Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (28 page)

While she was staring down the shadowy driveway, she heard a distant motor whirring. Fishing boat. The sound was as common here in the summer as the drone of mosquitoes.

She ran to the edge of the property just as an aluminum fishing boat puttered into their cove. Nearing the beach, the motor clicked off and the boat glided soundlessly forward, beaching itself on the pebbled shore. Matthew stood at the console, waving.

She hurried down the stairs to the beach.

Matthew jumped down into the shallow water and came toward Leni,
dragging the boat higher on the beach behind him, mesmerizing her with his smile, his confidence, the love in his eyes.

In an instant, a glance, the tension that had held her in its maw for months released. She felt giddy, young. In love.

“We have until five,” she said.

He swept her off her feet and kissed her.

Laughing at the sheer
joy
she felt, Leni took him by the hand and led him past the caves on the beach to an inland trail that led to a stub of forested land that overlooked the other side of the bay. Cliffs jutted out beneath them, defiant slabs of stone. Here, the ocean crashed against the rocky shore, sprayed up and landed like wet kisses on their skin.

She laid out the blanket she’d brought and set down the picnic basket.

“What did you bring?” Matthew asked, sitting down.

Leni knelt on the blanket. “Easy stuff. Halibut sandwiches, crab salad, some fresh beans, sugar cookies.” She looked up, smiling. “This is my first date.”

“Mine, too.”

“We’ve lived weird lives,” she said.

“Maybe everyone does,” he said, sitting down beside her, and then lying down, pulling her into his arms. For the first time in months, she could breathe.

They kissed so long she lost track of time, of fear, of everything except the softness of his tongue against hers and the taste of him.

He loosened one pearl button on her dress, just enough to slip his hand inside. She felt his rough, work-callused fingers glide across her skin; goose bumps changed the feel of her flesh. She felt him touch her breasts, slip beneath the worn cotton of her bra to touch her nipple.

A crack of thunder.

For a second she was so sluggish with desire, she thought she’d imagined it.

Then the rain hit. Hard, fast, pelting.

They scrambled to their feet, laughing. Leni grabbed the picnic basket
and together they ran along the winding beach trail, and emerged on the bluff by the outhouse.

They didn’t stop until they were in the cabin, standing face-to-face, staring at each other. Leni felt raindrops sliding down her cheeks, dripping from her hair.

“Alaska in the summer,” Matthew said.

Leni stared at him, realizing
now
, all at once in a sweep of goose bumps,
how
she loved him.

Not in the toxic, needy, desperate way her mother loved her father.

She needed Matthew, but not to save her or complete her or reinvent her.

Her love for him was the clearest, cleanest, strongest emotion she’d ever felt. It was like opening your eyes or growing up, realizing that you had it in you to love like this. Forever. For all time. Or for all the time you had.

She started to unbutton her wet dress. The lacy collar fell down her shoulder, exposed her bra strap.

“Leni, are you sure—”

She silenced him with a kiss. She had never been more sure of anything. She finished unbuttoning her dress, which fell down her body, landed like a parachute of lace at her booted feet. She stepped out of it, kicked it aside.

She unlaced her boots, pulled them off, threw them aside. One hit the cabin wall with a thunk. Down to her bra and cotton panties, she said, “Come on,” and led him up the loft ladder to her bedroom, where Matthew hurriedly undressed and pulled her down onto the fur-covered mattress.

He undressed her slowly. His hands and mouth explored her body until every nerve in her tightened. When he touched her: music.

She lost herself in him. Her body was autonomous, moving in some instinctive, primal rhythm it must have known all along, edging into a pleasure so intense it was almost pain.

She was a star, burning so brightly it broke apart, pieces flying, light spraying. Afterward, she fell back to earth a different girl, or a different version of herself. It scared her even as it exhilarated her. Would anything else in her life ever change her so profoundly? And now that she had had this, had him, how was she supposed to leave him? Ever?

“I love you,” he said quietly.

“I love you, too.”

The word felt too small, too ordinary to contain all of this emotion.

She lay against him staring up at the skylight, watching rain boil across the glass. She knew she would remember this day all of her life.

“What do you think college will be like?” she asked.

“Like you and me. Like this all the time. Are you ready to go?”

Truthfully, she was afraid that when it was time to actually go, she wouldn’t be able to leave her mother. But if Leni stayed, if she gave up this dream, she would never recover. She couldn’t look that harsh future in the eyes.

Here, in his arms, with the magical possibility of
time
between them, she didn’t want to say anything at all. She didn’t want words to turn into walls that separated them.

“Do you want to talk about your dad?” he asked.

Leni instinctively wanted to say no, to do what she’d always done: keep the secret. But what kind of love was that? “The war screwed him up, I guess.”

“And now he hits you?”

“Not me. My mom.”

“You and your mom need to get out of here, Len. I’ve heard my dad and Large Marge talking about it. They want to help you guys but your mom won’t let them.”

“It’s not as easy as people think,” Leni said.

“If he loved you guys, he wouldn’t hurt you.”

He made it sound so simple, as if it were a mathematical equation. But the connection between pain and love wasn’t linear. It was a web. “What’s it like?” she asked. “To feel safe?”

He touched her hair. “Do you feel it now?”

She did. Maybe for the first time, but that was crazy. The last place Leni was safe was here, in the arms of a boy her dad hated. “He hates you, Matthew, and he doesn’t even know you.”

“I won’t let him hurt you.”

“Let’s talk about something else.”

“Like … how I think about you all of the time? It makes me feel crazy, how much I think about you.” He pulled her in for a kiss. They made out forever, time slowing down just for them; tasting each other, taking each other in. Sometimes they talked, whispered secrets or made jokes, or stopped talking altogether and just kissed. Leni learned the magic of knowing someone else through touch.

Her body wakened again in his arms, but lovemaking was different the second time. Words had changed it somehow, real life had pushed its way in.

She was scared that this was all they would ever have. Just this day. Scared that she’d never get to go to college or that Dad would kill Mama in her absence. Scared even that this love she felt for Matthew wasn’t real, or that it was real and flawed, that maybe she’d been so damaged by her parents that she couldn’t know what love really was.

“No,” she said to herself, to him, to the universe. “I love you, Matthew.”

It was the only thing she knew for sure.

 

TWENTY

A hand clamped over Leni’s mouth; a voice whispered harshly, “Len, wake up.”

She opened her eyes.

“We fell asleep. Someone’s here.”

Leni gasped into Matthew’s palm.

It had stopped raining. Sunlight poured through the skylight.

Outside, she heard a truck engine, heard the rattle of the metal bed on the axle as the truck rolled over the ground.

“Oh, my God,” Leni said. She scrambled over Matthew, snatched up some clothes and dressed quickly. She was almost to the railing when she heard the door open.

Dad walked in, stopped, looked down.

He was standing on the wet heap of her dress.

Shit.

She launched herself over the side of the railing and half climbed, half slid down the loft ladder.

Dad bent down for her soggy dress, lifted it up. Water dripped from the eyelet hem.

“I—I got caught in that squall,” Leni said. Her heartbeat was so hard, she was breathless. Dizzy. She glanced around for anything that might give them away and saw Matthew’s boots.

She let out a little cry.

The rack to Dad’s left was full of guns, the shelf beneath them layered with boxes of ammunition. He barely had to turn, reach out, and he’d be armed.

Leni rushed over and grabbed her soaking-wet dress.

Mama frowned. Her gaze followed Leni’s, landed on the boots. Her eyes widened. She looked at Leni and then at the loft. Her face went pale.

“Why did you wear your good dress?” Dad asked.

“G-girls are funny that way, Ernt,” Mama said, sidling sideways, blocking Dad’s view of the boots.

Dad looked around; his nostrils flared. Leni was reminded of a predator on the scent. “Something smells different in here.”

Leni hung her dress up on a hook by the door. “It’s the picnic I packed for us,” Leni said. “I—I wanted to surprise you.”

Dad walked over to the table, flipped open the picnic basket, looked inside. “There are only two plates.”

“I got hungry and ate mine. That’s for you guys. I—I thought you’d enjoy it after the haul to Sterling.”

A creak from upstairs.

Dad frowned, stared up at the loft, headed toward the ladder.

Sit still, Matthew
.

Dad touched the loft ladder, looked up. Frowned. Leni saw him lift a foot, place it on the bottom rung.

Mama bent down, picked up Matthew’s boots, and dropped them in the big cardboard boot box by the door. She did it in a gliding, single motion, and then slipped in beside Dad. She said, “Let’s show Leni the snow machine,” loud enough for Matthew to hear. “It’s parked out over by the goat pen.”

Dad let go of the loft ladder and turned to them. There was a strange look in his eyes. Did he suspect? “Sure. Come on.”

Leni followed her dad to the door. When he opened it, she glanced back, looked up at the loft.

Go, Matthew
, she thought.
Run.

Mama held Leni’s hand tightly as they walked across the deck and down into the grass, as if she feared Leni might turn and run.

In the cove, Matthew’s aluminum boat captured the sunlight, glittered silver against the shore. The sudden squall had scrubbed the landscape, left everything shiny. Light glinted off a million drops of water, on blades of grass and wildflowers.

Leni said something quickly—she didn’t even know what, just something to make her dad turn to her and away from the beach.

“There she is,” he said when they came to the rusted trailer hitched to the truck. A dented snow machine sat there, its seat a torn-up mess, missing its headlight. “Duct tape will fix that seat so it’s practically new.”

Leni thought she heard the cabin door click open and the creak of a footfall on the deck.

“It’s
great
!” she yelled. “We can use it for ice fishing and caribou hunting. It’ll come in handy to have two snow machines.”

She heard the distinct whine of an outboard motor starting up and the
scree
of it winding up for speed.

Dad pushed Leni aside. “Is that a boat in our cove?”

Below, the aluminum skiff was planed high, pointed bow lifted proudly out of the water, speeding for the point.

Leni held her breath. There was no doubt it was Matthew, his blond hair, his brand-new boat. Would Dad recognize him?

“Damn tourists,” Dad said at last, turning away. “Those rich college kids think they own this state in the summer. I’m putting up
NO TRESPASSING
signs.”

They’d done it. Gotten away with it.
We did it, Matthew.

“Leni.”

Her mama’s voice. Sharp. She sounded angry, or maybe scared.

Mama and Dad were both staring at her.

“What?” Leni said.

“Your dad was talking to you,” Mama said.

Leni smiled easily. “Oops. Sorry.”

Dad said, “I guess you were woolgathering, as my old man used to say.”

Leni shrugged. “Just thinking.”

“About what?”

Leni heard the tone change in his voice, and it concerned her. She saw now how intently he was staring at her. Maybe they hadn’t gotten away with it after all. Maybe he knew … maybe he was toying with her.

“Oh, you know teenagers,” Mama said, her voice fluttery.

“I am asking Leni, not you, Cora.”

“I was thinking it would be fun to go out, spend the day together. Maybe try our luck at Pedersen’s Resort on the Kenai. We’ve always had good luck there.”

“Good thought.” Dad stepped back from the new snow machine, glanced down the driveway. “Well. It’s summer. I have work to do.”

He left them standing there alone, went to the toolshed, and retrieved his chain saw. Hefting it over his shoulder, he headed toward the driveway and disappeared into the trees.

Mama and Leni stood there, barely breathing, until they heard the chain saw whir to life.

Mama turned to Leni, whispered harshly, “Stupid, stupid, stupid. You could have gotten caught.”

“We fell asleep.”

“Fatal mistakes often look ordinary. Come,” Mama said, leading her into the cabin. “Sit by the fire. I’ll comb your hair. It’s a mess. You’re lucky he’s not one to notice a thing like that.”

Leni grabbed a three-legged stool and dragged it over to the woodstove. She sat down on it, hooking her bare feet on the bottom rung, unbraiding her hair as she waited.

Mama pulled a wide-toothed comb from the blue coffee can on her makeshift vanity and slowly began combing the tangles out of Leni’s waist-length hair. Then she massaged Leni’s scalp with oil and smoothed some of the fragrant balm-of-Gilead rub they made from the buds onto Leni’s rough
hands. “You think you got away with it this time and so you want to see Matthew again. That’s what you were really thinking, right?”

Of course Mama knew.

“I’ll be smarter next time,” Leni said.

“There won’t be a next time, Leni.” Mama took Leni by the shoulders, turned her around on the stool. “You will wait until college, like we talked about. We will do as we planned. In September, you’ll see Matthew in Anchorage and start your life.”

“I’ll die if I don’t see him.”

“No. You won’t. Please, Leni, think about me instead of yourself.”

Leni was ashamed of herself, embarrassed by her selfishness. “I’m sorry, Mama. You’re right. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Sex changes everything,” Mama said quietly.

*   *   *

A
WEEK LATER
, while Mama and Leni were eating oatmeal for breakfast, the cabin door opened. Dad strode inside, his dark hair and flannel shirt dusted with wood chips. “Come with me. Both of you. Hurry!”

Leni followed her parents out of the cabin and toward the driveway. Dad was walking fast, really covering ground. Mama stumbled along beside him, struggling to keep up on the spongy ground.

Leni heard her mother say, “Oh, my God,” in a whisper, and Leni looked up.

The wall her dad had been building all summer was in front of them. Finished. Plank after plank of newly milled wood ran in a straight line, topped in coiled razor wire. It looked like something out of the Gulag.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Now there was a gate across the driveway; a length of heavy metal chain kept the gate closed. A metal lock hung from loops in the chain. Leni saw the key hanging from a chain around her father’s throat.

Dad pulled Mama in close. He was smiling now. He leaned in, whispered
something in Mama’s ear, and kissed the small purple bruise at the base of her throat.

“Now it’s just us, in here, cut off from the whole damn backstabbing world,” he said. “We’ll be safe now.”

*   *   *

F
EAR,
L
ENI LEARNED
, was not the small, dark closet she’d always imagined: walls pressed in close, a ceiling you bumped your head on, a floor cold to the touch.

No.

Fear was a mansion, one room after another, connected by endless hallways.

In the days following the closing of the gate, with its rattling chain, Leni learned the feel of those rooms. At night, in her bed, she lay in the loft and tried not to sleep, because sleep brought on nightmares. The fear she battled during daylight besieged her at night. She dreamed of her death in a hundred ways—drowning, falling through ice, plummeting down a mountainside, being shot in the head.

Metaphors, all of them. The death of every dream she’d ever had and those she’d yet to dream.

Dad hovered beside them all the time, talking as if nothing were wrong, in a good humor for the first time since his banishment from the Harlan place. He teased, he laughed, he worked alongside them. At night Leni lay listening to the sound of her parents’ voices, of their lovemaking. Mama was good at pretending everything was normal. Leni had lost that childhood ability.

What she thought, over and over and over again, was:
We need to run.

*   *   *

“W
E HAVE TO LEAVE HIM
,” Leni said on Saturday morning, a week to the day since he’d locked the gate shut. It was the first time Dad had left them alone together.

Mama paused, her hands softening on the pile of dough she was kneading. “He’ll kill me,” she whispered.

“Don’t you get it, Mama? He’s going to kill you in here. Sooner or later. Think about winter coming. The dark. The cold. And us in here, locked behind that wall. He’s not going to work the pipeline this winter. It’ll be just him and us in the dark. Who will stop him or help us?”

Mama glanced nervously at the door. “Where would we go?”

“Large Marge offered to help. So did the Walkers.”

“Not Tom. That would make it worse.”

“College starts in three and a half weeks, Mama. I have to leave as soon as I can. Will you go with me?”

“Maybe you should go without me.”

Leni had known this was coming. She had wrestled with it and finally come to an answer. “I have to go, Mama. I can’t live this way, but I need you. I’m afraid … I won’t be able to leave you.”

“Peas in a pod,” Mama said, sounding sad. But she understood. They had always been together. “You need to go. I want you to go. I couldn’t forgive myself if you didn’t, so what’s your plan?”

“The first chance we get, we run. Maybe he goes hunting and we take the boat. Whatever the opportunity is, we take it. If we’re still here when the first leaf falls, it’s all over.”

“So we just run. With nothing.”

“We run with our lives.”

Mama glanced away. It was a long, long time before she nodded and said, “I’ll try.”

It was not the answer Leni wanted, but it was the best she was going to get. She only prayed that when the opportunity for escape arose, Mama would go with her.

*   *   *

T
HE WEATHER BEGAN
to change. Here and there, bright green leaves turned golden, tangerine, scarlet. Birch trees that had been invisible all year, lost
amid the other trees, appeared boldly in the forefront, their bark white as the wings of a dove, their leaves like a million candle flames.

With every leaf that changed color, Leni’s tension increased. It was nearing the end of August now—early for autumn to arrive, but Alaska was capricious that way.

Although she and Mama had never spoken of their escape plan again, it lived in the air between sentences. Every time Dad left the cabin they looked at each other, and in that look, a question.
Is this the time?

Today Leni and her mother were making blueberry syrup when Dad came in from outside. He was dirty and sweaty, with a fine layer of black dust on his damp face. For the first time, Leni noticed gray strands in his beard. He wore his hair in a low, haphazard ponytail and had tied a bicentennial bandanna across his forehead. He came forward, his rubber boots clomping on the plywood floor. He went into the kitchen, saw what Mama was making for dinner. “Again?” he said, peering down at the salmon croquettes. “No vegetables?”

“I’m conserving. We’re out of flour and low on rice. I’ve told you that,” Mama said wearily. “If you’d let me go to town…”

“You should go to Homer, Dad. Stock up for winter,” Leni said, hoping she sounded casual.

“I don’t think it’s safe to leave you two here alone.”

“The wall keeps us safe,” Leni said.

“Not completely. At high tide someone could come in by boat,” Dad said. “Who knows what could happen when I’m gone? Maybe we all should go. Get what we need from that bitch in town.”

Mama looked at Leni.

This is it
, Leni’s gaze said.

Mama shook her head. Her eyes widened. Leni understood her mother’s fear; they had talked about the both of them sneaking away while he was gone, not running away while he was with them. But the weather was changing; the nights were growing cold, which meant that winter was approaching. Classes at U of A started in less than a week. This was their chance to run. If they planned it right—

“Let’s go,” Dad said. “Right now.” He clapped his hands. At the sharp sound, Mama flinched.

Leni glanced longingly at her bug-out bag, full—always—of everything she needed to survive in the wild. She couldn’t bring it without arousing suspicion.

They would have to make their escape with nothing except the clothes they were wearing.

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