son of a
bitch
,” she said as she yanked open her door and got into the car. She said it again as she slammed the door shut.

“What?” Leni said.

“Your dad cleared out our savings account. And they won’t give me a credit card unless your father or
my
father cosigns.” She lit up a cigarette. “Sweet Jesus, it’s 1974. I have a job. I make money. And a woman can’t get a credit card without a man’s signature. It’s a man’s world, baby girl.” She started the car and sped down the street, turning onto the freeway.

Leni had trouble staying in her seat with all of the lane changes; she kept sliding side to side. She was so focused on staying steady that it was another few miles before she realized they had passed the hills of downtown Seattle and were now driving through a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of stately homes. “Holy moly,” Leni said under her breath. Leni hadn’t been on this street for years. So many that she’d almost forgotten it.

The houses on this street oozed privilege. Brand-new Cadillacs and Toronados and Lincoln Continentals were parked on cement driveways.

Mama parked in front of a large house made of rough gray stone with diamond-patterned windows. It sat on a small rise of manicured lawn, bordered on all sides by meticulously maintained flower beds. The mailbox read: Golliher.

“Wow. We haven’t been here in years,” Leni said.

“I know. You stay here.”

“No way. Another girl disappeared this month. I’m not staying out here alone.”

“Come here,” Mama said, pulling a brush and two pink ribbons out of her purse. She yanked Leni close and attacked her long, copper-red hair as if it had offended her. “Ow!” Leni yelped as Mama braided it into pigtails that arced out like spigots from each side of Leni’s head.

“You are a listener today, Lenora,” Mama said, tying bows at the end of each pigtail.

“I’m too old for pigtails,” Leni complained.

“Listener,” Mama said again. “Bring your book and sit quietly and let the
adults talk.” She opened her door and got out of the car. Leni rushed to meet her on the sidewalk.

Mama grabbed Leni’s hand and pulled her onto a walkway lined with sculpted hedges and up to a large wooden front door.

Mama glanced at Leni, muttered, “Here goes nothing,” and rang the bell. It made a deep clanging sound, like church bells, after which came the sound of muffled footsteps.

Moments later, Leni’s grandmother opened the door. In an eggplant-colored dress, with a slim belt at her waist and three strands of pearls around her throat, she looked ready for lunch with the governor. Her chestnut-colored hair was coiled and shellacked like one of those holiday bread loaves. Her heavily made-up eyes widened. “Coraline,” she whispered, coming forward, opening her arms.

“Is Dad here?” Mama asked.

Grandmother pulled back, let her arms drop to her sides. “He’s in court today.”

Mama nodded. “Can we come in?”

Leni saw how the question upset her grandmother; wrinkles settled in waves across her pale, powdered brow. “Of course. And Lenora. How lovely to see you again.”

Grandmother stepped back into the shadows. She led them through a foyer, beyond which were rooms and doorways and a staircase that swirled up to a shadowy second floor.

The home smelled like lemon wax and flowers.

She led them into an enclosed back porch with curved glass windows and giant glass doors and plants everywhere. The furniture was all white wicker. Leni was assigned a seat at a small table overlooking the garden outside.

“How I have missed you both,” Grandmother said. Then, as if upset by her own admission, she turned and walked away, returning a few moments later, carrying a book. “I remember how much you love to read. Why, even at two, you always had a book in your hands. I bought this for you years ago but … I didn’t know where to send it. She has red hair, too.”

Leni sat down and took the book, which she had read so often she had
whole passages memorized.
Pippi Longstocking
. A book for much younger girls. Leni had moved on long ago. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Call me Grandma. Please,” she said quietly; there was a tinge of longing in her voice. Then she turned her attention to Mama.

Grandma showed Mama to a white ironwork table over by one window. In a gilded cage nearby, a pair of white birds cooed at each other. Leni thought they must be sad, those birds who couldn’t fly.

“I’m surprised you let me in,” Mama said, taking a seat.

“Don’t be impertinent, Coraline. You’re always welcome. Your father and I love you.”

“It’s my husband you wouldn’t allow in.”

“He turned you against us. And all of your friends, I might add. He wanted you all to him—”

“I don’t want to talk about all of that again. We’re moving to Alaska.”

Grandma sat down. “Oh, for the love of Pete.”

“Ernt has inherited a house and a piece of land. We’re going to grow our own vegetables and hunt our meat and live by our own rules. We’ll be pure. Pioneers.”

“Stop. I can’t listen to this nonsense. You’re going to follow him to the ends of the earth, where no one will be able to help you. Your father and I tried so hard to protect you from your mistakes, but you refuse to be helped, don’t you? You think that life is some game. You just flit—”

“Don’t,” Mama said sharply. She leaned forward. “Do you know how hard it was for me to come here?”

In the wake of those words, a silence fell, broken only by a bird’s cooing.

It felt as if a cold breeze had just come through. Leni would have sworn the expensive transparent curtains fluttered, but there were no open windows.

Leni tried to imagine her mother in this buttoned-down, closed-up world, but she couldn’t. The chasm between the girl Mama had been raised to be and the woman she had become seemed impossible to cross. Leni wondered if all those protests she and Mama had marched in while Dad was gone—against nuclear energy, the war—and all those EST seminars and the
different religions Mama had tried on, were really just Mama’s way of protesting the woman she’d been raised to be.

“Don’t do this crazy, dangerous thing, Coraline. Leave him. Come home. Be safe.”

“I love him, Mother. Can’t you understand that?”

“Cora,” Grandma said softly. “Listen to me, please. You know he’s dangerous—”

“We’re going to Alaska,” Mama said firmly. “I came to say goodbye and…” Her voice trailed off. “Are you going to help us or not?”

For a long moment Grandma said nothing, just crossed and uncrossed her arms. “How much do you need this time?” she finally asked.

*   *   *

O
N THE DRIVE HOME
, her mother chain-smoked. She kept the radio volume so high that conversation was impossible. It was just as well, really, because although Leni had a string of questions, she didn’t know where to begin. Today she had glimpsed a world that lay beneath the surface of her own. Mama had never said much to Leni about her life before marriage. She and Dad had run off together; theirs was a beautiful, romantic story of love against all odds. Mama had quit high school and “lived on love.” That was how she always put it, the fairy tale. Now Leni was old enough to know that like all fairy tales, theirs was filled with thickets and dark places and broken dreams, and runaway girls.

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