Home > The Great Alone(5)

The Great Alone(5)
Author: Kristin Hannah


“How I have missed you both,” Grandmother said. Then, as if upset by her own admission, she turned and walked away, returning a few moments later, carrying a book. “I remember how much you love to read. Why, even at two, you always had a book in your hands. I bought this for you years ago but … I didn’t know where to send it. She has red hair, too.”

Leni sat down and took the book, which she had read so often she had whole passages memorized. Pippi Longstocking. A book for much younger girls. Leni had moved on long ago. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Call me Grandma. Please,” she said quietly; there was a tinge of longing in her voice. Then she turned her attention to Mama.

Grandma showed Mama to a white ironwork table over by one window. In a gilded cage nearby, a pair of white birds cooed at each other. Leni thought they must be sad, those birds who couldn’t fly.

“I’m surprised you let me in,” Mama said, taking a seat.

“Don’t be impertinent, Coraline. You’re always welcome. Your father and I love you.”

“It’s my husband you wouldn’t allow in.”

“He turned you against us. And all of your friends, I might add. He wanted you all to him—”

“I don’t want to talk about all of that again. We’re moving to Alaska.”

Grandma sat down. “Oh, for the love of Pete.”

“Ernt has inherited a house and a piece of land. We’re going to grow our own vegetables and hunt our meat and live by our own rules. We’ll be pure. Pioneers.”

“Stop. I can’t listen to this nonsense. You’re going to follow him to the ends of the earth, where no one will be able to help you. Your father and I tried so hard to protect you from your mistakes, but you refuse to be helped, don’t you? You think that life is some game. You just flit—”

“Don’t,” Mama said sharply. She leaned forward. “Do you know how hard it was for me to come here?”

In the wake of those words, a silence fell, broken only by a bird’s cooing.

It felt as if a cold breeze had just come through. Leni would have sworn the expensive transparent curtains fluttered, but there were no open windows.

Leni tried to imagine her mother in this buttoned-down, closed-up world, but she couldn’t. The chasm between the girl Mama had been raised to be and the woman she had become seemed impossible to cross. Leni wondered if all those protests she and Mama had marched in while Dad was gone—against nuclear energy, the war—and all those EST seminars and the different religions Mama had tried on, were really just Mama’s way of protesting the woman she’d been raised to be.

“Don’t do this crazy, dangerous thing, Coraline. Leave him. Come home. Be safe.”

“I love him, Mother. Can’t you understand that?”

“Cora,” Grandma said softly. “Listen to me, please. You know he’s dangerous—”

“We’re going to Alaska,” Mama said firmly. “I came to say goodbye and…” Her voice trailed off. “Are you going to help us or not?”

For a long moment Grandma said nothing, just crossed and uncrossed her arms. “How much do you need this time?” she finally asked.

* * *

ON THE DRIVE HOME, her mother chain-smoked. She kept the radio volume so high that conversation was impossible. It was just as well, really, because although Leni had a string of questions, she didn’t know where to begin. Today she had glimpsed a world that lay beneath the surface of her own. Mama had never said much to Leni about her life before marriage. She and Dad had run off together; theirs was a beautiful, romantic story of love against all odds. Mama had quit high school and “lived on love.” That was how she always put it, the fairy tale. Now Leni was old enough to know that like all fairy tales, theirs was filled with thickets and dark places and broken dreams, and runaway girls.

Mama was obviously angry with her mother, and yet she’d gone to her for help and hadn’t even had to ask for money to receive it. Leni couldn’t make sense of it, but it unsettled her. How could a mother and daughter fall so far apart?

Mama turned into their driveway and shut off the engine. The radio snapped off, leaving them in silence.

“We are not going to tell your father I got money from my mother,” Mama said. “He’s a proud man.”

“But—”

“This is not a discussion, Leni. You are not to tell your father.” Mama opened her car door and got out, slamming it shut behind her.

Confused by her mother’s unexpected edict, Leni followed her across the squishy, muddy grass in the front yard, past the Volkswagen-sized juniper bushes that climbed raggedly over one another, to the front door.

Inside the house, her father sat at the kitchen table with maps and books spread out in front of him. He was drinking Coke from a bottle.

At their entrance, he looked up and smiled broadly. “I’ve figured out our route. We will drive up through B.C. and the Yukon Territory. It’s about twenty-four hundred miles. Mark your calendars, ladies: in four days, our new life begins.”

“But school isn’t finished—” Leni said.

“Who cares about school? This is a real education, Leni,” Dad said. He looked at Mama. “I sold my GTO and my coin collection and my guitar. We have a little cash. We’ll trade in your Mustang for a VW bus, but man, we could sure use more bread.”

Leni glanced sideways, caught Mama’s eye.

Don’t tell him.

It didn’t feel right. Wasn’t lying always wrong? And an omission like this was obviously a lie.

Even so, Leni remained quiet. She never considered defying her mother. In this whole big world—and with the specter of their move to Alaska, it had just tripled in size—Mama was Leni’s one true thing.

 

 

THREE

“Leni, baby, sit up. We’re almost there!”

She blinked awake; at first all she saw was her own potato-chip-crumb-dusted lap. Beside her lay an old newspaper, covered in candy wrappers, and her paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. It was propped up like a pup tent, yellowed pages splayed out. Her most treasured possession, her Polaroid camera, hung from a strap around her neck.

It had been an amazing trip north on the mostly unpaved ALCAN Highway. Their first true family vacation. Days driving in bright sunlight; nights spent camping beside raging rivers and quiet streams, in the shadows of saw-blade mountain peaks, huddled around a fire, spinning dreams of a future that felt closer every day. They roasted hot dogs for dinner and made s’mores for dessert and shared dreams about what they would discover at the end of the road. Leni had never seen her parents so happy. Her dad most of all. He laughed, he smiled, he told jokes and promised them the moon. He was the dad she remembered from Before.

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