Home > The Great Alone(3)

The Great Alone(3)
Author: Kristin Hannah


The land is at the end of the road, past the silver gate with a cow skull and just before the burnt tree, at mile marker 13.

Thanks again,

Earl

Mama looked up. She cocked her head, gave a little birdlike tilt as she studied Dad. “This man … Bo, has given us a house? A house?”

“Think of it,” Dad said, lifted out of his seat by enthusiasm. “A house that’s ours. That we own. In a place where we can be self-sufficient, grow our vegetables, hunt our meat, and be free. We’ve dreamed of it for years, Cora. Living a simpler life away from all the bullshit down here. We could be free. Think of it.”

“Wait,” Leni said. Even for Dad, this was big. “Alaska? You want to move again? We just moved here.”

Mama frowned. “But … there’s nothing up there, is there? Just bears and Eskimos.”

He pulled Mama to her feet with an eagerness that made her stumble, fall into him. Leni saw the desperate edge of his enthusiasm. “I need this, Cora. I need a place where I can breathe again. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my skin. Up there, the flashbacks and shit will stop. I know it. We need this. We can go back to the way things were before ’Nam screwed me up.”

Mama lifted her face to Dad’s, her pallor a sharp contrast to his dark hair and tanned skin.

“Come on, baby,” Dad said. “Imagine it…”

Leni saw Mama softening, reshaping her needs to match his, imagining this new personality: Alaskan. Maybe she thought it was like EST or yoga or Buddhism. The answer. Where or when or what didn’t matter to Mama. All she cared about was him. “Our own house,” she said. “But … money … you could apply for that military disability—”

“Not that discussion again,” he said with a sigh. “I’m not doing that. A change is all I need. And I’ll be more careful with money from now on, Cora. I swear. I still have a little of the bread I inherited from the old man. And I’ll cut back on drinking. I’ll go to that veterans’ support-group thing you want me to.”

Leni had seen all of this before. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what she or Mama wanted.

Dad wanted a new beginning. Needed it. And Mama needed him to be happy.

So they would try again in a new place, hoping geography would be the answer. They would go to Alaska in search of this new dream. Leni would do as she was asked and do it with a good attitude. She would be the new girl in school again. Because that was what love was.

 

 

TWO

The next morning, Leni lay in her bed, listening to rain patter the roof, imagining the emergence of mushrooms beneath her window, their bulbous, poisonous tops pushing up through the mud, glistening temptingly. She had lain awake long past midnight, reading about the vast landscape of Alaska. It had captivated her in an unexpected way. The last frontier was like her dad, it seemed. Larger than life. Expansive. A little dangerous.

She heard music—a tinny, transistor melody. “Hooked on a Feeling.” She threw back the covers and got out of bed. In the kitchen, she found her mother standing in front of the stove, smoking a cigarette. She looked ethereal in the lamplight, her shag-cut blond hair still messy from sleep, her face veiled in blue-gray smoke. She was wearing a white tank top that had been washed so often it hung on her slim body, and a pair of hot-pink panties with a sagging elastic waist. A small purple bruise at the base of her throat was strangely beautiful, a starburst almost, highlighting the delicateness of her features.

“You should be sleeping,” Mama said. “It’s early.”

Leni came up beside her mother, rested her head on her shoulder. Mama’s skin smelled of rose perfume and cigarettes. “We don’t sleep,” Leni said.

We don’t sleep. It was what Mama always said. You and me. The connection between them a constant, a comfort, as if similarity reinforced the love between them. Certainly it was true that Mama had had trouble sleeping since Dad had come home. Whenever Leni woke in the middle of the night, she invariably found her mother drifting through the house, her diaphanous robe trailing open. In the dark, Mama tended to talk to herself in a whisper, saying words Leni could never quite make out.

“Are we really going?” Leni asked.

Mama stared at the black coffee percolating in the little glass cap at the top of the metal pot. “I guess so.”

“When?”

“You know your dad. Soon.”

“Will I get to finish the school year?”

Mama shrugged.

“Where is he?”

“He went out before dawn to sell the coin collection he inherited from his dad.” Mama poured herself a cup of coffee and took a sip, then set the mug down on the Formica counter. “Alaska. Christ. Why not Siberia?” She took a long drag on her cigarette. Exhaled. “I need a girlfriend to talk to.”

“I’m your friend.”

“You’re thirteen. I’m thirty. I’m supposed to be a mother to you. I need to remember that.”

Leni heard the despair in her mother’s voice and it frightened her. She knew how fragile it all was: her family, her parents. One thing every child of a POW knew was how easily people could be broken. Leni still wore the shiny silver POW bracelet in memory of a captain who hadn’t come home to his family.

“He needs a chance. A new start. We all do. Maybe Alaska is the answer.”

“Like Oregon was the answer, and Snohomish, and the seed packets that would make us rich. And don’t forget the year he thought he could make a fortune in pinball machines. Can we at least wait until the end of the school year?”

Mama sighed. “I don’t think so. Now go get dressed for school.”

“There’s no school today.”

Mama was silent for a long time, then said quietly, “You remember the blue dress Dad bought you for your birthday?”

“Yeah.”

“Put it on.”

“Why?”

“Shoo. Get dressed now. You and I have things to do today.”

Although she was irritated and confused, Leni did as she was told. She always did as she was told. It made life easier. She went into her room and burrowed through her closet until she found the dress.

You’ll look pretty as a picture in this, Red.

Except that she wouldn’t. She knew exactly what she’d look like: a spindly, flat-chested thirteen-year-old in a dowdy dress that revealed her scrawny thighs and made her knees look like doorknobs. A girl who was supposed to be standing on the cusp of womanhood, but clearly wasn’t. She was pretty sure she was the only girl in her grade who hadn’t started her period or sprouted boobs yet.

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