Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (24 page)

Thelma threw a bucket of sudsy water over the table, sent the fish innards sliding to the muddy ground, where the dogs fought over them.

Seated in a chair, with Moppet on the ground beside her, chattering away about some bird’s nest she’d found, Leni worked at repairing a crab pot.

There was an uneasiness in camp now. Ever since Mr. Walker had shown
up at the compound and reminded the Harlans that his place in their lives had been secured long ago—and offered well-paying jobs—Leni had seen the way the adults looked at one another. Or, to be more precise, didn’t look at one another.

A schism had opened. Not only in town, but also here, at the Harlan compound. Leni wasn’t always sure who was on what side, but the adults knew. She was pretty sure Dad hadn’t spoken to Thelma or Ted since that night.

A horn honked loudly enough to startle Leni. She dropped the crab pot, which landed hard on her ankle. She yelped and kicked it aside.

Dad’s truck rolled in and parked by the toolshed.

Both doors opened at once; Dad and Mad Earl exited the pickup.

Dad reached into the back, grabbed a big cardboard box, hefted it into his arms. The box rattled and clanged as Dad carried it into the compound. He went to the high ground by the beehives and looked out at the people. Mad Earl stepped up and stood beside him. The old man looked tired, or more tired than usual. He’d lost most of his hair in the past year and the lines in his forehead looked like they’d been etched in place. White hair sprouted from his jaw, his cheeks, his nose, his ears.

“Gather ’round,” Mad Earl said, gesturing.

Thelma wiped her hands on her dirty pant leg and joined her husband.

Leni sidled up to Mama. “They look drunk,” she said.

Mama nodded, lit a cigarette. They walked forward, stood beside Thelma.

Standing on the ridge above them like some high priest, Dad smiled down at the people gathered before him.

Leni recognized his Big Idea smile. She’d seen it lots of times. A beginning; he loved them.

Dad placed a hand on Earl’s shoulder, gave a meaningful squeeze. “Earl here has welcomed me and my family into this safe, wonderful place you’ve created. We almost feel like Harlans. That’s how warm you’ve all been. I know how much Thelma’s friendship means to Cora. Honestly, we have never felt that we belonged anywhere until now.” He put the box down with
a rattling clank, pushed it aside with the blunt toe of his rubber boot. “Bo wanted me to have his cabin. Why? So I could bring what I know to this family. He wanted someone here he could trust to protect his family. As you all know, I have taken that responsibility seriously. Each of you is a crack shot. You are also adept with a bow and arrow. Your bug-out bags are packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice. We are ready for martial law or nuclear war or a pandemic. Or so I thought.”

Leni saw Thelma frown.

“What do you mean?” Clyde asked, uncrossing his beefy arms.

“Last week, an enemy walked onto this land as easy as you please. No one stopped him. Nothing stopped him. He came in here and used words—and bribes—to put a wedge between us. You know it’s true. You feel the dissension. It’s all because of Tom Walker.”

Thelma muttered, “Here we go.”

“Ernt,” Ted said. “It’s just a job. We need the money.”

Dad raised his hands, smiling.

(Leni knew that smile: it was not a sign of happiness.)

“I am not blaming anyone. I understand. I’m just pointing out a danger you’ve missed. When TSHTF, our neighbors will all have sob stories to tell. They’ll want what we have and you’ll want to give it to them. You’ve known them a long time. I get it. So I’m here to protect you from yourselves, too.”

“Bo woulda wanted that,” Mad Earl said. He rolled a cigarette and lit it up, taking a drag so deep Leni thought he might die on the spot. “Tell ’em,” Mad Earl said, finally exhaling.

Dad squatted down, opened the cardboard flaps of the box, and reached in. He then got back to his feet, holding a plank of wood that had been studded with hundreds of nails, hammered in close to each other to make what looked like a weapon. In his other hand, he held a hand grenade. “No one is ever going to just walk into this place again. First, we’re going to build a wall and put razor wire on top. Then we’ll dig a ditch around the perimeter, in the places where attackers will come in. We’ll fill it with these nail beds, broken glass, spikes. Anything we can think of.”

Thelma laughed.

“This ain’t no joke, missy,” Mad Earl said.

“You put the grenade in a mason jar,” Dad said, beaming at his cleverness. “We remove the pin, put the grenade in the jar, and compress the safety lever. Then we bury it. When someone steps on it, the jar breaks, and kablooey.”

No one spoke. They just stood there, dogs barking in the background.

Mad Earl clapped Dad on the back. “Hell of an idea, Ernt. Hell of an idea.”

“No,” Thelma said. And then: “No.
No.

With Mad Earl’s cackle going full volume, it took a moment for Thelma’s quieter voice to be heard. She pushed her way to the front, then took another step, until she was standing alone, the point of the arrow. “No,” she said again.

“No?” her father said, his mouth squelching up.

“He’s off his rocker, Dad,” Thelma said. “We have children here. And, let’s face it, more than a few drinkers. We can’t booby-trap the perimeter of our
home
with buried explosives. We’ll kill one of us, most likely.”

“Your job isn’t security, Thelma,” Dad said. “It’s mine.”

“No, Ernt. My job is keeping my family safe. I’ll go along with stockpiling food and creating water filtration. I’ll teach my daughter useful skills, like shooting and hunting and trapping. I’ll even let you and my dad yammer on about nuclear war and pandemics, but I am not going to worry every day of my life that we could accidentally kill someone for no reason.”

“‘Yammer on’?” Dad said, his voice going low.

Everyone started talking at once, arguing. Leni felt the schism between them rip free, crack wide open; they separated into two groups. Those who wanted to be a family (most of them) versus those who wanted to be able to kill anyone who came close (Dad and Mad Earl and Clyde).

“We’ve got kids here,” Thelma said. “You have to remember that. We can’t have bombs or booby traps.”

“But they could just walk in here with machine guns,” Dad said, looking for support. “Kill us and take what we have.”

Leni heard Moppet say, “Could they, Mom? Could they?”

The argument re-erupted. The adults clotted together, went toe-to-toe, voices raised, faces red.

“Enough!” Mad Earl finally said, raising his skeletal hands in the air. “I can’t have this happening to my family. And we do got little ones.” He turned to Dad. “Sorry, Ernt. I gotta side with Thelma.”

Dad took a step back, put distance between him and the old man. “Sure, Earl,” he said tightly, “whatever you say, man.”

Just like that, the argument ended for the Harlans. Leni saw the way they came together as a family, forgave each other, began talking about other things. Leni wondered if any of them even noticed how her father hung back, how he watched them, the way his mouth flattened into an angry line.

 

SIXTEEN

In May, the sandpipers returned by the thousands, flying overhead in a swarm of wings, touching down briefly in the bay before continuing their journey north. So many birds returned to Alaska in this month that the sky was constantly busy and the air was loud with birdsong and squawking and cawing.

Usually, this time of year, Leni would lie in bed listening to the noises, identifying each bird by its song, noting the season’s passing by their arrivals and departures, looking forward to summer.

This year was different.

There were only two weeks of school left.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Dad said as he turned the truck into the school parking lot. He parked next to Matthew’s pickup.

“I’m fine,” she said, reaching for the door handle.

“It’s the security, isn’t it?”

Leni turned to look at him. “What?”

“You and your mom have been sorta mopey and glum since our last time at the Harlans’ place. I know you’re scared.”

Leni just stared at him, unsure of what the right answer was. He had been extra edgy since the fallout at the Harlan place.

“Thelma’s an optimist. One of those head-in-the-sanders. Of course she doesn’t want to face the truth head-on. ’Cuz it’s ugly. But looking away is no answer. We need to prepare for the worst. I would die before I’d let anything happen to you or your mom. You know that, right? You know how much I love you both.” He tousled her hair. “Don’t worry, Red. I’ll keep you safe.”

She got out of the truck and slammed the door shut behind her, then hauled her bicycle out from the truck bed. Settling her backpack strap over one shoulder, she leaned her bike against the fence and headed toward the school.

Dad honked the horn and drove away.

“Pssssst! Leni!”

She glanced sideways.

Matthew stood hidden in the trees across from the school. He waved her over.

Leni waited for her dad’s truck to disappear around the corner and then hurried over to Matthew. “What’s up?”

“Let’s skip school today and take the
Tusty
into Homer.”

“Skip school? Homer?”

“Come on! It’ll be fun.”

Leni knew all the reasons to say no. She also knew that today was a minus tide and her dad was going to be clamming all morning.

“We won’t get caught, and even if we do, big whoop. We’re seniors. It’s May. Don’t seniors in the Outside skip all the time?”

Leni didn’t think it was a good idea, thought it might even be dangerous, but she couldn’t say no to Matthew.

She heard the low, elegiac honking of the ferry’s horn as it neared the dock.

Matthew reached out for Leni’s hand, and the next thing she knew they were running out of the school’s parking lot and up the hill, past the old church, and out onto the waiting ferry.

Leni stood on the deck, holding on to the railing as the boat eased away from land.

All summer, the trusty
Tustamena
hauled Alaskans around—fishermen, adventurers, laborers, tourists, even high school sports teams. The hull was full of cars and supplies: construction equipment, tractors, backhoes, steel beams. To the few hardy tourists who used the boat as a blue-collar cruise to remote destinations, the ferry crossing was a pretty way to spend the day. To locals, this was simply the way to town.

Leni had ridden this ferry hundreds of times in her life, but never had she felt the sense of freedom on it that she felt now. Or possibility. As if maybe this old ship could sail her right into a brand-new future.

Wind ruffled her hair. Gulls and shorebirds squawked overhead, wheeling and diving, floating on tufts of wind. The seawater was flat and green, only a few motor ripples on the surface.

Matthew moved in behind her, put his arms around her, held on to the railing. She couldn’t help leaning back into him, letting his body warm her. “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she said. For once, she felt like an ordinary teenager. This was as close as she and Matthew could get to that, to being the kind of kids who went to the movies on a Saturday night and went for milkshakes at the A&W afterward.

“I got into the university in Anchorage,” Matthew said. “I’ll be playing hockey for their team.”

Leni turned. With him still holding on to the railing, it meant she was in his arms. Her hair whipped across her face.

“Come with me,” he said.

It was like a beautiful flower, that idea; it bloomed and then died in her hand. Life was different for Matthew. He was talented and wealthy. Mr. Walker wanted his son to go to college. “We can’t afford it. And they need me to work the homestead, anyway.”

“There are scholarships.”

“I can’t leave,” she said quietly.

“I know your dad is weird, but why can’t you leave?”

“It’s not him I can’t leave,” Leni said. “It’s my mama. She needs me.”

“She’s a grown-up.”

Leni couldn’t say the words that would explain it.

He would never understand why Leni sometimes believed she was the only thing keeping her mother alive.

Matthew pulled her into his arms, held her. She wondered if he could feel the way she was trembling. “Jeez, Len,” he whispered into her hair.

Had he meant that, to shorten her name, to claim it somehow as something new in his hands?

“I would if I could,” she said. After that, they fell silent. She thought about how different their worlds were, and it showed her how big the world was Outside; they were just two kids among millions.

When the boat docked in Homer, they disembarked with a throng of people. Holding hands, they lost themselves among the crowd of bright-eyed tourists and drably dressed locals. They ate halibut and chips on the restaurant’s deck at the tip of the Spit, tossing salty, greasy fries to the birds waiting nearby. Matthew bought Leni a photo album at a souvenir shop that sold Alaska-themed Christmas ornaments and T-shirts that said things like
DON’T MOOSE WITH ME
and
GOT CRABS?

They talked about nothing and everything. Inconsequential things. The beauty of Alaska, the craziness of the tide, the clog of cars and people on the Spit.

Leni took a picture of Matthew in front of the Salty Dawg Saloon. One hundred years ago, it had been the post office and grocery store for this out-of-the-way spot that even Alaskans called Land’s End. Now the old girl was a dark, twisty tavern where locals rubbed elbows with tourists and the walls were decorated in memorabilia. Matthew wrote
LENI AND MATTHEW
on a dollar bill and pinned it to the wall where it was immediately lost among the thousands of bills and scraps of paper around it.

It was the single best day of Leni’s life. So much so that when it ended, and they were on a water taxi, seated on a bench in the aft, heading for Kaneq, she had to battle a wave of sadness. On the
Tusty
and in town, they’d been two kids in a crowd. Now, it was just them and the water-taxi captain and a lot of water around them.

“I wish we didn’t have to go back,” she said.

He put an arm around her, pulled her close. The boat rose and fell with the waves, unsteadying them. “Let’s run away,” he said.

She laughed.

“No, really. I can see us traveling the world, backpacking through Central America, climbing up to Machu Picchu. We’ll settle down when we’ve seen it all. I’ll be an airline pilot or a paramedic. You’ll be a photographer. We’ll come back here to where we belong and get married and have kids who won’t listen to us.”

Leni knew he was just playing around, daydreaming, but his words sparked a deep yearning in her; one she’d never known existed. She had to force herself to smile, to play along as if this hadn’t struck her in the heart. “I’m a photographer, huh? I like the idea of that. I think I’ll wear makeup and high heels to pick up my Pulitzer. Maybe I’ll order a martini. But I don’t know about kids.”

“Kids. Definitely. I want a daughter with red hair. I’ll teach her to skip rocks and hook a king salmon.”

Leni didn’t answer. It was such a silly conversation, how could it break her heart? He should know better than to dream so big and to give voice to those dreams. He had lost his mother and she had a dangerous father. Families and the future were fragile.

The water taxi slowed, drifted sideways into the dock. Matthew jumped off and looped a line around a metal cleat. Leni stepped out onto the dock as Matthew tossed the line back on board.

“We’re home,” he said.

Leni stared up at the buildings perched on barnacled, muddy stilts above the water.

Home.

Back to real life.

*   *   *

A
T WORK THE NEXT AFTERNOON,
Leni made one mistake after another. She mismarked the boxes of three-penny nails and put them in the wrong
place and then stood there staring at her mistake, thinking,
Could I go to college?
Was it possible?

“Go home,” Large Marge said, coming up behind her. “Your mind is somewhere else today.”

“I’m fine,” Leni said.

“No. You’re not.” She gave Leni a knowing look. “I saw you and Matthew walking through town yesterday. You’re playing with fire, kid.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Do you want to talk about it?”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“You must think I was born yesterday. Be careful, that’s all I’ll say.”

Leni didn’t even respond. Words were beyond her, as was logical thought. She left the store and retrieved her bicycle and rode home. Once there, she fed the animals, carted water from the spring they’d dug a few years ago, and opened the cabin door. Her mind was so overrun by thoughts and emotions that honestly the next thing she knew she was in the kitchen with her mama, but she had no memory of getting there.

Mama was kneading bread dough. She looked up as the door banged shut, her floury hands lifting from the mound of dough. “What’s wrong?”

“Why do you say that?” Leni asked, but she knew. She was close to tears—although
why
, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that Matthew had pulled her world out of shape. He had altered her view of things, opened her up. Suddenly all she could think about was the end of school and him going away to college without her.

“Leni?” Mama wiped her floury hands on a washrag and tossed it aside. “You look brokenhearted.”

Before Leni could answer, she heard a vehicle drive up. She saw a shiny white pickup truck pull into the yard.

The Walker truck.

“Oh, no.” Leni ran for the cabin door, flung it open.

Matthew stepped out of the truck, into their yard.

Leni crossed the deck, rushed down the steps. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“You were so quiet at school today and then you ran off to work. I thought … did I do something wrong?”

Leni was happy to see him and scared that he was here. It felt to her like all she did was say no and goodbye to him, and she wanted so,
so
much to say yes.

Dad came around from the side of the cabin, holding an ax. He was flushed with exertion, damp with sweat. He saw Matthew and came to a sudden stop. “You aren’t welcome on this land, Matthew Walker. If you and your dad want to pollute your own place, apparently I can’t stop you, but you stay off my land and you stay away from my daughter. You understand? You Walkers are a blight on our landscape, with your saloon upgrades and your hotel and your damn adventure lodge plans. You’ll ruin Kaneq. Turn it into g-damn Disneyland.”

Matthew frowned. “Did you say Disneyland?”

“Get the hell out of here before I decide you’re trespassing and shoot you.”

“I’m going.” Matthew didn’t sound scared at all, but that was impossible. He was a kid, being threatened by a man holding an ax.

Watching him go hurt more than Leni would have thought possible. She turned away from her father and went into the house and just stood there, staring at nothing, missing Matthew in a way that pushed everything else away.

Mama came in a moment later. She crossed the room, opened her arms, saying, “Oh, baby girl.”

Leni burst into tears. Mama tightened her hold, stroked Leni’s hair, then led her to the sofa, where they sat down.

“You’re attracted to him. How could you not be? He’s gorgeous. And you alone and lonely all these years.”

Leave it to Mama to say the words out loud.

Leni
had
felt alone for a long time.

“I understand,” Mama said.

It helped, those few words, reminded Leni that in the vast landscape of Alaska, this cabin was a world of its own. And her mama understood.

“It’s dangerous, though. You see that, right?”

“Yeah,” Leni said. “I see it.”

*   *   *

F
OR THE FIRST TIME
, Leni understood all the books she’d read about broken hearts and unrequited love. It was physical, this pain of hers. The way she missed Matthew was like a sickness.

When she woke the next morning, after a restless night, her eyes felt gritty. Light blared down through the skylight, bright enough to force her to shield her eyes from it. She dressed in yesterday’s clothes and climbed down from the loft. Without bothering to eat breakfast, she went outside and fed the animals and jumped onto her bike and rode away. In town, she waved to Large Marge, who was outside the General Store washing windows, and pedaled past Crazy Pete and turned into the school parking lot. Leaving her bicycle in the tall grass by the chain-link fence, she clamped her backpack to her chest and went into the classroom.

Matthew’s desk was empty.

“Makes sense,” she muttered. “He’s probably halfway to Fairbanks after seeing how crazy my dad is.”

“Hey, Leni,” Ms. Rhodes said brightly. “Can you handle teaching today? An injured eagle needs help at the center in Homer. I thought I’d go.”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I knew you’d be my ace in the hole. Moppet is doing some long division and Agnes and Marthe are working on their history papers; you and Matthew are supposed to read T. S. Eliot today.”

Leni forced a smile as Ms. Rhodes left the classroom. She glanced at the clock, thought,
Maybe he’s late
, and then set about helping the girls with their assignments.

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