Home > The Great Alone(8)

The Great Alone(8)
Author: Kristin Hannah


“Good to know. I’ll spread the word.”

Dad nodded. “Good. We could use some bacon. Maybe a little rice. And some whiskey.”

“Over there,” Large Marge said, pointing. “Behind the row of axes and hatchets.”

Dad followed her direction back into the shadows of the store.

Large Marge turned to Mama, sweeping her from head to toe in a single assessing gaze. “I’m guessing this is your man’s dream, Cora Allbright, and that you all came up here without a whole lot of planning.”

Mama smiled. “We do everything on impulse, Large Marge. It keeps life exciting.”

“Well. You’ll need to be tough up here, Cora Allbright. For you and your daughter. You can’t just count on your man. You need to be able to save yourself and this beautiful girl of yours.”

“That’s pretty dramatic,” Mama said.

Large Marge bent down for a large cardboard box, dragged it across the floor toward her. She dug through it, her black fingers moving like a piano player’s, until she pulled out two whistles on black straps. She placed one around each of their necks. “This is a bear whistle. You’ll need it. Lesson number one: no walking quietly—or unarmed—in Alaska. Not this far out, not this time of year.”

“Are you trying to scare us?” Mama asked.

“You bet your ass I am. Fear is common sense up here. A lot of folks come up here, Cora, with cameras and dreams of a simpler life. But five out of every one thousand Alaskans go missing every year. Just disappear. And most of the dreamers … well, they don’t make it past the first winter. They can’t wait to get back to the land of drive-in theaters and heat that comes on at the flip of a switch. And sunlight.”

“You make it sound dangerous,” Mama said uneasily.

“Two kinds of folks come up to Alaska, Cora. People running to something and people running away from something. The second kind—you want to keep your eye out for them. And it isn’t just the people you need to watch out for, either. Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.”

Mama lit up a cigarette. Her hand was shaking. “As the welcoming committee, you leave something to be desired, Marge.”

Large Marge laughed again. “You’re right as rain about that, Cora. My social skills have gone to shit in the bush.” She smiled, laid a hand comfortingly on Mama’s thin shoulder. “Here’s what you want to hear: We are a tight community here in Kaneq. There’s less than thirty of us living on this part of the peninsula year-round, but we take care of our own. My land is close to yours. You need anything—anything—just pick up the ham radio. I’ll come running.”

* * *

DAD LAID A SHEET of notebook paper on the steering wheel; on the paper was a map Large Marge had drawn for them. The map showed Kaneq as a big red circle, with a single line shooting out from it. That was the Road (there was only really one, she said) that ran from town to Otter Cove. There were three x’s along the straight line. First was Large Marge’s homestead, on the left, then Tom Walker’s on the right, and lastly Bo Harlan’s old place, which was at the very end of the line.

“So,” Dad said. “We go two miles past Icicle Creek and we’ll see the start of Tom Walker’s land, which is marked by a metal gate. Our place is just a little farther on. At the end of the road,” Dad said, letting the map fall to the floor as they headed out of town. “Marge said we can’t miss it.”

They rumbled onto a rickety-looking bridge that arched over a crystalline blue river. They passed soggy marshlands, dusted with yellow and pink flowers, and then an airstrip, where four small, decrepit-looking airplanes were tied down.

Just past the airstrip, the gravel road turned to dirt and rocks. Trees grew thickly on either side. Mud and mosquitoes splattered the windshield. Potholes the size of wading pools made the old bus bump and clatter. “Hot damn,” Dad said every time they were thrown out of their seats. There were no houses out here, no signs of civilization, until they came to a driveway littered with rusted junk and rotting vehicles. A hand-lettered sign read BIRDSALL. Large Marge’s place.

After that, the road got worse. Bumpier. A combination of rocks and mud puddles. On either side, there was grass that grew wild and sticker bushes and trees tall enough to block the view of anything else.

Now they were really in the middle of nowhere.

After another empty patch of road, they came to a bleached-white cow skull on the rusted metal gate that marked the Walker homestead.

“I must say, I’m a little suspicious of neighbors who use dead animals in decorating,” Mama said, clinging to the door handle, which came off in her hand when they hit a pothole.

Five minutes later, Dad slammed on the brakes. Two hundred feet farther and they would have careened over a cliff.

“Jesus,” Mama said. The road was gone; in its place, scrub brush and a ledge. Land’s End. Literally.

“We’re here!” Dad jumped out of the bus, slammed the door shut.

Mama looked at Leni. They were both thinking the same thing: there was nothing here but trees and mud and a cliff that could have killed them in the fog. They got out of the bus and huddled together. Not far away—presumably below the cliff in front of them—the waves crashed and roared.

“Will ya look at it?” Dad threw his arms wide, as if he wanted to embrace it all. He seemed to be growing before their eyes, like a tree, spreading branches wide, becoming strong. He liked the nothingness he saw, the vast emptiness. It was what he’d come for.

The entrance to their property was a narrow neck of land bordered on either side by cliffs, the bases of which were battered by the ocean. Leni thought that a bolt of lightning or an earthquake could shear this land away from the mainland and set it adrift, a floating fortress of an island.

“That’s our driveway,” Dad said.

“Driveway?” Mama said, staring at the trail through the trees. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years. Thin-trunked alder trees grew in the path.

“Bo’s been gone a long time. We’ll have to clear the road of new growth, but for now we’ll hike in,” Dad said.

“Hike?” Mama said.

He set about unpacking the bus. While Leni and Mama stood staring into the trees, Dad divided their necessities into three backpacks and said, “Okay. Here we go.”

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