Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (4 page)

“That’s exactly the kind of life we came looking for,” Dad said. “I’ll admit, money’s a little tight, so trade would be good. I’m a damn good mechanic. I can fix most any motor.”

“Good to know. I’ll spread the word.”

Dad nodded. “Good. We could use some bacon. Maybe a little rice. And some whiskey.”

“Over there,” Large Marge said, pointing. “Behind the row of axes and hatchets.”

Dad followed her direction back into the shadows of the store.

Large Marge turned to Mama, sweeping her from head to toe in a single assessing gaze. “I’m guessing this is your man’s dream, Cora Allbright, and that you all came up here without a whole lot of planning.”

Mama smiled. “We do everything on impulse, Large Marge. It keeps life exciting.”

“Well. You’ll need to be tough up here, Cora Allbright. For you and your daughter. You can’t just count on your man. You need to be able to save yourself and this beautiful girl of yours.”

“That’s pretty dramatic,” Mama said.

Large Marge bent down for a large cardboard box, dragged it across the floor toward her. She dug through it, her black fingers moving like a piano player’s, until she pulled out two whistles on black straps. She placed one around each of their necks. “This is a bear whistle. You’ll need it. Lesson
number one: no walking quietly—or unarmed—in Alaska. Not this far out, not this time of year.”

“Are you trying to scare us?” Mama asked.

“You bet your ass I am. Fear is common sense up here. A lot of folks come up here, Cora, with cameras and dreams of a simpler life. But five out of every one thousand Alaskans go missing every year. Just disappear. And most of the dreamers … well, they don’t make it past the first winter. They can’t wait to get back to the land of drive-in theaters and heat that comes on at the flip of a switch. And sunlight.”

“You make it sound dangerous,” Mama said uneasily.

“Two kinds of folks come up to Alaska, Cora. People running to something and people running away from something. The second kind—you want to keep your eye out for them. And it isn’t just the people you need to watch out for, either. Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.”

Mama lit up a cigarette. Her hand was shaking. “As the welcoming committee, you leave something to be desired, Marge.”

Large Marge laughed again. “You’re right as rain about that, Cora. My social skills have gone to shit in the bush.” She smiled, laid a hand comfortingly on Mama’s thin shoulder. “Here’s what you want to hear: We are a tight community here in Kaneq. There’s less than thirty of us living on this part of the peninsula year-round, but we take care of our own. My land is close to yours. You need anything—anything—just pick up the ham radio. I’ll come running.”

*   *   *

D
AD LAID A SHEET
of notebook paper on the steering wheel; on the paper was a map Large Marge had drawn for them. The map showed Kaneq as a big red circle, with a single line shooting out from it. That was the Road (there was only really one, she said) that ran from town to Otter Cove. There
were three
x
’s along the straight line. First was Large Marge’s homestead, on the left, then Tom Walker’s on the right, and lastly Bo Harlan’s old place, which was at the very end of the line.

“So,” Dad said. “We go two miles past Icicle Creek and we’ll see the start of Tom Walker’s land, which is marked by a metal gate. Our place is just a little farther on. At the end of the road,” Dad said, letting the map fall to the floor as they headed out of town. “Marge said we can’t miss it.”

They rumbled onto a rickety-looking bridge that arched over a crystalline blue river. They passed soggy marshlands, dusted with yellow and pink flowers, and then an airstrip, where four small, decrepit-looking airplanes were tied down.

Just past the airstrip, the gravel road turned to dirt and rocks. Trees grew thickly on either side. Mud and mosquitoes splattered the windshield. Potholes the size of wading pools made the old bus bump and clatter. “Hot damn,” Dad said every time they were thrown out of their seats. There were no houses out here, no signs of civilization, until they came to a driveway littered with rusted junk and rotting vehicles. A hand-lettered sign read
BIRDSALL
. Large Marge’s place.

After that, the road got worse. Bumpier. A combination of rocks and mud puddles. On either side, there was grass that grew wild and sticker bushes and trees tall enough to block the view of anything else.

Now they were
really
in the middle of nowhere.

After another empty patch of road, they came to a bleached-white cow skull on the rusted metal gate that marked the Walker homestead.

“I must say, I’m a little suspicious of neighbors who use dead animals in decorating,” Mama said, clinging to the door handle, which came off in her hand when they hit a pothole.

Five minutes later, Dad slammed on the brakes. Two hundred feet farther and they would have careened over a cliff.

“Jesus,” Mama said. The road was gone; in its place, scrub brush and a ledge. Land’s End. Literally.

“We’re here!” Dad jumped out of the bus, slammed the door shut.

Mama looked at Leni. They were both thinking the same thing: there
was nothing here but trees and mud and a cliff that could have killed them in the fog. They got out of the bus and huddled together. Not far away—presumably below the cliff in front of them—the waves crashed and roared.

“Will ya look at it?” Dad threw his arms wide, as if he wanted to embrace it all. He seemed to be growing before their eyes, like a tree, spreading branches wide, becoming strong. He
liked
the nothingness he saw, the vast emptiness. It was what he’d come for.

The entrance to their property was a narrow neck of land bordered on either side by cliffs, the bases of which were battered by the ocean. Leni thought that a bolt of lightning or an earthquake could shear this land away from the mainland and set it adrift, a floating fortress of an island.

“That’s our driveway,” Dad said.

“Driveway?” Mama said, staring at the trail through the trees. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years. Thin-trunked alder trees grew in the path.

“Bo’s been gone a long time. We’ll have to clear the road of new growth, but for now we’ll hike in,” Dad said.

“Hike?” Mama said.

He set about unpacking the bus. While Leni and Mama stood staring into the trees, Dad divided their necessities into three backpacks and said, “Okay. Here we go.”

Leni stared at the packs in disbelief.

“Here, Red,” he said, lifting a pack that seemed as big as a Buick.

“You want me to wear that?” she asked.

“I do if you want food and a sleeping bag at the cabin.” He grinned. “Come on, Red. You can do this.”

She let him fit the backpack on her. She felt like a turtle with an oversized shell. If she fell over, she would never right herself. She moved sideways with exaggerated care as Dad helped Mama put on her pack.

“Okay, Allbrights,” Dad said, hefting his own pack on. “Let’s go home!”

He took off walking, his arms swinging in time to his steps. Leni could hear his old army boots crunching and squishing in the muddy dirt. He whistled along, like Johnny Appleseed.

Mama glanced longingly back at the bus. Then she turned to Leni and
smiled, but it struck Leni as an expression of terror rather than joy. “Okay, then,” she said. “Come on.”

Leni reached out for Mama’s hand.

They walked through a shadow land of trees, following a narrow, winding trail. They could hear the sea crashing all around them. As they continued, the sound of the surf diminished. The land expanded. More trees, more land, more shadow.

“Sweet simple Christ,” Mama said after a while. “How much farther is it?” She tripped on a rock, fell, went down hard.

“Mama!” Leni reached for her without thinking and her pack threw her to the ground. Mud filled Leni’s mouth, made her sputter.

Dad was beside them in an instant, helping Leni and Mama to stand. “Here, girls, lean on me,” he said. And they were off again.

Trees crowded into one another, jostled for space, turned the trail gloomy and dark. Sunlight poked through, changing color and clarity as they walked. The lichen-carpeted ground was springy, like walking on marshmallows. In no time, Leni noticed that she was ankle-deep in shadow. The darkness seemed to be rising rather than the sun falling. As if darkness were the natural order around here.

They got hooked in the face by branches, stumbled atop the spongy ground, until finally they emerged into the light again, into a meadow of knee-high grass and wildflowers. It turned out that their forty acres was a peninsula: a huge thumbprint of grassy land perched above the water on three sides, with a small C-shaped beach in the middle. There, the water was calm, serene.

Leni staggered into the clearing, unhooked her pack, let it crash to the ground. Mama did the same.

And there it was: the home they’d come to claim. A small cabin built of age-blackened logs, with a slanted, moss-furred roof that was studded with dozens of bleached-white animal skulls. A rotting deck jutted out from the front, cluttered with mildewed chairs. Off to the left, between the cabin and the trees, were decrepit animal pens and a dilapidated chicken coop.

There was junk everywhere, lying in the tall grass: a big pile of spokes, oil drums, coils of reddish wire, an old-fashioned wooden washing machine with a hand-cranked wringer.

Dad put his hands on his hips and threw his head back and howled like a wolf. When he stopped, and silence settled in again, he swept Mama into his arms, twirling her around.

When he finally let her go, Mama stumbled back; she was laughing, but there was a kind of horror in her eyes. The cabin looked like something an old, toothless hermit would live in, and it was
small.

Would they all be crammed into a single room?

“Look at it,” Dad said, making a sweeping gesture with his hand. They all turned away from the cabin and looked out to sea. “That’s Otter Cove.”

At this late afternoon hour, the peninsula and sea seemed to glow from within, like a land enchanted in a fairy tale. The colors were more vibrant than she’d ever seen before. Waves lapping the muddy beach left a sparkling residue. On the opposite shore, the mountains were a lush, deep purple at their bases and stark white at their peaks.

The beach below—their beach—was a curl of gray polished pebbles, washed by an easy white-foam surf. A rickety set of stairs built in the shape of a lightning bolt led from the grassy meadow to the shore. The wood had turned gray from age and was black from mildew; chicken wire covered each step. The stairs looked fragile, as if a good wind could shatter them.

The tide was out; mud coated everything, oozed along the shore, which was draped in seaweed and kelp. Clumps of shiny black mussels lay exposed on the rocks.

Leni remembered her dad telling her that the bore tide in Upper Cook Inlet created waves big enough to surf; only the Bay of Fundy had a higher tide. She hadn’t really understood that fact until now, as she saw how far up the stairs the water could get. It would be beautiful at high tide, but now, with the tide ebbed and mud everywhere, she understood what it meant. At low tide, the property was inaccessible by boat.

“Come on,” Dad said. “Let’s check out the house.”

He took Leni by the hand and led them through the grass and wildflowers, past the junk—barrels overturned, stacks of wooden pallets, old coolers, and broken crab pots. Mosquitoes nipped at her skin, drew blood, made a droning sound.

At the porch steps, Mama hesitated. Dad let go of Leni’s hand and bounded up the sagging steps and opened the front door and disappeared inside.

Mama stood there a moment, breathing deeply. She slapped hard at her neck, left a smear of blood behind. “Well,” she said. “This isn’t what I expected.”

“Me, either,” Leni said.

There was another long silence. Then, quietly, Mama said, “Let’s go.”

She took Leni’s hand as they walked up the rickety steps and entered the dark cabin.

The first thing Leni noticed was the smell.

Poop. Some animal (she
hoped
it was an animal) had pooped everywhere.

She pressed a hand over her mouth and nose.

The place was full of shadows, dark shapes and forms. Cobwebs hung in ropy skeins from the rafters. Dust made it hard to breathe. The floor was covered in dead insects, so that each step produced a crunch.

“Yuck,” Leni said.

Mama flung open the dirty curtains and sunlight poured in, thick with dust motes.

The interior was bigger than it looked from outside. The floors had been crafted of rough, mismatched plywood nailed into place in a patchwork quilt pattern. Skinned log walls displayed animal traps, fishing poles, baskets, frying pans, water buckets, nets. The kitchen—such as it was—took up one corner of the main room. Leni saw an old camp stove and a sink with no fixtures; beneath it was a curtained-off space. On the counter sat an old ham radio, probably from World War II, cloaked in dust. In the center of the room, a black woodstove held court, its metal pipe rising up to the ceiling like a jointed tin finger pointed at heaven. A ragged sofa, an overturned wooden crate that read
BLAZO
on the side, and a card table with four metal
chairs comprised the cabin’s furnishings. A narrow, steeply pitched log ladder led to a skylit loft space, and off to the left a curtain of psychedelic-colored beads hung from a narrow doorway.

Leni pushed through the dusty beaded curtain and went into the bedroom beyond, which was barely bigger than the stained, lumpy mattress on the floor. Here there was more junk hanging from hooks on the walls. It smelled vaguely of animal excrement and settled dust.

Leni kept a hand over her mouth, afraid she’d gag as she returned to the living room (
crunch, crunch
on the dead bugs). “Where’s the bathroom?”

Mama gasped, headed for the front door, flung it open, and ran out.

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