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Authors: Kristin Hannah

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“Tom Walker?” the judge said.

Large Marge faced the judge again, crossed her arms in a way that communicated a settling-in, a willingness to stand here all day arguing her point. “That’s right.”

The judge glanced over at the skinny prosecutor. “Adrian?”

The prosecutor looked down at the papers spread out in front of him. He tapped a pen on the desk. “I don’t know, Your Honor…”

The courtroom door opened. The woman from the front desk at the police station walked through. She was nervously smoothing her pant leg. “Your Honor?” she said.

“What is it, Marci?” the judge boomed. “We’re busy here.”

“The governor is on the line. He wants to talk to you. Right now.”

*   *   *

O
NE MINUTE
, Leni was standing beside her lawyer at the desk in the courtroom, and the next thing she knew, she was leaving the police station.

Outside, she saw Large Marge standing beside a pickup truck.

“What happened?” Leni asked.

Large Marge took Leni’s suitcase and tossed it into the rusted bed of the pickup. “Alaska isn’t so different as everyplace else. It helps to have friends in high places. Tommy called the governor, who got the charges dropped.” She touched Leni’s shoulder. “It’s over, kiddo.”

“Only part of it,” Leni said. “There’s more.”

“Yeah. Tom wants you to come to the homestead. He’ll take you to see Matthew.”

Leni couldn’t let herself think about that yet. She walked around to the passenger side of the pickup and climbed up into the blanket-covered bench seat.

Large Marge stepped up into the driver’s seat, settling her bulk with a shimmying motion. When she started the engine, the radio came on.

Another little piece of my heart now, baby
came growling through the speaker. Leni closed her eyes.

“You look fragile, kiddo,” Large Marge said.

“Hard not to be.” She thought about asking Large Marge about Matthew, but honestly, Leni felt as if the smallest thing could break her. So she stared out the window instead.

As they drove down to the dock, Leni couldn’t help but stare in awe at the magical drizzle of light. The world seemed illuminated from within,
fantastical colors bold and gilded, knife peaks of snow and rock, vibrantly green grass, blue sea.

The docks were full of fishing boats and noise. Seabirds cawing; engines growling, puffing black smoke into the air; otters gliding in the water between boats, chattering.

They boarded Large Marge’s red fishing boat—the
Fair Chase
—and sped across a calm blue Kachemak Bay, toward the soaring white mountains. Leni had to shield her eyes from the glare of sunlight on the water, but there was no way to shield her heart. Memories came at her from all sides. She remembered seeing these mountains for the first time. Had she known then how Alaska would take hold of her? Shape her? She didn’t know, couldn’t remember. It all felt like a lifetime ago.

They rounded the tip of Sadie Cove and ducked in between two green, humped islands, their shorelines littered with silvery driftwood and kelp and pebbles. The boat slowed and motored around the rock breakwater.

Leni got her first glimpse of Kaneq Harbor and the town set on stilts above it. They tied down the boat and walked up the gangplank toward the chain-link fence that created the entrance to the harbor from town. She didn’t think Large Marge had said anything, but Leni couldn’t really be sure. All she could hear was her own body, coming alive again in this place that would always define her—her heart beating, her lungs drawing breath, her footsteps on the gravel of Main Street.

Kaneq had grown in the past years. The clapboard-fronted storefronts were painted bright colors, like pictures she’d seen of fjord-side towns in Scandinavia. The boardwalk that connected everything looked brand-new. Streetlamps stood like sentinels, planters full of geraniums and petunias hung from their iron arms. Off to her left was the General Store, expanded to twice its original size, with a new red door. The street boasted one shop after another: the Snackle Shop, the diner, the yarn shop, souvenir places, ice-cream stands, outfitters, guides, kayak rentals, and the new Malamute Saloon and Geneva Inn, which boasted a giant white rack of antlers above the door.

She remembered their first day here, with Mama in her new hiking boots
and a frothy peasant blouse, saying,
I’m a little suspicious of people who use dead animals in their decorating.

Leni couldn’t help smiling. Good Lord, they’d been unprepared.

Tourists mingled with locals (one still easily distinguishable from the other by clothing). Vehicles lined the street in front of the Malamute Saloon: a few ATVs, some dirt bikes, two pickup trucks, and a lime-green Pinto with a duct-taped fender.

Leni climbed into Large Marge’s old International Harvester. They drove past the General Store. A newly painted bridge (fishermen with lines in the water on either side) swept them over the crystal-clear river and deposited them on the gravel road that soon turned to dirt.

For the first half mile, there were new signs of civilization: A travel trailer was on blocks in the tall grass; beside it, a tractor was rusted through. A couple of new driveways. A mobile home. An old school bus parked near the ditch had no tires.

Leni noticed that Large Marge had a new sign at her place. It read
KAYAK AND CANOE RENTALS HERE!

“I love exclamation marks,” Large Marge said.

Leni was going to say something, but then she saw the start of Walker land, where the arch welcomed guests to the adventure lodge and promised
FISHING, KAYAKING, BEAR VIEWING, AND SIGHTSEEING FLIGHTS.

Large Marge eased up on the accelerator as they neared the driveway. She glanced at Leni. “You sure you’re ready to do this? We could wait.”

Leni heard the gentleness in Large Marge’s voice and knew that the woman was offering to give Leni time before she saw Matthew again. “I’m ready.”

They crossed beneath the Walker arch and rumbled along, the road evened out by gravel. To her left, eight new log cabins had been built among the trees, each one positioned to have a sweeping view of the bay. A twisting, handrailed trail led down to the beach.

Not much farther and they came to the Walker house, now Walker Lodge. Still a crown jewel; two stories of skinned logs, with a huge porch and windows that overlooked the bay and the mountains. There was no
junk showing in the yard anymore; no rusting trucks or coils of wire or stacked pallets. Instead, there were wooden partitions here and there, freestanding walls to hide whatever was behind. Adirondack chairs populated the deck. The animal pens had been moved to the distant tree line.

Down at the dock, a float plane was tied up alongside three aluminum fishing boats. There were people walking along paths, fishing on the beach. Employees in brown uniforms and guests in color-coordinated rain gear and brand-new fleece vests. Leni got out of the truck, looked around.

MJ bolted out of the lodge, bounded across the deck, maneuvering around the chairs, and came at her, waving something in his hand.

Leni bent down and scooped him up, holding him so tightly he started to wiggle to get free. She didn’t realize until right then how afraid she’d been of losing him.

Tom Walker headed toward her. Beside him was a pretty, broad-shouldered Native woman with hip-length black hair that was going gray in a single wide streak. She wore a faded denim blouse tucked into khaki pants, with a knife sheathed at her belt and a pair of wire cutters sticking out of her breast pocket.

“Hey, Leni,” Mr. Walker said, “I’d like you to meet my wife, Atka.”

The woman held out her hand and smiled. “I have heard so much about you and your mother.”

Leni’s throat felt tight as she shook Atka’s rough hand and said, “It’s nice to meet you.” She looked at Mr. Walker. “Mama would be happy for you.” Leni’s voice cracked.

They fell silent after that.

MJ dropped to his knees in the grass, making his blue triceratops fight his red
T. rex
, with growling sound effects.

“I’d like to see him now,” Leni said. She knew instinctively that Mr. Walker was waiting for her to tell him she was ready. “Alone, I think. If that’s okay with you.”

Mr. Walker turned to his wife. “Atka, would you and Marge watch the little one for a minute?”

Atka smiled, swept the long hair to her back. “MJ, do you remember the
starfish I told you about? The animal called
Yuit
by my people, the wrestler of the waves? Would you like to see one?”

MJ shot to his feet. “Yes! Yes!”

Leni crossed her arms as she watched Large Marge and Atka and MJ walk toward the beach stairs. MJ’s high, chattering voice faded gradually away.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” Mr. Walker said.

“I wish I could have written,” she said. “I wanted to tell you and Matthew about MJ, but…” She took a deep breath. “We were afraid they’d arrest us if we came back.”

“You could have trusted us to protect you, but we don’t need to talk about what happened back then.”

“I abandoned him,” she said quietly.

“He was in so much pain he didn’t know who he was, let alone who you were.”

“You think that eases my conscience? That he was in pain?”

“You were in pain, too. More than I knew, I guess. You knew you were pregnant?”

She nodded. “How is he?”

“It’s been a rough road.”

Leni felt acutely uncomfortable in the quiet that fell between them. Guilty.

“Come with me,” he said, and took her by the arm, steadying her. They walked past the lodge’s cabins, past where the goat pens used to be, and across a sheared hayfield, into a stand of black spruce.

Mr. Walker stopped. Leni expected to see a truck, but there wasn’t one. “Aren’t we going to Homer?”

Mr. Walker shook his head. He led her deeper into the trees, until they came to a slatted boardwalk, lined with gnarly branch railings on either side. Just below it, on a lip of land surrounded by trees, was a log cabin that overlooked the bay. Geneva’s old cabin. A wide wooden bridge led from the boardwalk to the front door. No, not a bridge. A ramp.

A wheelchair ramp
.

Mr. Walker walked on ahead, his boots thudding on the ramplike bridge.

He knocked on the door. Leni heard a muffled voice and Mr. Walker opened the door and led Leni inside. “Go on,” he said gently, pushing her inside a small, cozy cabin with a wall of windows overlooking the bay.

The first thing Leni saw was a series of large paintings. One of them—a huge work-in-progress canvas—was propped on an easel. On it, an explosion of color; drops and splatters and streaks that somehow—impossibly—gave Leni the impression of the northern lights, although she couldn’t say why. There were strange, misshapen letters in all that color; she could almost make them out but not quite. Maybe it said, HER? The painting made her feel something. Pain first, and then a rising sense of hope.

“I’ll leave you two,” Mr. Walker said. He left the cabin and closed the door at the same time Leni saw the man in the wheelchair, sitting with his back to her.

He executed a slow turn, his paint-splattered hands agile on the wheelchair, maneuvering himself around.

Matthew
.

He looked up. A network of raised pale pink scars ran across his face, gave him an odd, stitched-together look. His nose was flattened, had the splayed look of an old boxer’s, and his right eye was tugged just the slightest bit downward by a starburst of scar tissue at the top of his cheekbone.

But his eyes. In them, she saw
him,
her Matthew.

“Matthew? It’s me, Leni.”

He frowned. She waited for him to say something, anything, but there was nothing, just this aching, drawn-out silence where once there had been an endless stream of words.

She felt tears start. “It’s Leni,” she said again, softer. He stared at her, just kept staring, like he was dreaming. “You don’t know me,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I knew you wouldn’t. And you won’t understand about MJ. I knew that. I
knew
it, it’s just…” She took a step backward. She couldn’t do this now, not yet.

She would try again later. Practice her words. She’d explain it to MJ, prepare him. They had time now, and she wanted to do this right. She turned toward the door.

 

THIRTY-ONE

“Wait.”

Matthew sat in the wheelchair, clutching a sticky paintbrush, his heart racing.

They had told him she was coming, but then he’d forgotten and remembered and forgotten again. It was like that for him sometimes. Things got lost in the confused circuitry of his brain. Less often these days, but it happened.

Or maybe he hadn’t believed. Or he’d thought he’d imagined it, that they’d said the words to make him smile, hoping he’d forget.

He still had fog days when nothing made it up from the mist, not words or ideas or sentences. Just pain.

But she was here. He had dreamed of her return for years, played and replayed the possibilities. Imagined and massaged ideas. He had practiced words for it, for her, alone in his room, where stress wouldn’t seize control and render him mute, where he could pretend that he was a man worth coming back to.

He tried not to think about his ugly face and his never-quite-right leg. He knew that sometimes he couldn’t think well, and words became impos
sible creatures that ran at his approach. He heard his once-strong voice tripping up, sending out idiot words and he thought,
That can’t be me
, but it was.

He dropped the wet paintbrush and clutched the armrests of the wheelchair, forced himself to stand. It hurt so badly he made a grunt of pain, and it shamed him, that noise, but there was nothing he could do. He gritted his teeth, repositioned his leg. He’d been sitting for too long, consumed by his painting, the one he called
Her,
about a night he remembered on her beach, and he’d forgotten to move.

He shambled forward in a lurching, unsteady gait that probably made her think he could fall at any moment. He’d fallen a lot, gotten up more.


Matthew?” She moved toward him, her face tilted up.

Her beauty made him want to cry. He wanted to tell her that when he painted, he felt her, remembered her, that it had started in rehab as occupational therapy and now it was his passion. Sometimes when he was painting he could forget all of it, the pain, the memories, the loss, and imagine a future with Leni, their love like sunshine and warm water. He imagined them having kids, growing old together. All of it.

He strained to find all those words. It was like suddenly being in a dark room. You knew there was a door, but you couldn’t find it.

Breathe, Matthew.
Stress made it worse.

He drew in a breath, released it. He limped over to the bedside table, picked up the box full of the letters she’d sent him all those years ago, while he was in the hospital, and the others, the ones she’d sent when he was a grief-stricken kid in Fairbanks. They were how he’d learned to read again. He handed it to her, unable to ask the question that had haunted him: Why did you stop writing to me?

She looked down, saw her letters in the box, and looked up at him. “You kept them? After I left you?”

“Your letters,” he said. He knew the words were elongated; he had to concentrate to create the combinations he wanted. “Were how I. Learned to read again.”

Leni stared up at him.

“I prayed. You’d. Come back,” he said.

“I wanted to,” she whispered.

He gave her a smile, knowing how it pulled down the skin at his eye, made him look even more freakish.

She put her arms around him and he was amazed at how they still fit together. After all the ways he’d been put back together, restrung and bolted up; they still fit together. She touched his scarred face. “You are so beautiful.”

He tightened his hold on her, tried to steady himself, feeling suddenly, inexplicably afraid.

“Are you okay? Are you in pain?”

He didn’t know how to say what he was feeling, or he was afraid that if he said it, she’d think less of him. He’d been drowning for all of these years without her, and she was the shore he’d been flailing to find. But surely she would look into his ravaged, stitched-together face and run away, and then he would drift back into the deep, dark waters alone.

He pulled away, limped back over to his wheelchair, and sat down with an
oomph
of pain. He shouldn’t have held her, felt her body against his. How would he ever forget the feel of her again? He tried to get back onto an ordinary track, but couldn’t find his way. He was trembling. “Where. Have you been?”

“Seattle.” She moved toward him. “It’s a long story.”

At her touch, the world—his world—had cracked open or broke apart. Something. He wanted to revel in the moment, burrow into it like a pile of furs and let it warm him, but none of it felt real or safe. “Tell me.”

She shook her head.

“I disappoint. You.”

“You aren’t the disappointment, Matthew. I am. I always have been. I was the one who left. And when you needed me most. I would understand if you can’t forgive me. I can’t forgive me. I did it because, well … there’s someone you need to meet. Afterwards, if you still want to, we can talk.”

Matthew frowned. “Someone. Here?”

“Outside with your dad and Atka. Will you come with me to meet him?”

Him.

Disappointment settled deep, all the way to his bolted-together bones. “I don’t need to meet. Your
him
.”

“You’re mad. I get it. You said we always stand by the people we love, but I didn’t. I ran.”

“Don’t talk. Go,” he said in a harsh voice. “Please. Just go.”

She looked at him, tears in her eyes. She was so beautiful he couldn’t breathe. He wanted to cry, to scream. How would he ever let her go? He had been waiting for this moment, for her, for them, for all the years he could remember, through pain so bad he cried in his sleep, but every day he woke and thought,
Her
, and he tried again. He’d imagined a million versions of their future, but he’d never imagined this. Her coming back just to say goodbye.

“You have a son, Matthew.”

It happened for him like that sometimes. He heard the wrong words, took in information that wasn’t there. His screwed-up brain. Before he could guard against it, use his learned tools, the pain of those words crashed down on him. He wanted to let her know that he’d misunderstood, but all he could do was howl, a deep, rolling growl of pain. Words abandoned him; all he had left was pure emotion. He lurched out of the chair and stumbled backward, away from her, hitting the kitchen counter hard. It was his damaged brain, telling him what he wanted to hear instead of what was actually said.

Leni moved toward him. He could see how hurt she was, how crazed she thought he was, and shame made him want to turn away. “Go. If you’re leaving. Go.”

“Matthew, please. Stop. I know I’ve hurt you.” She reached out for him. “Matthew, I’m sorry.”

“Go away. Please.”

“You have a son,” she said slowly. “A son. We have a son. Do you understand me?”

He frowned. “A baby?”

“Yes. I brought him to meet you.”

At first he felt pure, exquisite joy; then the truth hit him hard. A son. A child of his, of theirs. It made him want to cry for what he’d lost.

“Look at me,” he said quietly.

“I’m looking.”

“I look like. Someone rebuilt me with. A bad sewing machine. Sometimes it hurts. So much I can’t speak. It took me two
years
to stop. Grunting and screaming. And say my first. Real word.”

“And?”

He thought of all the things he’d once imagined he would teach a son, and it collapsed around him. He was too broken to hold anyone else together. “I can’t pick him up. Can’t put him. On my shoulders. He won’t want this. For a dad
.
” He knew Leni heard the longing in his voice at that; the universe in a three-letter word.

She touched his face, let her fingers trace the scars that put him back together, stared up into his green eyes. “You know what I see? A man who should have died but wouldn’t give up. I see a man who fought to talk and walk and think. Every one of your scars breaks my heart and puts it back together. Your fear is every parent’s fear. I see the man I have loved for my whole life. The father of our son.”

“Don’t. Know how.”

“No one knows how. Believe me. Can you hold his hand? Can you teach him to fish? Can you make him a sandwich?”

“I’ll embarrass him,” he said.

“Kids are durable, and so is their love. Trust me, Matthew, you can do this.”

“Not alone.”

“Not alone. It’s you and me, just like it was always supposed to be. We’ll do it together. Okay?”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

She held his face in her hands and rose up onto her toes to kiss him. With that one kiss, so like another kiss from long ago, a lifetime ago, two kids believing in a happy ending, he felt his world come back into alignment.
“Come meet him,” she whispered against his lips. “He snores just like you do. And he bumps into every piece of furniture. And he loves Robert Service poems.”

She took his hand. Together they walked out of the cabin, him limping slowly, holding her hand tightly, leaning on her, letting her steady him. Wordlessly, they made their way out of the trees and past the house that was now a world-class fishing lodge, toward the new beach stairs.

As always, the shoreline was full of guests, dressed in their new Alaska rain gear, fishing at the water’s edge, birds cawing in the air, waiting for scraps.

He held on to Leni with one hand and clutched the handrail with his other and made his slow, halting way down the stairs.

On the beach, off to the right, Large Marge was drinking a beer. Alyeska was out in the bay, giving kayak lessons to guests. Dad and Atka were with a child, a blond boy, who was squatted over a big purple starfish.

Matthew came to a stop.

“Mommy!” the boy said at Leni’s appearance. He jumped up, smiling so big it lit his whole face. “Did you know that starfishes have
teeth
? I seen ’em!”

Leni looked up at Matthew. “Our son,” she said, and let go of Matthew’s hand.

He limped toward the little boy, stopped. Meaning to bend, he crashed down to one knee, grimaced in pain, groaned.

“You sound like a bear. I like bears, so does my new grandpop. Do you?”

“I like bears,” Matthew said, unsure.

He looked into his son’s face and saw his own past. He suddenly remembered things he’d forgotten—the feel of frogs’ eggs in your hand, the way a good laugh sometimes shook your whole body, stories being read by a campfire, playing pirates on the shore, building a fort in the trees. All of that he could teach. Of all the things he’d dreamed of over the years, tried like hell to believe in when his pain was at its worst, this was something he’d never dared to even hope for.

My son.
“I’m Matthew.”

“Really? I’m Matthew Junior. But everyone calls me MJ.”

Matthew felt an emotion unlike anything he’d ever felt before. Matthew Junior.
My son
, he thought again. He found it difficult to smile; realized he was crying. “I’m your dad.”

MJ looked at Leni. “Mommy?”

Leni came up beside them, laid a hand on Matthew’s shoulder, and nodded. “That’s him, MJ. Your dad. He’s waited a long time to meet you.”

MJ grinned, showed off his two missing front teeth. He threw himself at Matthew, hugged him so ferociously they toppled over. When they came back up, MJ was laughing. “You wanna see a starfish?”

“Sure,” Matthew said.

Matthew tried to get up, put his hand on the ground. Bits of shell stuck to his palm as he stumbled, his bad ankle giving way. And then Leni was there, taking his arm, helping him stand up again.

MJ raced down to the water, talking all the way.

Matthew couldn’t make his feet move. All he could do was stand there, breathing shallowly, a little afraid that all of this could break like glass at the merest touch. At a breath. The boy who looked like him stood at the shore, blond hair glinting in the sun, the hem of his jeans wet with saltwater. Laughing. In that one image, Matthew saw the whole of his life; past, present, and future. It was one of those moments—an instant of grace in a crazy, sometimes impossibly dangerous world—that changed a man’s life.

“You’d better go, Matthew,” Leni said. “Our son is not very good at waiting for what he wants.”

He looked down at her and thought,
God, I love her,
but his voice was gone, lost in this new world in which everything had changed. In which he was a father.

They had come so far from their beginnings as two damaged kids, he and Leni. Maybe it had all happened the way it needed to, maybe they’d each crossed their own oceans—hers of damaged love and loss, his of pain—to be here again together, where they belonged. “Good thing I am.”

He saw what those words meant to her.

“I wanted to stand by you. I wanted—”

“You know what I love most about you, Leni Allbright?”

“What?”

“Everything.” He took her in his arms and kissed her with everything that he had and all he hoped to have. When he finally let go, reluctantly, and drew back, they stared at each other, had a whole conversation in breaths taken and expelled. This was a beginning, he thought; a beginning in the middle, something unexpected and beautiful.

“You’d better go,” Leni finally said.

Matthew walked carefully across the pebbled beach toward the boy standing at the waterline.

“Hurry up,” MJ said, waving Matthew over to the big purple starfish. “It’s right here. Look! Look, Daddy.”

Daddy.

Matthew saw a flat charcoal-gray stone, small as a new beginning, polished by the sea, and picked it up. The weight of it was perfect, the size exactly what he wanted. He held it out to his son, said, “Here. I’ll show you. How to. Skip rocks. It’s cool. I taught your mom. The same thing. A long time ago…”

*   *   *

“H
E ALWAYS BELIEVED
you’d come back,” Mr. Walker said, coming up beside Leni. “Said he’d know if you were dead. That he’d feel it. His first word was ‘her.’ It didn’t take us long to know he meant you.”

“How do I make up for leaving him?”

“Ah, Leni. It’s life. Things don’t always go the way you expect.” He shrugged. “Matthew knows that, better than any of us.”

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