Read The Great Alone: A Novel Online

Authors: Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone: A Novel (9 page)

Just like all the other times. And Alaska was supposed to be different.

“What’s the matter?” Matthew asked.

Leni shook her head, feeling a familiar sadness creep in. She could never tell him how it felt to live with a dad who scared you sometimes and a mother who loved him too much and made him prove how much he loved her in dangerous ways. Like flirting.

These were Leni’s secrets. Her burdens. She couldn’t share them.

All this time, all these years, she’d dreamed of having a real friend, one who would tell her everything. How had she missed the obvious?

Leni couldn’t have a real friend because she couldn’t be one. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “It’s nothing. Come on, let’s eat. I’m starving.”

 

SIX

After the party, back at the cabin, Leni’s parents were all over each other, making out like teenagers, banging into walls, pressing their bodies together. The combination of alcohol and music (and maybe Tom Walker’s attention) had made them crazy for each other.

Leni hurried up into the loft, where she covered her ears with her pillow and hummed “Come On Get Happy.” When the cabin fell silent again, she crawled over to the stack of books she’d bought at the Salvation Army. A book of poetry by someone named Robert Service grabbed her attention. She took it back into bed with her and opened it to a poem called “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” She didn’t need to light her lantern because it was
still
freaking light outside, even this late.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold …

Leni found herself falling into the poem’s harsh, beautiful world. It captivated her so much that she kept reading, next about Dangerous Dan McGrew and the lady known as Lou, and then “The Law of the Yukon.”
This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: / “Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane.”
Every line revealed a different side of this strange state they’d come to, but even so, she could never quite get Matthew out of her mind. She kept remembering the embarrassment she’d felt at the party when he overheard her father’s ugly words.

Would he still want to be her friend?

The question consumed her, made her so tense she couldn’t fall asleep. She would have sworn she didn’t sleep at all, except that the next morning she woke to hear, “Come on, sleepyhead. I need your help while Mama cooks us up some grub. You’ve got time before school starts.”

Grub?
Had they suddenly become cowboys?

Leni pulled on her jeans and a big sweater and went downstairs for her shoes. Outside she found her dad up on that doghouse-looking thing on stilts. The cache. A skinned log ladder like the one leading up to the loft was propped up against the frame. Her dad stood near the top, hammering planks in place on the roof. “Hand me those penny nails, Red,” he said. “A handful.”

She grabbed the blue coffee can full of nails and climbed up the ladder behind him.

She fished out a single nail and handed it to him. “Your hand is shaking.”

He stared down at the nail in his hand; it bounced in his trembling fist. His face was as pale as a sheet of parchment and his dark eyes looked bruised, the bags were so dark beneath them. “I drank too much last night. Had trouble sleeping.”

Leni felt a jab of worry. Lack of sleep wasn’t good for Dad; it made him anxious. So far, he’d been sleeping great in Alaska.

“Drinking does all kinds of bad shit to you, Red. I know better, too. Well, that’s it,” he said, pounding the last nail into the suede work glove that had
been used to make the door’s hinge. (Large Marge’s idea—these Alaskans knew how to make do with anything.)

Leni climbed down and dropped to the ground, the coffee can full of nails rattling at the movement.

Dad rammed his hammer into his belt and started climbing down.

He dropped down beside Leni and tousled her hair. “I guess you’re my little carpenter.”

“I thought I was your librarian. Or your bookworm.”

“Your mama says you can be anything. Some shit about a fish and a bicycle.”

Yeah. Leni had heard that. Maybe Gloria Steinem had said it. Who knew? Mama spouted sayings all the time. It made as much sense to Leni as burning a perfectly good bra to make a point. Then again, it made no sense at all that in 1974 a grown woman with a job couldn’t get a credit card in her name.

It’s a man’s world, baby girl.

She followed her dad from the cache to the deck, passing the bones of their new greenhouse and the garbage-bag-wrapped makeshift smokehouse. On the other side of the cabin, their new chickens pecked at the ground in their new enclosure. A rooster preened on the ramp that led to the coop’s entrance.

At the water barrel, Dad ladled out a scoopful and splashed his face, which sent brown rivulets running down his cheeks. Then he went to the deck and sat on the bottom step. He looked bad. Like he’d been drunk for days and was sick from it. (Like he used to look, when he had nightmares and lost his temper.)

“Your mama seemed to like Tom Walker.”

Leni tensed.

“Did you see the way he shoved our noses in his money?
I can loan you my tractor, Ernt,
or
Do you need a ride to town?
He looked down at me, Red.”

“He said to me he thought you were a hero and it was a dang shame what happened to you boys over there,” Leni lied.

“He did?” Dad pushed the hair out of his face. A frown creased his sunburned forehead.

“I like this place, Dad,” Leni said, realizing suddenly the truth of her words. She already felt more at home in Alaska than she ever had in Seattle. “We’re happy here. I see how happy you are. Maybe … maybe drinking isn’t so good for you.”

There was a tense moment of silence; by tacit agreement, Leni and Mama didn’t mention his drinking or his temper.

“You’re probably right about that, Red.” He turned thoughtful. “Come on. Let’s get you to school.”

*   *   *

A
N HOUR LATER
, Leni stared up at the one-room schoolhouse. Slinging her backpack’s strap over one shoulder, she made her way to the front door, her lunch box clanging into her right thigh. Lollygagging, Mama would have called it. All Leni knew was that she was in no hurry to get to class.

She was almost to the front door when it banged open and students came out in a laughing, talking clot. Matthew’s mom, Geneva, was in the middle, her work-chapped hands raised, telling everyone to calm down.

“Oh. Leni! Great!” Mrs. Walker said. “You’re so late, I thought you were going to be absent. Tica couldn’t make it in to school today, so I’m teaching. Ha! I barely graduated, let’s face it.” She laughed at herself. “And since I was more interested in boys than lessons in school, we’re going on a field trip. I hate being inside on such a beautiful day.”

Leni fell into step beside Mrs. Walker, who put an arm around her and drew her close. “I’m so glad you moved here.”

“Me, too.”

“Before you, Matthew had a religious aversion to deodorant. Now he wears clean clothes. It’s a dream come true for those of us who live with him.”

Leni had no idea what to say to that.

They marched down to the harbor in a herd, like the elephants in the
Jungle Book
movie. Leni felt Matthew’s gaze on her. Twice she caught him staring at her with a confused expression on his face.

When they reached the guest dock in the harbor, with fishing boats creaking and bobbing all around them, Mrs. Walker paired the students up and assigned them to the canoes. “Matthew. Leni. The green one is yours. Put on your life vests. Matthew, make sure Leni is safe.”

Leni did as she was told and climbed down into the back end of the canoe, facing the bow.

Matthew stepped down after her. The canoe rattled and creaked as he dropped into it.

He sat down facing her.

Leni didn’t know much about canoeing, but she knew that was wrong. “You’re supposed to face the other way.”

“Matthew Denali Walker. What in the hell are you doing?” his mother said, gliding past him, with Moppet in her canoe. “Have you had a seizure or something? What’s my name?”

“I wanted to talk to Leni for a sec, Mom. We’ll catch up.”

Mrs. Walker gave her son a knowing look. “Don’t be long. It’s school, not your first date.”

Matthew groaned. “Oh, my God. You are so weird.”

“I love you, too,” Mrs. Walker said. Laughing, she paddled away. “Come on, kids,” she yelled to the other canoes. “Head for Eaglet Cove.”

“You’re staring at me,” Leni said to Matthew when they were alone.

Matthew laid his paddle across his lap. Waves slapped at their canoe, made a hollow, thunking sound as they drifted away from the dock.

She knew he was waiting for her to say something. There was only one thing to say. Wind combed through her hair, pulled corkscrew curls free of the elastic band that bound them. Red strands fluttered across her face. “I’m sorry about last night.”

“Sorry for what?”

“Come on, Matthew. You don’t have to be so nice.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“My dad was drunk,” she said cautiously. The admission was more than she’d ever said aloud before and it felt disloyal. Maybe even dangerous. She’d seen some
ABC Afterschool Special
s
.
She knew that kids sometimes got taken away from unstable parents. The Man could break up any family for anything. She would never want to make waves or get her dad in trouble.

Matthew laughed. “They all were. Big whoop. Last year Mad Earl was so drunk he peed in the smokehouse.”

“My dad gets … drunk sometimes … and mad. He says stuff he doesn’t mean. I know you heard what he said about your dad.”

“I hear that all the time. Especially from Mad Earl. Crazy Pete isn’t too fond of Dad, either, and Billy Horchow tried to kill him once. No one ever found out why. Alaska’s like that. Long winters and too much drinking can make a man do weird things. I didn’t take it personally. My dad wouldn’t, either.”


Wait. You mean you don’t care?”

“This is Alaska. We live and let live. I don’t care if your dad hates my dad. You’re the one who matters, Leni.”

“I matter?”

“To me you do.”

Leni felt light enough to float right out of the canoe. She had told him one of her darkest, most terrible secrets, and he liked her anyway. “You’re crazy.”

“You bet your ass I am.”

“Matthew Walker, quit yapping and start paddling,” Mrs. Walker yelled at them.

“So we’re friends, right?” Matthew said. “No matter what?”

Leni nodded. “No matter what.”

“Groovy.” Matthew turned around and faced the bow and started paddling. “I’ve got a cool thing to show you when we get where we are going,” he said over his shoulder.

“What?”

“The bogs will be full of frogs’ eggs. They’re completely slimy and gross. Maybe I can get Axle to eat some. That kid is pure crazy.”

Leni picked up her paddle.

She was glad he couldn’t see how big her smile was.

*   *   *

W
HEN
L
ENI STEPPED OUT
of the schoolhouse, laughing at something Matthew had said, she saw her parents waiting for her in the VW bus. Both of them. Mama leaned out of the window and waved like she was trying out for a spot on
The Price is Right
.

“Jeez. You really get the royal treatment.”

Leni laughed and parted ways with him and climbed into the back of the bus.

“So, my little bookworm,” Dad said as they rattled along on the dirt road out of town. “What useful thing did you learn today?”

“Well. We went on a field trip to Eaglet Cove and collected leaves for a biology project. Did you know that baneberries will make you have a heart attack if you eat them? And arrowgrass will cause respiratory failure?”

“Great,” Mama said. “Now the plants can kill us, too.”

Dad laughed. “That’s
great
, Leni. Finally, a teacher who is teaching what matters.”

“I also learned about the Klondike Gold Rush. The RCMP wouldn’t let anyone cross the Chilkoot Trail unless they carried a stove with them. Carried. On their backs. But most of the miners who came up paid Indians to carry their supplies.”

Dad nodded. “The rich, riding the backs of better men. It’s the history of civilization itself. It’s what’s destroying America. Men who take, take, take.”

Leni had noticed her dad saying more and more things like this since meeting Mad Earl.

Dad turned into their driveway and rumbled bumpily along. When they reached the homestead, he parked hard and said, “Okay, Allbrights, today my girls learn how to shoot.”

He jumped out of the bus and dragged a bale of blackened, mildewed hay out from behind the chicken coop.

Mama lit up a cigarette. The smoke formed a gray corona above her blond hair. “This should be fun,” she said without joy.

“We have to learn how. Large Marge and Thelma both said so,” Leni said.

Mama nodded.

Leni moved to the driver’s seat. “Uh. Mama? You noticed that Dad is sorta … prickly about Mr. Walker, right?”

Mama turned. Their eyes met. “Is he?” she said coolly.

“You know he is. So. I mean. You know how he can get if you … you know. Flirt.”

Dad thumped on the front of the bus so hard Mama flinched and made a little sound, like a bitten-off scream. She dropped her cigarette and scrambled down to find it.

Leni knew her mama wouldn’t respond anyway; that was another facet of their family weirdness. Dad blew his temper and Mama somehow encouraged it. Like maybe she needed to know how much he loved her all the time.

Dad herded Leni and Mama out of the bus and over the bumpy terrain to where he’d set up the bale of hay with a target on it.

He lifted his rifle from its leather scabbard, aimed, and shot, hitting the target dead center in the head he’d drawn on a piece of paper with a Magic Marker. A bunch of birds flew up from the trees, scattered through the blue sky, cawing angrily at Dad for disturbing them. A giant bald eagle, with a wingspan of at least six feet, glided in to take their place. It perched on an uppermost branch of a tree, pointed its yellow beak down at them. “That’s what I expect of you two,” Dad said.

Mama exhaled smoke. “We’re going to be here awhile, baby girl.”

Dad handed Leni the rifle. “Okay, Red. Let’s see what you’ve got naturally. Look through the scope—don’t get too close—and when you have the target in your sight, squeeze the trigger. Slow and steady. Breathe evenly. Okay, aim. I’ll tell you when to shoot. Watch out for—”

She lifted the rifle, aimed, thought,
Wow, Matthew, I can’t wait to tell you
, and accidently pulled the trigger.

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