Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (27 page)

*   *   *

O
N THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL
, Leni thought her heart might explode. Maybe she would pitch face-first into the ground and be another Alaskan statistic. The girl who died for love.

The idea of summer, all those long hot days spent working from sunup to sundown, made her insane to contemplate. How could she last until September without seeing Matthew?

“We will hardly see each other,” she said, feeling sick. “We’ll both be working constantly. You know how summer is.” From now on, life would be chores.

Summer. The season of salmon runs and gardens that needed constant tending, of berries ripening on hillsides, of canning fruits and vegetables and fish, of salmon that needed to be cut into strips, marinated, and smoked, of repairs that needed to be made while the sun shone.

“We’ll sneak out,” he said.

Leni couldn’t imagine taking that risk now. The banishment from the Harlans had broken the last thread of her father’s control. He cut trees and skinned logs daily and woke in the middle of the night to pace. He muttered under his breath constantly and hammered, hammered, hammered on his wall.

“We’re going to college together in September,” Matthew said (because he knew how to dream and to believe).

“Yeah,” she said, wanting it more than she had ever wanted anything. “We’ll be normal kids in Anchorage.” It was what they said to each other all the time.

Leni walked beside him to the door, mumbled goodbye to Ms. Rhodes, who gave her a fierce hug and said, “Don’t forget the graduation party at the saloon tonight. You and Mattie are the guests of honor.”

“Thanks, Ms. Rhodes.”

Outside, Leni’s parents were waiting for her, holding a sign that read
HAPPY GRAD DAY!
She stumbled to a stop.

Leni felt Matthew’s hand at the small of her back. She was pretty sure he gave her a push. She moved forward, forcing a smile.

“Hey, guys,” she said as her parents rushed at her. “You didn’t have to do this.”

Mama beamed at her. “Are you kidding? You graduated at the top of your class.”

“A class of two,” she pointed out.

Dad put an arm around her, drew her close. “I’ve never been number one at anything, Red. I’m proud of you. And now you can leave that pissant school behind. Sayonara, bullshit.”

They packed into the truck and headed out. Overhead, a plane flew low, making a dull
putt-putt-putt
sound.

“Tourists.” Dad said the word as if it were a curse, loud enough that people heard. Then he smiled. “Mom made your favorite cake and strawberry
akutaq
.”

Leni nodded, too depressed to force a fake smile.

Down the street, a banner hung across the half-finished saloon.
CONGRATULATIONS LENI AND MATTHEW!!! GRAD PARTY FRIDAY NIGHT! 9 P.M. FIRST DRINK FREE!

“Leni, baby girl? You look sad as a lost dollar.”

“I want to go to the graduation party at the saloon,” Leni said.

Mama leaned forward to look at Dad. “Ernt?”

“You want me to walk into Tom Walker’s damn saloon and see all the people who are ruining this town?” Dad said.

“For Leni,” Mama said.

“No way, José.”

Leni tried to see past his anger to the man Mama claimed he used to be, before Vietnam had changed him and Alaska’s winters had revealed his own darkness. She tried to remember being Red, his girl, the one who’d ridden his shoulders on The Strand in Hermosa Beach. “Please, Dad.
Please.
I want to celebrate graduating from high school in my town. The town you brought me to.”

When Dad looked at her, Leni saw what she saw so rarely in his eyes: love. Tattered, tired, shaved small by bad choices, but love just the same. And regret.

“Sorry, Red. I can’t do it. Not even for you.”

 

NINETEEN

Evening.

The sound of a chain saw whirring, sputtering, going silent.

Leni stood at the window staring out at the yard. It was seven o’clock: the dinner hour, a break in this season’s long workday. Any minute now, Dad would come back into the cabin, bringing tension in with him. The remnants of Leni’s three-person graduation party—carrot cake and strawberry
akutaq
, a kind of ice cream made from snow and Crisco and fruit—lay on the table.

“I’m sorry,” Mama said, coming up to stand beside her. “I know how badly you wanted to go to the party. I’m sure you considered sneaking out. I would have at your age.”

Leni scooped out a spoonful of
akutaq.
Usually, she loved it. Not tonight. “I planned a dozen ways to do it.”

“And?”

“They all end the same way: with you alone in a room full of his fists.”

Mama lit a cigarette, exhaled smoke. “This … wall of his. He’s not giving up on it. We’re going to have to be more careful.”

“More careful?” Leni turned to her. “We think about every single thing we say. We disappear in an instant. We pretend we don’t need anything or anyone except him and this place. And none of it is enough, Mama. We can’t be good enough to keep him from losing it.”

Leni saw how difficult this conversation was for her mother; she wished she could do what she’d always done. Pretend it would get better, that he’d get better, pretend it hadn’t been on purpose or it wouldn’t happen again. Pretend.

But things were different now.

“I got into the University of Alaska at Anchorage, Mama.”

“Oh, my
God
, that’s great!” Mama said. A smile lit up her face and then faded. “But we can’t afford—”

“Tom Walker and Large Marge and Thelma and Ms. Rhodes are paying for it.”

“Money isn’t the only issue.”

“No,” Leni said, not looking away. “It’s not.”

“We will have to plan this carefully,” Mama said. “Your dad can never know Tom is paying. Never.”

“It doesn’t matter. Dad won’t let me go. You know he won’t.”

“Yes, he will,” Mama said in a firmer voice than Leni had heard from her in years. “I’ll make him.”

Leni cast out the dream, let the hook of it sail over blue, blue water and splash down. College. Matthew. A new life.

Yeah. Right. “You’ll make him,” she said dully.

“I can see why you have no faith in me.”

Leni’s hold on resentment lessened. “That’s not it, Mama. How can I leave you here alone with him?”

Mama gave her a sad, tired smile. “There will be no talk of that. None. You’re the chick. I’m the mama bird. Either you take flight on your own or I shove you out of the nest. It’s your choice. Either way, you’re going off to college with your boy.”

“You think it’s possible?” Leni let the amorphous dream turn solid enough that she could hold it in her hands, look at it from different angles.

“When do classes start?”

“Right after Labor Day.”

Mama nodded. “Okay. You’re going to have to be careful. Smart. Don’t risk everything for a kiss. That’s the kind of thing I would have done. Here’s what we’ll do: You stay away from Matthew and the Walkers until September. I will squirrel away enough money to buy you a bus ticket to Anchorage. We’ll fill your bug-out bag with what you need. Then, one day, I’ll arrange for a trip to Homer for all of us. You’ll say you have to use the bathroom and slip away. Later, when Dad calms down, I’ll find a note you left, saying that you’ve gone to college—without saying where—and you’ll promise to be back on the homestead for summer. It will work. You’ll see. If we’re careful, it will work.”

Don’t see Matthew until September.

Yes. That was what she would need to do.

But could she do it, really? Her love for Matthew was elemental, as powerful as the tide. No one could hold back the tide.

It reminded her of that movie she’d watched with Mama a lifetime ago.
Splendor in the Grass
. In it, Natalie Wood had loved Warren Beatty in that overwhelming way, but she lost him and ended up in a loony bin. When she got out, he was married, with a kid, but you knew neither one of them would love anyone else in that way again.

Mama had cried and cried.

Leni hadn’t understood then. Now she did. She saw how love could be dangerous and beyond control. Ravenous. Leni had it in her to love the way her mother did. She knew that now.

“Seriously, Leni,” Mama said, looking worried. “You will need to be smart.”

*   *   *

I
N
J
UNE
, Dad worked on his wall every day. By the end of the month, the skinned log stanchions were all in place; they stuck up from the ground every ten feet along the property line, an elliptical boundary between their land and the main road.

Leni tried to submerge her longing for Matthew, but it was buoyant, prone to bobbing up. Sometimes, when she was supposed to be working, she stopped and pulled the secret necklace out of her hip pocket and held it so tightly the sharp point drew blood. She made lists in her head of things she wanted to say to him, had whole conversations by herself, over and over. At night she read paperback novels that she’d found in the
FREE
box at the General Store. One after another.
Devil’s Desire
,
The Flame and the Flower
,
Moonstruck Madness
: historical romances about women who had to fight for love and ultimately were saved by it.

She knew the difference between fact and fiction, but she couldn’t abandon her love stories. They made her feel as if women could be in control of their destinies. Even in a cruel, dark world that tested women to the very limits of their endurance, the heroines of these novels could prevail and find true love. They gave Leni hope and a way to fill the lonely hours of the night.

During the endless daylight hours, she worked: she tended to the garden, carried trash to the oil drum and burned it to ash, which she used to fertilize the garden and make soap and block pests from the vegetable beds. She hauled water and repaired crab pots and untangled skeins of fishing nets. She fed the animals and gathered eggs and fixed fencing and smoked the fish they caught.

All the while she thought:
Matthew.
His name became a mantra.

Over and over, she thought:
September isn’t that far away
.

But as June passed into July, with Leni and Mama trapped on the homestead behind the wall her father was building, Leni started to lose her grasp on common sense. On the Fourth of July, she knew the town was celebrating on Main Street and she longed to be there.

Night after night, week after week, she lay in her bed, missing Matthew. Her love for him—a warrior, hiking mountains, crossing streams—strode into the wild borderlands of obsession.

Near the end of July, she began to have negative fantasies—him finding someone else, falling in love, deciding Leni was too much trouble. She ached for his touch, dreamed of his kiss, talked to herself in his voice. She began to
get a vague, discomforting feeling that her endless yearning had combined with fear to taint her, that her breath had killed the tomatoes that never turned red, that tiny beads of her sweat had soured the blueberry jam, and next winter, when they ate all this food she had touched, her parents would wonder what had gone so wrong.

By August, she was a wreck. The wall was almost finished. The entire property line along the main road, from cliff to cliff, was a wall of freshly cut planks. Only a ten-foot-wide opening across the driveway allowed them to go in or out.

But the wall hardly concerned Leni. She had lost five pounds and was barely sleeping. Every night she woke at three or four and went out to stand on the deck, thinking,
He’s there …

Twice, she’d put on her boots; once she’d made it as far as the end of their driveway before turning back.

She had Mama’s safety to consider, and Matthew’s.

Labor Day was less than a month away.

She should just wait to see Matthew in Anchorage, when time would be on their side.

That was the smart move. But she wasn’t smart in love.

She had to see him again, make sure he still loved her.

When did it become more than a longing? When did it solidify into a plan?

I need to see him.

Be with him.

Don’t do it
, the old Leni said, the girl shaped by Dad’s violence and her mother’s fear.

Just once,
came the answer from the Leni reformed by passion.

Just once
.

But how?

*   *   *

I
N EARLY
A
UGUST
, during the eighteen-hour days, stocking up on food for the winter was paramount. They harvested the garden and canned vegetables; picked berries and made jam; fished in the ocean and the rivers and the bay. They smoked salmon and trout and halibut.

Today they’d woken early and spent all day on the river catching salmon. Fishing was serious business and no one bothered to talk much. Afterward, they hauled their catch home and got started on preserving the meat. Another in a string of long, exhausting days.

They finally took a break for dinner and went into the cabin. At the table, Mama set down a dinner of salmon pot pie and green beans cooked in bacon fat. She smiled at Leni, trying to pretend everything was okay. “Leni, I bet you’re excited for moose season to start.”

“Yeah,” she said. Her voice was shaky. All she could think about anymore was Matthew. Missing him made her physically ill.

Dad poked his fork through the flaky crust, looking for fish. “Cora, we’re going to Sterling on Saturday. There’s a snow machine for sale, and ours is going to shit. And I need some hinges for the gate. Leni, you’ll need to stay here and take care of the critters.”

Leni almost dropped her fork. Did he mean it?

Sterling was at least an hour and a half away by road, and if Dad wanted to bring home a snow machine, he’d need to drive his truck, which meant the ferry, which was a half an hour ride each way. From here to Sterling and back would take all day.

Dad went back to picking through his pot pie. When his fish was all gone, he went through looking for potatoes, then carrots, and finally peas.

Mama looked at Leni. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, Ernt. Let’s all go. I don’t like the idea of Leni home alone.”

Leni felt suspended on the silence while Dad dragged a piece of bread across his plate. “It’s uncomfortable for all three of us to be crammed into the truck for so long. She’s fine.”

*   *   *

S
ATURDAY FINALLY ARRIVED
.

“Okay, Leni,” Dad said in his sternest voice. “It’s summer. You know what that means. Black bears. The guns are loaded. Keep the door locked if you’re inside. When you go for water, make lots of noise, take your bear whistle. We should be home by five, but if we’re late, I want you in the cabin with the door locked by eight. I don’t care how light it is outside. No fishing from the shore. Okay?”

“Dad, I’m almost eighteen. I know all that.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Eighteen only sounds old to you. Humor me.”

“I won’t leave the property and I’ll lock the door,” Leni promised.

“Good girl.” Dad grabbed a box full of pelts that he would sell to the furrier in Sterling and headed for the door.

When he was gone, Mama said, “Please, Leni. Don’t screw up. You’re so close to leaving for college. Just a few weeks.” She sighed. “You are not listening.”

“I am listening. I won’t do anything stupid,” Leni lied.

Outside, the truck horn honked.

Leni hugged her mother and literally shoved her toward the door.

Leni watched them drive away.

Then she waited, counted down the minutes until the ferry’s departure time.

Precisely forty-seven minutes after they left, she jumped onto her bicycle and pedaled down the bumpy driveway, through the opening in the plank wall and onto the main road. She turned onto the Walker’s road. She came to a thumping stop in front of the two-story log house and stepped off her bike, glancing around. No one would be inside on a day like this, not with so many chores to do. She saw Mr. Walker off to the left, near the trees, driving a bulldozer, moving piles of dirt around.

Leni dropped her bike in the grass and walked over the grassy berm and stared down the wide, weathered gray steps that led to the pebbled beach. Broken mussel shells lay scattered across the kelp and mud and rocks.

Matthew stood in the shallow water at a sloping metal table, filleting big silver and red salmon, pulling sacs of bright orange eggs out, carefully laying
them out to dry. Seagulls cawed overhead, swooping and flapping, waiting for scraps. Guts floated in the water, brushed up against his boots.

“Matthew!” she yelled down at him.

He looked up.

“My parents are on the ferry. Going to Sterling. Can you come over? We have all day together.”

He put down his
ulu.
“Holy shit! I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

Leni went back to her bike and jumped on.

At the homestead, she fed and watered the animals and then ran around like a madwoman, trying to get ready for her first real date. She packed a picnic basket full of food and brushed her teeth—
again
—and shaved her legs and dressed in a pretty, off-white Gunne Sax dress Mama had given her for her seventeenth birthday. She twined her waist-length hair into a single wrist-thick braid and tied the end with a piece of grosgrain ribbon. Her stretched-out gray wool socks and wafflestompers kind of ruined the romantic effect, but it was the best she could do.

Then she waited. Holding her picnic basket and blanket, she stood on the deck, tapping her foot. Off to her right, the goats and chickens seemed agitated. They were probably sensing her nervousness. Overhead, a sky that should have been cornflower blue darkened. Clouds rolled in, stretched out, dimmed the sun.

They were on the ferry now, pulling into Homer; they had to be.
Please don’t let them come back for something.

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