Authors: Kristin Hannah
Dad grabbed a shotgun from the rack by the door and held it over his shoulder.
Was it a warning?
Leni went to her mother, placed a hand on her thin wrist, felt how she was trembling. “Come on, Mama,” Leni said evenly.
They walked to the cabin door. Leni couldn’t help stopping, turning back just for a second to stare at the cabin’s warm, cozy interior. For all the pain and heartache and fear, this was the only real home she’d ever known.
She hoped she would never see it again. How sad that her hope felt like loss.
In the truck, seated between her parents on the ragged bench seat, Leni could sense her mother’s fear; it gave off a sour smell. Leni wanted to reassure her, say it would be okay, that they’d escape and move to Anchorage and everything would be fine, but she just sat there, breathing shallowly, holding on, hoping that when the time came to run they would make their feet move.
Dad started up the truck and drove out to the gate.
There he stopped, got out, left his door open, and went to the gate, grabbing the lock. He removed the key from around his neck and fit it into the lock, giving it a hard turn.
“This is it,” Leni said to her mother. “In town, we are going to run. The ferry docks in forty minutes. We’ll find a way to be on it.”
“It won’t work. He’ll catch us.”
“Then we’ll go to Large Marge. She’ll help us.”
“You’d risk her life, too?”
The huge metal lock clanked open. Dad pushed the gate open, over the bumpy muskeg, until the main road was visible again.
“We might only get one chance,” Mama said, chewing worriedly on her lower lip. “It better be the right one or we wait.”
Leni knew it was good advice, but she didn’t know if she could wait anymore. Now that she’d allowed herself to actually
about freedom, the idea of returning to captivity seemed impossible. “We can’t wait, Mama. The leaves are falling. Winter could come early this year.”
Dad climbed into the cab and shut the door. They drove forward. When they’d passed through the gate, Leni twisted around in her seat, stared through the guns in the gun rack. Words in black had been spray-painted across the newly cut wood.
STAY OUT. NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATERS WILL BE SHOT.
She made a mental note of the fact that he hadn’t closed the gate behind them. They turned onto the main road and rumbled past the arch at the entrance to Walker land, past Marge Birdsall’s driveway.
Just past the airstrip, new gravel had been laid down, crunching beneath their tires. Up ahead was the newly painted wooden bridge, where a few people dressed in colorful rain jackets stood at the rail, staring down at the river, pointing at the bright red salmon swimming through the clear water, on their way to spawn and die.
Dad rolled down his window, yelled, “Go back to California,” as they rumbled past, spitting black smoke at them.
In town, a barricade ran down the middle of Main Street—a collection of sawhorses and white buckets and orange cones kept tourists away from the backhoe that was digging a trench in front of the diner. Behind it, running the length of the street, was a yawning scar of cut-up earth, with dirt piled alongside.
Dad stomped on the brake so hard the old truck came to a skidding stop in the tall grass on the side of the road. From here, they could see the backhoe operator: Tom Walker.
Dad wrenched the truck into park and shut off the engine. Slamming his body into the reluctant door, he jumped out of the truck and slammed the door shut behind him. Just as Leni said, “Stay with me, Mama, hold my hand,” Dad appeared at the passenger door, opened it, and grabbed Mama’s wrist and pulled her out of the truck.
Mama looked back, wild-eyed,
, she mouthed. Dad yanked on Mama’s wrist, made her stumble forward to keep up with him.
“Shit,” Leni said.
She saw her parents making their way through the few tourists that were here on this bright late August day, her dad elbowing his way harder than he needed to, pushing people aside.
Leni couldn’t help herself; she sidled out of the truck and followed them. Maybe there was still a way to get Mama away from him. They didn’t need long, just enough time to disappear. Hell, they’d steal a boat if they had to. Maybe this was the distraction they needed.
“Walker!” Dad shouted.
Mr. Walker shut the backhoe down and pushed the trucker’s cap back from his sweaty forehead. “Ernt Allbright,” he said. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“What in the
are you doing?”
“Digging a trench.”
“Electricity for town. I’m putting in a generator.”
Mr. Walker said it again, pronouncing
with care, as if speaking to someone who barely understood English.
“What if we don’t
electricity in Kaneq?”
“I bought easements from every business in town, Ernt. Paid cash money,” Mr. Walker said. “From people who want lights and refrigerators and heat in the winter. Oh, and streetlamps. Won’t that be great?”
“I won’t let you.”
“What are you going to do? Spray-paint again? I wouldn’t recommend it. I won’t be so forgiving a second time.”
Leni came up behind Mama, grabbed her sleeve, tried to pull her away while Dad was fixated on something else.
Matthew’s voice rang out. He was standing in front of the saloon, holding a big cardboard box.
“Help us,” she screamed.
Dad grabbed Leni by the bicep and pulled her against him. “You think you need help? What for?”
She shook her head, croaked, “Nothing. I didn’t mean it.” She glanced at Matthew, who had put down the box and was coming toward them, stepping down from the boardwalk.
“You’d better tell that boy to stop walking, or so help me God…” Dad put a hand on the knife at his waist.
“I’m fine,” she yelled to Matthew, but she could see that he didn’t believe her. He saw that she was crying. “S-stay there. Tell your dad we’re okay.”
Matthew said her name. She saw it form on his lips, but couldn’t hear it.
Dad tightened his grip on Leni’s upper arm until it felt like pliers clamping down. He guided Leni and Mama back to the truck, shoved them inside, slammed the door shut behind them.
It took less than two minutes: all of it. The arrival in town, the scene, the shouted plea to
, and the return to the truck.
All the way home, Dad muttered under his breath. The only words she got were
Mama held Leni’s hand as they bounced over the rutted road and turned onto their land. Leni tried to think of a way to calm her dad down. What had made her cry out like that? She knew better than to ask for help.
Love and fear
The most destructive forces on earth. Fear had turned her inside out, love had made her stupid.
Dad drove through the open gate, still muttering to himself. Leni thought:
When he gets out to close the gate, I’ll grab the wheel and put the truck in reverse and stomp on the gas
, but he left the gate open behind him.
. They could run in the middle of the night …
In the clearing, he threw the gearshift into park and killed the engine, then grabbed Leni and pulled her across the grass and up the steps and across the deck. He shoved her into the cabin so hard she stumbled and fell.
Mama came up behind him, moving cautiously, her face studiously calm. How she could pull that off, Leni didn’t know. “Ernt, you’re overreacting. Please. Let’s talk about this.” She laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Do you think you need help, Cora?” he said in a strangely taut voice.
“She’s young. She didn’t mean anything by it.”
Leni saw the violence of his breathing, the way his fingers spasmed. He was on the balls of his feet, energy pouring out of him, anger transforming him. “You’re lying to me,” he said.
Mama shook her head. “No. I’m not. I don’t even know what you mean.”
“It’s always the Walkers,” he muttered.
“Ernt, this is crazy—”
He hit her so hard she slammed into the wall. Before Mama could get to her feet, he was on her again, yanking her hair back, exposing the pale skin of her throat. Wrapping his hand in her hair, he smashed his fist down, cracked the side of her head on the floor.
Leni hurled herself at her father, landed on his back. She clawed at him, pulled his hair, screamed, “Let her go!”
He wrenched free, cracked Mama’s forehead into the floor.
Leni heard the door open behind her; seconds later she was yanked off her dad. She got a glimpse of Matthew, saw him pull Dad off Mama, spin him around, and punch him in the jaw so hard Dad staggered sideways and crumpled to his knees.
Leni ran to her mother, helped her to her feet. “We need to go. Now.”
“You go,” Mama said, looking nervously toward Dad, who moaned in pain. “Go.” Her face was bloodied, her lip torn.
“I’m not leaving you,” Leni said.
Tears filled Mama’s eyes and fell, mixing with the blood. “He’ll never let me go. You go.
“No,” Leni said. “I’m not leaving you.”
“She’s right, Mrs. Allbright,” Matthew said. “You can’t stay here.”
Mama sighed. “Fine. I’ll go to Large Marge’s. She’ll protect me, but Leni, I don’t want you anywhere near me. You understand? If he comes after me, I don’t want you there.” She looked to Matthew. “I want her
for at least twenty-four hours. Hidden someplace he can’t find her. I’ll go to the police this time. Press charges.”
Matthew nodded solemnly. “I won’t let anything happen to her, Mrs. Allbright. I promise.”
Dad made a groaning sound, cursed, tried to get up.
Mama hefted up Leni’s bug-out bag and handed her the pack. “
, Leni. We need to run.”
They ran out of the cabin and into the bright sunlit yard toward Matthew’s truck. “Get in,” he yelled, then raced over to Dad’s truck. He opened the hood, did something to the engine.
Behind them, the cabin door cracked open. Dad staggered out.
Leni heard the cracking sound of a gun being cocked. “Cora, damn it.” Dad was on the deck, bleeding profusely from his forehead, blinded by blood, holding a shotgun. “Where are you?”
“Get in!” Matthew yelled, throwing something into the trees. He jumped into the driver’s seat and started his truck.
In a spray of shotgun pellets pinging loudly, Leni leaped onto the seat and Mama crammed in beside her. Matthew jammed the gearshift into drive and stomped on the gas. The truck fishtailed in the deep grass before the wheels grabbed hold. He sped down the driveway and through the open gate and turned onto the main road.
They turned again at Large Marge’s driveway and drove to the end of it, honking the horn. “You keep her safe and away from me,” Mama said to Matthew, who nodded.
Leni stared at her mother. The whole of their lives—and all of their love—was in that look. “You won’t go back to him,” Leni said. “You’ll call the police. Press charges. We’ll meet up in twenty-four hours. Then we’ll run away. You promise?”
Mama nodded, hugged her fiercely, kissed her tears away. “Go,” she said in a sharp voice.
After Mama got out of the truck, and they drove away, Leni sat there, replaying it all in her mind, crying quietly. Every breath hurt and she had to fight the urge to go back, to be with her mother. Had she done the wrong thing by leaving her?
Matthew turned at the Walker gate, rumbled beneath the welcoming arch.
“We can’t go here! He’ll look for us here!” Leni said. “Mama said we needed to disappear for a day.”
He parked, got out. “I know. But it’s low tide. We can’t use the boats or the float plane. I only know one place to disappear. Stay here.”
Five minutes later, Matthew was back with a backpack, which he tossed into the bed of the truck.
Leni kept looking behind them, down the Walker driveway.
“Don’t worry. He won’t find the distributor cap for a while,” Matthew said.
And they were off again, turning onto the main road, then left, toward the mountain.
Turns. Switchbacks. River crossings. Up and up they went.
Finally, they pulled into a dirt parking lot and stopped abruptly. There were no other vehicles. A sign at the trailhead read:
BEAR CLAW WILDERNESS AREA
ALLOWABLE USES: Hiking, Camping, Rock Climbing.
DISTANCE: 2.8 miles one way.
DIFFICULTY: Challenging. Steep climbs.
ELEVATION GAIN: 2600 feet
CAMPING: Sawtooth Ridge, near marked Eagle Creek crossing.
Matthew helped Leni out of the truck. Kneeling, he checked her wafflestompers, retied her laces. “You okay?”
“What if he—”
“She got away. Large Marge will protect her. And she wanted you safe.”
“I know. Let’s go,” she said dully.
“We’ve got a long hike ahead of us. Can you make it?”
They headed for the trail, with Matthew leading and Leni following along behind him, struggling to keep up.
They climbed for hours, saw no one. The trail snaked along a sheer stone cliff. Below them was the sea, waves crashing into rocks. The ground trembled at each wave’s impact, or maybe Leni just thought it did because life felt so unstable now. Even the ground felt unreliable.
Finally, Matthew came to what he’d been looking for: a huge, grassy field, thick with purple lupine. Snow whitened the peaks; below lay folds of rock, dotted here and there by the white dots that were Dall sheep.
He dropped his pack into the grass and turned to face Leni. He handed her a smoked salmon sandwich and a can of warm Coke, and while she ate he set up a pup tent deep in the grass.
Later, with a fire crackling in front of the tent and the orange flaps pinned open, Matthew sat on the grass beside her. He put an arm around her. She leaned into him.
“You don’t have to be the only one protecting her, you know,” he said. “We’ll all take care of you. It’s always been that way in Kaneq.”
Leni wanted that to be true. She wanted to believe there was a safe place for her and Mama, a do-over of their lives, a beginning that didn’t rise from the ashes of a violent, terrible ending. Mostly, she didn’t want to feel solely responsible for her mama’s safety anymore.