Authors: Kristin Hannah
Mama looked up from the salmon she was gutting at a table in the yard. There was a smear of pink guts across her chin. “It’s a smokehouse,” Mama said, cocking her head toward Thelma. “Thelma is teaching me how to smoke fish. It’s quite an art, apparently—too much heat, you cook the fish. It’s supposed to smoke and dry at the same time. Yum. How was your first day of school?” A red kerchief kept the hair out of her eyes.
“No social-suicide issues with the clothes or the lunch box? No girls making fun of you?”
Leni couldn’t help smiling. “No girls my age at all. But … there’s a boy…”
That got Mama’s interest. “A boy?”
Leni felt herself blushing. “A
, Mama. He just happens to be a boy.”
“Uh. Huh.” Mama was trying not to smile as she lit her cigarette. “Is he cute?”
Leni ignored that. “He says there’s a community barbecue tonight, and I want to go.”
“Yeah. We’re going.”
“Really? That’s great!”
“Yeah,” Mama said, smiling. “I told you it would be different here.”
* * *
HEN IT CAME TIME
to dress for the barbecue, Leni kind of lost her mind. Honestly, she didn’t know what was wrong with her.
She didn’t have a lot of clothes to choose from, but that didn’t stop her from trying on several different combinations. In the end—mostly because she was exhausted by the desire to look pretty when pretty was impossible—she decided on a pair of plaid polyester bell-bottoms and a ribbed green turtleneck beneath a fringed, fake-suede vest. Try as she might, she couldn’t do anything with her hair. She finger-combed it back from her face and twined it into a fuzzy, fist-sized braid.
She found Mama in the kitchen, placing thick squares of cornbread into a Tupperware container. She had brushed her shoulder-length, shag-cut hair until it glimmered in the light. She had definitely dressed to impress in tight bell-bottom jeans and a fitted white sweater with a huge Indian turquoise squash-blossom necklace that she’d bought a few years ago.
Mama seemed distracted as she burped the lid of air from the container.
“You’re worried, aren’t you?”
“Why would you say that?” Mama gave her a quick, bright smile, but the look in her eyes couldn’t be so easily transformed. She was wearing makeup for the first time in days and it made her look vibrant and beautiful.
“Remember the fair?”
“That was different. The guy tried to cheat him.”
That wasn’t how Leni remembered it. They’d been having a good time at the State Fair until her dad started drinking beer. Then some guy had flirted with Mama (and she had flirted back) and Dad had gone ballistic. He shoved the man hard enough to crack his head into the tent pole at the BeerHaus and started yelling. When the security guys came, Dad was so belligerent that the cops were called. Leni had been mortified to see two of her classmates watching the altercation. They’d seen her dad get dragged over to the cop car.
Dad opened the cabin door and came inside.
“Are my beautiful girls ready to party?”
“You bet,” Mama said quickly, smiling.
“Let’s go, then,” Dad said, herding them into the bus.
In no time—it was less than a quarter of a mile as the crow flew—they drove up to the steel gate with the bleached-white cow head on it. The gate was open in welcome.
The Walker homestead. Their nearest neighbors.
Dad drove slowly forward. The driveway (two ribbons of flattened grass that undulated up and down on lichen-covered ground) unfurled in a lazy
through stands of skinny black-trunked spruce trees. Occasionally there was a break in the trees to her left and Leni saw a splash of distant blue, but it wasn’t until they came to the clearing that Leni saw the view.
“Wow,” Mama said.
They emerged onto a flat ridge situated above a calm blue cove. The huge piece of land had been cleared of all but a few carefully chosen trees and planted in hay.
A large two-story log house sat like a crown at the highest point of land. Its triangular front boasted huge trapezoid windows and a pointed, wraparound deck. It looked like the prow of some great ship, flung to shore by an
angry sea and stuck on land, forever gazing out at the sea upon which it belonged. Mismatched chairs decorated the deck, each one turned toward the spectacular view. On the far side of the house were several animal pens full of cows and goats and chickens and ducks. Coils of barbed wire, wooden crates and pallets, a broken-down tractor and the rusted shovel from an excavator, and the husks of several dead and dying trucks lay scattered in the knee-high grass. Beehives stood clustered together not far from a small wooden structure that puffed smoke. In a break in the trees was the sharp peaked roof of an outhouse.
Down at the water, a gray dock jutted out into the blue sea. At its end, a weathered arch read
. A float plane was tied up to the dock, in addition to two bright silver fishing boats.
“A float plane,” Dad muttered. “Must be rich.”
They parked the bus and walked past a bright yellow tractor with a black bucket and a shiny red all-terrain vehicle. From the crested rise, Leni saw people gathered down on the beach, at least a dozen of them, around a huge bonfire. Flames shot into the light lavender sky, making a sound like fingers snapping.
Leni followed her parents down the stairs to the beach. From here, she could see everyone at the party. A broad-shouldered man with long blond hair was sitting on a fallen log playing a guitar. Large Marge had turned two white plastic buckets into bongo drums, and Leni’s teacher, Ms. Rhodes, was going crazy on a fiddle. Natalie was wicked with a harmonica and Thelma was singing “King of the Road.” On
means by no means
everyone joined in.
Clyde and Ted were handling the barbecue, which looked to have been made out of old oil drums. Mad Earl stood nearby, drinking from a crockery jug. The two younger girls from school, Marthe and Agnes, were down at the waterline, bent over, collecting shells with Moppet.
Mama stepped down onto the beach, carrying her Tupperware full of cornbread. Dad was right behind her with a fifth of whiskey.
The big, broad-shouldered man playing the guitar put down his instrument and got to his feet. He was dressed like most of the men here, in a flan
nel shirt and faded jeans and rubber boots, but even so, he stood out. He looked as if he’d been built for this rugged land, as if he could run all day, hack down an old-growth tree with a hatchet, and skip nimbly along a fallen log over a raging river. Even Leni thought he was handsome—for an old guy. “I’m Tom Walker,” he said. “Welcome to my place.”
Tom shook Dad’s hand.
“This is my wife, Cora.”
Mama smiled at Tom, shook his hand, then looked back. “This is our daughter, Leni. She’s thirteen.”
Tom smiled at Leni. “Hey, Leni. My son, Matthew, mentioned you.”
“He did?” Leni said.
Don’t smile so big. What a dork.
Geneva Walker slipped in beside her husband. “Hey,” she said, smiling at Cora. “I see you’ve met my husband.”
“Ex.” Tom Walker put his arm around Geneva, pulled her close. “I love the woman like air, but I can’t live with her.”
“Can’t live without me, either.” Geneva smiled, cocked her head to the left. “That’s my main squeeze over there. Calhoun Malvey. He doesn’t love me as much as Tom does, but he likes me a helluva lot better. And he doesn’t snore.” She elbowed Mr. Walker in the side playfully.
“I hear you guys aren’t too well prepared,” Mr. Walker said to Dad. “You’re going to have to learn fast. Don’t be afraid to ask me for help. I’m always up for it. Anything you need to borrow, I have.”
Leni heard something in Dad’s “Thanks” that put her on alert. He sounded irritated all of a sudden. Offended. Mama heard it, too; she glanced worriedly at him.
Mad Earl stumbled forward. He was wearing a T-shirt that read
I’VE BEEN FISHING SO LONG I’M A MASTER BAITER.
He grinned drunkenly, swayed side to side, stumbled. “You offering Ernt help, Big Tom? That’s mighty white of you. Sorta like King John offerin’ to help his poor serfs. Maybe your friend the governor can help ya out.”
“Good Lord, Earl, not again,” Geneva said. “Let’s play some music. Ernt, can you play an instrument?”
“Guitar,” Dad said. “But I sold—”
“Great!” Geneva said, taking him by the arm, pulling him away from Mad Earl and toward Large Marge and the makeshift band gathered at the beach. She handed Dad the guitar Mr. Walker had put down. Mad Earl stumbled over to the fire and retrieved his crockery jug.
Leni wondered if Mama knew how beautiful she looked, standing there in her form-fitting pants, with her blond hair blowing in the sea breeze. Her beauty was as clear as a perfectly sung note and as out of place up here as an orchid.
Yeah. She knew exactly how beautiful she was. And Mr. Walker saw it, too.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked Mama. “Is a beer okay?”
“Why, sure, Tom. I’d love a beer,” Mama said, letting Mr. Walker lead her toward the food table and the cooler full of Rainier beer.
Mama drifted along beside Mr. Walker. Her hips took up the beat of the music, swaying. She touched his forearm, and Mr. Walker looked down at her and smiled.
She heard her name being called and turned.
Matthew stood on the point above, not far from the stairs, waving at her to come up.
She climbed the stairs and found him, holding a beer in each hand. “You ever had a beer before?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Me, either. Come on.” He took off into the thicket of trees to his left. They followed a twisting trail that led downward, past rock outcroppings.
He led her to a small clearing, its floor padded by lichen. Through an opening in the black spruce trees, they could see the party. The beach was only fifteen feet away but might have been a different universe. Out there, the adults were laughing and talking and making music. Little kids were pawing through pebbles for unbroken shells. Axle was off by himself, stabbing his knife into a decaying log.
Matthew sat down, stretching his legs out, leaning back against a log. Leni sat down beside him, close but not so close that she was touching him.
He snapped open a beer—
—and handed it to her. Wrinkling her nose, she took a sip. It fizzed in her throat and tasted bad.
“Gross,” Matthew said, and she laughed. Another three sips and she leaned back into the log. A cool breeze came up off the beach, bringing with it the smell of brine and the pungent aroma of roasting meat. The whir and movement of the party was just beyond the trees.
They sat in a companionable silence, which amazed Leni. Usually she was a nervous wreck around kids she wanted to befriend.
Out on the beach, the party was in full swing now. Through a break in the trees, they could see it all. A mason jar was being passed from person to person. Her mother danced in a hip-swaying, hair-tossing way. She was like a woodland fairy, lit from within, dancing for the burly, sodden tree folk.
The beer made Leni feel woozy and light-headed, as if she were full of bubbles.
“What made you guys move up here?” Matthew asked. Before she could answer, he smashed his empty beer can into a rock, crumpling it.
Leni couldn’t help laughing. Only a boy would do that. “My dad’s kind of … an adventurer,” she settled on as her answer. (Never tell the truth, never that Dad had trouble keeping a job and staying in one place, and
that he drank too much and liked to yell.) “He got tired of Seattle, I guess. What about you guys? When did you move here?”
“My grandpa, Eckhart Walker, came to Alaska during the Great Depression. He said he didn’t want to stand in line for watery soup. So he packed up his stuff and hitchhiked to Seattle. He worked his way north from there. Supposedly he walked Alaska from shore to shore and even climbed Mount Alyeska with a ladder strapped to his back so he could cross glacial crevasses. He met my Grandma Lily in Nome. She ran a laundry and diner. They got married and decided to homestead.”
“So your grandparents and your dad and you all grew up in that house?”
“Well. The big house was built a lot later, but we all grew up on this land. My mom’s family lives in Fairbanks. My sister is living with them while she
goes to college. And my folks split up a few years back, so Mom built herself a new house on the homestead and moved into it with her boyfriend, Cal, who is a real douchebag.” He grinned. “But we all work together. He and Dad play chess in the winter. It’s weird, but it’s Alaska.”
“Wow. I can’t even imagine living in one place my whole life.” She heard the edge of longing in her voice and was embarrassed by it. She tilted her beer up, swallowed the last foamy drips.
The makeshift band was going all-out now, hands banging on buckets, the guitar strumming, fiddles playing.
Thelma and Mama and Ms. Rhodes were swishing their hips in time to the music, singing loudly.
Ro-cky Moun-tain high, Color-ado …
Over at the grill, Clyde yelled out, “Moose burgers are ready! Who wants cheese?”
“Come on,” Matthew said. “I’m starving.” He took her hand (it seemed natural) and led her through the trees and down onto the beach. They came up behind Dad and Mad Earl, who were off by themselves, drinking, and Leni heard Mad Earl clink his mason jar against Dad’s, hitting it so hard it made a sturdy
“Tha’ Tom Walker sure thinks his shit don’t stink,” Dad said.
“When TSHTF, he’ll come crawling to me ’cuz I’m prepared,” Mad Earl slurred.
Leni froze, mortified. She looked at Matthew. He’d heard it, too.
“Born rich,” Dad added, his words slurred and slow in coming. “Thass what you said, right?”
Mad Earl nodded, stumbled into Dad. They held each other up. “He thinks he’s better’n us.”
Leni pulled away from Matthew; shame made her feel small. Alone.
“I’m sorry you heard that,” she said. And as if her dad’s slurred bad-mouthing weren’t bad enough, there was Mama over there, standing too close to Mr. Walker, smiling up at him in a way that could start trouble.