Home > The Great Alone(9)

The Great Alone(9)
Author: Kristin Hannah

Leni stared at the packs in disbelief.

“Here, Red,” he said, lifting a pack that seemed as big as a Buick.

“You want me to wear that?” she asked.

“I do if you want food and a sleeping bag at the cabin.” He grinned. “Come on, Red. You can do this.”

She let him fit the backpack on her. She felt like a turtle with an oversized shell. If she fell over, she would never right herself. She moved sideways with exaggerated care as Dad helped Mama put on her pack.

“Okay, Allbrights,” Dad said, hefting his own pack on. “Let’s go home!”

He took off walking, his arms swinging in time to his steps. Leni could hear his old army boots crunching and squishing in the muddy dirt. He whistled along, like Johnny Appleseed.

Mama glanced longingly back at the bus. Then she turned to Leni and smiled, but it struck Leni as an expression of terror rather than joy. “Okay, then,” she said. “Come on.”

Leni reached out for Mama’s hand.

They walked through a shadow land of trees, following a narrow, winding trail. They could hear the sea crashing all around them. As they continued, the sound of the surf diminished. The land expanded. More trees, more land, more shadow.

“Sweet simple Christ,” Mama said after a while. “How much farther is it?” She tripped on a rock, fell, went down hard.

“Mama!” Leni reached for her without thinking and her pack threw her to the ground. Mud filled Leni’s mouth, made her sputter.

Dad was beside them in an instant, helping Leni and Mama to stand. “Here, girls, lean on me,” he said. And they were off again.

Trees crowded into one another, jostled for space, turned the trail gloomy and dark. Sunlight poked through, changing color and clarity as they walked. The lichen-carpeted ground was springy, like walking on marshmallows. In no time, Leni noticed that she was ankle-deep in shadow. The darkness seemed to be rising rather than the sun falling. As if darkness were the natural order around here.

They got hooked in the face by branches, stumbled atop the spongy ground, until finally they emerged into the light again, into a meadow of knee-high grass and wildflowers. It turned out that their forty acres was a peninsula: a huge thumbprint of grassy land perched above the water on three sides, with a small C-shaped beach in the middle. There, the water was calm, serene.

Leni staggered into the clearing, unhooked her pack, let it crash to the ground. Mama did the same.

And there it was: the home they’d come to claim. A small cabin built of age-blackened logs, with a slanted, moss-furred roof that was studded with dozens of bleached-white animal skulls. A rotting deck jutted out from the front, cluttered with mildewed chairs. Off to the left, between the cabin and the trees, were decrepit animal pens and a dilapidated chicken coop.

There was junk everywhere, lying in the tall grass: a big pile of spokes, oil drums, coils of reddish wire, an old-fashioned wooden washing machine with a hand-cranked wringer.

Dad put his hands on his hips and threw his head back and howled like a wolf. When he stopped, and silence settled in again, he swept Mama into his arms, twirling her around.

When he finally let her go, Mama stumbled back; she was laughing, but there was a kind of horror in her eyes. The cabin looked like something an old, toothless hermit would live in, and it was small.

Would they all be crammed into a single room?

“Look at it,” Dad said, making a sweeping gesture with his hand. They all turned away from the cabin and looked out to sea. “That’s Otter Cove.”

At this late afternoon hour, the peninsula and sea seemed to glow from within, like a land enchanted in a fairy tale. The colors were more vibrant than she’d ever seen before. Waves lapping the muddy beach left a sparkling residue. On the opposite shore, the mountains were a lush, deep purple at their bases and stark white at their peaks.

The beach below—their beach—was a curl of gray polished pebbles, washed by an easy white-foam surf. A rickety set of stairs built in the shape of a lightning bolt led from the grassy meadow to the shore. The wood had turned gray from age and was black from mildew; chicken wire covered each step. The stairs looked fragile, as if a good wind could shatter them.

The tide was out; mud coated everything, oozed along the shore, which was draped in seaweed and kelp. Clumps of shiny black mussels lay exposed on the rocks.

Leni remembered her dad telling her that the bore tide in Upper Cook Inlet created waves big enough to surf; only the Bay of Fundy had a higher tide. She hadn’t really understood that fact until now, as she saw how far up the stairs the water could get. It would be beautiful at high tide, but now, with the tide ebbed and mud everywhere, she understood what it meant. At low tide, the property was inaccessible by boat.

“Come on,” Dad said. “Let’s check out the house.”

He took Leni by the hand and led them through the grass and wildflowers, past the junk—barrels overturned, stacks of wooden pallets, old coolers, and broken crab pots. Mosquitoes nipped at her skin, drew blood, made a droning sound.

At the porch steps, Mama hesitated. Dad let go of Leni’s hand and bounded up the sagging steps and opened the front door and disappeared inside.

Mama stood there a moment, breathing deeply. She slapped hard at her neck, left a smear of blood behind. “Well,” she said. “This isn’t what I expected.”

“Me, either,” Leni said.

There was another long silence. Then, quietly, Mama said, “Let’s go.”

She took Leni’s hand as they walked up the rickety steps and entered the dark cabin.

The first thing Leni noticed was the smell.

Poop. Some animal (she hoped it was an animal) had pooped everywhere.

She pressed a hand over her mouth and nose.

The place was full of shadows, dark shapes and forms. Cobwebs hung in ropy skeins from the rafters. Dust made it hard to breathe. The floor was covered in dead insects, so that each step produced a crunch.

“Yuck,” Leni said.

Mama flung open the dirty curtains and sunlight poured in, thick with dust motes.

The interior was bigger than it looked from outside. The floors had been crafted of rough, mismatched plywood nailed into place in a patchwork quilt pattern. Skinned log walls displayed animal traps, fishing poles, baskets, frying pans, water buckets, nets. The kitchen—such as it was—took up one corner of the main room. Leni saw an old camp stove and a sink with no fixtures; beneath it was a curtained-off space. On the counter sat an old ham radio, probably from World War II, cloaked in dust. In the center of the room, a black woodstove held court, its metal pipe rising up to the ceiling like a jointed tin finger pointed at heaven. A ragged sofa, an overturned wooden crate that read BLAZO on the side, and a card table with four metal chairs comprised the cabin’s furnishings. A narrow, steeply pitched log ladder led to a skylit loft space, and off to the left a curtain of psychedelic-colored beads hung from a narrow doorway.

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