Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (10 page)

The rifle hit her shoulder hard enough to knock her off her feet and the sight slammed into her eye area with a crack that sounded like breaking bone.

Leni screamed in pain, dropped the rifle, and collapsed to her knees in the mud, clamping a hand over her throbbing eye. It hurt so badly she felt sick to her stomach, almost puked.

She was still screaming and crying when she felt someone drop in place beside her, felt a hand rubbing her back. “Shit, Red,” Dad said. “I didn’t tell you to shoot. You’re okay. Just breathe. It’s a normal rookie mistake. You’ll be fine.”

“Is she okay?” Mama screamed. “Is she?”

Dad pulled Leni to her feet. “No crying, Leni,” he said. “This isn’t some beauty-pageant training where you learn to sing for a college scholarship. You have to listen to me. This is your
life
I’m trying to save.”

“But…” It hurt so badly. A headache burst into pounding life behind her eyes. She couldn’t see well out of her injured eye. Half the world was blurry. It hurt even more that he didn’t care about how much it hurt. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for herself. She would bet Tom Walker never treated Matthew this way.

“Stop it, Lenora,” Dad said, giving her shoulder a little shake. “You said you liked Alaska and wanted to belong here.”

“Ernt, please, she’s not a soldier,” Mama said.

Dad spun Leni around, gripped her shoulders, shook her hard. “How many girls were abducted in Seattle before we left?”

“L-lots. One every month. Sometimes more.”

“Who were they?”

“Just girls. Teenagers, mostly?”

“And Patty Hearst was taken from her apartment, with her boyfriend right there, right?”

Leni wiped her eyes, nodded.

“You want to be a victim or a survivor, Lenora?”

Leni had such a headache she couldn’t think. “S-survivor?”

“We have to be ready for anything up here. I want you able to protect yourself.” His voice broke on that. She saw the emotion he was trying so hard to hide. He loved her. That was why he wanted her to be able to take care of herself. “What if I’m not here when something happens? When a bear breaks down the door or a pack of wolves surrounds you? I need to know you can protect your mom and save yourself.”

Leni sniffled hard, struggled for control. He was right. She needed to be strong. “I know.”

“Okay. Pick up the rifle,” Dad said. “Try again.”

Leni picked up the mud-splattered rifle. Aimed.

“Don’t hold the sight so close to your eye. The recoil is a mother on this. There. Hold it like that.” Dad gently repositioned the weapon. “Put your finger on the trigger. Lightly.”

She couldn’t do it. She was too scared of getting cracked in the eye again.

“Do it,” Dad said.

She took a deep breath and slid her forefinger along the trigger, feeling the cold steel curve.

She ducked her chin, drew back farther from the sight.

She forced herself to concentrate. The sounds faded away: the cawing of the crows and the wind clattering through the trees diminished until all she heard was the beating of her own heart.

She closed her left eye. Tried to calm down.

The world spiraled down to a single circle. Blurry at first, a double image.

Focus.

She saw the bale of hay, the white paper attached to it, the outline of a man’s head and shoulders. She was amazed by the clarity of the image. She adjusted the position of the rifle, took aim at the very center of the head.

Slowly, she squeezed the trigger.

The rifle cracked in recoil, hit her hard in the shoulder again, so hard she stumbled, but the sight didn’t hit her eye.

The bullet hit the bale of hay. Not the target, not even the white paper
around the target, but the bale. She felt a surprising pride in that small achievement.

“I knew you could do it, Red. By the time we’re done, you’ll be sniper-good.”

 

SEVEN

Ms. Rhodes was at the chalkboard writing assignment pages when Leni got to school. “Ah,” the teacher said. “It looks like someone put the scope too close to her eye. Do you need an aspirin?”

“Rookie mistake,” Leni said, almost proud of her injury. It meant she was becoming an Alaskan. “I’m fine.”

Ms. Rhodes nodded. “Take your seat and open your history book.”

Leni and Matthew stared at each other as she entered the classroom. His smile was so big she saw his mouthful of crooked teeth.

She sidled into her desk, which clanked against his.

“Almost everyone gets popped in the eye the first time. I had a black eye for, like, a week. Does it hurt?”

“It did. But learning to shoot was so cool, I didn’t—”

“Moose!” Axle yelled, popping up from his seat and running to the window.

Leni and Matthew followed him. All of the kids crowded together at the window, watching a giant bull moose amble through the grassy area behind the schoolhouse. He knocked over the picnic table and began eating the bushes.

Matthew leaned close to Leni; his shoulder brushed hers. “I say we make excuses and book it out of school today. I’ll say I’m needed at home after lunch.”

Leni felt a little thrill at the idea of skipping school. She’d never done it before. “I could say I have a headache. I’d just have to be back here at three for pick-up.”

“Cool,” Matthew said.

“Okay, okay,” Ms. Rhodes said. “Enough of that. Leni, Axle, Matthew, turn to page one-seventeen in your Alaska state history book…”

For the rest of the morning, Leni and Matthew watched the clock nervously. Just before lunchtime, Leni pleaded a headache and said she needed to go home. “I can walk to the general store and call my parents on the ham radio.”

“Sure,” Ms. Rhodes said. The teacher didn’t seem to question the lie, and Leni scooted out of the classroom and closed the door behind her. She walked down to the road and ducked into the trees, waiting.

A half hour later, Matthew strode out of the school, grinning widely.

“So what are we gonna do?” Leni asked. What choices were there? There was no TV, no movie theater, no paved roads for bike riding, no drive-ins for milkshakes, no roller rinks or playgrounds.

He took her by the hand and led her to a muddy all-terrain vehicle. “Climb on,” Matthew said, swinging his leg over the ATV and settling on the black seat.

Leni did not think this was a good idea, but she didn’t want him to think she was a scaredy-cat, so she climbed aboard. Awkwardly, she put her arms around his waist.

He twisted the throttle and they were off in a cloud of dust, the engine making a high-pitched whine, rocks flying out from beneath the wide rubber tires. Matthew drove through town, rumbled over the bridge, and onto the dirt road. Just past the airstrip, he veered into the trees, thumped over a ditch, and hurtled up a trail she didn’t even see until they were on it.

They drove uphill, into thick trees, onto a plateau. From there, Leni saw a crook of blue, seawater carving into the land, waves crashing onto the
shore. Matthew slowed the vehicle and expertly guided it over rough terrain, where there was no trail beneath their tires. Leni was thrown about; she had to hold tightly to him.

Finally he eased to a stop and clicked off the motor.

Silence enveloped them instantly, broken only by the waves crashing on the black rocks below. Matthew dug through the bag on his three-wheeler and pulled out a pair of binoculars. “Come on.”

He walked ahead of her, his feet steady on the rough, rocky terrain. Twice Leni almost fell as rock gave way beneath her feet, but Matthew was like a mountain goat, perfectly at home.

He led her to a clearing perched like a scooped hand above the sea. There were two handmade wooden chairs positioned to face the trees. Matthew plopped down in one and indicated the other for her.

Leni dropped her backpack onto the grass and sat down, waiting as Matthew peered through the binoculars, and scanned the trees. “There they are.” He handed her the binoculars, pointed to a stand of trees. “That’s Lucy and Ricky. My mom named ’em.”

Leni peered through the binoculars. At first all she saw was trees, trees, and more trees as she panned slowly from left to right, and then, a flash of white.

She eased back to the left a few degrees.

A pair of bald eagles perched on a bathtub-sized nest built high in the trees. One of the birds was feeding a trio of eaglets who jostled and lurched, beaks up, to get the regurgitated food. Leni could hear their squabbling, squawking cries over the crash of water below.

“Wow,” Leni said. She would have pulled her Polaroid out of her backpack (she never went anywhere without it), but the eagles were too far away for the clunky camera to capture.

“They’ve been coming back here to lay eggs for as long as I can remember. Mom first brought me here when I was little. You should see them making the nest. It’s amazing. And they mate for life. I wonder what Ricky would do if something happened to Lucy. My mom says that nest weighs almost a ton. I’ve watched eaglets leave that nest my whole life.”

“Wow,” Leni said again, smiling as one of the eaglets flapped its wings and tried to climb up over its siblings.

“We haven’t come out here in a long time, though.”

Leni heard something in Matthew’s voice. She lowered the binoculars and looked at him. “You and your mom?”

He nodded. “Since she and Dad split up, it’s been hard. Maybe it’s ’cuz my sister, Alyeska, moved to Fairbanks to go to college. I miss her.”

“You guys must be close.”

“Yeah. She’s cool. You’d like her. She thinks she wants to live in a city, but no way it will last. She’ll be back. Dad says we both have to go to college so we know all our options. He’s kind of pushy about it, actually. I don’t need college to tell me what I want to be.”

“You already know?”

“Sure. I want to be a pilot. Like my Uncle Went. I love being up in the sky. But my dad says it’s not enough. I guess I need to know about physics and shit.”

Leni understood. They were kids, she and Matthew; no one asked their opinion or told them anything. They just had to muddle along and live in the world presented to them, confused a lot of the time because nothing made sense, but certain of their subterranean place on the food chain.

She sat back in the splintery chair. He had told her something personal about himself, something that mattered. She needed to do the same thing. Wasn’t that how true friendships worked? She swallowed hard, said quietly, “You’re lucky your dad wants the best for you. My dad has been … weird since the war.”

“Weird how?”

Leni shrugged. She didn’t know exactly what to say, or how to say it without revealing too much. “He has—nightmares—and bad weather can set him off. Sometimes. But he hasn’t had a nightmare since we moved here. So maybe he’s better.”

“I don’t know. Winter is one big night up here. People go batshit in the dark, run screaming, open fire on their pets and friends.”

Leni felt a tightening in her stomach. She had never really thought about
the fact that in winter, it would be as dark as it was light now. She didn’t want to think about that,
winter dark.
“What do you worry about?” she asked.

“I worry that my mom will leave us. I mean, I know she built a house and stayed on the homestead, and that my folks still love each other in some weird way, but it’s not the same. She just came home one day and said she didn’t love Dad anymore. She loves Cal the creep.” He turned in his chair, looked at Leni. “It’s scary that people can just stop loving you, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“I wish school lasted longer,” he said.

“I know. We have three more days before summer break. And then…”

Once school ended, Leni would be expected to work full-time at the homestead and so would Matthew at his place. They’d hardly see each other.

*   *   *

O
N THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL
, Leni and Matthew made all kinds of promises about how they would keep in touch until classes started again in September, but the truth shouldered in between them. They were kids and not in control of anything, their own schedules least of all. Leni felt lonely already as she walked away from Matthew on that last day and headed for the VW bus waiting on the side of the road.

“You look down in the dumps, baby girl,” Mama said from her place in the driver’s seat.

Leni climbed into the passenger seat. She didn’t see the point in whining about something that couldn’t be changed. It was three o’clock. There was an ocean of daylight left; that meant hours of chores to do.

As soon as they were home, Mama said, “I have an idea. Go get us that striped wool blanket and the chocolate bar in the cooler. I’ll meet you down on the beach.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

“What? Dad will never agree to that.”

“Well, he’s not here.” Mama smiled.

Leni didn’t waste a second. She ran to the house (before Mama changed her mind). She grabbed the slim Hershey’s chocolate bar from the cooler in the kitchen and the blanket from the back of the sofa. Wrapping it around her like a poncho, she headed for the rickety beach stairs, followed them down to the curl of water-stippled gray pebbles that was their own private beach. To the left were dark, enticing stone caves, carved by centuries of hurling water.

Mama stood in the tall grass up from the beach, a cigarette already lit. Leni was pretty sure that, to her, childhood would always smell like sea air and cigarette smoke and her mother’s rose-scented perfume.

Leni spread out the blanket on the uneven ground and she and Mama sat down on it, their legs stretched out, their bodies angled into each other. In front of them, the blue sea rolled forward ceaselessly, washing over the stones, rustling them. Not far away an otter floated on its back, using its small black paws to crack open a clam.

“Where’s Dad?”

“He went fishing with Mad Earl. I think Dad’s hoping to ask the old man for a loan. Money is getting pretty tight. I’ve still got some of the money from my mom, but I’ve been using it for cigarettes and Polaroid film.” She gave Leni a soft smile.

“I’m not sure Mad Earl is good for Dad,” Leni said.

Mama’s smile faded. “I know what you mean.”

“He’s happy here, though,” Leni said. She tried not to think about the conversation she’d had with Matthew, about how winter was coming and winter was dark and cold and crazy-making.

“I wish you remembered your dad from before ’Nam.”

“Yeah.” Leni had heard dozens of stories of that time. Mama loved to talk about Before, about who they’d been in the beginning. The words were like a much-loved fairy tale.

Mama had been sixteen when she got pregnant.

Sixteen.

Leni would be fourteen in September. Amazingly, she’d never really thought about that before. She’d known her mama’s age, of course, but she hadn’t really put the facts together.
Sixteen.

“You were only two years older than me when you got pregnant,” Leni said.

Mama sighed. “I was a junior in high school. Christ. No wonder my parents threw a clot.” She gave Leni a crooked, charming smile. “They were not the kind of people who could understand a girl like me. They hated my clothes and my music and I hated their rules. At sixteen, I thought I knew everything, and I told them so. They sent me away to a Catholic girls’ school, where rebellion meant rolling up the waistband of your skirt to shorten the hem and show an inch of skin above your knees. We were taught to kneel and pray and marry well.

“Your dad came into my life like a rogue wave, knocking me over. Everything he said upended my conventional world and changed who I was. I stopped knowing how to breathe without him. He told me I didn’t need school. I believed everything he said. Your dad and I were too in love to be careful, and I got pregnant. My dad exploded when I told him. He wanted to send me away to one of those houses for unwed mothers. I knew they’d take you away from me. I’ve never hated anyone more than I hated him in that moment.”

Mama sighed. “So we ran away. I was sixteen—almost seventeen—and your dad was twenty-five. When you came along, we were flat broke and living in a trailer park, but none of that mattered. What was money or work or new clothes when you had the most perfect baby in the world?”

Mama leaned back. “He used to carry you all the time. At first in his arms and then on his shoulders. You adored him. We shut out the world and lived on love, but the world came roaring back.”

“The war,” Leni said.

Mama nodded. “I begged your dad not to go to Vietnam. We fought and fought about it. I didn’t want to be a soldier’s wife, but he wanted to go. So I packed my tears with his clothes and let him go. It was supposed to be for a year. I didn’t know what to do, where to go, how to live without him. I ran
out of money and moved back home with my parents, but I couldn’t stand it there. All we did was fight. They kept telling me to divorce your father and think about you, and finally I left again. That’s when I found the commune and people who didn’t judge me for being a kid with a kid. Then your dad’s helicopter got shot down and he was captured. I got one letter from him in six years.”

Leni remembered the letter and how her mother had cried after reading it.

“When he came home, he looked like a dead man,” Mama said. “But he loved us. Loved us like air. Said he couldn’t sleep if I wasn’t in his arms, although he didn’t sleep much then, either.”

As always, Mama’s story came to a stumbling halt at this point, the fairy tale over. The witch’s door slammed shut on the wandering kids. The man who’d come home from war was not the same man who’d boarded the plane for Vietnam. “He’s better up here, though,” Mama said. “Don’t you think? He’s almost himself again.”

Leni stared down at the sea, rolling inexorably toward her. Nothing you did could hold back that rising tide. One mistake or miscalculation and you could be stranded or washed away. All you could do was protect yourself by reading the charts and being prepared and making smart choices. “You know it’s dark up here for six months in the winter. And snowy and freezing cold and stormy.”

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