Home > The Great Alone(7)

The Great Alone(7)
Author: Kristin Hannah


A pod of orcas surfaced from the waves; seals peered at them from the rocks. Otters fed in kelp beds along the rough shores.

Finally, the ferry turned, chugged around an emerald-green mound of land that protected them from the wind that barreled across the bay. Lush islands with tree-tossed rocky shores welcomed them into their calm waters.

“Kaneq coming up!” came over the loudspeaker. “Next stop, Seldovia!”

“Come on, Allbrights. Back to the bus!” Dad said, laughing. They maneuvered through the line of cars, found their way back to the bus, and climbed in.

“I can’t wait to see our new home,” Mama said.

The ferry docked and they drove off the boat and uphill onto a wide dirt road that cut through a forest. At the crest of the hill stood a white clapboard church with a blue-domed steeple topped with a three-slatted Russian cross. Beside it was a small picket-fenced cemetery studded with wooden crosses.

They crested the hill, came down on the other side, and got their first look at Kaneq.

“Wait,” Leni said, peering out the dirty window. “This can’t be it.”

She saw trailers parked on grass, with chairs out front, and houses that would have been called shacks back in Washington. In front of one of the shacks, three scrawny dogs were chained up; all three stood on top of their weathered doghouses, barking and yelping furiously. The grassy yard was pitted with holes where the bored dogs dug.

“It’s an old town with a remarkable history,” Dad said. “Settled first by Natives, then by Russian fur traders, and then taken over by adventurers looking for gold. An earthquake in 1964 hit the town so hard that the land dropped five feet in a second. Houses broke apart and fell into the sea.”

Leni stared at the few ramshackle, paint-blistered buildings that were connected to one another by an aging boardwalk; the town was perched on pilings above mudflats. Beyond the mud was a harbor full of fishing boats. The main street was less than a block long, and unpaved.

To her left was a saloon called the Kicking Moose. The building was a charred, blackened husk; clearly the victim of a fire. Through the dirty glass window, she saw patrons inside. People drinking at ten A.M. on a Thursday in a burned-out shell of a building.

On the bay side of the street, she saw a closed-up boardinghouse that her dad said had probably been built for Russian fur traders over a hundred years ago. Next to it, a closet-sized diner called Fish On welcomed guests with an open door. Leni could see a few people huddled over a counter inside. A couple of old trucks were parked near the entrance to the harbor.

“Where’s the school?” Leni said, feeling a spike of panic.

This was no town. An outpost, maybe. The kind of place one might have found on a wagon train headed west a hundred years ago, the kind of place where no one stayed. Would there be any kids her age here?

Dad pulled up in front of a narrow, pointy-roofed Victorian house that appeared to have once been blue and now only showed patches of that color here and there on the faded wood where paint had peeled away. In scrolled, gilt letters on the window were the words ASSAYER’S OFFICE. Someone had duct-taped a hand-lettered TRADING POST/GENERAL STORE sign beneath it. “Let’s get directions, Allbrights.”

Mama got out of the bus quickly, hurried toward the small civilization this store represented. As she opened the door, a bell tinkled overhead. Leni sidled in behind Mama, put a hand on her hip.

Sunlight came through the windows behind them, illuminating the front quarter of the store; beyond that, only a single shadeless overhead bulb offered light. The back of the store was full of shadows.

The interior smelled of old leather and whiskey and tobacco. The walls were covered in rows of shelving; Leni saw saws, axes, hoes, furry snow boots and rubber fishing boots, heaps of socks, boxes full of headlamps. Steel traps and loops of chain hung from every post. There were at least a dozen taxidermied animals sitting on shelves and counters. A giant king salmon was caught forever on a shiny wooden plaque as were moose heads, antlers, white animal skulls. There was even a stuffed red fox gathering dust in a corner. Off to the left side were food items: bags of potatoes and buckets of onions, stacked cans of salmon and crab and sardines, bags of rice and flour and sugar, canisters of Crisco, and her favorite: the snack aisle, where beautiful multicolored candy wrappers reminded her of home. Potato chips and snack-pack butterscotch puddings and boxes of cereal.

It looked like a store that would have welcomed Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“Customers!”

Leni heard the clapping of hands. A black woman with a large Afro emerged from the shadows. She was tall and broad-shouldered and so wide she had to turn sideways to get out from behind the polished wood counter. Tiny black moles dotted her face.

She came at them fast, bone bracelets clattering on her thick wrists. She was old: at least fifty. She wore a long patchwork denim skirt, mismatched wool socks, open-toed sandals, and a long blue shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a faded T-shirt. A sheathed knife rode the wide leather belt at her waist. “Welcome! I know, it seems disorganized and daunting, but I know where everything is, down to O-rings and triple-A batteries. Folks call me Large Marge, by the way,” she said, holding out her hand.

“And you let them?” Mama asked, offering that beautiful smile of hers, the one that pulled people in and made them smile back. She shook the woman’s hand.

Large Marge’s laughter was loud and barking, like she couldn’t get quite enough air. “I love a woman with a sense of humor. So, whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

“Cora Allbright,” Mama said. “And this is my daughter, Leni.”

“Welcome to Kaneq, ladies. We don’t get many tourists.”

Dad entered the store just in time to say, “We’re locals, or about to be. We just arrived.”

Large Marge’s double chin tripled as she tucked it in. “Locals?”

Dad extended his hand. “Bo Harlan left me his place. We’re here to stay.”

“Well, hot damn. I’m your neighbor, Marge Birdsall, just a half mile down the road. There’s a sign. Most folks around here live off the grid, in the bush, but we’re lucky enough to be on a road. So do you have all the supplies you need? You guys can start an account here at the store if you want. Pay me in money or in trade. It’s how we do it here.”

“That’s exactly the kind of life we came looking for,” Dad said. “I’ll admit, money’s a little tight, so trade would be good. I’m a damn good mechanic. I can fix most any motor.”

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