Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (7 page)

“Don’t let my daddy scare the bejesus out of you,” the woman said, smil
ing brightly. As she stepped farther into the cabin, a child sidled along beside her, a girl of about four who was barefoot and dirty-faced. “I’m Thelma Schill, Earl’s daughter. Bo was my big brother. This is my husband, Ted. This is Marybet. We call her Moppet.” Thelma placed a hand on the girl’s head.

“I’m Cora,” Mama said, extending her hand. “That’s Leni.”

Leni smiled hesitantly. Thelma’s husband, Ted, stared at her through squinty eyes.

Thelma’s smile was warm, genuine. “You going to school on Monday, Leni?”

“There’s a school?” Leni said.

“’Course. It isn’t big, but I think you’ll make friends. Kids come from as far away as Bear Cove. I think there’s another week of classes. School ends early up here so kids can work.”

“Where’s the school?” Mama asked.

“On Alpine Street, just behind the saloon, at the base of Church Hill. You can’t miss it. Monday morning at nine.”

“We’ll be there,” Mama said, shooting Leni a smile.

“Good. We are so happy to welcome you here, Cora and Ernt and Leni.” Thelma faced them, smiling. “Bo wrote us plenty from ’Nam. You meant so much to him. Everyone wants to meet you all.” She crossed the room, took Ernt by the arm, and led him out of the cabin.

Leni and Mama followed behind, heard Mad Earl shuffle to his feet, grumbling about Thelma taking over.

Outside, a ragged cluster of people—men, women, children, young adults—stood waiting, each holding something.

“I’m Clyde,” said a man with a Santa beard and eyebrows like awnings. “Bo’s younger brother.” He held out a chain saw, its blade sheathed in bright orange plastic. “I just sharpened the chain.” A woman and two young men, each about twenty, stepped forward, along with two dirty-faced girls who were probably seven or eight. “This here’s Donna, my wife, and the twins, Darryl and Dave, and our daughters, Agnes and Marthe.”

There weren’t many of them, but they were friendly and welcoming.
Each person they met gave them a gift: a hacksaw, a coil of rope, sheets of heavy plastic, rolls of duct tape, a bright silver knife called an
ulu
that was shaped like a fan.

There was no one Leni’s age. The one teenager—Axle, who was sixteen—barely glanced at Leni. He stood off by himself, throwing knives at a tree trunk. He had long dirty black hair and gray eyes.

“You’ll need to get a garden going fast,” Thelma said as the men drifted toward one of the burn barrels and began passing the whiskey bottle from man to man. “Weather’s unpredictable up here. Some years June is spring, July is summer, August is autumn, and everything else is winter.”

Thelma led Leni and Mama to a large garden. A fence made of sagging fishing nets bound to metal stakes kept out animals.

Most of the vegetables were small, clumps of green on the mounds of black earth. Mats of something gross—it looked like kelp—lay drying at the base of the nets, alongside heaps of stinking fish carcasses and eggshells and coffee grounds.

“You know how to garden?” Thelma asked.

“I can tell a ripe melon,” Mama said.

“I’d be happy to teach you. Up here the growing season is short, so we have to really work it.” She grabbed a dented metal bucket from the dirt beside her. “I have some potatoes and onions I can spare. There’s still time for them. I can give you a bunch of carrot starts. And I can spare a few live chickens.”

“Oh, really, you shouldn’t—”

“Believe me, Cora, you have no idea how long the winter will be and how soon it will be here. It’s one thing up here for men—a lot of them are going to leave for work on that new pipeline. You and me—mothers—we stay on the homestead and keep our children alive and well. It’s not always easy; the way we do it is together. We help whenever we can. We trade. Tomorrow I’ll show you how to can salmon. You need to start filling your root cellar with food for winter now.”

“You’re scaring me,” Mama said.

Thelma touched Mama’s arm. “I remember when we first came up here
from Kansas City. My mom did nothing but cry. She died the second winter here. I still think she willed herself to die. Just couldn’t stand the dark or the cold. A woman has to be tough as steel up here, Cora. You can’t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to be willing to save yourselves. And you have to learn fast. In Alaska you can make one mistake.
One.
The second one will kill you.”

“I don’t think we’re well prepared,” Mama said. “Maybe we’ve already made a mistake by coming here.”

“I’ll help you,” Thelma promised. “We all will.”

 

FIVE

The endless daylight rewound Leni’s internal clock, made her feel strangely out of step with the universe, as if even time—the one thing you could count on—was different in Alaska. It was daylight when she went to bed and daylight when she woke up.

Now it was Monday morning.

She stood at the window, staring at the newly clean glass, trying to make out her reflection. A useless effort. There was just too much light.

She could only see a ghost of herself, but she knew she didn’t look good, even for Alaska.

First and always was her hair. Long and untamed and red. And there was the milky skin that was standard issue with the hair, and freckles like red-pepper flakes across her nose. The best of her features—her blue-green eyes—were not enhanced by cinnamon-colored lashes.

Mama came up behind her, placed her hands on Leni’s shoulders. “You are beautiful and you will make friends at this new school.”

Leni wanted to take comfort from the familiar words, but how often had they proven untrue? She’d been the new girl at school a lot of times, and she’d never yet found a place she fit in. Something was always wrong about her on
the first day—her hair, her clothes, her shoes. First impressions mattered in junior high. She had learned that lesson the hard way. It was hard to recover from a fashion error with thirteen-year-old girls.

“I’m probably the only girl in the whole school,” she said with a dramatic sigh. She didn’t want to hope for the best; dashed hopes were worse than no hopes at all.

“Certainly you’ll be the prettiest,” Mama said, tucking the hair behind Leni’s ear with a gentleness that reminded Leni that whatever happened, she wasn’t ever really alone. She had her mama.

The cabin door opened, bringing in a whoosh of cold air. Dad came in carrying a pair of dead mallards, their broken necks hanging, beaks banging into his thigh. He set his gun in the rack by the door and laid his kill on the wooden counter by the dry sink.

“Ted took me to his blind before dawn. We have duck for dinner.” He slipped in beside Mama and kissed the side of her neck.

Mama swatted him away, laughing. “You want coffee?”

When Mama went into the kitchen, Dad turned to Leni. “You look glum for a girl going off to school.”

“I’m fine.”

“Maybe I know the problem,” Dad said.

“I doubt it,” she said, sounding as dispirited as she felt.

“Let me see,” Dad said, frowning in an exaggerated way. He left her standing there and went into his bedroom. Moments later, he came out carrying a black trash bag, which he set on the table. “Maybe this will help.”

Yeah. What she needed was garbage.

“Open it,” Dad said.

Leni reluctantly ripped the bag open.

Inside, she found a pair of rust-and-black-striped bell-bottoms and a fuzzy ivory-colored wool fisherman’s sweater that looked like it used to be a man’s size and someone had shrunk it.

Oh, my God.

Leni might not know much about fashion, but these were definitely boy’s
pants, and the sweater … she didn’t think it had been in style in any year of her life.

Leni caught Mama’s look. They both knew how hard he had tried. And how profoundly he’d failed. In Seattle, an outfit like this was social suicide.

“Leni?” Dad said, his face falling in disappointment.

She forced a smile. “It’s perfect, Dad. Thanks.”

He sighed and smiled. “Oh. Good. I spent a long time picking through the bins.”

Salvation Army.
So he had planned ahead, thought of her the other day when they were in Homer. It made the ugly clothes almost beautiful.

“Put them on,” Dad said.

Leni managed a smile. She went into her parents’ bedroom and changed her clothes.

The Irish sweater was too small, the wool so thick she could hardly bend her arms.

“You look gorgeous,” Mama said.

She tried to smile.

Mama came forward with a metal Winnie the Pooh lunch box. “Thelma thought you’d like this.”

And with that, Leni’s social fate was sealed, but there was nothing she could do about it.

“Well,” she said to her dad, “we better move it. I don’t want to be late.”

Mama hugged her fiercely, whispered, “Good luck.”

Outside, Leni climbed into the passenger seat of the VW bus and they were off, bouncing down the bumpy trail, turning toward town, onto the main road, rumbling past the field that called itself an airstrip. At the bridge, Leni yelled, “Stop!”

Dad hit the brakes and turned to her. “What?”

“Can I walk from here?”

He gave her a disappointed look. “Really?”

She was too nervous to smooth his ruffled feelings. One thing that was
true of every school she’d been at was this: once you hit junior high, parents were to be absent. The chances of them embarrassing you were sky-high. “I’m thirteen and this is Alaska, where we’re supposed to be tough,” Leni said. “Come on, Dad.
Pleeease
.”

“Okay. I’ll do it for you.”

She got out of the bus and walked alone through town, past a man sitting Indian-style on the side of the road, with a goose in his lap. She heard him say,
No way, Matilda
, to the bird as she hurried past the dirty tent that housed the fishing-charter service.

The one-room schoolhouse sat on a weedy lot behind town. Green and yellow marshes spread out behind it, a river meandering in a sloping S-shape through the tall grass. The school was in an A-frame building made of skinned logs, with a steeply pitched metal roof.

At the open door, Leni paused and peered inside. The room was bigger than it looked from the outside; at least fourteen-by-fourteen. There was a chalkboard on the back wall with the words SEWARD’S FOLLY written in capital letters.

At the front of the room, a Native woman stood behind a big desk, facing the door. She was solid-looking, with broad shoulders and big, capable hands. Long black hair, twined into two sloppy braids, framed a face the color of light coffee. Tattooed black lines ran in vertical stripes from her lower lip to her chin. She wore faded Levi’s tucked into rubber boots, a man’s flannel shirt, and a fringed suede vest.

She saw Leni and yelled, “Hello! Welcome!”

The kids in the classroom turned in a screeching of chairs.

There were six students. Two younger kids sat in the front row. Girls. She recognized them from Mad Earl’s compound: Marthe and Agnes. She also recognized that sour-looking teenage boy, Axle. There were two giggling Native girls who looked to be about eight or nine, sitting at desks pushed together; each was wearing a wilted dandelion crown. On the right side of the room a pair of desks were pushed together, side to side, facing the blackboard. One was empty; at the other sat a scrawny boy about her age with
shoulder-length blond hair. He was the only student who seemed interested in her. He had stayed turned around in his seat and was still staring at her.

“I’m Tica Rhodes,” the teacher said. “My husband and I live in Bear Cove, so sometimes I can’t get here in winter, but I do my best. That’s what I expect of my students, too.” She smiled. “And you’re Lenora Allbright. Thelma told me to expect you.”

“Leni.”

“You’re what, eleven?” Ms. Rhodes said, studying Leni.

“Thirteen,” Leni said, feeling her cheeks heat up. If only she would start developing boobs.

Ms. Rhodes nodded. “Perfect. Matthew is thirteen, too. Go take a seat over there.” She pointed to the boy with the blond hair. “Go on.”

Leni’s grip on her stupid Winnie the Pooh lunch box was so tight her fingers hurt. “H-hi,” she said to Axle as she passed his desk. He gave her a
who cares?
glance and went back to drawing something that looked like an alien with massive boobs on his Pee-Chee folder.

She slid bumpily into the seat beside the thirteen-year-old boy. “Hey,” she mumbled, glancing sideways.

He grinned, showing off a mouth full of crooked teeth. “Thank Christ,” he said, shoving the hair out of his face. “I thought I was going to have to sit with Axle for the rest of the year. I think the kid is going to end up in prison.”

Leni laughed in spite of herself.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

Leni never knew how to answer that question. It implied a permanence, a Before that had never existed for her. She’d never thought of any place as home. “My last school was near Seattle.”

“You must feel like you’ve fallen into Mordor.”

“You read
Lord of the Rings
?”

“I know. Hopelessly uncool. It’s Alaska, though. The winters are dark as shit and we don’t have TV. Unlike my dad, I can’t spend hours listening to old people yammering on the ham radio.”

Leni felt the start of an emotion so new she couldn’t categorize it. “I love
Tolkien,” she said quietly. It felt oddly freeing to be honest with someone. Most of the kids at her last school had cared more about movies and music than books. “And Herbert.”


Dune
was amazing. ‘Fear is the mind-killer.’ It’s so true, man.”

“And
Stranger in a Strange Land
. That’s kinda how I feel here.”

“You should. Nothing is normal in the last frontier. There’s a town up north that has a dog for a mayor.”

“No way.”

“True. A malamute. They voted him in.” Matthew laid a hand to his chest. “You can’t make this crap up.”

“I saw a man sitting with a goose in his lap on the way here. He was talking to the bird, I think.”

“That’s Crazy Pete and Matilda. They’re married.”

Leni laughed out loud.

“You have a weird laugh.”

Leni felt her cheeks heat up in embarrassment. No one had ever told her that before. Was it true? What did she sound like?
Oh, God.

“I—I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. My social skills blow. You’re the first girl my age I’ve talked to in a while. I mean. You’re pretty. That’s all. I’m blabbing, aren’t I? You’re probably going to run away, screaming, and ask to sit next to Axle the soon-to-be murderer and it will be an improvement. Okay. I’m shutting up now.”

Leni hadn’t heard anything after “pretty.”

She tried to tell herself it meant nothing. But when Matthew looked at her, she felt a flutter of possibility. She thought:
We could be friends.
And not ride-the-bus or eat-at-the-same-table friends.

Friends.

The kind who had real things in common. Like Sam and Frodo, Anne and Diana, Ponyboy and Johnny. She closed her eyes for a split second, imagining it. They could laugh and talk and—

“Leni?” he said. “Leni?”

Oh, my God
. He’d said her name twice.

“Yeah. I get it. I space out all the time. My mom says it’s what happens
when you live in your own head with a bunch of made-up people. Then again, she’s been reading
Another Roadside Attraction
since Christmas.”

“I do that,” Leni confessed. “Sometimes I just … spaz out.”

He shrugged, as if to imply that there was nothing wrong with her. “Hey, have you heard about the barbecue tonight?”

*   *   *

S
O WHAT ABOUT THE PARTY
? Can you come?

Leni kept replaying it over and over again as she waited for her dad to pick her up from school. She’d wanted to say yes and mean it. She wanted it more than she’d wanted anything in a while.

But her parents weren’t community barbecue people. Community anything, really. It wasn’t who the Allbrights were. The families in their old neighborhood used to have all kinds of gatherings: backyard barbecues where the dads wore V-necks and drank Scotch and flipped burgers, and the women smoked cigarettes and sipped martinis and carried trays of bacon-wrapped chicken livers while kids screamed and ran around. She knew this because once she’d peered over the neighbors’ fence and seen all of it—hula hoops and Slip ’N Slides and sprinklers.

“So, Red, how was school?” Dad asked when Leni climbed into the VW bus and slammed the door. He was the last parent to arrive.

“We learned about the U.S. buying Alaska from Russia. And about Mount Alyeska in the Chugach Mountain Range.”

He grunted acceptance of that and put the vehicle in gear.

Leni thought about how to say what she wanted to say.
There’s a boy my age in class. He’s our neighbor.

No. Mentioning a boy was the wrong tack.

Our neighbors are hosting a barbecue and invited us.

But Dad hated that kind of thing, or he used to, in all the other places they’d lived.

They rattled down the dirt road, dust billowing up on either side, and
turned into their driveway. At home, they discovered a crowd of people in the yard. Most of the Harlan clan was there, working. They moved in wordless harmony, coming together and drifting apart like dancers. Clyde had that cage thing and was milling logs into boards. Ted was finishing the cache, pounding boards to the side stanchions. Donna was stacking firewood.

“Our friends showed up at noon to help us prepare for winter,” Dad said. “No. They’re better than friends, Red. They’re comrades.”

Comrades?

Leni frowned. Were they communists now? She was pretty sure her dad hated the commies as much as he hated the Man and hippies.

“This is what the world should be, Red. People helping each other instead of killing their mothers for a little bread.”

Leni couldn’t help noticing that almost everyone had a gun holstered at his or her waist.

Dad opened the bus door. “We’re all going to Sterling this weekend, to fish for salmon at Farmer’s Hole on the Kenai River. Apparently these king salmon are a bitch to land.” He stepped out into the soggy ground.

Mad Earl waved a gloved hand at her dad, who immediately bounded off in the old man’s direction.

Leni walked past a new structure that was about nine feet high by four feet wide, with sides covered in thick black plastic (unspooled garbage bags, Leni was pretty sure). An open door revealed an interior full of sockeye salmon, sliced in half along the spines and hung tented on branches. Thelma was kneeling in the dirt, tending to a fire built in a contained metal box. Smoke puffed up in dark clouds, reached up to the salmon hanging on branches above the fire.

Other books

Her Wicked Ways by Darcy Burke
Trust Me by Romily Bernard
By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan
The Beasts that Hide from Man by Shuker, Karl P.N.
Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould