Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (6 page)

Be careful. Learn to shoot a gun.

They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.

For the first time, she really understood what her dad had been saying.
Remote.

*   *   *

L
ENI WOKE TO THE SMELL
of frying bacon. When she sat up, pain radiated down her arms and up her legs.

She hurt everywhere. Mosquito bites made her skin itch. Five days (and up here the days were
endless
, sunlight lasted until almost midnight) of hard labor had revealed muscles she’d never known she had before.

She climbed out of her sleeping bag and pulled on her hip-hugger jeans. (She’d slept in her sweatshirt and socks.) The inside of her mouth tasted terrible. She’d forgotten to brush her teeth last night. Already she was beginning to conserve water that didn’t flow through faucets but had to be hauled inside by the bucketful.

She climbed down the ladder.

Mama was in the kitchen alcove, at the camp stove, pouring oatmeal into a pot of boiling water. Bacon sizzled and snapped in one of the black cast-iron skillets they’d found hanging from a hook.

Leni heard the distant pounding of a hammer. Already that rhythmic beat had become the soundtrack of their lives. Dad worked from sunup to sundown, which was a long day. He’d already repaired the chicken coop and fixed the goat pens.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.

“Fun,” Mama said.

Leni put on her wafflestompers, and stepped outside into a blue-skied day. The colors were so vibrant, the world hardly looked real: green, swaying grass in the clearing, purple wildflowers, the gray zigzag steps leading to a blue sea that breathed in and out along the pebbled shore. Beyond it all, a fjord of impossible grandeur, sculpted eons ago by glaciers. She wanted to go back for her Polaroid and take pictures of the yard—again—but already she was learning that she needed to conserve her film. Getting more would not be an easy thing up here.

The outhouse was positioned on the bluff, in a stand of thin-trunked spruce, overlooking the rocky coastline. On the toilet lid, someone had painted
I never promised you a rose garden
, and applied flower decals.

She lifted the lid, using her sleeve to protect her fingers, and carefully averted her gaze from the hole as she sat down.

When she finished, Leni headed back to the cabin. A bald eagle soared overhead, gliding in a circle and then swooping up, flying away. She saw a fish carcass hanging high in one of the trees, catching the sunlight like a Christmas ornament. An eagle must have dropped it there, after picking all the meat off the bones. Off to her right, the cache was half finished—four skinned log braces that led to a three-foot-by-three-foot wooden platform twelve feet in the air. Below it were six empty raised beds covered by a hoop-skirt-like structure of pipe and wood that awaited plastic covering to become a greenhouse.

“Leni!” her dad shouted, coming toward her in that exuberant, ground-covering walk of his. His hair was a dirty, dusty mess and his clothes were covered with oil spots and his hands were grubby. Pink sawdust peppered his face and hair. He waved at her, smiling.

The joy on his face brought her to a complete stop. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him so happy. “By God, it’s beautiful here,” he said.

Wiping his hands on a red bandanna he kept wadded up in his jeans pocket, he looped an arm around her shoulder and walked with her into the cabin.

Mama was just serving breakfast.

The card table was rickety as heck, so they stood in the living room, eating oatmeal from their metal camp bowls. Dad shoveled a spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth at the same time he was chewing bacon. Lately, eating seemed to Dad to be a waste of time. There was so much to do outside.

Immediately after breakfast, Leni and Mama returned to cleaning the cabin. Already they had removed layers of dust and dirt and dead bugs. Each of the rugs had been hung over the deck rails and beaten with brooms that looked as dirty as the rugs themselves. Mama took down the curtains and
carried them out to one of the big oil drums in the yard. After Leni hauled water up from the river, they filled the antique washing machine with water and laundry soap and Leni stood there for an hour, sweating in the sunshine, stirring the curtains in the soapy water. Then she carried the heavy, dripping mass of fabric to a barrel full of clean water for rinsing.

Now she was feeding the soaking wet curtains through the old-fashioned wringer. The work was hard, backbreaking, exhausting.

She could hear Mama in the yard not far away, singing as she washed another load of clothes in the sudsy water.

Leni heard an engine. She stood up, rubbing an ache out of her lower back. She heard the crunch of rocks, the splash of mud … and the old VW bus emerged from the trees and stopped in the yard. The road was finally cleared!

Dad honked the horn. Birds flew up from the trees, squawked in irritation.

Mama stopped stirring the laundry and looked up. The bandanna that covered her blond hair was wet with sweat. Mosquito bites created a red lattice pattern on her pale cheeks. She tented a hand across her eyes. “You did it!” she yelled.

Dad stepped out of the bus and waved them over. “Enough work, Allbrights. Let’s go for a drive.”

Leni squealed in delight. She was more than ready to take a break from this back-wrenching work. Scooping up the wrung-out fabric, she carried it over to the sagging clothesline Mama had set up between two trees and hung the curtains to dry.

Leni and Mama were both laughing as they climbed into the old bus. They had carried all of their supplies out of the bus already (several trips back and forth, carrying heavy packs); only a few magazines and empty Coke cans were left on the seats.

Dad battled the loose gearshift, shoved it into first gear. The bus made a sound like an old man coughing and shuddered, metal creaking, tires thumping in pits, as it circled the grassy yard.

Leni could now see the driveway Dad had cleared. “It was already there,”
he said, yelling to be heard over the engine’s whine. “A bunch of willows had grown up. I just had to clear it.”

It was rough going, a track barely wider than the bus. Branches snapped into the windshield, scraped along the bus’s sides. Their banner was ripped off, flew up, stuck in the trees. The driveway was more pits and boulders than dirt; the old bus was constantly rising and thumping down. Tires crunched slowly over exposed roots and rocky outcroppings as they drove into the dark shadows cast by the trees.

At the end of their driveway, they drove into the sunlight and onto a real dirt road.

They rumbled past the Walker metal gate and the Birdsall sign. Leni leaned forward, excited to see the marshes and airfields that signaled the outskirts of Kaneq.

Town! Only a few days ago it had seemed worse than an outpost, but it didn’t take much time in the Alaskan bush to reassess one’s opinion. Kaneq had a
store.
Leni could get some film and maybe a candy bar.

“Hang on,” Dad said as he turned left into the trees.

“Where are we going?” Mama asked.

“To tell Bo Harlan’s family thank you. I’ve brought his father a half gallon of whiskey.”

Leni stared out the dirty window. Dust turned the view into a haze. For miles there was nothing but trees and bumps. Every now and then a vehicle was rotting at the side of the road in the tall grass.

There were no houses or mailboxes, just dirt trails here and there that veered off into the trees. If people lived out here, they didn’t want you to find them.

The road was rough: two beaten-down tire tracks on rocky, uneven ground. As they climbed in elevation, the trees grew thicker, began to block out more and more of the sun. They saw the first sign about three miles in:
NO TRESPASSING. TURN AROUND. YES, WE MEAN YOU. PROPERTY PROTECTED BY DOGS AND GUNS. HIPPIES GO HOME.

The road ended at the crest of a hill with a sign that read,
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN.

“Jesus,” Mama said. “Are you sure we’re in the right place?”

A man with a rifle appeared in front of them, stood with his legs in a wide stance. He had frizzy brown hair that puffed out from beneath a dirty trucker’s cap. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“I think we should turn around,” Mama said.

Dad leaned his head out the window. “We’re here to see Earl Harlan. I was a friend of Bo’s.”

The man frowned, then nodded and stepped aside.

“I don’t know, Ernt,” Mama said. “This doesn’t feel right.”

Dad worked the gearshift. The old bus grumbled and rolled forward, jouncing over rocks and hillocks.

They drove into a wide, flat patch of muddy ground studded here and there with clumps of yellowing grass. Three houses bordered the field. Well, shacks, really. They looked to have been made of whatever was handy—sheets of plywood, corrugated plastic, skinned logs. A school bus with curtains in the windows sat on tireless rims, hip-deep in the mud. Several scrawny dogs were chained up, straining at their leashes, snarling and barking. Fire barrels belched smoke that had a noxious, rubbery smell.

People dressed in dirty clothes stepped out of the cabins and shacks. Men with ponytails and buzz cuts and women wearing cowboy hats. All wore guns or knives in sheaths at their waists.

Directly in front of them, from a log cabin with a slanted roof, a white-haired man emerged carrying an antique-looking pistol. He was wiry thin, with a long white beard and a toothpick chomped down tight in his mouth. He stepped down into the muddy yard. The dogs went crazy at his appearance, growled and snapped and groveled. A few jumped on top of their houses and kept barking. The old man pointed his gun at their bus.

Dad reached for the door handle.

“Don’t get out,” Mama said, grabbing his arm.

Dad pulled free of Mama’s grasp. He grabbed the half gallon of whiskey he’d brought and opened the door and stepped down into the mud. He left the bus door open behind him.

“Who are you?” the white-haired man yelled, the toothpick bobbing up and down.

“Ernt Allbright, sir.”

The man lowered his weapon. “Ernt? It’s you? I’m Earl, Bo’s daddy.”

“It’s me, sir.”

“Well, slap me silly. Who you got with ya?”

Dad turned and waved at Leni and Mama to get out of the bus.

“Yeah. This seems like a good idea,” Mama said as she opened her door.

Leni followed. She stepped down into the mud, heard it squelch up around her wafflestompers.

Around the compound, people were stopped, staring.

Dad pulled them in close. “This is my wife, Cora, and my daughter, Leni. Girls, this is Bo’s dad, Earl.”

“Folks call me Mad Earl,” the old guy said. He shook their hands, then swiped the bottle of whiskey from Dad and led them into his cabin. “Come in. Come in.”

Leni had to force herself to enter the small, shadowy interior. It smelled like sweat and mildew. The walls were lined with supplies—food and gallons of water and cases of beer, boxes full of canned goods, heaps of sleeping bags. Along one whole wall: weapons. Guns and knives and boxes of ammunition. Old-fashioned crossbows hung from hooks alongside maces.

Mad Earl plopped onto a chair made of Blazo box slats. He cracked open the whiskey and lifted the bottle to his mouth, drinking deeply. Then he handed the jug to Dad, who drank for a long time before he handed the bottle back to Mad Earl.

Mama bent down, picked an old gas mask up from a box full of them. “Y-you collect war memorabilia?” she said uneasily.

Mad Earl took another drink, draining an amazing amount of whiskey in a single gulp. “Nope. That ain’t there for looks. The world’s gone mad. A man has to protect himself. I came up here in ’62. The Lower Forty-eight was already a mess. Commies everywhere. The Cuban Missile Crisis scarin’ the shit outta people. Bomb shelters being built in backyards. I brung my
family up here. We had nothing but a gun and a bag of brown rice. Figured we could live in the bush and stay safe and survive the nuclear winter that was comin’.” He took another drink, leaned forward. “It ain’t getting better down there. It’s gettin’ worse. What they done to the economy … to our poor boys who went off to war. It ain’t my America anymore.”

“I’ve been saying that for years,” Dad said. There was a look on his face Leni had never seen before. A kind of awe. As if he’d been waiting a long time to hear those words.

“Down there,” Mad Earl went on, “Outside, people are standing in line for gas while OPEC laughs all the way to the bank. And you think the good ole USSR forgot about us after Cuba? Think again. We got Negroes calling themselves Black Panthers and raisin’ their fists at us, and illegal immigrants stealing our jobs. So what do people do? They protest. They sit down. They throw bombs at empty post office buildings. They carry signs and march down streets. Well. Not me. I got a
plan
.”

Dad leaned forward. His eyes were shiny. “What is it?”

“We’re prepared up here. We’ve got guns, gas masks, arrows, ammunition. We’re
ready
.”

Mama said, “Surely you don’t really believe—”

“Oh, I do,” Mad Earl said. “The white man is losing out and war is coming.” He looked at Dad. “You know what I mean, don’t you, Allbright?”

“Of course I know. We all do. How many in your group?” Dad asked.

Mad Earl took a long drink, then wiped the dribble from his spotted lips. His rheumy eyes narrowed, moved from Leni to Mama. “Well. It’s just our family, but we take it seriously. And we don’t talk about it to strangers. Last thing we want is people knowing where we are when TSHTF.”

There was a knock at the door. At Mad Earl’s “Come in,” the door opened to reveal a small, wiry-looking woman in camo pants and a yellow smiley-face T-shirt. Although she had to be almost forty, she wore her hair in pigtails. The man beside her was big as a house, with a long brown ponytail and bangs that strafed his eyes. She held a stack of Tupperware in her arms and had a pistol holstered at her hip.

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