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The Great Alone / (by Kristin Hannah, 2018) -

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The Great Alone /    (by Kristin Hannah, 2018) -

The Great Alone / (by Kristin Hannah, 2018) -

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The Great Alone / (by Kristin Hannah, 2018) -
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2018
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Kristin Hannah
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Julia Whelan
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upper-intermediate
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15:02:17
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Great Alone / :

.doc (Word) kristin_hannah_-_the_great_alone.doc [1.18 Mb] (c: 17) .
.pdf kristin_hannah_-_the_great_alone.pdf [2.12 Mb] (c: 30) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Great Alone

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ONE That spring, rain fell in great sweeping gusts that rattled the rooftops. Water found its way into the smallest cracks and undermined the sturdiest foundations. Chunks of land that had been steady for generations fell like slag heaps on the roads below, taking houses and cars and swimming pools down with them. Trees fell over, crashed into power lines; electricity was lost. Rivers flooded their banks, washed across yards, ruined homes. People who loved each other snapped and fights erupted as the water rose and the rain continued. Leni felt edgy, too. She was the new girl at school, just a face in the crowd; a girl with long hair, parted in the middle, who had no friends and walked to school alone. Now she sat on her bed, with her skinny legs drawn up to her flat chest, a dog-eared paperback copy of Watership Down open beside her. Through the thin walls of the rambler, she heard her mother say, Ernt, baby, please don_t. Listen _ and her father_s angry leave me the hell alone. They were at it again. Arguing. Shouting. Soon there would be crying. Weather like this brought out the darkness in her father. Leni glanced at the clock by her bed. If she didn_t leave right now, she was going to be late for school, and the only thing worse than being the new girl in junior high was drawing attention to yourself. She had learned this fact the hard way; in the last four years, she_d gone to five schools. Not once had she found a way to truly fit in, but she remained stubbornly hopeful. She took a deep breath, unfolded, and slid off the twin bed. Moving cautiously through her bare room, she went down the hall, paused at the kitchen doorway. _Damn it, Cora,_ Dad said. _You know how hard it is on me._ Mama took a step toward him, reached out. _You need help, baby. It_s not your fault. The nightmares__ Leni cleared her throat to get their attention. _Hey,_ she said. Dad saw her and took a step back from Mama. Leni saw how tired he looked, how defeated. _I_I have to go to school,_ Leni said. Mama reached into the breast pocket of her pink waitress uniform and pulled out her cigarettes. She looked tired; she_d worked the late shift last night and had the lunch shift today. _You go on, Leni. You don_t want to be late._ Her voice was calm and soft, as delicate as she was. Leni was afraid to stay and afraid to leave. It was strange_stupid, even_but she often felt like the only adult in her family, as if she were the ballast that kept the creaky Allbright boat on an even keel. Mama was engaged in a continual quest to _find_ herself. In the past few years, she_d tried EST and the human potential movement, spiritual training, Unitarianism. Even Buddhism. She_d cycled through them all, cherry-picked pieces and bits. Mostly, Leni thought, Mama had come away with T-shirts and sayings. Things like, What is, is, and what isn_t, isn_t. None of it seemed to amount to much. _Go,_ Dad said. Leni grabbed her backpack from the chair by the kitchen table and headed for the front door. As it slammed shut behind her, she heard them start up again. Damn it, Cora_ Please, Ernt, just listen_ It hadn_t always been this way. At least that_s what Mama said. Before the war, they_d been happy, back when they_d lived in a trailer park in Kent and Dad had had a good job as a mechanic and Mama had laughed all of the time and danced to _Piece of My Heart_ while she made dinner. (Mama dancing was really all Leni remembered about those years.) Then Dad went off to Vietnam and got shot down and captured. Without him, Mama fell apart; that was when Leni first understood her mother_s fragility. They drifted for a while, she and Mama, moved from job to job and town to town until they finally found a home in a commune in Oregon. There, they tended beehives and made lavender sachets to sell at the farmers_ market and protested the war. Mama changed her personality just enough to fit in. When Dad had finally come home, Leni barely recognized him. The handsome, laughing man of her memory had become moody, quick to anger, and distant. He hated everything about the commune, it seemed, and so they moved. Then they moved again. And again. Nothing ever worked out the way he wanted. He couldn_t sleep and couldn_t keep a job, even though Mama swore he was the best mechanic ever. That was what he and Mama were fighting about this morning: Dad getting fired again. Leni flipped up her hood. On her way to school, she walked through blocks of well-tended homes, bypassed a dark woods (stay away from there), passed the AandW where the high school kids hung out on weekends, and a gas station, where a line of cars waited to fill up for fifty-five cents a gallon. That was something everyone was angry about these days_gas prices. As far as Leni could tell, adults were edgy in general, and no wonder. The war in Vietnam had divided the country. Newspapers blared bad news daily: bombings by Weatherman or the IRA; planes being hijacked; the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. The massacre at the Munich Olympics had stunned the whole world, as had the Watergate scandal. And recently, college girls in Washington State had begun to disappear without a trace. It was a dangerous world. She would give anything for a real friend right now. It was all she really wanted: someone to talk to. On the other hand, it didn_t help to talk about her worries. What was the point of confession? Sure, Dad lost his temper sometimes and he yelled and they never had enough money and they moved all the time to distance themselves from creditors, but that was their way, and they loved each other. But sometimes, especially on days like today, Leni was afraid. It felt to her as if her family stood poised on the edge of a great precipice that could collapse at any second, crumble away like the houses that crashed down Seattle_s unstable, waterlogged hillsides. * * * AFTER SCHOOL, Leni walked home in the rain, alone. Her house sat in the middle of a cul-de-sac, on a yard less tended than the rest: a bark-brown rambler with empty flower boxes and clogged gutters and a garage door that didn_t close. Weeds grew in clumps from the decaying gray roof shingles. An empty flagpole pointed accusingly upward, a statement about her father_s hatred of where this country was headed. For a man whom Mama called a patriot, he sure hated his government. She saw Dad in the garage, sitting on a slanted workbench beside Mama_s dented-up Mustang with the duct-taped top. Cardboard boxes lined the interior walls, full of stuff they hadn_t yet unpacked from the last move. He was dressed_as usual_in his frayed military jacket and torn Levi_s. He sat slouched forward, his elbows resting on his thighs. His long black hair was a tangled mess and his mustache needed trimming. His dirty feet were bare. Even slumped over and tired-looking, he was movie-star handsome. Everyone thought so. He cocked his head, peered at her through his hair. The smile he gave her was a little worn around the edges, but it still lit up his face. That was the thing about her dad: he might be moody and sharp-tempered, even a little scary sometimes, but that was just because he felt things like love and loss and disappointment so keenly. Love most of all. _Lenora,_ he said in that scratchy, cigarette-smoker voice of his. _I was waiting for you. I_m sorry. I lost my temper. And my job. You must be disappointed as hell in me._ _No, Dad._ She knew how sorry he was. She could see it on his face. When she was younger, she_d sometimes wondered what good all those sorries were if nothing ever changed, but Mama had explained it to her. The war and captivity had snapped something in him. It_s like his back is broken, Mama had said, and you don_t stop loving a person when they_re hurt. You get stronger so they can lean on you. He needs me. Us. Leni sat down beside him. He put an arm around her, pulled her in close. _The world is being run by lunatics. It_s not my America anymore. I want__ He didn_t finish, and Leni didn_t say anything. She was used to her dad_s sadness, his frustration. He stopped sentences halfway through all the time, as if he were afraid of giving voice to scary or depressing thoughts. Leni knew about that reticence and understood it; lots of times it was better to stay silent. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a mostly crushed pack of cigarettes. He lit one up and she drew in the acrid, familiar scent. She knew how much pain he was in. Sometimes she woke up to her dad crying and her mama trying to soothe him, saying stuff like, Shhh, now, Ernt, it_s over now, you_re home safe. He shook his head, exhaled a stream of blue-gray smoke. _I just want _ more, I guess. Not a job. A life. I want to walk down the street and not have to worry about being called a baby-killer. I want__ He sighed. Smiled. _Don_t worry. It_ll all be okay. We_ll be okay._ _You_ll get another job, Dad,_ she said. _Sure I will, Red. Tomorrow will be better._ That was what her parents always said. * * * ON A COLD, BLEAK MORNING in mid-April, Leni got up early and staked out her place on the ratty floral sofa in the living room and turned on the Today show. She adjusted the rabbit ears to get a decent picture. When it popped into focus, Barbara Walters was saying __ Patricia Hearst, now calling herself Tania, seen here in this photograph holding an M1 carbine at the recent bank robbery in San Francisco. Eyewitnesses report that the nineteen-year-old heiress, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in February__ Leni was spellbound. She still couldn_t believe that an army could march in and take a teenager from her apartment. How could anyone be safe anywhere in a world like that? And how did a rich teenager become a revolutionary named Tania? _Come on, Leni,_ Mama said from the kitchen. Filtered ready for school._ The front door banged open. Dad came into the house, smiling in a way that made it impossible not to smile back. He looked out of scale, larger than life in the low-ceilinged kitchen, vibrant against the water-marked gray walls. Water dripped from his hair. Mama stood at the stove, frying bacon for breakfast. Dad swept into the kitchen and cranked up the transistor radio that sat on the Formica counter. A scratchy rock _n_ roll song came through. Dad laughed and pulled Mama into his arms. Leni heard his whispered _I_m sorry. Forgive me._ _Always,_ Mama said, holding him as if she were afraid he_d push her away. Dad kept his arm around Mama_s waist and pulled her over to the kitchen table. He pulled out a chair, said, _Leni, come in here!_ Leni loved it when they included her. She left her spot on the sofa and took a seat beside her mother. Dad smiled down at Leni and handed her a paperback book. The Call of the Wild. _You_ll love this, Red._ He sat down across from Mama, scooted in close to the table. He was wearing what Leni thought of as his Big Idea smile. She_d seen it before, whenever he had a plan to change their lives. And he_d had a lot of plans: Selling everything and camping for a year as they drove the Big Sur highway. Raising mink (what a horror that had been). Selling American Seed packets in Central California. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a folded-up piece of paper, slapped it triumphantly on the table. _You remember my friend Bo Harlan?_ Mama took a moment to answer. _From _Nam?_ Dad nodded. To Leni, he said, _Bo Harlan was the crew chief and I was the door gunner. We looked out for each other. We were together when our bird went down and we got captured. We went through hell together._ Leni noticed how he was shaking. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, so she could see the burn scars that ran from his wrist to his elbow in ridges of puckered, disfigured skin that never tanned. Leni didn_t know what had caused his scars_he never said and she never asked_but his captors had done it. She had figured out that much. The scars covered his back, too, pulled the skin into swirls and puckers. _They made me watch him die,_ he said. Leni looked worriedly at Mama. Dad had never said this before. To hear the words now unsettled them. He tapped his foot on the floor, played a beat on the table with fast-moving fingers. He unfolded the letter, smoothed it out, and turned it so they could read the words. Sergeant Allbright_ You are a hard man to find. I am Earl Harlan. My son, Bo, wrote many letters home about his friendship with you. I thank you for that. In his last letter, he told me that if anything happened to him in that piece of shit place, he wanted you to have his land up here in Alaska. It isn_t much. Forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing. But a hardworking man can live off the land up here, away from the crazies and the hippies and the mess in the Lower Forty-eight. I don_t have no phone, but you can write me c/o the Homer Post Office. I_ll get the letter sooner or later. 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. She returned to the empty kitchen, which smelled of coffee and cigarette smoke, and flopped into a chair and opened The Call of the Wild. Mama didn_t come out of her room for an hour. Leni hardly recognized her. She had teased and sprayed her blond hair back into a tiny bun; she wore a fitted, buttoned-up, belted avocado-green dress that covered her from throat to wrists to knees. And nylons. And old-lady shoes. _Holy cow._ _Yeah, yeah,_ Mama said, lighting up a cigarette. _I look like a PTA bake-sale organizer._ The blue cream eye shadow she wore had a little sparkle in it. She_d glued her false eyelashes on with a slightly unsteady hand and her eyeliner was thicker than usual. _Are those your only shoes?_ Leni looked down at the spatula-shaped Earth Shoes that lifted her toes the slightest bit above her heels. She had begged and begged for these shoes after Joanne Berkowitz got a pair and everyone in class oohed and aahed. _I have my red tennis shoes, but the laces broke yesterday._ _Okay. Whatever. Let_s go._ Leni followed her mother out of the house. They both climbed into the ripped-up red seats of their dented, primer-painted Mustang. The trunk was kept shut by bright yellow bungee cords. Mama flipped down the visor and checked her makeup in the mirror. (Leni was convinced that the key wouldn_t turn in the ignition if her mother didn_t check her reflection and light up a cigarette.) She applied fresh lipstick, rolled her lips, and used the triangle tip of her cuff to wipe an invisible imperfection away. When she was finally satisfied, she flipped the visor back up and started the engine. The radio came on, blaring _Midnight at the Oasis._ _Did you know there are a hundred ways to die in Alaska?_ Leni asked. _You can fall down a mountainside, or through thin ice. You can freeze or starve. You can even be eaten._ _Your father should not have given you that book._ Mama popped a tape into the player and Carole King_s voice took over. I feel the earth move _ Mama started singing and Leni joined in. For a beautiful few minutes, they were doing something ordinary, driving down I-5 toward downtown Seattle, Mama changing lanes whenever a car appeared in front of her, a cigarette captured between two fingers of the hand on the steering wheel. Two blocks later, Mama pulled up in front of the bank. Parked. She checked her makeup again and said, _Stay here,_ and got out of the car. Leni leaned over and locked the car door. She watched her mother walk to the front door. Only Mama didn_t really walk; she sashayed, her hips moving gently from side to side. She was a beautiful woman and she knew it. That was another thing Mama and Dad fought about. The way men looked at Mama. He hated it, but Leni knew Mama liked the attention (although she was careful never to admit it). Fifteen minutes later, when Mama came out of the bank, she was not sashaying. She was marching, with her hands balled into fists. She looked mad. Her delicate jaw was clenched tightly. _Son of a bitch,_ she said as she yanked open her door and got into the car. She said it again as she slammed the door shut. _What?_ Leni said. _Your dad cleared out our savings account. And they won_t give me a credit card unless your father or my father cosigns._ She lit up a cigarette. _Sweet Jesus, it_s 1974. I have a job. I make money. And a woman can_t get a credit card without a man_s signature. It_s a man_s world, baby girl._ She started the car and sped down the street, turning onto the freeway. Leni had trouble staying in her seat with all of the lane changes; she kept sliding side to side. She was so focused on staying steady that it was another few miles before she realized they had passed the hills of downtown Seattle and were now driving through a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of stately homes. _Holy moly,_ Leni said under her breath. Leni hadn_t been on this street for years. So many that she_d almost forgotten it. The houses on this street oozed privilege. Brand-new Cadillacs and Toronados and Lincoln Continentals were parked on cement driveways. Mama parked in front of a large house made of rough gray stone with diamond-patterned windows. It sat on a small rise of manicured lawn, bordered on all sides by meticulously maintained flower beds. The mailbox read: Golliher. _Wow. We haven_t been here in years,_ Leni said. _I know. You stay here._ _No way. Another girl disappeared this month. I_m not staying out here alone._ _Come here,_ Mama said, pulling a brush and two pink ribbons out of her purse. She yanked Leni close and attacked her long, copper-red hair as if it had offended her. _Ow!_ Leni yelped as Mama braided it into pigtails that arced out like spigots from each side of Leni_s head. _You are a listener today, Lenora,_ Mama said, tying bows at the end of each pigtail. _I_m too old for pigtails,_ Leni complained. _Listener,_ Mama said again. _Bring your book and sit quietly and let the adults talk._ She opened her door and got out of the car. Leni rushed to meet her on the sidewalk. Mama grabbed Leni_s hand and pulled her onto a walkway lined with sculpted hedges and up to a large wooden front door. Mama glanced at Leni, muttered, _Here goes nothing,_ and rang the bell. It made a deep clanging sound, like church bells, after which came the sound of muffled footsteps. Moments later, Leni_s grandmother opened the door. In an eggplant-colored dress, with a slim belt at her waist and three strands of pearls around her throat, she looked ready for lunch with the governor. Her chestnut-colored hair was coiled and shellacked like one of those holiday bread loaves. Her heavily made-up eyes widened. _Coraline,_ she whispered, coming forward, opening her arms. _Is Dad here?_ Mama asked. Grandmother pulled back, let her arms drop to her sides. _He_s in court today._ Mama nodded. _Can we come in?_ Leni saw how the question upset her grandmother; wrinkles settled in waves across her pale, powdered brow. _Of course. And Lenora. How lovely to see you again._ Grandmother stepped back into the shadows. She led them through a foyer, beyond which were rooms and doorways and a staircase that swirled up to a shadowy second floor. The home smelled like lemon wax and flowers. She led them into an enclosed back porch with curved glass windows and giant glass doors and plants everywhere. The furniture was all white wicker. Leni was assigned a seat at a small table overlooking the garden outside. _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. Usually, on road trips, Leni kept her nose buried in a book, but on this trip the scenery had often demanded her attention, especially through the gorgeous mountains of British Columbia. In the ever-changing landscape, she sat in the backseat of the bus, imagining herself as Frodo or Bilbo, the hero of her own quest. The VW bus thumped over something_a curb, maybe_and stuff went flying inside, dropped to the floor, rolled into the backpacks and boxes that filled the back of the bus. They screeched to a halt that smelled of burnt rubber and exhaust. Sunlight streamed through the dirty, mosquito-splattered windows. Leni climbed over the heap of their poorly rolled sleeping bags and opened the side door. Their rainbow-decorated ALASKA OR BUST sign fluttered in the cool breeze, the sides anchored in place by duct tape. Leni stepped out of the bus. _We made it, Red._ Dad came up beside her, laid a hand on her shoulder. _Land_s End. Homer, Alaska. People come here from all over to stock up on supplies. It_s kind of the last outpost of civilization. They say it_s where the land ends and the sea begins._ _Wow,_ Mama said. Even with all the pictures Leni had studied and all the articles and books she_d read, she hadn_t been prepared for the wild, spectacular beauty of Alaska. It was otherworldly somehow, magical in its vast expanse, an incomparable landscape of soaring glacier-filled white mountains that ran the length of the horizon, knife-tip points pressed high into a cloudless cornflower-blue sky. Kachemak Bay was a sheet of hammered sterling in the sunlight. Boats dotted the bay. The air smelled briny, deeply of the sea. Shorebirds floated on the wind, dipped and rose effortlessly. The famous Homer Spit she_d read about was a four-and-a-half-mile-long finger of land that crooked into the bay. A few colorful shacks perched on stilts at the water_s edge. Leni lifted her Polaroid, took pictures as fast as the developer would let her. She peeled one photograph after another out of the camera, watched the images develop in front of her eyes. The buildings sketched themselves onto the shiny white paper line by line. _Our land is over there,_ Dad said, pointing across Kachemak Bay to a necklace of lush green humps in the hazy distance. _Our new home. Even though it_s on the Kenai Peninsula, there are no roads to it. Massive glaciers and mountains cut Kaneq off from the mainland. So we have to fly or boat in._ Mama moved in beside Leni. In her low-waisted bell-bottom jeans and lace-edged tank top, with her pale face and blond hair, she looked as if she_d been sculpted from the cool colors of this place, an angel alighted on a shore that waited for her. Even her laugh seemed at home here, an echo of the bells that tinkled from wind chimes in front of the shops. A cool breeze molded her top to her braless breasts. _What do you think, baby girl?_ _It_s cool,_ Leni said. She clicked another picture, but no ink and paper could capture the grandeur of that mountain range. Dad turned to them, smiling so big it crinkled his face. _The ferry to Kaneq is tomorrow. So let_s go sightseeing a little and then get a campsite on the beach and walk around. What do you say?_ _Yay!_ Leni and Mama said together. As they drove away from the Spit and up through the town, Leni pressed her nose to the glass and stared out. The homes were an eclectic mix_big houses with shiny windows stood next to lean-tos made livable with plastic and duct tape. There were A-frames and shacks and mobile homes and trailers. Buses parked by the side of the road had curtained windows and chairs set out front. Some yards were manicured and fenced. Others were heaped with rusty junk and abandoned cars and old appliances. Most were unfinished in some way or another. Businesses operated in everything from a rusted old Airstream trailer to a brand-new log building to a roadside shack. The place was a little wild, but didn_t feel as foreign and remote as she_d imagined. Dad cranked up the radio as they turned toward a long gray beach. The tires sank into the sand; it slowed them down. All up and down the beach there were vehicles parked_trucks and vans and cars. People obviously lived on this beach in whatever shelter they could find_tents, broken-down cars, shacks built of driftwood and tarps. _They_re called Spit rats,_ Dad said, looking for a parking place. _They work in the canneries on the Spit and for charter operators._ He maneuvered into a spot between a mud-splattered Econoline van with Nebraska license plates and a lime-green Gremlin with duct-tape-and-cardboard windows. They set up their tent on the sand, tying it to the bus_s bumper. The sea-scented wind was insistent down here. The surf made a quiet shushing sound as it rolled forward and drew back. All around them people were enjoying the day, throwing Frisbees to dogs and building bonfires in the sand and putting boats in the water. The chatter of human voices felt small and transient in the bigness of the world here. They spent the day as tourists, drifting from place to place. Mama and Dad bought beers at the Salty Dawg Saloon, while Leni bought an ice-cream cone from a shack on the Spit. Then they dug through bins at the Salvation Army until they found rubber boots in all of their sizes. Leni bought fifteen old books (most of them damaged and water-stained in some way) for fifty cents. Dad bought a kite to fly at the beach, while Mama slipped Leni some cash and said, Filtered yourself some film, baby girl._ At a little restaurant at the very end of the Spit, they gathered at a picnic table and ate Dungeness crab; Leni fell in love with the sweet, salty taste of the white crabmeat dunked in melted butter. Seagulls cawed to them, floated overhead, eyeing their fries and French bread. Leni couldn_t remember a better day. A bright future had never seemed so close. The next morning, they drove the bus onto the hulky Tustamena ferry (called Tusty by the locals) that was a part of the Alaska Marine Highway. The stout old ship serviced remote towns like Homer, Kaneq, Seldovia, Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, and the wild Aleutian Islands. As soon as the bus was parked in its lane, the three of them rushed out onto the deck and headed to the railing. The area was crowded with people, mostly men with long hair and bushy beards, wearing trucker_s caps and plaid flannel shirts, puffy down vests and dirty jeans tucked into brown rubber boots. There were a few college-aged hippies here, too, recognizable by their backpacks, tie-dyed shirts, and sandals. The ferry eased away from the dock, belching smoke. Almost immediately Leni saw that the water in Kachemak Bay wasn_t as calm as it had looked from the safety of the shore. Out here, the sea was wild and white-tipped. Waves roiled and splashed the sides of the boat. It was beautiful, magical, wild. She took at least a dozen pictures and tucked them into her pocket. 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._ _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._ 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. Leni pushed through the dusty beaded curtain and went into the bedroom beyond, which was barely bigger than the stained, lumpy mattress on the floor. Here there was more junk hanging from hooks on the walls. It smelled vaguely of animal excrement and settled dust. Leni kept a hand over her mouth, afraid she_d gag as she returned to the living room (crunch, crunch on the dead bugs). _Where_s the bathroom?_ Mama gasped, headed for the front door, flung it open, and ran out. Leni followed her out onto the sagging deck and down the half-broken steps. _Over there,_ Mama said and pointed at a small wooden building surrounded by trees. A half-moon cutout on the door identified it. An outhouse. An outhouse. _Holy shit,_ Mama whispered. _No pun intended,_ Leni said. She leaned against her mother. She knew what Mama was feeling right now, so Leni had to be strong. That was how they did it, she and Mama. They took turns being strong. It was how they_d gotten through the war years. _Thanks, baby girl. I needed that._ Mama put an arm around Leni, drew her close. _We_ll be okay, won_t we? We don_t need a TV. Or running water. Or electricity._ Her voice ended on a high, shrill note that sounded desperate. _We_ll make the best of it,_ Leni said, trying to sound certain instead of worried. _And he_ll be happy this time._ _You think so?_ _I know so._ FOUR The next morning, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Leni and Mama cleaned the cabin. They swept and scrubbed and washed. It turned out that the sink in the cabin was _dry_ (there was no running water inside), so water had to be carried in by the bucketful from a stream not far away and boiled before they could drink it, cook with it, or bathe in it. There was no electricity. Propane-fueled lights swung from the rafters and sat on the plywood countertops. Beneath the house was a root cellar that was at least eight feet by ten feet, layered with sagging, dusty shelving and filled with empty, filthy mason jars and mildewed baskets. So they cleaned all of that, too, while Dad worked on clearing the driveway so they could drive the rest of their supplies onto the homestead. By the end of the second day (which, by the way, lasted forever; the sun just kept shining and shining), it was ten P.M. before they quit work. Dad built a bonfire on the beach_their beach_and they sat on fallen logs around it, eating tuna fish sandwiches and drinking warm Coca-Colas. Dad found mussels and butter clams and showed them how to crack them open. They ate each of the slimy mollusks in a single gulp. Night didn_t fall. Instead, the sky became a deep lavender-pink; there were no stars. Leni glanced across the dancing orange firelight, sparks spraying skyward, snapping like music, and saw her parents coiled together, Mama_s head on Dad_s shoulder, Dad_s hand laid lovingly on her thigh, a woolen blanket wrapped around them. Leni took a picture. At the flash and the snap-whiz of the Polaroid, Dad looked up at her and smiled. _We_re going to be happy here, Red. Can_t you feel it?_ _Yeah,_ she said, and for the first time ever, she really believed it. * * * LENI WOKE TO THE SOUND of someone_or something_pounding on the cabin door. She scrambled out of her sleeping bag, shoved it aside, toppling her stack of books in her haste. Downstairs, she heard the rustle of beads and the pounding of footsteps as Mama and Dad ran for the door. Leni dressed quickly, grabbed her camera, and hurried down the ladder. Large Marge stood in the yard with two other women; behind them, a rusted dirt bike lay on its side in the grass, and beside that was an all-terrain vehicle, loaded down with coiled chicken wire. _Hullo, Allbrights!_ Large Marge said brightly, waving her saucer-sized hand in greeting. _I brought some friends,_ she said, indicating the two women she_d brought with her. One was a wood sprite, small enough to be a kid, with long gray Silly-String-like hair; the other was tall and thin. All three of them were dressed in flannel shirts and stained jeans that were tucked into brown rubber knee-high boots. Each carried a tool_a chain saw, an ax, a hatchet. _We_ve come to offer some help getting started,_ Large Marge said. _And we brought you a few things you_ll need._ Leni saw her father frown. _You think we_re incompetent?_ _This is how we do it up here, Ernt,_ Large Marge said. _Believe me, no matter how much you_ve read and studied, you can never quite prepare for your first Alaskan winter._ The wood sprite came forward. She was thin and small, with a nose sharp enough to slice bread. Leather gloves stuck out of her shirt pocket. For as slight as she was, she exuded an air of competence. _I_m Natalie Watkins. Large Marge told me ya_all don_t know much about life up here. I was the same way ten years ago. I followed a man up here. Classic story. I lost the man and found a life. Got my own fishing boat now. So I get the dream that brings you here, but that_s not enough. You_re going to have to learn fast._ Natalie put on her yellow gloves. _I never found another man worth having. You know what they say about finding a man in Alaska_the odds are good, but the goods are odd._ The taller woman had a beige braid that fell almost to her waist, and eyes so pale they seemed to take their color from the faded sky. _Welcome to Kaneq. I_m Geneva Walker. Gen. Genny. The Generator. I_ll answer to almost anything._ She smiled, revealing dimples. _My family is from Fairbanks, but I fell in love with my husband_s land, so here is where I_ve stayed. I_ve been here for twenty years._ _You need a greenhouse and a cache at the very least,_ Large Marge said. _Old Bo had big plans for this place when he bought it. But Bo went off to war _ and he was a great one for getting a job half done._ _A cash?_ Dad said. Large Marge nodded brusquely. _A cache is a small building on stilts. Your meat goes there, so the bears can_t get at it. This time of year, the bears are hungry._ _Come on, Ernt,_ Natalie said, reaching down for the chain saw at her feet. _I brought a portable mill. You cut down the trees and I_ll saw _em into planks. First things first, righto?_ Dad went back into the cabin, put on his down vest, and headed into the forest with Natalie. Soon, Leni heard the whir of a chain saw and the thunking of an ax into wood. _I_ll get started on the greenhouse,_ Geneva said. _I imagine Bo left a tangle of PVC pipe somewhere__ Large Marge walked up to Leni and Mama. A breeze picked up; it turned cold in the blink of an eye. Mama crossed her arms. She had to be cold, standing there in a Grateful Dead T-shirt and bell-bottom jeans. A mosquito landed on her cheek. She slapped it away in a smear of blood. _Our mosquitoes are bad,_ Large Marge said. _I_ll bring you some repellant next time I come to visit._ _How long have you lived here?_ Mama asked. _Ten of the best years of my life,_ Large Marge answered. _Life in the bush is hard work, but you can_t beat the taste of salmon you caught in the morning, drizzled with butter you churned from your own fresh cream. Up here, there_s no one to tell you what to do or how to do it. We each survive our own way. If you_re tough enough, it_s heaven on earth._ Leni stared up at the big, rough-looking woman in a kind of awe. She_d never seen a woman so tall or strong-looking. Large Marge looked like she could fell a full-grown cedar tree and sling it over her shoulder and keep going. _We needed a fresh start,_ Mama said, surprising Leni. It was the kind of rock-bottom truth Mama tended to avoid. _He was in _Nam?_ _POW. How did you know?_ _He has the look. And, well _ Bo left you this place._ Large Marge glanced left, to where Dad and Natalie were cutting down trees. _Is he mean?_ _N-no,_ Mama said. _Of course not._ _Flashbacks? Nightmares?_ _He hasn_t had one since we headed north._ _You_re an optimist,_ Large Marge said. _That_ll be good for a start. Well. You_d best change your shirt, Cora. The bugs are going to go mad for all that bare white skin._ Mama nodded and turned back for the cabin. _And you,_ Large Marge said. _What_s your story, missy?_ _I don_t have a story._ _Everyone has a story. Maybe yours just starts up here._ _Maybe._ _What can you do?_ Leni shrugged. _I read and take pictures._ She indicated the camera that hung around her neck. _Not much that will do us any good._ _Then you_ll learn,_ Large Marge said. She moved closer, leaned down to whisper conspiratorially into Leni_s ear. _This place is magic, kiddo. You just have to open yourself up to it. You_ll see what I mean. But it_s treacherous, too, and don_t you forget that. I think it was Jack London who said there were a thousand ways to die in Alaska. Be on the alert._ _For what?_ _Danger._ _Where will it come from? The weather? Bears? Wolves? What else?_ Large Marge glanced across the yard again to where Dad and Natalie were felling trees. _It can come from anywhere. The weather and the isolation makes some people crazy._ Before Leni could ask another question, Mama came back, dressed for work in jeans and a sweatshirt. _Cora, can you make coffee?_ Large Marge asked. Mama laughed and hip-bumped Leni. _Well, now, Large Marge, it seems you_ve found the one thing I can do._ * * * LARGE MARGE AND NATALIE and Geneva worked all day alongside Leni and her parents. The Alaskans labored in silence, communicating with grunts and nods and pointed fingers. Natalie put a chain saw in a cage thing and milled the big logs Dad had cut down into boards all by herself. Each fallen tree revealed another slice of sunlight. Geneva taught Leni how to saw wood and hammer nails and build raised vegetable beds. Together they started the PVC pipe-and-plank structure that would become a greenhouse. Leni helped Geneva carry a huge, heavy roll of plastic sheeting that they found in the broken-down chicken coop. They dropped it onto the ground. _Sheesh,_ Leni said. She was breathing hard. Sweat sheened her forehead and made her frizzy hair hang limply on either side of her flushed face. But the skeleton of a garden gave her a sense of pride, of purpose. She actually looked forward to planting the vegetables that would be their food. As they worked, Geneva talked about what vegetables to grow and how to harvest them and how important they would be when winter came. Winter was a word these Alaskans said a lot. It might be only May, almost summer, but the Alaskans were already focused on winter. _Take a break, kiddo,_ Geneva finally said, pushing to her feet. _I need to use the outhouse._ Leni staggered out of the greenhouse shell and found her mother standing alone, a cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other. _I feel like we_ve fallen down the rabbit hole,_ Mama said. Beside her, the unsteady card table from the cabin held the remnants of lunch_Mama had made a stack of pan biscuits and fried up some bologna. The air smelled of wood smoke and cigarette smoke and fresh-cut wood. It sounded of chain saws whirring, boards thumping onto piles, nails being hammered. Leni saw Large Marge walking toward them. She looked tired and sweaty, but was smiling. _I don_t suppose I could have a sip of that coffee?_ Mama handed Large Marge her cup. The three of them stood there, gazing out at the homestead that was changing before their eyes. _Your Ernt is a good worker,_ Large Marge said. _He_s got some skills. Said his dad was a rancher._ _Uh-huh,_ Mama said. _Montana._ _That_s good news. I can sell you a breeding pair of goats as soon as you get the pens repaired. I_ll give you a good price. They_ll be good for milk and cheese. And you can learn a shitload from Mother Earth News magazine. I_ll bring you over a stack._ _Thank you,_ Mama said. _Geneva said Leni was a joy to work with. That_s good._ She patted Leni so hard she stumbled forward. _But, Cora, I_ve looked through your supplies. I hope you don_t mind. You don_t have nearly enough. How are your finances?_ _Things are tight._ Large Marge nodded. Her face settled into grim lines. _Can you shoot?_ Mama laughed. Large Marge didn_t smile. _I mean it, Cora. Can you shoot?_ _A gun?_ Mama asked. _Yeah. A gun,_ Large Marge said. Mama_s laughter died. _No._ She stubbed out her cigarette on a rock. _Well. You aren_t the first cheechakos to come up here with a dream and a poor plan._ _Cheechako?_ Leni asked. _Tenderfoot. Alaska isn_t about who you were when you headed this way. It_s about who you become. You are out here in the wild, girls. That isn_t some fable or fairy tale. It_s real. Hard. Winter will be here soon, and believe me, it_s not like any winter you_ve ever experienced. It will cull the herd, and fast. You need to know how to survive. You need to know how to shoot and kill to feed yourselves and keep yourselves safe. You are not the top of the food chain here._ Natalie and Dad walked toward them. Natalie was carrying the chain saw and wiping her sweaty forehead with a bunched-up bandanna. She was such a small woman, barely taller than Leni; it seemed impossible that she could carry that heavy chain saw around. At Mama_s side, she stopped, rested the rounded tip of the chain saw on the toe of her rubber boot. _Well. I got to feed my animals. I gave Ernt a good drawing for the cache._ Geneva strode toward them. Black dirt colored her hair, her face, splattered across her shirtfront. _Leni has the right work attitude. Good for you, parents._ Dad laid an arm along Mama_s shoulders. _I can_t thank you ladies enough,_ he said. _Yes. Your help means the world to us,_ Mama said. Natalie_s smile gave her an elfin look. _Our pleasure, Cora. You remember. Tonight you lock your door when you go to bed. Don_t come out till morning. If you need a chamber pot, get one from Large Marge at the Trading Post._ Leni knew her mouth gaped just a little. They wanted her to pee in a bucket? _Bears are dangerous this time of year. Black bears especially. They_ll attack sometimes just _cause they can,_ Large Marge said. _And there are wolves and moose and God knows what else._ She took the chain saw from Natalie and slung it over her shoulder as if it were a stick of balsam wood. _There_s no police up here and no telephone except in town, so Ernt, you teach your women to shoot, and do it fast. I_ll give you a list of the minimum supplies you_ll need before September. You_ll need to bag a moose for sure this fall. It_s better to shoot _em in season, but _ you know, what matters is meat in the freezer._ _We don_t have a freezer,_ Leni pointed out. The women laughed at that, for some reason. Dad nodded solemnly. _Gotcha._ _Okay. See you later,_ the women said in unison. Waving, they walked toward their vehicles and mounted up, and then drove down the trail that led out to the main road. In moments they were gone. In the silence that followed, a cold breeze ruffled the treetops above them. An eagle flew overhead, a huge silver fish struggling in its talons_ grip. Leni saw a dog collar hanging from the top branches of an evergreen. An eagle must have picked up a small dog and carried it away. Could an eagle carry off a girl who was skinny as a beanpole? Be careful. Learn to shoot a gun. They lived on a piece of land that couldn_t be accessed by water at low tide, on a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream. For the first time, she really understood what her dad had been saying. Remote. * * * LENI WOKE TO THE SMELL of frying bacon. When she sat up, pain radiated down her arms and up her legs. She hurt everywhere. Mosquito bites made her skin itch. Five days (and up here the days were endless, sunlight lasted until almost midnight) of hard labor had revealed muscles she_d never known she had before. She climbed out of her sleeping bag and pulled on her hip-hugger jeans. (She_d slept in her sweatshirt and socks.) The inside of her mouth tasted terrible. She_d forgotten to brush her teeth last night. Already she was beginning to conserve water that didn_t flow through faucets but had to be hauled inside by the bucketful. She climbed down the ladder. Mama was in the kitchen alcove, at the camp stove, pouring oatmeal into a pot of boiling water. Bacon sizzled and snapped in one of the black cast-iron skillets they_d found hanging from a hook. Leni heard the distant pounding of a hammer. Already that rhythmic beat had become the soundtrack of their lives. Dad worked from sunup to sundown, which was a long day. He_d already repaired the chicken coop and fixed the goat pens. _I have to go to the bathroom,_ she said. _Fun,_ Mama said. Leni put on her wafflestompers, and stepped outside into a blue-skied day. The colors were so vibrant, the world hardly looked real: green, swaying grass in the clearing, purple wildflowers, the gray zigzag steps leading to a blue sea that breathed in and out along the pebbled shore. Beyond it all, a fjord of impossible grandeur, sculpted eons ago by glaciers. She wanted to go back for her Polaroid and take pictures of the yard_again_but already she was learning that she needed to conserve her film. Getting more would not be an easy thing up here. The outhouse was positioned on the bluff, in a stand of thin-trunked spruce, overlooking the rocky coastline. On the toilet lid, someone had painted I never promised you a rose garden, and applied flower decals. She lifted the lid, using her sleeve to protect her fingers, and carefully averted her gaze from the hole as she sat down. When she finished, Leni headed back to the cabin. A bald eagle soared overhead, gliding in a circle and then swooping up, flying away. She saw a fish carcass hanging high in one of the trees, catching the sunlight like a Christmas ornament. An eagle must have dropped it there, after picking all the meat off the bones. Off to her right, the cache was half finished_four skinned log braces that led to a three-foot-by-three-foot wooden platform twelve feet in the air. Below it were six empty raised beds covered by a hoop-skirt-like structure of pipe and wood that awaited plastic covering to become a greenhouse. _Leni!_ her dad shouted, coming toward her in that exuberant, ground-covering walk of his. His hair was a dirty, dusty mess and his clothes were covered with oil spots and his hands were grubby. Pink sawdust peppered his face and hair. He waved at her, smiling. The joy on his face brought her to a complete stop. She couldn_t remember the last time she_d seen him so happy. _By God, it_s beautiful here,_ he said. Wiping his hands on a red bandanna he kept wadded up in his jeans pocket, he looped an arm around her shoulder and walked with her into the cabin. Mama was just serving breakfast. The card table was rickety as heck, so they stood in the living room, eating oatmeal from their metal camp bowls. Dad shoveled a spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth at the same time he was chewing bacon. Lately, eating seemed to Dad to be a waste of time. There was so much to do outside. Immediately after breakfast, Leni and Mama returned to cleaning the cabin. Already they had removed layers of dust and dirt and dead bugs. Each of the rugs had been hung over the deck rails and beaten with brooms that looked as dirty as the rugs themselves. Mama took down the curtains and carried them out to one of the big oil drums in the yard. After Leni hauled water up from the river, they filled the antique washing machine with water and laundry soap and Leni stood there for an hour, sweating in the sunshine, stirring the curtains in the soapy water. Then she carried the heavy, dripping mass of fabric to a barrel full of clean water for rinsing. Now she was feeding the soaking wet curtains through the old-fashioned wringer. The work was hard, backbreaking, exhausting. She could hear Mama in the yard not far away, singing as she washed another load of clothes in the sudsy water. Leni heard an engine. She stood up, rubbing an ache out of her lower back. She heard the crunch of rocks, the splash of mud _ and the old VW bus emerged from the trees and stopped in the yard. The road was finally cleared! Dad honked the horn. Birds flew up from the trees, squawked in irritation. Mama stopped stirring the laundry and looked up. The bandanna that covered her blond hair was wet with sweat. Mosquito bites created a red lattice pattern on her pale cheeks. She tented a hand across her eyes. _You did it!_ she yelled. Dad stepped out of the bus and waved them over. _Enough work, Allbrights. Let_s go for a drive._ Leni squealed in delight. She was more than ready to take a break from this back-wrenching work. Scooping up the wrung-out fabric, she carried it over to the sagging clothesline Mama had set up between two trees and hung the curtains to dry. Leni and Mama were both laughing as they climbed into the old bus. They had carried all of their supplies out of the bus already (several trips back and forth, carrying heavy packs); only a few magazines and empty Coke cans were left on the seats. Dad battled the loose gearshift, shoved it into first gear. The bus made a sound like an old man coughing and shuddered, metal creaking, tires thumping in pits, as it circled the grassy yard. Leni could now see the driveway Dad had cleared. _It was already there,_ he said, yelling to be heard over the engine_s whine. _A bunch of willows had grown up. I just had to clear it._ It was rough going, a track barely wider than the bus. Branches snapped into the windshield, scraped along the bus_s sides. Their banner was ripped off, flew up, stuck in the trees. The driveway was more pits and boulders than dirt; the old bus was constantly rising and thumping down. Tires crunched slowly over exposed roots and rocky outcroppings as they drove into the dark shadows cast by the trees. At the end of their driveway, they drove into the sunlight and onto a real dirt road. They rumbled past the Walker metal gate and the Birdsall sign. Leni leaned forward, excited to see the marshes and airfields that signaled the outskirts of Kaneq. Town! Only a few days ago it had seemed worse than an outpost, but it didn_t take much time in the Alaskan bush to reassess one_s opinion. Kaneq had a store. Leni could get some film and maybe a candy bar. _Hang on,_ Dad said as he turned left into the trees. _Where are we going?_ Mama asked. _To tell Bo Harlan_s family thank you. I_ve brought his father a half gallon of whiskey._ Leni stared out the dirty window. Dust turned the view into a haze. For miles there was nothing but trees and bumps. Every now and then a vehicle was rotting at the side of the road in the tall grass. There were no houses or mailboxes, just dirt trails here and there that veered off into the trees. If people lived out here, they didn_t want you to find them. The road was rough: two beaten-down tire tracks on rocky, uneven ground. As they climbed in elevation, the trees grew thicker, began to block out more and more of the sun. They saw the first sign about three miles in: NO TRESPASSING. TURN AROUND. YES, WE MEAN YOU. PROPERTY PROTECTED BY DOGS AND GUNS. HIPPIES GO HOME. The road ended at the crest of a hill with a sign that read, TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN. _Jesus,_ Mama said. _Are you sure we_re in the right place?_ A man with a rifle appeared in front of them, stood with his legs in a wide stance. He had frizzy brown hair that puffed out from beneath a dirty trucker_s cap. _Who are you? What do you want?_ _I think we should turn around,_ Mama said. Dad leaned his head out the window. _We_re here to see Earl Harlan. I was a friend of Bo_s._ The man frowned, then nodded and stepped aside. _I don_t know, Ernt,_ Mama said. _This doesn_t feel right._ Dad worked the gearshift. The old bus grumbled and rolled forward, jouncing over rocks and hillocks. They drove into a wide, flat patch of muddy ground studded here and there with clumps of yellowing grass. Three houses bordered the field. Well, shacks, really. They looked to have been made of whatever was handy_sheets of plywood, corrugated plastic, skinned logs. A school bus with curtains in the windows sat on tireless rims, hip-deep in the mud. Several scrawny dogs were chained up, straining at their leashes, snarling and barking. Fire barrels belched smoke that had a noxious, rubbery smell. People dressed in dirty clothes stepped out of the cabins and shacks. Men with ponytails and buzz cuts and women wearing cowboy hats. All wore guns or knives in sheaths at their waists. Directly in front of them, from a log cabin with a slanted roof, a white-haired man emerged carrying an antique-looking pistol. He was wiry thin, with a long white beard and a toothpick chomped down tight in his mouth. He stepped down into the muddy yard. The dogs went crazy at his appearance, growled and snapped and groveled. A few jumped on top of their houses and kept barking. The old man pointed his gun at their bus. Dad reached for the door handle. _Don_t get out,_ Mama said, grabbing his arm. Dad pulled free of Mama_s grasp. He grabbed the half gallon of whiskey he_d brought and opened the door and stepped down into the mud. He left the bus door open behind him. _Who are you?_ the white-haired man yelled, the toothpick bobbing up and down. _Ernt Allbright, sir._ The man lowered his weapon. _Ernt? It_s you? I_m Earl, Bo_s daddy._ _It_s me, sir._ _Well, slap me silly. Who you got with ya?_ Dad turned and waved at Leni and Mama to get out of the bus. _Yeah. This seems like a good idea,_ Mama said as she opened her door. Leni followed. She stepped down into the mud, heard it squelch up around her wafflestompers. Around the compound, people were stopped, staring. Dad pulled them in close. _This is my wife, Cora, and my daughter, Leni. Girls, this is Bo_s dad, Earl._ _Folks call me Mad Earl,_ the old guy said. He shook their hands, then swiped the bottle of whiskey from Dad and led them into his cabin. _Come in. Come in._ Leni had to force herself to enter the small, shadowy interior. It smelled like sweat and mildew. The walls were lined with supplies_food and gallons of water and cases of beer, boxes full of canned goods, heaps of sleeping bags. Along one whole wall: weapons. Guns and knives and boxes of ammunition. Old-fashioned crossbows hung from hooks alongside maces. Mad Earl plopped onto a chair made of Blazo box slats. He cracked open the whiskey and lifted the bottle to his mouth, drinking deeply. Then he handed the jug to Dad, who drank for a long time before he handed the bottle back to Mad Earl. Mama bent down, picked an old gas mask up from a box full of them. _Y-you collect war memorabilia?_ she said uneasily. Mad Earl took another drink, draining an amazing amount of whiskey in a single gulp. _Nope. That ain_t there for looks. The world_s gone mad. A man has to protect himself. I came up here in _62. The Lower Forty-eight was already a mess. Commies everywhere. The Cuban Missile Crisis scarin_ the shit outta people. Bomb shelters being built in backyards. I brung my family up here. We had nothing but a gun and a bag of brown rice. Figured we could live in the bush and stay safe and survive the nuclear winter that was comin_._ He took another drink, leaned forward. _It ain_t getting better down there. It_s gettin_ worse. What they done to the economy _ to our poor boys who went off to war. It ain_t my America anymore._ _I_ve been saying that for years,_ Dad said. There was a look on his face Leni had never seen before. A kind of awe. As if he_d been waiting a long time to hear those words. _Down there,_ Mad Earl went on, _Outside, people are standing in line for gas while OPEC laughs all the way to the bank. And you think the good ole USSR forgot about us after Cuba? Think again. We got Negroes calling themselves Black Panthers and raisin_ their fists at us, and illegal immigrants stealing our jobs. So what do people do? They protest. They sit down. They throw bombs at empty post office buildings. They carry signs and march down streets. Well. Not me. I got a plan._ Dad leaned forward. His eyes were shiny. _What is it?_ _We_re prepared up here. We_ve got guns, gas masks, arrows, ammunition. We_re ready._ Mama said, _Surely you don_t really believe__ _Oh, I do,_ Mad Earl said. _The white man is losing out and war is coming._ He looked at Dad. _You know what I mean, don_t you, Allbright?_ _Of course I know. We all do. How many in your group?_ Dad asked. Mad Earl took a long drink, then wiped the dribble from his spotted lips. His rheumy eyes narrowed, moved from Leni to Mama. _Well. It_s just our family, but we take it seriously. And we don_t talk about it to strangers. Last thing we want is people knowing where we are when TSHTF._ There was a knock at the door. At Mad Earl_s _Come in,_ the door opened to reveal a small, wiry-looking woman in camo pants and a yellow smiley-face T-shirt. Although she had to be almost forty, she wore her hair in pigtails. The man beside her was big as a house, with a long brown ponytail and bangs that strafed his eyes. She held a stack of Tupperware in her arms and had a pistol holstered at her hip. _Don_t let my daddy scare the bejesus out of you,_ the woman said, smiling brightly. As she stepped farther into the cabin, a child sidled along beside her, a girl of about four who was barefoot and dirty-faced. _I_m Thelma Schill, Earl_s daughter. Bo was my big brother. This is my husband, Ted. This is Marybet. We call her Moppet._ Thelma placed a hand on the girl_s head. _I_m Cora,_ Mama said, extending her hand. _That_s Leni._ Leni smiled hesitantly. Thelma_s husband, Ted, stared at her through squinty eyes. Thelma_s smile was warm, genuine. _You going to school on Monday, Leni?_ _There_s a school?_ Leni said. __Course. It isn_t big, but I think you_ll make friends. Kids come from as far away as Bear Cove. I think there_s another week of classes. School ends early up here so kids can work._ _Where_s the school?_ Mama asked. _On Alpine Street, just behind the saloon, at the base of Church Hill. You can_t miss it. Monday morning at nine._ _We_ll be there,_ Mama said, shooting Leni a smile. _Good. We are so happy to welcome you here, Cora and Ernt and Leni._ Thelma faced them, smiling. _Bo wrote us plenty from _Nam. You meant so much to him. Everyone wants to meet you all._ She crossed the room, took Ernt by the arm, and led him out of the cabin. Leni and Mama followed behind, heard Mad Earl shuffle to his feet, grumbling about Thelma taking over. Outside, a ragged cluster of people_men, women, children, young adults_stood waiting, each holding something. _I_m Clyde,_ said a man with a Santa beard and eyebrows like awnings. _Bo_s younger brother._ He held out a chain saw, its blade sheathed in bright orange plastic. _I just sharpened the chain._ A woman and two young men, each about twenty, stepped forward, along with two dirty-faced girls who were probably seven or eight. _This here_s Donna, my wife, and the twins, Darryl and Dave, and our daughters, Agnes and Marthe._ There weren_t many of them, but they were friendly and welcoming. Each person they met gave them a gift: a hacksaw, a coil of rope, sheets of heavy plastic, rolls of duct tape, a bright silver knife called an ulu that was shaped like a fan. There was no one Leni_s age. The one teenager_Axle, who was sixteen_barely glanced at Leni. He stood off by himself, throwing knives at a tree trunk. He had long dirty black hair and gray eyes. _You_ll need to get a garden going fast,_ Thelma said as the men drifted toward one of the burn barrels and began passing the whiskey bottle from man to man. _Weather_s unpredictable up here. Some years June is spring, July is summer, August is autumn, and everything else is winter._ Thelma led Leni and Mama to a large garden. A fence made of sagging fishing nets bound to metal stakes kept out animals. Most of the vegetables were small, clumps of green on the mounds of black earth. Mats of something gross_it looked like kelp_lay drying at the base of the nets, alongside heaps of stinking fish carcasses and eggshells and coffee grounds. _You know how to garden?_ Thelma asked. _I can tell a ripe melon,_ Mama said. _I_d be happy to teach you. Up here the growing season is short, so we have to really work it._ She grabbed a dented metal bucket from the dirt beside her. _I have some potatoes and onions I can spare. There_s still time for them. I can give you a bunch of carrot starts. And I can spare a few live chickens._ _Oh, really, you shouldn_t__ _Believe me, Cora, you have no idea how long the winter will be and how soon it will be here. It_s one thing up here for men_a lot of them are going to leave for work on that new pipeline. You and me_mothers_we stay on the homestead and keep our children alive and well. It_s not always easy; the way we do it is together. We help whenever we can. We trade. Tomorrow I_ll show you how to can salmon. You need to start filling your root cellar with food for winter now._ _You_re scaring me,_ Mama said. Thelma touched Mama_s arm. _I remember when we first came up here from Kansas City. My mom did nothing but cry. She died the second winter here. I still think she willed herself to die. Just couldn_t stand the dark or the cold. A woman has to be tough as steel up here, Cora. You can_t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to be willing to save yourselves. And you have to learn fast. In Alaska you can make one mistake. One. The second one will kill you._ _I don_t think we_re well prepared,_ Mama said. _Maybe we_ve already made a mistake by coming here._ _I_ll help you,_ Thelma promised. _We all will._ FIVE The endless daylight rewound Leni_s internal clock, made her feel strangely out of step with the universe, as if even time_the one thing you could count on_was different in Alaska. It was daylight when she went to bed and daylight when she woke up. Now it was Monday morning. She stood at the window, staring at the newly clean glass, trying to make out her reflection. A useless effort. There was just too much light. She could only see a ghost of herself, but she knew she didn_t look good, even for Alaska. First and always was her hair. Long and untamed and red. And there was the milky skin that was standard issue with the hair, and freckles like red-pepper flakes across her nose. The best of her features_her blue-green eyes_were not enhanced by cinnamon-colored lashes. Mama came up behind her, placed her hands on Leni_s shoulders. _You are beautiful and you will make friends at this new school._ Leni wanted to take comfort from the familiar words, but how often had they proven untrue? She_d been the new girl at school a lot of times, and she_d never yet found a place she fit in. Something was always wrong about her on the first day_her hair, her clothes, her shoes. First impressions mattered in junior high. She had learned that lesson the hard way. It was hard to recover from a fashion error with thirteen-year-old girls. _I_m probably the only girl in the whole school,_ she said with a dramatic sigh. She didn_t want to hope for the best; dashed hopes were worse than no hopes at all. _Certainly you_ll be the prettiest,_ Mama said, tucking the hair behind Leni_s ear with a gentleness that reminded Leni that whatever happened, she wasn_t ever really alone. She had her mama. The cabin door opened, bringing in a whoosh of cold air. Dad came in carrying a pair of dead mallards, their broken necks hanging, beaks banging into his thigh. He set his gun in the rack by the door and laid his kill on the wooden counter by the dry sink. _Ted took me to his blind before dawn. We have duck for dinner._ He slipped in beside Mama and kissed the side of her neck. Mama swatted him away, laughing. _You want coffee?_ When Mama went into the kitchen, Dad turned to Leni. _You look glum for a girl going off to school._ _I_m fine._ _Maybe I know the problem,_ Dad said. _I doubt it,_ she said, sounding as dispirited as she felt. _Let me see,_ Dad said, frowning in an exaggerated way. He left her standing there and went into his bedroom. Moments later, he came out carrying a black trash bag, which he set on the table. _Maybe this will help._ Yeah. What she needed was garbage. _Open it,_ Dad said. Leni reluctantly ripped the bag open. Inside, she found a pair of rust-and-black-striped bell-bottoms and a fuzzy ivory-colored wool fisherman_s sweater that looked like it used to be a man_s size and someone had shrunk it. Oh, my God. Leni might not know much about fashion, but these were definitely boy_s pants, and the sweater _ she didn_t think it had been in style in any year of her life. Leni caught Mama_s look. They both knew how hard he had tried. And how profoundly he_d failed. In Seattle, an outfit like this was social suicide. _Leni?_ Dad said, his face falling in disappointment. She forced a smile. _It_s perfect, Dad. Thanks._ He sighed and smiled. _Oh. Good. I spent a long time picking through the bins._ Salvation Army. So he had planned ahead, thought of her the other day when they were in Homer. It made the ugly clothes almost beautiful. _Put them on,_ Dad said. Leni managed a smile. She went into her parents_ bedroom and changed her clothes. The Irish sweater was too small, the wool so thick she could hardly bend her arms. _You look gorgeous,_ Mama said. She tried to smile. Mama came forward with a metal Winnie the Pooh lunch box. _Thelma thought you_d like this._ And with that, Leni_s social fate was sealed, but there was nothing she could do about it. _Well,_ she said to her dad, _we better move it. I don_t want to be late._ Mama hugged her fiercely, whispered, _Good luck._ Outside, Leni climbed into the passenger seat of the VW bus and they were off, bouncing down the bumpy trail, turning toward town, onto the main road, rumbling past the field that called itself an airstrip. At the bridge, Leni yelled, _Stop!_ Dad hit the brakes and turned to her. _What?_ _Can I walk from here?_ He gave her a disappointed look. _Really?_ She was too nervous to smooth his ruffled feelings. One thing that was true of every school she_d been at was this: once you hit junior high, parents were to be absent. The chances of them embarrassing you were sky-high. _I_m thirteen and this is Alaska, where we_re supposed to be tough,_ Leni said. _Come on, Dad. Pleeease._ _Okay. I_ll do it for you._ She got out of the bus and walked alone through town, past a man sitting Indian-style on the side of the road, with a goose in his lap. She heard him say, No way, Matilda, to the bird as she hurried past the dirty tent that housed the fishing-charter service. The one-room schoolhouse sat on a weedy lot behind town. Green and yellow marshes spread out behind it, a river meandering in a sloping S-shape through the tall grass. The school was in an A-frame building made of skinned logs, with a steeply pitched metal roof. At the open door, Leni paused and peered inside. The room was bigger than it looked from the outside; at least fourteen-by-fourteen. There was a chalkboard on the back wall with the words SEWARD_S FOLLY written in capital letters. At the front of the room, a Native woman stood behind a big desk, facing the door. She was solid-looking, with broad shoulders and big, capable hands. Long black hair, twined into two sloppy braids, framed a face the color of light coffee. Tattooed black lines ran in vertical stripes from her lower lip to her chin. She wore faded Levi_s tucked into rubber boots, a man_s flannel shirt, and a fringed suede vest. She saw Leni and yelled, _Hello! Welcome!_ The kids in the classroom turned in a screeching of chairs. There were six students. Two younger kids sat in the front row. Girls. She recognized them from Mad Earl_s compound: Marthe and Agnes. She also recognized that sour-looking teenage boy, Axle. There were two giggling Native girls who looked to be about eight or nine, sitting at desks pushed together; each was wearing a wilted dandelion crown. On the right side of the room a pair of desks were pushed together, side to side, facing the blackboard. One was empty; at the other sat a scrawny boy about her age with shoulder-length blond hair. He was the only student who seemed interested in her. He had stayed turned around in his seat and was still staring at her. _I_m Tica Rhodes,_ the teacher said. _My husband and I live in Bear Cove, so sometimes I can_t get here in winter, but I do my best. That_s what I expect of my students, too._ She smiled. _And you_re Lenora Allbright. Thelma told me to expect you._ _Leni._ _You_re what, eleven?_ Ms. Rhodes said, studying Leni. _Thirteen,_ Leni said, feeling her cheeks heat up. If only she would start developing boobs. Ms. Rhodes nodded. _Perfect. Matthew is thirteen, too. Go take a seat over there._ She pointed to the boy with the blond hair. _Go on._ Leni_s grip on her stupid Winnie the Pooh lunch box was so tight her fingers hurt. _H-hi,_ she said to Axle as she passed his desk. He gave her a who cares? glance and went back to drawing something that looked like an alien with massive boobs on his Pee-Chee folder. She slid bumpily into the seat beside the thirteen-year-old boy. _Hey,_ she mumbled, glancing sideways. He grinned, showing off a mouth full of crooked teeth. _Thank Christ,_ he said, shoving the hair out of his face. _I thought I was going to have to sit with Axle for the rest of the year. I think the kid is going to end up in prison._ Leni laughed in spite of herself. _Where are you from?_ he asked. Leni never knew how to answer that question. It implied a permanence, a Before that had never existed for her. She_d never thought of any place as home. _My last school was near Seattle._ _You must feel like you_ve fallen into Mordor._ _You read Lord of the Rings?_ _I know. Hopelessly uncool. It_s Alaska, though. The winters are dark as shit and we don_t have TV. Unlike my dad, I can_t spend hours listening to old people yammering on the ham radio._ Leni felt the start of an emotion so new she couldn_t categorize it. _I love Tolkien,_ she said quietly. It felt oddly freeing to be honest with someone. Most of the kids at her last school had cared more about movies and music than books. _And Herbert._ _Dune was amazing. _Fear is the mind-killer._ It_s so true, man._ _And Stranger in a Strange Land. That_s kinda how I feel here._ _You should. Nothing is normal in the last frontier. There_s a town up north that has a dog for a mayor._ _No way._ _True. A malamute. They voted him in._ Matthew laid a hand to his chest. _You can_t make this crap up._ _I saw a man sitting with a goose in his lap on the way here. He was talking to the bird, I think._ _That_s Crazy Pete and Matilda. They_re married._ Leni laughed out loud. _You have a weird laugh._ Leni felt her cheeks heat up in embarrassment. No one had ever told her that before. Was it true? What did she sound like? Oh, God. _I_I_m sorry. I don_t know why I said that. My social skills blow. You_re the first girl my age I_ve talked to in a while. I mean. You_re pretty. That_s all. I_m blabbing, aren_t I? You_re probably going to run away, screaming, and ask to sit next to Axle the soon-to-be murderer and it will be an improvement. Okay. I_m shutting up now._ Leni hadn_t heard anything after _pretty._ She tried to tell herself it meant nothing. But when Matthew looked at her, she felt a flutter of possibility. She thought: We could be friends. And not ride-the-bus or eat-at-the-same-table friends. Friends. The kind who had real things in common. Like Sam and Frodo, Anne and Diana, Ponyboy and Johnny. She closed her eyes for a split second, imagining it. They could laugh and talk and_ _Leni?_ he said. _Leni?_ Oh, my God. He_d said her name twice. _Yeah. I get it. I space out all the time. My mom says it_s what happens when you live in your own head with a bunch of made-up people. Then again, she_s been reading Another Roadside Attraction since Christmas._ _I do that,_ Leni confessed. _Sometimes I just _ spaz out._ He shrugged, as if to imply that there was nothing wrong with her. _Hey, have you heard about the barbecue tonight?_ * * * SO WHAT ABOUT THE PARTY? Can you come? Leni kept replaying it over and over again as she waited for her dad to pick her up from school. She_d wanted to say yes and mean it. She wanted it more than she_d wanted anything in a while. But her parents weren_t community barbecue people. Community anything, really. It wasn_t who the Allbrights were. The families in their old neighborhood used to have all kinds of gatherings: backyard barbecues where the dads wore V-necks and drank Scotch and flipped burgers, and the women smoked cigarettes and sipped martinis and carried trays of bacon-wrapped chicken livers while kids screamed and ran around. She knew this because once she_d peered over the neighbors_ fence and seen all of it_hula hoops and Slip _N Slides and sprinklers. _So, Red, how was school?_ Dad asked when Leni climbed into the VW bus and slammed the door. He was the last parent to arrive. _We learned about the U.S. buying Alaska from Russia. And about Mount Alyeska in the Chugach Mountain Range._ He grunted acceptance of that and put the vehicle in gear. Leni thought about how to say what she wanted to say. There_s a boy my age in class. He_s our neighbor. No. Mentioning a boy was the wrong tack. Our neighbors are hosting a barbecue and invited us. But Dad hated that kind of thing, or he used to, in all the other places they_d lived. They rattled down the dirt road, dust billowing up on either side, and turned into their driveway. At home, they discovered a crowd of people in the yard. Most of the Harlan clan was there, working. They moved in wordless harmony, coming together and drifting apart like dancers. Clyde had that cage thing and was milling logs into boards. Ted was finishing the cache, pounding boards to the side stanchions. Donna was stacking firewood. _Our friends showed up at noon to help us prepare for winter,_ Dad said. _No. They_re better than friends, Red. They_re comrades._ Comrades? Leni frowned. Were they communists now? She was pretty sure her dad hated the commies as much as he hated the Man and hippies. _This is what the world should be, Red. People helping each other instead of killing their mothers for a little bread._ Leni couldn_t help noticing that almost everyone had a gun holstered at his or her waist. Dad opened the bus door. _We_re all going to Sterling this weekend, to fish for salmon at Farmer_s Hole on the Kenai River. Apparently these king salmon are a bitch to land._ He stepped out into the soggy ground. Mad Earl waved a gloved hand at her dad, who immediately bounded off in the old man_s direction. Leni walked past a new structure that was about nine feet high by four feet wide, with sides covered in thick black plastic (unspooled garbage bags, Leni was pretty sure). An open door revealed an interior full of sockeye salmon, sliced in half along the spines and hung tented on branches. Thelma was kneeling in the dirt, tending to a fire built in a contained metal box. Smoke puffed up in dark clouds, reached up to the salmon hanging on branches above the fire. Mama looked up from the salmon she was gutting at a table in the yard. There was a smear of pink guts across her chin. _It_s a smokehouse,_ Mama said, cocking her head toward Thelma. _Thelma is teaching me how to smoke fish. It_s quite an art, apparently_too much heat, you cook the fish. It_s supposed to smoke and dry at the same time. Yum. How was your first day of school?_ A red kerchief kept the hair out of her eyes. _Cool._ _No social-suicide issues with the clothes or the lunch box? No girls making fun of you?_ Leni couldn_t help smiling. _No girls my age at all. But _ there_s a boy__ That got Mama_s interest. _A boy?_ Leni felt herself blushing. _A friend, Mama. He just happens to be a boy._ _Uh. Huh._ Mama was trying not to smile as she lit her cigarette. _Is he cute?_ Leni ignored that. _He says there_s a community barbecue tonight, and I want to go._ _Yeah. We_re going._ _Really? That_s great!_ _Yeah,_ Mama said, smiling. _I told you it would be different here._ * * * WHEN IT CAME TIME to dress for the barbecue, Leni kind of lost her mind. Honestly, she didn_t know what was wrong with her. She didn_t have a lot of clothes to choose from, but that didn_t stop her from trying on several different combinations. In the end_mostly because she was exhausted by the desire to look pretty when pretty was impossible_she decided on a pair of plaid polyester bell-bottoms and a ribbed green turtleneck beneath a fringed, fake-suede vest. Try as she might, she couldn_t do anything with her hair. She finger-combed it back from her face and twined it into a fuzzy, fist-sized braid. She found Mama in the kitchen, placing thick squares of cornbread into a Tupperware container. She had brushed her shoulder-length, shag-cut hair until it glimmered in the light. She had definitely dressed to impress in tight bell-bottom jeans and a fitted white sweater with a huge Indian turquoise squash-blossom necklace that she_d bought a few years ago. Mama seemed distracted as she burped the lid of air from the container. _You_re worried, aren_t you?_ _Why would you say that?_ Mama gave her a quick, bright smile, but the look in her eyes couldn_t be so easily transformed. She was wearing makeup for the first time in days and it made her look vibrant and beautiful. _Remember the fair?_ _That was different. The guy tried to cheat him._ That wasn_t how Leni remembered it. They_d been having a good time at the State Fair until her dad started drinking beer. Then some guy had flirted with Mama (and she had flirted back) and Dad had gone ballistic. He shoved the man hard enough to crack his head into the tent pole at the BeerHaus and started yelling. When the security guys came, Dad was so belligerent that the cops were called. Leni had been mortified to see two of her classmates watching the altercation. They_d seen her dad get dragged over to the cop car. Dad opened the cabin door and came inside. _Are my beautiful girls ready to party?_ _You bet,_ Mama said quickly, smiling. _Let_s go, then,_ Dad said, herding them into the bus. In no time_it was less than a quarter of a mile as the crow flew_they drove up to the steel gate with the bleached-white cow head on it. The gate was open in welcome. The Walker homestead. Their nearest neighbors. Dad drove slowly forward. The driveway (two ribbons of flattened grass that undulated up and down on lichen-covered ground) unfurled in a lazy S through stands of skinny black-trunked spruce trees. Occasionally there was a break in the trees to her left and Leni saw a splash of distant blue, but it wasn_t until they came to the clearing that Leni saw the view. _Wow,_ Mama said. They emerged onto a flat ridge situated above a calm blue cove. The huge piece of land had been cleared of all but a few carefully chosen trees and planted in hay. A large two-story log house sat like a crown at the highest point of land. Its triangular front boasted huge trapezoid windows and a pointed, wraparound deck. It looked like the prow of some great ship, flung to shore by an angry sea and stuck on land, forever gazing out at the sea upon which it belonged. Mismatched chairs decorated the deck, each one turned toward the spectacular view. On the far side of the house were several animal pens full of cows and goats and chickens and ducks. Coils of barbed wire, wooden crates and pallets, a broken-down tractor and the rusted shovel from an excavator, and the husks of several dead and dying trucks lay scattered in the knee-high grass. Beehives stood clustered together not far from a small wooden structure that puffed smoke. In a break in the trees was the sharp peaked roof of an outhouse. Down at the water, a gray dock jutted out into the blue sea. At its end, a weathered arch read WALKER COVE. A float plane was tied up to the dock, in addition to two bright silver fishing boats. _A float plane,_ Dad muttered. _Must be rich._ They parked the bus and walked past a bright yellow tractor with a black bucket and a shiny red all-terrain vehicle. From the crested rise, Leni saw people gathered down on the beach, at least a dozen of them, around a huge bonfire. Flames shot into the light lavender sky, making a sound like fingers snapping. Leni followed her parents down the stairs to the beach. From here, she could see everyone at the party. A broad-shouldered man with long blond hair was sitting on a fallen log playing a guitar. Large Marge had turned two white plastic buckets into bongo drums, and Leni_s teacher, Ms. Rhodes, was going crazy on a fiddle. Natalie was wicked with a harmonica and Thelma was singing _King of the Road._ On means by no means everyone joined in. Clyde and Ted were handling the barbecue, which looked to have been made out of old oil drums. Mad Earl stood nearby, drinking from a crockery jug. The two younger girls from school, Marthe and Agnes, were down at the waterline, bent over, collecting shells with Moppet. Mama stepped down onto the beach, carrying her Tupperware full of cornbread. Dad was right behind her with a fifth of whiskey. The big, broad-shouldered man playing the guitar put down his instrument and got to his feet. He was dressed like most of the men here, in a flannel shirt and faded jeans and rubber boots, but even so, he stood out. He looked as if he_d been built for this rugged land, as if he could run all day, hack down an old-growth tree with a hatchet, and skip nimbly along a fallen log over a raging river. Even Leni thought he was handsome_for an old guy. _I_m Tom Walker,_ he said. _Welcome to my place._ _Ernt Allbright._ Tom shook Dad_s hand. _This is my wife, Cora._ Mama smiled at Tom, shook his hand, then looked back. _This is our daughter, Leni. She_s thirteen._ Tom smiled at Leni. _Hey, Leni. My son, Matthew, mentioned you._ _He did?_ Leni said. Don_t smile so big. What a dork. Geneva Walker slipped in beside her husband. _Hey,_ she said, smiling at Cora. _I see you_ve met my husband._ _Ex._ Tom Walker put his arm around Geneva, pulled her close. _I love the woman like air, but I can_t live with her._ _Can_t live without me, either._ Geneva smiled, cocked her head to the left. _That_s my main squeeze over there. Calhoun Malvey. He doesn_t love me as much as Tom does, but he likes me a helluva lot better. And he doesn_t snore._ She elbowed Mr. Walker in the side playfully. _I hear you guys aren_t too well prepared,_ Mr. Walker said to Dad. _You_re going to have to learn fast. Don_t be afraid to ask me for help. I_m always up for it. Anything you need to borrow, I have._ Leni heard something in Dad_s _Thanks_ that put her on alert. He sounded irritated all of a sudden. Offended. Mama heard it, too; she glanced worriedly at him. Mad Earl stumbled forward. He was wearing a T-shirt that read I_VE BEEN FISHING SO LONG I_M A MASTER BAITER. He grinned drunkenly, swayed side to side, stumbled. _You offering Ernt help, Big Tom? That_s mighty white of you. Sorta like King John offerin_ to help his poor serfs. Maybe your friend the governor can help ya out._ _Good Lord, Earl, not again,_ Geneva said. _Let_s play some music. Ernt, can you play an instrument?_ _Guitar,_ Dad said. _But I sold__ _Great!_ Geneva said, taking him by the arm, pulling him away from Mad Earl and toward Large Marge and the makeshift band gathered at the beach. She handed Dad the guitar Mr. Walker had put down. Mad Earl stumbled over to the fire and retrieved his crockery jug. Leni wondered if Mama knew how beautiful she looked, standing there in her form-fitting pants, with her blond hair blowing in the sea breeze. Her beauty was as clear as a perfectly sung note and as out of place up here as an orchid. Yeah. She knew exactly how beautiful she was. And Mr. Walker saw it, too. _Can I get you something to drink?_ he asked Mama. _Is a beer okay?_ _Why, sure, Tom. I_d love a beer,_ Mama said, letting Mr. Walker lead her toward the food table and the cooler full of Rainier beer. Mama drifted along beside Mr. Walker. Her hips took up the beat of the music, swaying. She touched his forearm, and Mr. Walker looked down at her and smiled. _Leni!_ She heard her name being called and turned. Matthew stood on the point above, not far from the stairs, waving at her to come up. She climbed the stairs and found him, holding a beer in each hand. _You ever had a beer before?_ he asked. She shook her head. _Me, either. Come on._ He took off into the thicket of trees to his left. They followed a twisting trail that led downward, past rock outcroppings. He led her to a small clearing, its floor padded by lichen. Through an opening in the black spruce trees, they could see the party. The beach was only fifteen feet away but might have been a different universe. Out there, the adults were laughing and talking and making music. Little kids were pawing through pebbles for unbroken shells. Axle was off by himself, stabbing his knife into a decaying log. Matthew sat down, stretching his legs out, leaning back against a log. Leni sat down beside him, close but not so close that she was touching him. He snapped open a beer_hiss_and handed it to her. Wrinkling her nose, she took a sip. It fizzed in her throat and tasted bad. _Gross,_ Matthew said, and she laughed. Another three sips and she leaned back into the log. A cool breeze came up off the beach, bringing with it the smell of brine and the pungent aroma of roasting meat. The whir and movement of the party was just beyond the trees. They sat in a companionable silence, which amazed Leni. Usually she was a nervous wreck around kids she wanted to befriend. Out on the beach, the party was in full swing now. Through a break in the trees, they could see it all. A mason jar was being passed from person to person. Her mother danced in a hip-swaying, hair-tossing way. She was like a woodland fairy, lit from within, dancing for the burly, sodden tree folk. The beer made Leni feel woozy and light-headed, as if she were full of bubbles. _What made you guys move up here?_ Matthew asked. Before she could answer, he smashed his empty beer can into a rock, crumpling it. Leni couldn_t help laughing. Only a boy would do that. _My dad_s kind of _ an adventurer,_ she settled on as her answer. (Never tell the truth, never that Dad had trouble keeping a job and staying in one place, and never that he drank too much and liked to yell.) _He got tired of Seattle, I guess. What about you guys? When did you move here?_ _My grandpa, Eckhart Walker, came to Alaska during the Great Depression. He said he didn_t want to stand in line for watery soup. So he packed up his stuff and hitchhiked to Seattle. He worked his way north from there. Supposedly he walked Alaska from shore to shore and even climbed Mount Alyeska with a ladder strapped to his back so he could cross glacial crevasses. He met my Grandma Lily in Nome. She ran a laundry and diner. They got married and decided to homestead._ _So your grandparents and your dad and you all grew up in that house?_ _Well. The big house was built a lot later, but we all grew up on this land. My mom_s family lives in Fairbanks. My sister is living with them while she goes to college. And my folks split up a few years back, so Mom built herself a new house on the homestead and moved into it with her boyfriend, Cal, who is a real douchebag._ He grinned. _But we all work together. He and Dad play chess in the winter. It_s weird, but it_s Alaska._ _Wow. I can_t even imagine living in one place my whole life._ She heard the edge of longing in her voice and was embarrassed by it. She tilted her beer up, swallowed the last foamy drips. The makeshift band was going all-out now, hands banging on buckets, the guitar strumming, fiddles playing. Thelma and Mama and Ms. Rhodes were swishing their hips in time to the music, singing loudly. Ro-cky Moun-tain high, Color-ado _ Over at the grill, Clyde yelled out, _Moose burgers are ready! Who wants cheese?_ _Come on,_ Matthew said. _I_m starving._ He took her hand (it seemed natural) and led her through the trees and down onto the beach. They came up behind Dad and Mad Earl, who were off by themselves, drinking, and Leni heard Mad Earl clink his mason jar against Dad_s, hitting it so hard it made a sturdy clank. _Tha_ Tom Walker sure thinks his shit don_t stink,_ Dad said. _When TSHTF, he_ll come crawling to me _cuz I_m prepared,_ Mad Earl slurred. Leni froze, mortified. She looked at Matthew. He_d heard it, too. _Born rich,_ Dad added, his words slurred and slow in coming. _Thass what you said, right?_ Mad Earl nodded, stumbled into Dad. They held each other up. _He thinks he_s better_n us._ Leni pulled away from Matthew; shame made her feel small. Alone. _Leni?_ _I_m sorry you heard that,_ she said. And as if her dad_s slurred bad-mouthing weren_t bad enough, there was Mama over there, standing too close to Mr. Walker, smiling up at him in a way that could start trouble. Just like all the other times. And Alaska was supposed to be different. _What_s the matter?_ Matthew asked. Leni shook her head, feeling a familiar sadness creep in. She could never tell him how it felt to live with a dad who scared you sometimes and a mother who loved him too much and made him prove how much he loved her in dangerous ways. Like flirting. These were Leni_s secrets. Her burdens. She couldn_t share them. All this time, all these years, she_d dreamed of having a real friend, one who would tell her everything. How had she missed the obvious? Leni couldn_t have a real friend because she couldn_t be one. _Sorry,_ she mumbled. _It_s nothing. Come on, let_s eat. I_m starving._ SIX After the party, back at the cabin, Leni_s parents were all over each other, making out like teenagers, banging into walls, pressing their bodies together. The combination of alcohol and music (and maybe Tom Walker_s attention) had made them crazy for each other. Leni hurried up into the loft, where she covered her ears with her pillow and hummed _Come On Get Happy._ When the cabin fell silent again, she crawled over to the stack of books she_d bought at the Salvation Army. A book of poetry by someone named Robert Service grabbed her attention. She took it back into bed with her and opened it to a poem called _The Cremation of Sam McGee._ She didn_t need to light her lantern because it was still freaking light outside, even this late. There are strange things done in the midnight sun By the men who moil for gold; The Arctic trails have their secret tales That would make your blood run cold _ Leni found herself falling into the poem_s harsh, beautiful world. It captivated her so much that she kept reading, next about Dangerous Dan McGrew and the lady known as Lou, and then _The Law of the Yukon._ This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: / _Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane._ Every line revealed a different side of this strange state they_d come to, but even so, she could never quite get Matthew out of her mind. She kept remembering the embarrassment she_d felt at the party when he overheard her father_s ugly words. Would he still want to be her friend? The question consumed her, made her so tense she couldn_t fall asleep. She would have sworn she didn_t sleep at all, except that the next morning she woke to hear, _Come on, sleepyhead. I need your help while Mama cooks us up some grub. You_ve got time before school starts._ Grub? Had they suddenly become cowboys? Leni pulled on her jeans and a big sweater and went downstairs for her shoes. Outside she found her dad up on that doghouse-looking thing on stilts. The cache. A skinned log ladder like the one leading up to the loft was propped up against the frame. Her dad stood near the top, hammering planks in place on the roof. _Hand me those penny nails, Red,_ he said. _A handful._ She grabbed the blue coffee can full of nails and climbed up the ladder behind him. She fished out a single nail and handed it to him. _Your hand is shaking._ He stared down at the nail in his hand; it bounced in his trembling fist. His face was as pale as a sheet of parchment and his dark eyes looked bruised, the bags were so dark beneath them. _I drank too much last night. Had trouble sleeping._ Leni felt a jab of worry. Lack of sleep wasn_t good for Dad; it made him anxious. So far, he_d been sleeping great in Alaska. _Drinking does all kinds of bad shit to you, Red. I know better, too. Well, that_s it,_ he said, pounding the last nail into the suede work glove that had been used to make the door_s hinge. (Large Marge_s idea_these Alaskans knew how to make do with anything.) Leni climbed down and dropped to the ground, the coffee can full of nails rattling at the movement. Dad rammed his hammer into his belt and started climbing down. He dropped down beside Leni and tousled her hair. _I guess you_re my little carpenter._ _I thought I was your librarian. Or your bookworm._ _Your mama says you can be anything. Some shit about a fish and a bicycle._ Yeah. Leni had heard that. Maybe Gloria Steinem had said it. Who knew? Mama spouted sayings all the time. It made as much sense to Leni as burning a perfectly good bra to make a point. Then again, it made no sense at all that in 1974 a grown woman with a job couldn_t get a credit card in her name. It_s a man_s world, baby girl. She followed her dad from the cache to the deck, passing the bones of their new greenhouse and the garbage-bag-wrapped makeshift smokehouse. On the other side of the cabin, their new chickens pecked at the ground in their new enclosure. A rooster preened on the ramp that led to the coop_s entrance. At the water barrel, Dad ladled out a scoopful and splashed his face, which sent brown rivulets running down his cheeks. Then he went to the deck and sat on the bottom step. He looked bad. Like he_d been drunk for days and was sick from it. (Like he used to look, when he had nightmares and lost his temper.) _Your mama seemed to like Tom Walker._ Leni tensed. _Did you see the way he shoved our noses in his money? I can loan you my tractor, Ernt, or Do you need a ride to town? He looked down at me, Red._ _He said to me he thought you were a hero and it was a dang shame what happened to you boys over there,_ Leni lied. _He did?_ Dad pushed the hair out of his face. A frown creased his sunburned forehead. _I like this place, Dad,_ Leni said, realizing suddenly the truth of her words. She already felt more at home in Alaska than she ever had in Seattle. _We_re happy here. I see how happy you are. Maybe _ maybe drinking isn_t so good for you._ There was a tense moment of silence; by tacit agreement, Leni and Mama didn_t mention his drinking or his temper. _You_re probably right about that, Red._ He turned thoughtful. _Come on. Let_s get you to school._ * * * AN HOUR LATER, Leni stared up at the one-room schoolhouse. Slinging her backpack_s strap over one shoulder, she made her way to the front door, her lunch box clanging into her right thigh. Lollygagging, Mama would have called it. All Leni knew was that she was in no hurry to get to class. She was almost to the front door when it banged open and students came out in a laughing, talking clot. Matthew_s mom, Geneva, was in the middle, her work-chapped hands raised, telling everyone to calm down. _Oh. Leni! Great!_ Mrs. Walker said. _You_re so late, I thought you were going to be absent. Tica couldn_t make it in to school today, so I_m teaching. Ha! I barely graduated, let_s face it._ She laughed at herself. _And since I was more interested in boys than lessons in school, we_re going on a field trip. I hate being inside on such a beautiful day._ Leni fell into step beside Mrs. Walker, who put an arm around her and drew her close. _I_m so glad you moved here._ _Me, too._ _Before you, Matthew had a religious aversion to deodorant. Now he wears clean clothes. It_s a dream come true for those of us who live with him._ Leni had no idea what to say to that. They marched down to the harbor in a herd, like the elephants in the Jungle Book movie. Leni felt Matthew_s gaze on her. Twice she caught him staring at her with a confused expression on his face. When they reached the guest dock in the harbor, with fishing boats creaking and bobbing all around them, Mrs. Walker paired the students up and assigned them to the canoes. _Matthew. Leni. The green one is yours. Put on your life vests. Matthew, make sure Leni is safe._ Leni did as she was told and climbed down into the back end of the canoe, facing the bow. Matthew stepped down after her. The canoe rattled and creaked as he dropped into it. He sat down facing her. Leni didn_t know much about canoeing, but she knew that was wrong. _You_re supposed to face the other way._ _Matthew Denali Walker. What in the hell are you doing?_ his mother said, gliding past him, with Moppet in her canoe. _Have you had a seizure or something? What_s my name?_ _I wanted to talk to Leni for a sec, Mom. We_ll catch up._ Mrs. Walker gave her son a knowing look. _Don_t be long. It_s school, not your first date._ Matthew groaned. _Oh, my God. You are so weird._ _I love you, too,_ Mrs. Walker said. Laughing, she paddled away. _Come on, kids,_ she yelled to the other canoes. _Head for Eaglet Cove._ _You_re staring at me,_ Leni said to Matthew when they were alone. Matthew laid his paddle across his lap. Waves slapped at their canoe, made a hollow, thunking sound as they drifted away from the dock. She knew he was waiting for her to say something. There was only one thing to say. Wind combed through her hair, pulled corkscrew curls free of the elastic band that bound them. Red strands fluttered across her face. _I_m sorry about last night._ _Sorry for what?_ _Come on, Matthew. You don_t have to be so nice._ _I have no idea what you_re talking about._ _My dad was drunk,_ she said cautiously. The admission was more than she_d ever said aloud before and it felt disloyal. Maybe even dangerous. She_d seen some ABC Afterschool Specials. She knew that kids sometimes got taken away from unstable parents. The Man could break up any family for anything. She would never want to make waves or get her dad in trouble. Matthew laughed. _They all were. Big whoop. Last year Mad Earl was so drunk he peed in the smokehouse._ _My dad gets _ drunk sometimes _ and mad. He says stuff he doesn_t mean. I know you heard what he said about your dad._ _I hear that all the time. Especially from Mad Earl. Crazy Pete isn_t too fond of Dad, either, and Billy Horchow tried to kill him once. No one ever found out why. Alaska_s like that. Long winters and too much drinking can make a man do weird things. I didn_t take it personally. My dad wouldn_t, either._ _Wait. You mean you don_t care?_ _This is Alaska. We live and let live. I don_t care if your dad hates my dad. You_re the one who matters, Leni._ _I matter?_ _To me you do._ Leni felt light enough to float right out of the canoe. She had told him one of her darkest, most terrible secrets, and he liked her anyway. _You_re crazy._ _You bet your ass I am._ _Matthew Walker, quit yapping and start paddling,_ Mrs. Walker yelled at them. _So we_re friends, right?_ Matthew said. _No matter what?_ Leni nodded. _No matter what._ _Groovy._ Matthew turned around and faced the bow and started paddling. _I_ve got a cool thing to show you when we get where we are going,_ he said over his shoulder. _What?_ _The bogs will be full of frogs_ eggs. They_re completely slimy and gross. Maybe I can get Axle to eat some. That kid is pure crazy._ Leni picked up her paddle. She was glad he couldn_t see how big her smile was. * * * WHEN LENI STEPPED OUT of the schoolhouse, laughing at something Matthew had said, she saw her parents waiting for her in the VW bus. Both of them. Mama leaned out of the window and waved like she was trying out for a spot on The Price is Right. _Jeez. You really get the royal treatment._ Leni laughed and parted ways with him and climbed into the back of the bus. _So, my little bookworm,_ Dad said as they rattled along on the dirt road out of town. _What useful thing did you learn today?_ _Well. We went on a field trip to Eaglet Cove and collected leaves for a biology project. Did you know that baneberries will make you have a heart attack if you eat them? And arrowgrass will cause respiratory failure?_ _Great,_ Mama said. _Now the plants can kill us, too._ Dad laughed. _That_s great, Leni. Finally, a teacher who is teaching what matters._ _I also learned about the Klondike Gold Rush. The RCMP wouldn_t let anyone cross the Chilkoot Trail unless they carried a stove with them. Carried. On their backs. But most of the miners who came up paid Indians to carry their supplies._ Dad nodded. _The rich, riding the backs of better men. It_s the history of civilization itself. It_s what_s destroying America. Men who take, take, take._ Leni had noticed her dad saying more and more things like this since meeting Mad Earl. Dad turned into their driveway and rumbled bumpily along. When they reached the homestead, he parked hard and said, _Okay, Allbrights, today my girls learn how to shoot._ He jumped out of the bus and dragged a bale of blackened, mildewed hay out from behind the chicken coop. Mama lit up a cigarette. The smoke formed a gray corona above her blond hair. _This should be fun,_ she said without joy. _We have to learn how. Large Marge and Thelma both said so,_ Leni said. Mama nodded. Leni moved to the driver_s seat. _Uh. Mama? You noticed that Dad is sorta _ prickly about Mr. Walker, right?_ Mama turned. Their eyes met. _Is he?_ she said coolly. _You know he is. So. I mean. You know how he can get if you _ you know. Flirt._ Dad thumped on the front of the bus so hard Mama flinched and made a little sound, like a bitten-off scream. She dropped her cigarette and scrambled down to find it. Leni knew her mama wouldn_t respond anyway; that was another facet of their family weirdness. Dad blew his temper and Mama somehow encouraged it. Like maybe she needed to know how much he loved her all the time. Dad herded Leni and Mama out of the bus and over the bumpy terrain to where he_d set up the bale of hay with a target on it. He lifted his rifle from its leather scabbard, aimed, and shot, hitting the target dead center in the head he_d drawn on a piece of paper with a Magic Marker. A bunch of birds flew up from the trees, scattered through the blue sky, cawing angrily at Dad for disturbing them. A giant bald eagle, with a wingspan of at least six feet, glided in to take their place. It perched on an uppermost branch of a tree, pointed its yellow beak down at them. _That_s what I expect of you two,_ Dad said. Mama exhaled smoke. _We_re going to be here awhile, baby girl._ Dad handed Leni the rifle. _Okay, Red. Let_s see what you_ve got naturally. Look through the scope_don_t get too close_and when you have the target in your sight, squeeze the trigger. Slow and steady. Breathe evenly. Okay, aim. I_ll tell you when to shoot. Watch out for__ She lifted the rifle, aimed, thought, Wow, Matthew, I can_t wait to tell you, and accidently pulled the trigger. The rifle hit her shoulder hard enough to knock her off her feet and the sight slammed into her eye area with a crack that sounded like breaking bone. Leni screamed in pain, dropped the rifle, and collapsed to her knees in the mud, clamping a hand over her throbbing eye. It hurt so badly she felt sick to her stomach, almost puked. She was still screaming and crying when she felt someone drop in place beside her, felt a hand rubbing her back. _Shit, Red,_ Dad said. _I didn_t tell you to shoot. You_re okay. Just breathe. It_s a normal rookie mistake. You_ll be fine._ _Is she okay?_ Mama screamed. _Is she?_ Dad pulled Leni to her feet. _No crying, Leni,_ he said. _This isn_t some beauty-pageant training where you learn to sing for a college scholarship. You have to listen to me. This is your life I_m trying to save._ _But__ It hurt so badly. A headache burst into pounding life behind her eyes. She couldn_t see well out of her injured eye. Half the world was blurry. It hurt even more that he didn_t care about how much it hurt. She couldn_t help feeling sorry for herself. She would bet Tom Walker never treated Matthew this way. _Stop it, Lenora,_ Dad said, giving her shoulder a little shake. _You said you liked Alaska and wanted to belong here._ _Ernt, please, she_s not a soldier,_ Mama said. Dad spun Leni around, gripped her shoulders, shook her hard. _How many girls were abducted in Seattle before we left?_ _L-lots. One every month. Sometimes more._ _Who were they?_ _Just girls. Teenagers, mostly?_ _And Patty Hearst was taken from her apartment, with her boyfriend right there, right?_ Leni wiped her eyes, nodded. _You want to be a victim or a survivor, Lenora?_ Leni had such a headache she couldn_t think. _S-survivor?_ _We have to be ready for anything up here. I want you able to protect yourself._ His voice broke on that. She saw the emotion he was trying so hard to hide. He loved her. That was why he wanted her to be able to take care of herself. _What if I_m not here when something happens? When a bear breaks down the door or a pack of wolves surrounds you? I need to know you can protect your mom and save yourself._ Leni sniffled hard, struggled for control. He was right. She needed to be strong. _I know._ _Okay. Pick up the rifle,_ Dad said. _Try again._ Leni picked up the mud-splattered rifle. Aimed. _Don_t hold the sight so close to your eye. The recoil is a mother on this. There. Hold it like that._ Dad gently repositioned the weapon. _Put your finger on the trigger. Lightly._ She couldn_t do it. She was too scared of getting cracked in the eye again. _Do it,_ Dad said. She took a deep breath and slid her forefinger along the trigger, feeling the cold steel curve. She ducked her chin, drew back farther from the sight. She forced herself to concentrate. The sounds faded away: the cawing of the crows and the wind clattering through the trees diminished until all she heard was the beating of her own heart. She closed her left eye. Tried to calm down. The world spiraled down to a single circle. Blurry at first, a double image. Focus. She saw the bale of hay, the white paper attached to it, the outline of a man_s head and shoulders. She was amazed by the clarity of the image. She adjusted the position of the rifle, took aim at the very center of the head. Slowly, she squeezed the trigger. The rifle cracked in recoil, hit her hard in the shoulder again, so hard she stumbled, but the sight didn_t hit her eye. The bullet hit the bale of hay. Not the target, not even the white paper around the target, but the bale. She felt a surprising pride in that small achievement. _I knew you could do it, Red. By the time we_re done, you_ll be sniper-good._ SEVEN Ms. Rhodes was at the chalkboard writing assignment pages when Leni got to school. _Ah,_ the teacher said. _It looks like someone put the scope too close to her eye. Do you need an aspirin?_ _Rookie mistake,_ Leni said, almost proud of her injury. It meant she was becoming an Alaskan. _I_m fine._ Ms. Rhodes nodded. _Take your seat and open your history book._ Leni and Matthew stared at each other as she entered the classroom. His smile was so big she saw his mouthful of crooked teeth. She sidled into her desk, which clanked against his. _Almost everyone gets popped in the eye the first time. I had a black eye for, like, a week. Does it hurt?_ _It did. But learning to shoot was so cool, I didn_t__ _Moose!_ Axle yelled, popping up from his seat and running to the window. Leni and Matthew followed him. All of the kids crowded together at the window, watching a giant bull moose amble through the grassy area behind the schoolhouse. He knocked over the picnic table and began eating the bushes. Matthew leaned close to Leni; his shoulder brushed hers. _I say we make excuses and book it out of school today. I_ll say I_m needed at home after lunch._ Leni felt a little thrill at the idea of skipping school. She_d never done it before. _I could say I have a headache. I_d just have to be back here at three for pick-up._ _Cool,_ Matthew said. _Okay, okay,_ Ms. Rhodes said. _Enough of that. Leni, Axle, Matthew, turn to page one-seventeen in your Alaska state history book__ For the rest of the morning, Leni and Matthew watched the clock nervously. Just before lunchtime, Leni pleaded a headache and said she needed to go home. _I can walk to the general store and call my parents on the ham radio._ _Sure,_ Ms. Rhodes said. The teacher didn_t seem to question the lie, and Leni scooted out of the classroom and closed the door behind her. She walked down to the road and ducked into the trees, waiting. A half hour later, Matthew strode out of the school, grinning widely. _So what are we gonna do?_ Leni asked. What choices were there? There was no TV, no movie theater, no paved roads for bike riding, no drive-ins for milkshakes, no roller rinks or playgrounds. He took her by the hand and led her to a muddy all-terrain vehicle. _Climb on,_ Matthew said, swinging his leg over the ATV and settling on the black seat. Leni did not think this was a good idea, but she didn_t want him to think she was a scaredy-cat, so she climbed aboard. Awkwardly, she put her arms around his waist. He twisted the throttle and they were off in a cloud of dust, the engine making a high-pitched whine, rocks flying out from beneath the wide rubber tires. Matthew drove through town, rumbled over the bridge, and onto the dirt road. Just past the airstrip, he veered into the trees, thumped over a ditch, and hurtled up a trail she didn_t even see until they were on it. They drove uphill, into thick trees, onto a plateau. From there, Leni saw a crook of blue, seawater carving into the land, waves crashing onto the shore. Matthew slowed the vehicle and expertly guided it over rough terrain, where there was no trail beneath their tires. Leni was thrown about; she had to hold tightly to him. Finally he eased to a stop and clicked off the motor. Silence enveloped them instantly, broken only by the waves crashing on the black rocks below. Matthew dug through the bag on his three-wheeler and pulled out a pair of binoculars. _Come on._ He walked ahead of her, his feet steady on the rough, rocky terrain. Twice Leni almost fell as rock gave way beneath her feet, but Matthew was like a mountain goat, perfectly at home. He led her to a clearing perched like a scooped hand above the sea. There were two handmade wooden chairs positioned to face the trees. Matthew plopped down in one and indicated the other for her. Leni dropped her backpack onto the grass and sat down, waiting as Matthew peered through the binoculars, and scanned the trees. _There they are._ He handed her the binoculars, pointed to a stand of trees. _That_s Lucy and Ricky. My mom named _em._ Leni peered through the binoculars. At first all she saw was trees, trees, and more trees as she panned slowly from left to right, and then, a flash of white. She eased back to the left a few degrees. A pair of bald eagles perched on a bathtub-sized nest built high in the trees. One of the birds was feeding a trio of eaglets who jostled and lurched, beaks up, to get the regurgitated food. Leni could hear their squabbling, squawking cries over the crash of water below. _Wow,_ Leni said. She would have pulled her Polaroid out of her backpack (she never went anywhere without it), but the eagles were too far away for the clunky camera to capture. _They_ve been coming back here to lay eggs for as long as I can remember. Mom first brought me here when I was little. You should see them making the nest. It_s amazing. And they mate for life. I wonder what Ricky would do if something happened to Lucy. My mom says that nest weighs almost a ton. I_ve watched eaglets leave that nest my whole life._ _Wow,_ Leni said again, smiling as one of the eaglets flapped its wings and tried to climb up over its siblings. _We haven_t come out here in a long time, though._ Leni heard something in Matthew_s voice. She lowered the binoculars and looked at him. _You and your mom?_ He nodded. _Since she and Dad split up, it_s been hard. Maybe it_s _cuz my sister, Alyeska, moved to Fairbanks to go to college. I miss her._ _You guys must be close._ _Yeah. She_s cool. You_d like her. She thinks she wants to live in a city, but no way it will last. She_ll be back. Dad says we both have to go to college so we know all our options. He_s kind of pushy about it, actually. I don_t need college to tell me what I want to be._ _You already know?_ _Sure. I want to be a pilot. Like my Uncle Went. I love being up in the sky. But my dad says it_s not enough. I guess I need to know about physics and shit._ Leni understood. They were kids, she and Matthew; no one asked their opinion or told them anything. They just had to muddle along and live in the world presented to them, confused a lot of the time because nothing made sense, but certain of their subterranean place on the food chain. She sat back in the splintery chair. He had told her something personal about himself, something that mattered. She needed to do the same thing. Wasn_t that how true friendships worked? She swallowed hard, said quietly, _You_re lucky your dad wants the best for you. My dad has been _ weird since the war._ _Weird how?_ Leni shrugged. She didn_t know exactly what to say, or how to say it without revealing too much. _He has_nightmares_and bad weather can set him off. Sometimes. But he hasn_t had a nightmare since we moved here. So maybe he_s better._ _I don_t know. Winter is one big night up here. People go batshit in the dark, run screaming, open fire on their pets and friends._ Leni felt a tightening in her stomach. She had never really thought about the fact that in winter, it would be as dark as it was light now. She didn_t want to think about that, winter dark. _What do you worry about?_ she asked. _I worry that my mom will leave us. I mean, I know she built a house and stayed on the homestead, and that my folks still love each other in some weird way, but it_s not the same. She just came home one day and said she didn_t love Dad anymore. She loves Cal the creep._ He turned in his chair, looked at Leni. _It_s scary that people can just stop loving you, you know?_ _Yeah._ _I wish school lasted longer,_ he said. _I know. We have three more days before summer break. And then__ Once school ended, Leni would be expected to work full-time at the homestead and so would Matthew at his place. They_d hardly see each other. * * * ON THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL, Leni and Matthew made all kinds of promises about how they would keep in touch until classes started again in September, but the truth shouldered in between them. They were kids and not in control of anything, their own schedules least of all. Leni felt lonely already as she walked away from Matthew on that last day and headed for the VW bus waiting on the side of the road. _You look down in the dumps, baby girl,_ Mama said from her place in the driver_s seat. Leni climbed into the passenger seat. She didn_t see the point in whining about something that couldn_t be changed. It was three o_clock. There was an ocean of daylight left; that meant hours of chores to do. As soon as they were home, Mama said, _I have an idea. Go get us that striped wool blanket and the chocolate bar in the cooler. I_ll meet you down on the beach._ _What are we going to do?_ _Absolutely nothing._ _What? Dad will never agree to that._ _Well, he_s not here._ Mama smiled. Leni didn_t waste a second. She ran to the house (before Mama changed her mind). She grabbed the slim Hershey_s chocolate bar from the cooler in the kitchen and the blanket from the back of the sofa. Wrapping it around her like a poncho, she headed for the rickety beach stairs, followed them down to the curl of water-stippled gray pebbles that was their own private beach. To the left were dark, enticing stone caves, carved by centuries of hurling water. Mama stood in the tall grass up from the beach, a cigarette already lit. Leni was pretty sure that, to her, childhood would always smell like sea air and cigarette smoke and her mother_s rose-scented perfume. Leni spread out the blanket on the uneven ground and she and Mama sat down on it, their legs stretched out, their bodies angled into each other. In front of them, the blue sea rolled forward ceaselessly, washing over the stones, rustling them. Not far away an otter floated on its back, using its small black paws to crack open a clam. _Where_s Dad?_ _He went fishing with Mad Earl. I think Dad_s hoping to ask the old man for a loan. Money is getting pretty tight. I_ve still got some of the money from my mom, but I_ve been using it for cigarettes and Polaroid film._ She gave Leni a soft smile. _I_m not sure Mad Earl is good for Dad,_ Leni said. Mama_s smile faded. _I know what you mean._ _He_s happy here, though,_ Leni said. She tried not to think about the conversation she_d had with Matthew, about how winter was coming and winter was dark and cold and crazy-making. _I wish you remembered your dad from before _Nam._ _Yeah._ Leni had heard dozens of stories of that time. Mama loved to talk about Before, about who they_d been in the beginning. The words were like a much-loved fairy tale. Mama had been sixteen when she got pregnant. Sixteen. Leni would be fourteen in September. Amazingly, she_d never really thought about that before. She_d known her mama_s age, of course, but she hadn_t really put the facts together. Sixteen. _You were only two years older than me when you got pregnant,_ Leni said. Mama sighed. _I was a junior in high school. Christ. No wonder my parents threw a clot._ She gave Leni a crooked, charming smile. _They were not the kind of people who could understand a girl like me. They hated my clothes and my music and I hated their rules. At sixteen, I thought I knew everything, and I told them so. They sent me away to a Catholic girls_ school, where rebellion meant rolling up the waistband of your skirt to shorten the hem and show an inch of skin above your knees. We were taught to kneel and pray and marry well. _Your dad came into my life like a rogue wave, knocking me over. Everything he said upended my conventional world and changed who I was. I stopped knowing how to breathe without him. He told me I didn_t need school. I believed everything he said. Your dad and I were too in love to be careful, and I got pregnant. My dad exploded when I told him. He wanted to send me away to one of those houses for unwed mothers. I knew they_d take you away from me. I_ve never hated anyone more than I hated him in that moment._ Mama sighed. _So we ran away. I was sixteen_almost seventeen_and your dad was twenty-five. When you came along, we were flat broke and living in a trailer park, but none of that mattered. What was money or work or new clothes when you had the most perfect baby in the world?_ Mama leaned back. _He used to carry you all the time. At first in his arms and then on his shoulders. You adored him. We shut out the world and lived on love, but the world came roaring back._ _The war,_ Leni said. Mama nodded. _I begged your dad not to go to Vietnam. We fought and fought about it. I didn_t want to be a soldier_s wife, but he wanted to go. So I packed my tears with his clothes and let him go. It was supposed to be for a year. I didn_t know what to do, where to go, how to live without him. I ran out of money and moved back home with my parents, but I couldn_t stand it there. All we did was fight. They kept telling me to divorce your father and think about you, and finally I left again. That_s when I found the commune and people who didn_t judge me for being a kid with a kid. Then your dad_s helicopter got shot down and he was captured. I got one letter from him in six years._ Leni remembered the letter and how her mother had cried after reading it. _When he came home, he looked like a dead man,_ Mama said. _But he loved us. Loved us like air. Said he couldn_t sleep if I wasn_t in his arms, although he didn_t sleep much then, either._ As always, Mama_s story came to a stumbling halt at this point, the fairy tale over. The witch_s door slammed shut on the wandering kids. The man who_d come home from war was not the same man who_d boarded the plane for Vietnam. _He_s better up here, though,_ Mama said. _Don_t you think? He_s almost himself again._ Leni stared down at the sea, rolling inexorably toward her. Nothing you did could hold back that rising tide. One mistake or miscalculation and you could be stranded or washed away. All you could do was protect yourself by reading the charts and being prepared and making smart choices. _You know it_s dark up here for six months in the winter. And snowy and freezing cold and stormy._ _I know._ _You always said bad weather made him worse._ Leni felt her mother pull away from her. This was a fact she didn_t want to confront. They both knew why. _It won_t be like that here,_ Mama said, grinding out her cigarette in the rocks beside her. She said it again, just for good measure. _Not here. He_s happier here. You_ll see._ * * * AS THE LONG SUMMER DAYS PASSED, Leni_s anxiety faded. Summer in Alaska was pure magic. The Land of the Midnight Sun. Rivers of light; eighteen-hour days with only a breath of dusk to separate one from the next. Light, and work; that was summer in Alaska. There was so much to get done. Everyone talked about it, all the time. In line at the diner, during checkout at the General Store, on the ferry to town. How_s the fishing going? Hunting good? How_s the garden? Every question was about stocking up on food, getting ready for winter. Winter was a Big Deal. Leni had learned that. The coming cold was a constant subtext up here. Even if you were out fishing on a beautiful summer day, you were catching fish for winter. It might be fun, but it was serious business. Survival, it seemed, could hinge on the smallest thing. She and her parents woke at five A.M. and mumbled through breakfast and then set out to do their chores. They rebuilt the goat pen, chopped wood, tended the garden, made soap, caught and smoked salmon, tanned hides, canned fish and vegetables, darned socks, duct-taped everything together. They moved, hauled, nailed, built, scraped. Large Marge sold them three goats and Leni learned how to care for them. She also learned to pick berries and make jam and shuck clams and cure salmon eggs into the best bait in the world. In the evenings, Mama made them new foods_salmon or halibut in almost everything, and vegetables from the garden. Dad cleaned his guns and fixed the metal traps Mad Earl had sold to him and read manuals on butchering animals. Barter and trade and helping out your neighbor was the way they all lived. You never knew when someone was going to drive up your driveway and offer extra meat or some mildewed planks of wood or a bucket of blueberries in exchange for something. Parties sprouted like weeds in this wild place. People showed up with coolers full of salmon and a case of beer and a call was made on the ham radio. A boat full of fishermen pulled up to shore; a float plane landed in their cove. The next thing you knew, people were gathered around a fire on the beach somewhere, laughing and talking and drinking well past midnight. Leni became an adult that summer; that was how it felt to her. In September, she turned fourteen, started her period, and finally needed a bra. Pimples popped out like tiny pink volcanoes on her cheeks, her nose, between her eyebrows. When it first happened, she worried about seeing Matthew, worried that he would change his opinion based on her awkward adolescence; but he didn_t seem to notice that her skin had become an enemy. Seeing him remained the highlight of her days up here. Whenever they got the chance to be together that summer, they ran off from the group and holed up and talked. He recited Robert Service poems to her and showed her special things like a nest full of blue duck eggs or a huge bear print in the sand. She took pictures of the things he showed her_and of him_in every light and tacked them into a giant collage on her loft bedroom wall. Summer ended as quickly as it had begun. Autumn in Alaska was less a season and more an instant, a transition. Rain started to fall and didn_t stop, turning the ground to mud, drowning the peninsula, falling in curtains of gray. Rivers rose to splash over their crumbling banks, tearing big chunks away, changing course. All at once, it seemed, the leaves of cottonwood trees around the cabin turned golden and whispered to themselves, then curled into black flutes and floated to the ground in crispy, lacy heaps. School started, and with it Leni felt her childhood return. She met Matthew in the classroom and took her seat beside him, scooting in close. His smile reawakened her in a way, reminded her that there was more to life than work. He taught her something new about friendship: it picked right back up where you_d left off, as if you hadn_t been apart at all. * * * ON A COLD NIGHT in late September, after a long work day, Leni stood at the window, staring out at the dark yard. She and her mother were exhausted; they_d worked from sunup to sundown, canning the last of the season_s salmon_preparing jars, scaling fish, slicing the plump pink and silver strips, and cutting off the slimy skin. They packed the strips in jars and put them into the pressure cooker. One by one, they carried the jars down to the root cellar and stacked them on newly built shelves. _If there are ten smart guys in a room and one crackpot, you can bet who your dad will like best._ _Huh?_ Leni asked. _Never mind._ Mama moved in to stand by Leni. Outside, night had fallen. A full moon cast blue-white light on everything. Stars filled the sky with pinpricks and elliptical smears of light. Up here, at night, the sky was impossibly huge and never quite turned black, but stayed a deep velvet blue. The world beneath it dwindled down to nothing: a dollop of firelight, a squiggly white reflection of moonlight on the tarnished waves. Dad was out there in the dark with Mad Earl. The two men stood beside each other at a fire burning in an oil drum, passing a jug back and forth. Black smoke billowed up from the garbage they were burning. Everyone else who had come by to help had gone home hours ago. Mad Earl suddenly pulled out his pistol and shot at the trees. Dad laughed uproariously at that. _How long are they going to stay out there?_ Leni asked. The last time she_d gone to the outhouse, she_d heard snippets of their conversation. Ruining the country _ keep ourselves safe _ coming anarchy _ nuclear. _Who knows?_ Mama sounded irritated. She_d fried the moose steaks Mad Earl had brought with him; then she_d made roasted potatoes and set the card table with their camping plates and utensils. One of Leni_s paperback novels had been used to prop up the table_s bad leg. That had been hours ago. Now the meat was probably as dry as an old boot. _Enough is enough,_ Mama finally said. She went outside. Leni sidled to the doorway, pushed the door open so she could hear. Goats bleated at the sound of footsteps. _Hey, Cora,_ Mad Earl said, smiling sloppily. He stood unsteady on his feet, swayed to the right, stumbled. _Would you like to stay for dinner, Earl?_ Mama asked. _Naw, but thanks,_ Mad Earl said, stumbling sideways. _My daughter will tan my hide if I don_t make it home. She_s making salmon chowder._ _Another time then,_ Mama said, turning back to the cabin. _Come on in, Ernt. Leni_s starving._ Mad Earl staggered to his truck, climbed in, and drove away, stopping and starting, honking the horn. Dad made his way across the yard in a mincing, overcautious way that meant he was drunk. Leni had seen it before. He slammed the door behind him and stumbled to the table, half falling into his chair. Mama carried in a platter of meat and oven-browned potatoes and a warm loaf of sourdough bread, which Thelma had taught them how to make from the starter every homesteader kept on hand. _Loo _ s great,_ Dad said, shoveling a forkful of moose meat into his mouth, chewing noisily. He looked up, bleary-eyed. _You two have a lot of catching up to do. Earl and I were talking about it. When TSHTF, you two would be the first casualties._ _TSHTF? What in God_s name are you talking about?_ Mama said. Leni shot her mother a warning look. Mama knew better than to say anything about anything when he was drunk. _When the shit hits the fan. You know. Martial law. A nuclear bomb. Or a pandemic._ He tore off a hunk of bread, dragged it in the meat juice. Mama sat back. She lit up a cigarette, eyeing him. Don_t do it, Mama, Leni thought. Don_t say anything. _I don_t like all of this end-of-the-world rhetoric, Ernt. And there_s Leni to consider. She__ Dad slammed his fist down on the table so hard everything rattled. _Damn it, Cora, can_t you ever just support me?_ He got to his feet and went to the row of parkas hanging by the front door. He moved jerkily. She thought she heard him say, G-damn stupid, and mutter something else. He shook his head and flexed and unflexed his hands. Leni saw a wildness in him, barely contained emotion rising hard and fast. Mama ran after him, reached out. _Don_t touch me,_ he snarled, shoving her away. Dad grabbed a parka and stepped into his boots and went outside, slamming the door shut behind him. Leni caught her mother_s gaze, held it. In those wide blue eyes that held on to every nuance of expression, she saw her own anxiety reflected. _Does he believe all of that end-of-the-world stuff?_ _I think he does,_ Mama said. _Or maybe he just wants to. Who knows? It doesn_t matter, though. It_s all talk._ Leni knew what did matter. The weather was getting worse. And so was he. * * * _WHAT_S IT REALLY LIKE?_ Leni asked Matthew the next day at the end of school. All around them, kids were gathering up their supplies to go home. _What?_ _Winter._ Matthew thought about it. _Terrible and beautiful. It_s how you know if you_re cut out to be an Alaskan. Most go running back to the Outside before it_s over._ _The Great Alone,_ Leni said. That was what Robert Service called Alaska. _You_ll make it,_ Matthew said earnestly. She nodded, wishing she could tell him that she_d begun to worry as much about the dangers inside of her home as outside of it. She could tell Matthew a lot of things, but not that. She could say her father drank too much or that he yelled or lost his temper, but not that he sometimes scared her. The disloyalty of such a thing was impossible to contemplate. They exited the schoolhouse together, walking shoulder to shoulder. Outside, the VW bus waited for her. It looked bad these days, all dinged up and scraped. The bumper was duct-taped in place. The muffler had fallen off at a pothole, so now the poor old thing roared like a race car. Both of her parents were inside, waiting for her. __Bye,_ Leni said to Matthew, and headed to the vehicle. She tossed her backpack into the back of the bus and climbed in. _Hey, guys,_ Leni said. Dad jammed the bus in reverse, backed up, and turned around. _Mad Earl wants me to teach his family a few things,_ Dad said, turning onto the main road. _We talked about it the other night._ In no time, they were out of town and up the hill and pulling into the compound. Dad was the first one out of the bus. He grabbed his rifle from the back and slung it over his shoulder. Mad Earl, seated on his porch, immediately rose and waved. He yelled something Leni couldn_t hear and people stopped working. They put down their shovels and axes and chain saws and moved into the clearing in the center of the compound. Mama opened the door and got out. Leni followed close behind, her wafflestompers sinking into the wet, spongy ground. A dented Ford truck pulled up beside the VW and parked. Axle and the two girls, Agnes and Marthe, got out of the truck and headed for the crowd gathering in front of Mad Earl_s porch. Mad Earl stood on the eroding, slanted porch, his bandy legs spaced a little farther apart than looked comfortable. His white hair hung limply around his loose-skinned face, greasy at the roots and frizzing at the ends. He wore dirty jeans tucked into brown rubber boots and a flannel work shirt that had seen better days. He made a sweeping motion with his hands. Filtered closer, come on in. Ernt, Ernt, come up by me, son._ There was a murmur of sound through the crowd; heads turned. Dad strode past Thelma and Ted, smiling at Clyde and thumping his back when he reached him. Dad stepped up onto the porch beside Mad Earl. He looked tall and rangy next to the diminutive old man. Super-handsome, with all that black hair and the bushy black mustache. _We was talking last night, us boys, about the shit going on Outside,_ Mad Earl said. _Our president is a certified crook and a bomb blowed a TWA jet right outta the sky. Ain_t nobody safe anymore._ Leni turned, looked up at Mama, who shrugged. _My son, Bo, was the very best of us. He loved Alaska and he loved the good old US of A enough to volunteer to fight in that damn war. And we lost him. But even from that hellhole, he was thinking of us. His family. Our safety and security mattered to him. So he sent us his friend, Ernt Allbright, to be one of us._ Mad Earl thumped Dad on the back, kind of pushed him forward. _I been watching Ernt all summer and now I know. He wants the best for us._ Dad pulled a folded newspaper from his back pocket, held it up. The headline read: Bomb on TWA Flight 841 Kills 88. _We might live in the bush, but we go to Homer and Sterling and Soldotna. We know what_s going on in the Outside. Bombings by the IRA, the PLO, Weatherman. Folks killing each other, kidnappings. All those girls disappearing in Washington State; now someone is killing girls in Utah. The Symbionese Liberation Army. India testing nuclear bombs. It_s only a matter of time before World War Three starts. It could be nuclear _ or biological. And when that happens, the shit will really hit the fan._ Mad Earl nodded, murmured his agreement. _Mama?_ Leni whispered. _Is all that true?_ Mama lit up a cigarette. _A thing can be true and not the truth, now shush. We don_t want to make him mad._ Dad was the center of attention, and he drank it up. _You all have done a great job of preparing for scarcity. You_ve excelled at homesteader self-reliance. You have a good water-collection system and good food stores. You_ve staked out freshwater sources and you_re expert hunters. Your garden could be bigger, but it_s well tended. You_re ready to survive anything. Except the effects of martial law._ _Whaddaya mean?_ Ted asked. Dad looked _ different somehow. Taller. His shoulders were higher and more square than she_d seen before. _Nuclear war. A pandemic. An electromagnetic pulse. Earthquake. Tidal wave. Tornado. Mount Redoubt blowing up, or Mount Rainer. In 1908 there was an explosion in Siberia that was a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There are a million ways for this sick, corrupt world to end._ Thelma frowned. _Oh, come on, Ernt, there_s no need to scare__ _Shush, Thelma,_ Mad Earl snapped. _Whatever comes, man-made tragedy or natural disaster, the first thing that happens is a breakdown of law and order,_ Dad said. _Think of it: No power. No communications. No grocery stores. No uncontaminated food. No water. No civilization. Martial law._ Dad paused, made eye contact with each person, one by one. _People like Tom Walker, with his big house and expensive boats and his excavator, will be caught off guard. What good will all that land and wealth do him when he runs out of food or medical supplies? None. And you know what will happen when people like Tom Walker realize they aren_t prepared?_ _What?_ Mad Earl stared up at Dad as if he_d just seen God. _He_ll come here, banging on our doors, begging for help from us, the people he thought he was better than._ Dad paused. _We have to know how to protect ourselves and keep out the marauders who will want what we have. First off, we need to put together bug-out bags_packs that are already packed for survival. We need to be able to disappear at a moment_s notice, with everything we need._ _Yeah!_ someone yelled. _But that_s not enough. We have a good start here. But security is lax. I think Bo left me his land so I would find my way here, to you, and teach you that it_s not enough to be prepared for survival. You have to fight for what_s yours. Kill anyone who comes to take it from you. I know you all are hunters, but we_ll need more than guns when TSHTF. Impact weapons break bones. Knives sever arteries. Arrows puncture. Before the first snowfall, I promise you, each one of us will be ready for the worst, every single one of you_from youngest to oldest_will be able to protect yourself and your family from the danger that_s coming._ Mad Earl nodded. _So. Everyone line up. I want to assess precisely how good each of you is with a gun. We_ll start there._ EIGHT By the first of November, the days were shortening fast. Leni felt the loss of every moment of light. Dawn came reluctantly at nine A.M. and night reclaimed the world around five P.M. Barely eight hours of daylight now. Sixteen hours of darkness. Night swept in like nothing Leni had ever seen before, like the winged shadow of a creature too big and predatory to comprehend. Weather had become impossible to predict. It had rained and snowed and rained again. Now the late-afternoon sky spit down at them, a freezing mixture of sleet and rain. Water pooled on the ground, turned to sheets of dirty, weed-studded ice. Leni had to do her chores in muck. After feeding the goats and chickens, she trudged into the woods behind the house, carrying two empty buckets. The cottonwoods were bare; autumn had turned them into skeletons. Everything with a heartbeat was hunkered down somewhere, trying to get out of the sleet and rain. As she walked down toward the river, a cold wind pulled at her hair, whined across her jacket. She hunched her shoulders and kept her head down. It took five trips to fill the steel water barrel they kept at the side of the house. Rain helped but couldn_t be relied upon. Water, like firewood, could never be left to chance. She was sweating hard, scooping a bucket of water from the creek, slopping it across her boots, when night fell. And she meant fell; it hit hard and fast, like a lid clanging down on its pot. When Leni turned homeward, she saw an endless black expanse. Nothing distinguishable, no stars overhead, no moon to light a path. She fumbled in her parka pocket for the headlamp her dad had given her. She adjusted the strap and put it on, snapping the light switch. She pulled a pistol out of its holster, stuck it in her waistband. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she bent down and picked up the two buckets she_d filled with water. The metal handles bit into her gloved hands. The icy rain turned to snow, stung her cheeks and forehead. Winter. The bears aren_t in hibernation yet, are they? They are most dangerous now, feeding hungrily before going to sleep. She saw a pair of yellow eyes staring at her from the darkness. No. She was imagining it. The ground beneath her changed, gave way. She stumbled. Water sloshed out of the buckets and onto her gloves. Don_tpanicDon_tpanicDon_tpanic. Her headlight revealed a fallen log in front of her. Breathing hard, she stepped over it, heard the screech of bark against her jeans, and kept going; up a hill, down one, around a dense black thicket. Finally, up ahead, she saw a glimmer. Light. The cabin. She wanted to run. She was desperate to get home, to feel her mother_s arms around her, but she wasn_t stupid. She had already made one mistake_she hadn_t kept track of time. As she neared the cabin, the night separated a little. She saw charcoal outlines against the black: the sheen of the metal stovepipe poking up through the roof, a side window full of light, the shadow of people inside. The air smelled of wood smoke and welcome. Leni rushed around to the side of the cabin, lifted the barrel_s makeshift lid, and poured what was left of her water into the barrel. The split second between her upending the bucket and the sound of the water splashing in told her the barrel was about three-quarters full. Leni was shaking so hard it took two tries for her to unlatch the door. _I_m back,_ she said, stepping into the cabin, her whole body shaking. _Shut up, Leni,_ Dad snapped. Mama stood in front of Dad. She was unsteady-looking, dressed in ragged sweats and a big sweater. _Hey, there, baby girl,_ she said. _Hang up your parka and take off your boots._ _I_m talking to you, Cora,_ Dad said. Leni heard anger in his voice, saw her mother flinch. _You have to take the rice back. Tell Large Marge we can_t pay for it,_ he said. _And the pilot bread and powdered milk, too._ _But _ you haven_t gotten a moose yet,_ Mama said. _We need__ _It_s all my fault, is it?_ Dad shouted. _That_s not what I meant, and you know it. But winter_s bearing down on us. We need more food than we have, and our money__ _You think I don_t know we need money?_ He swiped at the chair in front of him, sent it tumbling and cracking to the floor. The sudden wildness in his eyes, the showing of the whites, scared Leni. She took a step backward. Mama went to him, touched his face, tried to gentle him. _Ernt, baby, we_ll figure it out._ He yanked back and headed for the door. Grabbing his parka from its place on the hook by the window, he pulled the door open, let in the sweeping cold, and slammed it shut behind him. A moment later, the VW bus engine roared to life; headlights stabbed through the window, turned Mama golden white. _It_s the weather,_ Mama said, lighting a cigarette, watching him drive away. Her beautiful skin looked sallow in the headlights_ glow, almost waxen. _It_s going to get worse,_ Leni said. _Every day is darker and colder._ _Yeah,_ Mama said, looking as scared as Leni suddenly felt. _I know._ * * * WINTER TIGHTENED ITS GRIP on Alaska. The vastness of the landscape dwindled down to the confines of their cabin. The sun rose at a quarter past ten in the morning and set only fifteen minutes after the end of the school day. Less than six hours of light a day. Snow fell endlessly, blanketed everything. It piled up in drifts and spun its lace across windowpanes, leaving them nothing to see except themselves. In the few daylight hours, the sky stretched gray overhead; some days there was merely the memory of light rather than any real glow. Wind scoured the landscape, cried out as if in pain. The fireweed froze, turned into intricate ice sculptures that stuck up from the snow. In the freezing cold, everything stuck_car doors froze, windows cracked, engines refused to start. The ham radio filled with warnings of bad weather and listed the deaths that were as common in Alaska in the winter as frozen eyelashes. People died for the smallest mistake_car keys dropped in a river, a gas tank gone dry, a snow machine breaking down, a turn taken too fast. Leni couldn_t go anywhere or do anything without a warning. Already the winter seemed to have gone on forever. Shore ice seized the coastline, glazed the shells and stones until the beach looked like a silver-sequined collar. Wind roared across the homestead, as it had all winter, transforming the white landscape with every breath. Trees cowered in the face of it, animals built dens and burrowed holes and went into hiding. Not so different from the humans, who hunkered down in this cold, took special care. Leni_s life was the smallest it had ever been. On good days, when the bus would start and the weather was bearable, there was school. On bad days, there was only work, accomplished in this driving, demoralizing cold. Leni focused on what needed to be done_going to school, doing homework, feeding the animals, carrying water, cracking ice, darning socks, repairing clothes, cooking with Mama, cleaning the cabin, feeding the woodstove. Every day more and more wood had to be chopped and carried and stacked. There was no room in these shortened days to think about anything beyond the mechanics of survival. They were growing starter vegetables in Dixie cups on a table beneath the loft. Even the practice of survival skills at the Harlan compound on weekends had been suspended. Worse than the weather was the confinement it caused. As winter pared their life away, the Allbrights were left with only each other. Every evening was spent together, hours and hours of night, huddled around the woodstove. They were all on edge. Arguments erupted between her parents over money, over chores, over the weather. Over nothing. Leni knew how anxious Dad was about their inadequate supplies and their nonexistent money. She saw how it gnawed at him; she saw, too, how closely Mama watched him, how worried she was about his rising anxiety. His struggle for calm was obvious in a dozen tics and in the way he seemed unwilling to look at them sometimes. He woke well before dawn and stayed outside working as long as he could, coming back in well after dark and covered in snow, his mustache and eyebrows frozen, the tip of his nose white. The effort he made to keep his temper in check was apparent. As the days shortened and the nights lengthened, he began pacing after dinner, getting agitated and muttering to himself. On those bad nights, he took the traps Mad Earl had taught him to use and went trapping in the deep woods alone and came back exhausted, haggard-looking. Quiet. Himself. More often than not, he came home successful in the hunt, with fox or marten furs to sell in town. He made just enough money to keep them afloat; but even Leni could see the empty shelves in their root cellar. No meal was ever big enough to fill them up. The money Mama had borrowed from Grandma was long gone and there was none to take its place, so Leni had stopped taking pictures and Mama barely smoked. Large Marge sometimes gave them cigarettes and film for free_when Dad wasn_t looking_but they didn_t go into town often. Dad_s intentions were good, but even so, it was like living with a wild animal. Like those crazy hippies the Alaskans talked about who lived with wolves and bears and invariably ended up getting killed. The natural-born predator could seem domesticated, even friendly, could lick your throat affectionately or rub up against you to get a back scratch. But you knew, or should know, that it was a wild thing you lived with, that a collar and leash and a bowl of food might tame the actions of the beast, but couldn_t change its essential nature. In a split second, less time than it took to exhale a breath, that wolf could claim its nature and turn, fangs bared. It was exhausting to worry all the time, to study Dad_s every movement and the tone of his voice. It had obviously worn Mama down. Anxiety had pulled the light from her eyes and the glow from her skin. Or maybe the pallor came from living like mushrooms. On an especially cold late November day, Leni woke to the sound of screaming. Something crashed to the floor. She knew instantly what was happening. Her dad had had a nightmare. His third one this week. She crawled out of her sleeping bag and went to the edge of the loft, peering down. Mama stood by the beaded door of their bedroom, holding a lantern high. In its glow, she looked scared, her hair a mess, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. The woodstove was a dot of orange in the dark. Dad was like an untamed animal, shoving, tearing, snarling, saying words she couldn_t understand _ then he was wrenching open boxes, looking for something. Mama approached him cautiously, laid a hand on his back. He shoved her aside so hard she cracked into the log wall, cried out. Dad stopped, jerked upright. His nostrils flared. He was flexing and unflexing his right hand. When he saw Mama, everything changed. His shoulders rounded, his head hung in shame. _Jesus, Cora,_ he whispered brokenly. _I_m sorry. I _ didn_t know where I was._ _I know,_ she said, her eyes glistening with tears. He went to her, enfolded her in his arms, held her. They sank to their knees together, foreheads touching. Leni could hear them talking but couldn_t make out the words. She returned to her sleeping bag and tried to go back to sleep. * * * _LENI! GET UP. We_re going hunting. I_ve got to get out of the g-damn house._ With a sigh, she dressed in the darkness. In the first months of this Alaskan winter, she had learned to live like one of those phosphorescent invertebrates that roamed the sea floor, their lives untouched by any light or color except that which they generated themselves. In the living room, the woodstove offered light through a narrow window in the black metal door. She could make out the silhouettes of her parents standing beside it, could hear their breathing. Coffee gurgled in a metal pot on top of the stove, puffed its welcoming scent into the darkness. Dad lit a lantern, held it up. In its orange glow, he looked haggard, tightly wound. A tic played at the corner of his right eye. _You guys ready?_ Mama looked exhausted. Dressed in a huge parka and insulated pants, she looked too fragile for the weather, and too tired to hike for much of a distance. In a week of rising nightmares and middle-of-the-night screaming, she wasn_t sleeping well. _Sure,_ Mama said. _I love to hunt at six A.M. on a Sunday morning._ Leni went to the hooks on the wall, grabbed the gray parka and insulated pants she_d found at the Salvation Army in Homer last month, and the secondhand bunny boots Matthew had given her. She pulled down-filled gloves out of her parka pockets. _Good,_ Dad said. _Let_s go._ This predawn world was hushed. There was no wind, no cracking branches, just the endless sifting downward of snow, the white accumulating everywhere. Leni trudged through the snow toward the animal pens. The goats stood huddled together, bleating at her arrival, bumping into each other. She tossed them a flake of hay and then fed the chickens and broke the ice on their water troughs. When she got to the VW bus, Mama was already inside. Leni climbed into the backseat. In this cold, the bus took a long time to start and even longer for the windows to defrost. The vehicle was not good in this part of the world; they_d learned that the hard way. Dad put chains on the tires and tossed a gear bag in the well between the front seats. Leni sat in the back, her arms crossed, shivering, intermittently falling asleep and waking up. On the main road, Dad turned right, toward town, but before the airstrip, he turned left onto the road that led to the abandoned chromium mine. They drove for miles on the hard-packed snow, the road a series of sharp switchbacks that seemed to be cut into the side of the mountain. Deep in the woods, high on the mountain, he parked suddenly, with a jarring stomp on the brakes, and handed them each a headlamp and a shotgun before hefting a pack and opening his door. Wind and snow and cold swept into the bus. It couldn_t be much above zero up here. She fit the headlamp over her head, adjusted the strap, and turned on the light. It provided a bright thin beam of light directly ahead. No stars, no starlight. Snow falling hard and fast. A deep, abiding black full of whispering trees and crouching, hidden predators. Dad took off in front, trudging through the snow in his snowshoes, forging a path. Leni let Mama go next and then fell in step behind her. They walked for so long that Leni_s cheeks went from cold to hot to numb. Long enough that her eyelashes and nostril hairs froze, that she felt her own sweat accumulating under her long underwear, itching. At some point, she started to smell, and it made her wonder what else could smell her. It was easy to go from predator to prey out here. Leni was so tired, just trudging forward, chin down, shoulders hunched, that it barely registered that at some point she began to see her own feet, her boots, her snowshoes. At first there was the gray, ambient glow, light that wasn_t quite real, bleeding up from the snow, and then the dawn, pink as salmon meat, buttery. Daylight. Leni finally saw her surroundings. They were on a frozen river. It horrified her to realize she had followed Dad blindly onto its slick surface. What if the ice was too thin? One wrong step and someone could have plunged into the icy water and been swept away. Beneath her, she heard a cracking sound. Dad walked confidently forward, seemingly unconcerned about the ice beneath his feet. On the other shore, he cut a path through stubby, snow-coated brush, stared down, tilted his head as if he were listening. His face above the snowy beard was red with cold. She knew he was following sign_droppings, tracks. Snowshoe hares did most of their feeding and movement at dawn and dusk. He stopped suddenly. _There_s a hare over there,_ he said to Leni. _At the edge of the trees._ Leni looked in the direction he pointed. Everything was white, even the sky. Shapes were difficult to distinguish in this white-on-white world. Then, movement: a plump white hare hopped forward. _Yeah,_ she said. _I see it._ _Okay, Leni. This is your hunt. Breathe. Relax. Wait for the shot,_ Dad said. She lifted her gun. She_d been target-shooting for months, so she knew what to do. She breathed in and out instead of holding her breath; she focused on the hare, aimed. She waited. The world fell away, became simple. There was just her and the hare, predator and prey, connected. She squeezed the trigger. It all seemed to happen simultaneously: the shot, the hit, the kill, the hare slumping sideways. A good clean shot. _Excellent,_ Dad said. Leni slung her shotgun over her shoulder and the three of them set off single file for the tree line and Leni_s kill. When they reached the hare, Leni stared down at it, the soft white body sprayed with blood, lying in a pool of it. She_d killed something. Fed her family for another night. Killed something. Stopped a life. She didn_t know how to feel about it, or maybe she just felt two conflicting emotions at the same time_proud and sad. In truth, she almost wanted to cry. But she was Alaskan now, this was her life. Without hunting, there was no food on the table. And nothing would go to waste. The fur would be made into a hat; the bones would make a soup stock. Tonight Mama would fry the meat in home-churned butter made from goat_s milk and season it with onions and garlic. They might even splurge and add a few potatoes. Her dad knelt in the snow. She saw the shaking of his hands and could tell by the grim set to his mouth that he had a headache as he turned the dead hare onto its back. He placed his blade at the tail and cut upward, through the skin and bone, in a single, sweeping cut. At the hare_s breastbone, he slowed, positioned one bloody finger under the knife blade, and proceeded cautiously to avoid accidentally cutting any organs. He opened the animal, reached in and pulled out the entrails, which he left in a steaming red-pink pile on the snow. He picked out the small, plump heart and held it up to Leni. Blood leaked between his fingers. _You_re the hunter. Eat the heart._ _Ernt, please,_ Mama said, _we_re not savages._ _That_s exactly what we are,_ he said in a voice as cold as the wind at their back. _Eat it._ Leni_s gaze cut to Mama, who looked as horrified as Leni felt. _Are you going to make me ask again?_ Dad said. The quiet of his voice was worse than yelling. Leni felt a ridge of fear poke up, spread along her spine. She reached out, took the tiny blue-red organ in her hand. (Was it still beating or was she trembling?) With her father_s narrowed gaze steady on her, she put the heart in her mouth and forced her lips to close. Instantly, she wanted to gag. The heart was slippery and slimy; when she bit down it ruptured in her mouth, tasting metallic. She felt blood trickle out of the side of her mouth. She swallowed, gagged, wiped the blood from her lips, felt its warmth smear across her cheek. Her father looked up, just enough to make eye contact. He looked ruined, tired, but present; in his eyes, she saw more love and sadness than should be able to exist in one human being. Something was tearing him up inside, even now. It was the other man, the bad man, who lived inside of him and tried to break out in the darkness. _I_m trying to make you self-sufficient._ It sounded like an apology, but for what? For being crazy sometimes or teaching her to hunt? Or for making her eat the hare_s beating heart? Or for the nightmares that ruined all their sleep? Or maybe he was apologizing for something he hadn_t done yet but was afraid he would. * * * DECEMBER. Dad was edgy, tense; he drank too much and muttered under his breath. The nightmares became more frequent. Three a week, every week. He was always moving, demanding, pushing. He ate, slept, breathed, and drank survival. He had become a soldier again, or that_s what Mama said, and Leni found herself tongue-tied around him, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. With as hard as she worked after school and on the weekends, Leni should have slept like the dead, but she didn_t. Night after night she lay awake, worrying. Her fear and anxiety about the world had been sharpened to a knifepoint. Tonight, as exhausted as she was, she lay awake, listening for his screams. When she did finally fall asleep, she landed in a dreamscape on fire, a place full of danger_a world at war, animals being slaughtered, girls being kidnapped, men screaming and pointing guns. She screamed for Matthew, but no one could hear one girl_s voice in a falling-apart world. And besides, what good would he be? She couldn_t tell Matthew this. Not this. Some fears you carried alone. _Leni!_ She heard her name being called from far away. Where was she? It was the middle of the night. Was she still dreaming? Someone grabbed her, yanked her out of bed. It was real this time. A hand clamped over her mouth. She recognized his smell. _Dad?_ she said through his hand. _Come on,_ he said. _Now._ She stumbled over to the ladder, climbed down behind him in an utter darkness. None of the lamps were lit downstairs, but she could hear her mother breathing heavily. Dad led Leni to the newly fixed and steady card table; guided her to a seat. _Ernt, really__ Mama said. _Shut up, Cora,_ Dad said. Something banged onto the table in front of Leni with a clatter and a clang. _What is it?_ he said, standing right next to her. She reached out, her fingers trailing across the rough surface of the card table. A rifle. In pieces. _You need better training, Leni. When TSHTF, we_ll have to do things differently. What if it_s winter? Everything might be dark. You_ll be off guard, confused, sleepy. Excuses will get you killed. I want you to be able to do everything in the dark, when you_re scared._ _Ernt,_ Mama said from the darkness, her voice uneven. _She_s just a girl. Let her go back to bed._ _When men are starving and we have food, will they care that she_s just a girl?_ Leni heard the click of a stopwatch. _Go, Leni. Clean your weapon, put it back together._ Leni reached out, felt for the cold pieces of the rifle, pulled them toward her. The darkness unnerved her, made her slow. She saw a match flare in the darkness, smelled a cigarette being lit. _Stop,_ Dad said. A flashlight beam erupted, blared into being, focused on the rifle. _Unacceptable. You_re dead. All of our food is gone. Maybe one of them is thinking of rape._ He grabbed the rifle, disassembled it, and pushed the pieces to the center of the table. In the blast of light, Leni saw the rifle in parts, in addition to a cleaning rod, cloths, some Hoppes 9 solvent and rust protector, a few screwdrivers. She tried to memorize where everything was. He was right. She needed to know how to do this or she could be killed. Concentrate. The light clicked off. The stopwatch clicked on. _Go._ Leni reached out, trying to remember what she_d seen. She pulled the rifle parts toward her, assembled it quickly, screwed the scope in place. She was reaching for the cleaning cloth when the stopwatch clicked off. _Dead,_ Dad said in disgust. _Try again._ * * * YESTERDAY, on the second Saturday in December, they joined their neighbors for a tree-cutting party. They all hiked out into the wilderness and chose trees. Dad cut down an evergreen, dragged it onto their sled, and hauled it back to the cabin, where they placed it in the corner beneath the loft. They decorated it with family Polaroids and fishing lures. A few presents wrapped in yellowed pages from the Anchorage Daily Times were positioned beneath the fragrant green branches. Magic Marker lines pretended to be ribbon. The propane-fueled hanging lanterns created a warm interior, their light a sharp contrast to the still-dark morning. Wind clawed at the eaves; every now and then a tree branch smacked hard against the cabin. Now, on Sunday afternoon, Mama was in the kitchen, making sourdough bread. The yeasty fragrance of baking bread filled the cabin. The bad weather kept them all inside. Dad was hunched over the ham radio, listening to scratchy voices, his fingers constantly working the knobs. Leni heard the staticky sound of Mad Earl_s voice, his high-pitched cackle coming through loud and clear. Leni sat huddled on the sofa, reading the ragged paperback copy of Go Ask Alice she_d found at the dump. The world felt impossibly small here; the drapes were drawn tightly for warmth and the door was locked shut against cold and predators. _What was that, say again, over?_ Dad said. He was hunched over the ham radio, listening. _Marge, is that you?_ Leni heard Large Marge_s voice come through the radio, broken up, spangled with static. _Emergency. Lost _ Search party _ past Walker cabin _ Meet on Mine Road. Out._ Leni put down her book, sat up. _Who is lost? In this weather?_ _Large Marge,_ Dad said. _Come in. Who is it? Who is lost? Earl, you there?_ Static. Dad turned. Filtered dressed. Someone needs help._ Mama took the half-baked bread out of the oven and set it on the counter, covering it with a dishcloth. Leni dressed in the warmest clothes she had: Carhartt insulated pants, rolled up at the hem, parka, bunny boots. Within five minutes of the call from Large Marge, Leni was in the back of the bus, waiting for the engine to start. It would be a while. Finally, Dad got the windshield scraped enough to see through. Then he checked the chains and climbed into the driver_s seat. _It_s a bad day for someone to get lost._ Dad slowly maneuvered around in the axle-deep snow, turned toward their driveway, which was a thick, unbroken layer of white without tire tracks, bracketed by snow-covered trees. Leni could see her breath; that was how cold it was inside the bus. Snow built up and disappeared on the windshield in between each swipe of the wiper blades. As they neared town, vehicles appeared out of the curtain of falling snow in front of them, headlights glowing through the gloom. Up ahead, Leni saw amber and red lights flashing. That would be Natalie and her snowplow, leading the way onto a barely-there road that led toward the old mine. Dad eased up on the gas. They slowed, pulled into line behind a big pickup truck that belonged to Clyde Harlan, and drove up the mountain. When they reached a clearing, Leni saw a bunch of snow machines (Leni still thought of them as snowmobiles but no one called them that up here) parked in an uneven line. They belonged to the residents who lived in the bush, without roads to their homesteads. All of them had their lights on and their engines running. Falling snow braided through the light beams and gave it all an eerie, otherworldly look. Dad parked alongside a snow machine. Leni followed her parents out into the falling snow and howling wind, into the kind of cold that burrowed deep. They saw Mad Earl and Thelma and made their way over to their friends. _What_s up?_ Dad shouted to be heard above the wind. Before Mad Earl or Thelma could answer, Leni heard the high-pitched wail of a whistle being blown. A man in a heavy blue insulated parka and pants stepped forward. A wide-brimmed hat identified him as a policeman. _I_m Curt Ward. Thanks for coming. Geneva and Matthew Walker are missing. They were supposed to arrive at their hunting cabin an hour ago. This is their usual route. If they_re lost or hurt, we should find them between here and the cabin. Leni didn_t realize she_d cried out until she felt her mother_s reassuring touch. Matthew. She looked up at her mother. _He_ll freeze out here,_ she said. _It will be night soon._ Before Mama could answer, Officer Ward said, _Space yourselves about twenty feet apart._ He began handing out flashlights. Leni turned her flashlight on, stared out at the lane of snow-covered ground in front of her. The whole world spiraled down to a single strip of land. She saw it in layers_bumpy white snow-covered ground, snow-filled air, white trees pointing up to a gray sky. Where are you, Matthew? She moved slowly, doggedly forward, distantly aware of other searchers, other lights. She heard dogs barking and voices raised; searchlights crisscrossed each other. Time passed in a weird, surreal way_in light diminishing and breaths exhaled. Leni saw animal tracks, a pile of bones mixed with fresh blood, fallen spruce needles. Wind had sculpted the snow into peaks and swirls with glazed and hardened icy tips. Tree wells were black with debris, made by animals into makeshift dens that gave them a place to sleep out of the wind. The trees around her thickened. The temperature dropped suddenly; she felt a rush of cold as day gave way to night. It stopped snowing. Wind pushed the clouds away and left in their stead a navy-blue sky awash in swirls of starlight. A gibbous moon shone down, its light bright on the snow. Ambient silver light set the world aglow. She saw something. Arms. Reaching up from the snow, thin fingers splayed out, frozen. She lunged forward through the deep snow, said, _I_m coming, Matthew,_ through wheezing, painful breaths, her light bobbing up and down in front of her. Antlers. A full set, shed by a bull moose. Or maybe beneath this snow lay the bones left by a poacher. Like so many sins, the snow covered it all. The truth wouldn_t be revealed until spring. If ever. The wind picked up, banged through the trees, sent branches flying. She trudged forward, one light amid dozens spread out through the glowing blue-white-black forest, pinpricks of yellow searching, searching _ she heard Mr. Walker_s voice call out, yelling Matthew_s name so often he started to sound hoarse. _There! Up ahead!_ someone yelled. And Mr. Walker yelled back, _I see him._ Leni plunged forward, trying to run through the deep snow. Up ahead, she saw a shadowy lump _ a person _ kneeling by the side of a frozen river in the moonlight, head bowed forward. Leni shoved through the crowd, elbowed her way to the front just as Mr. Walker squatted beside his son. _Mattie?_ he shouted to be heard, laid a gloved hand on his son_s back. _I_m here. I_m here. Where_s your mom?_ Matthew_s head slowly turned. His face was starkly white, his lips were chapped. His green eyes seemed to have lost their hue, taken color from the ice around him. The ice beneath him glowed with moonlight. He was shaking uncontrollably. _She_s gone,_ he croaked, his voice raw. _Fell._ Mr. Walker hauled his son to his feet. Twice Matthew almost collapsed, but his dad held him upright. Leni heard people talking in snippets. __ fell through the ice__ __ should know better__ __ Jesus__ _Come on,_ Officer Ward said. _Let _em through. We need to get this kid warmed up._ NINE Winter had claimed one of them; one who had been born here, who knew how to survive. Leni couldn_t stop thinking about that, worrying about it. If Geneva Walker_Gen, Genny, the Generator, I answer to anything_could be lost so easily, no one was safe. _My God,_ Thelma said as they walked solemnly back to their vehicles. _Genny didn_t make mistakes on the ice._ _Everyone makes mistakes,_ Large Marge said, her dark face crumpled with grief. Natalie Watkins nodded solemnly. _I_ve crossed that river a dozen times this month. Jesus. How could she fall through this time of year?_ Leni was listening and not listening. All she could think about was Matthew and what he must be going through now. He_d seen his mother fall through the ice and die. How could you get over a thing like that? Every time Matthew closed his eyes, wouldn_t he see it again? Wouldn_t he wake screaming from nightmares for the rest of his life? How could she help him? Back at home, shivering with cold and a new fear (you could lose your parents or your life on a normal Sunday, just out walking in the snow _ gone), she wrote him a series of letters, each one of which she tore up because it wasn_t right. She was still trying to compose the perfect letter two days later, when the town came together for Geneva_s funeral. On this freezing cold afternoon, dozens of vehicles were in town, parked wherever they could, on roadsides, in vacant lots. One was practically in the middle of the street. Leni had never seen so many trucks and snow machines in town at one time. All of the businesses were closed, even the Kicking Moose Saloon. Kaneq was hunkered down for winter, glazed in snow and ice, illuminated by the ambient glow of daylight. The world could tumble, change radically in two days, with just one less person living in it. They parked on Alpine Street and got out of the bus. She heard the whining drone of a generator_s motor, grumbling loudly, powering the lights in the church on the hill. Single file, they trudged up the hill. Light filled the dusty windows of the old church; smoke puffed up from the chimney. At the closed door, Leni paused just long enough to peel the fur-trimmed hood back from her face. She_d seen this church on every trip to town, but she_d never been inside. The interior was smaller than it looked from the outside, with chipped white plank walls and a pine floor. There were no pews; people filled the space from side to side. A man dressed in camouflage snow pants and a fur coat stood up front, his face practically hidden by a mustache, beard, and muttonchops. Everyone Leni had ever met in Kaneq was here. She saw Large Marge, standing between Mr. Rhodes and Natalie; the whole Harlan family was here, squished in close to one another. Even Crazy Pete was here, with his goose settled on his hip. But it was the front row that held her attention. Mr. Walker stood beside a beautiful blond girl who must be Alyeska, home from college, and alongside Walker relatives Leni hadn_t met. Off to their right, standing together with them and yet somehow alone, was Matthew. Calhoun Malvey, Geneva_s boyfriend, kept shifting his weight, moving from foot to foot, as if he didn_t know what to do. His eyes were red-rimmed. Leni tried to get Matthew_s attention, but even the opening and closing of the church_s double doors and the subsequent sweep of cold and snow didn_t faze him. He stood there, shoulders slumped, chin dropped, his profile veiled by hair that looked like it hadn_t been washed in a week. Leni followed her parents to an empty space behind Mad Earl_s family and stood there. Mad Earl immediately handed Dad a flask. Leni stared at Matthew, willing him to look at her. She didn_t know what she_d say when they finally got to talk, maybe she wouldn_t say anything, would just take his hand. The priest_or was he a reverend, a minister, a father, what? Leni had no idea about things like this_started to talk. _We here all knew Geneva Walker. She wasn_t a member of this church, but she was one of us, from the moment Tom brought her here from Fairbanks. She was game for anything and never gave up. Remember when Aly talked her into singing the national anthem at Salmon Days and she was so bad that the dogs started howling and even Matilda waddled away? And after it was all over, Gen said, _Well, I can_t sing a lick but who cares? It_s what my Aly wanted._ Or when Genny hooked Tom in the cheek at the fishing derby and tried to claim the prize for biggest catch? She had a heart as big as Alaska._ He paused, sighed. _Our Gen. She was a woman who knew how to love. We don_t quite know whose wife she was at the end, but that doesn_t matter. We all loved her._ Laughter, quiet and sad. Leni lost track of the words. She wasn_t even sure how much time had passed. It made her think of her own mother, and how it would feel to lose her. Then she heard people start to turn for the door, boots stomping, floorboards creaking. It was over. Leni tried to make her way to Matthew, but it was impossible; everyone was pushing toward the door. As far as Leni could tell, no one had said anything about going down to the Kicking Moose Saloon afterward, but they all ended up there just the same. Maybe it was adult instinctive behavior. She followed her parents down the hill and across the street and into the charred, tumbledown interior. The minute she crossed the threshold, she smelled the acrid, sooty smell of burnt wood. Apparently that smell never went away. The interior was cavelike, with propane-fueled lanterns swinging creakily from the rafters, throwing light like streams of water on the patrons below, set in motion by the tap of the wind every time the door opened. Old Jim was behind the bar, serving drinks as fast as he could. A wet gray bar rag hung over one shoulder, dripped dark splotches down the front of his flannel shirt. Leni had heard someone say that he_d bartended here for decades. He_d started back when the few men who lived in this wilderness were either hiding out from or coming home from World War II. Dad ordered four drinks at once, downed them in rapid succession. The sawdust floor gave off a dusty, barnlike scent and muffled the footsteps of so many people. They were talking all at once, in the low voices of grief. Leni heard snippets, adjectives. __ beautiful _ give you the shirt off her back _ best damn nettle bread _ tragedy__ She saw how death impacted people, saw the glazed look in their eyes, the way they shook their heads, the way their sentences broke in half as if they couldn_t decide if silence or words would release them from sorrow. Leni had never known anyone who had died before. She had seen death on television and read about it in her beloved books (Johnny_s death in The Outsiders had turned her inside out), but now she saw the truth of it. In literature, death was many things_a message, catharsis, retribution. There were deaths that came from a beating heart that stopped and deaths of another kind, a choice made, like Frodo going to the Grey Havens. Death made you cry, filled you with sadness, but in the best of her books, there was peace, too, satisfaction, a sense of the story ending as it should. In real life, she saw, it wasn_t like that. It was sadness opening up inside of you, changing how you saw the world. It made her think about God and what He offered at times like this. She wondered for the first time what her parents believed in, what she believed in, and she saw how the idea of Heaven could be comforting. She could hardly imagine a thing as terrible as losing your mother. The very thought of it made Leni sick to her stomach. A girl was like a kite; without her mother_s strong, steady hold on the string, she might just float away, be lost somewhere among the clouds. Leni didn_t want to think about a loss like that, the bone-breaking magnitude of it, but at a time like this there was no looking away, and when she did look it in the face, without blinking or turning away, she knew this: if she were Matthew, she would need a friend right now. Who knew how the friend could help, whether offering silent companionship or a clatter of words was better? That, the how, she would have to figure out on her own. But the what_friendship_that she knew for sure. She knew when the Walkers entered the tavern by the silence that fell. People turned to face the door. Mr. Walker entered first; he was so tall and broad-shouldered, he had to duck to pass through the low door. Long blond hair fell across his face; he shoved it back. Looking up, he saw everyone staring at him, and he stopped, straightened. His gaze moved slowly around the room, from face to face; his smile faded. Grief aged him. The beautiful blond girl came up behind him, her face wet with tears. She had her arm around Matthew, was holding him like a Secret Service agent moving an unpopular Nixon through an angry mob. Matthew_s shoulders were rounded, his body hunched forward, his face downcast. Cal hovered behind them, his eyes glassy. Mr. Walker saw Mama, moved toward her first. _I_m so sorry, Tom,_ Mama said, her face tilted up to him. Crying. Mr. Walker looked down at her. _I should have been with them._ _Oh, Tom__ She touched his arm. _Thanks,_ he said in a hoarse, lowered voice. He swallowed hard, seemed to stop himself from saying more. He looked at the friends gathered close. _I know church funerals aren_t our favorite, but it_s so damn cold out, and Geneva did love the idea of church._ There was a murmur of agreement, a sense of restless motion contained, of relief mingled with grief. _To Gen,_ Large Marge said, lifting her shot glass. _To Gen!_ As the adults clinked their glasses and downed their drinks and turned their attention to the bar for another round, Leni watched the Walker family move through the crowd, stopping to talk to everyone. _Pretty high-falutin_ funeral,_ Mad Earl said loudly. Drunkenly. Leni glanced sideways to see if Tom Walker had heard, but Mr. Walker was talking to Large Marge and Natalie. _What do you expect?_ Dad said, downing another whiskey. His eyes had the glazed look of drunkenness. _I_m surprised the governor didn_t fly down to tell us how to feel. I hear he and Tom are fishing buddies. He loves to remind us peons of that._ Mama moved closer. _Ernt. It_s the day of his wife_s funeral. Can_t we__ _Don_t you say a word,_ Dad hissed. _I saw the way you were hanging all over him__ Thelma pushed in closer. _Oh, for God_s sake, Ernt. This is a sad day. Stow the jealousy for ten minutes._ _You think I_m jealous of Tom?_ Dad said. He glanced at Mama. _Should I be?_ Leni turned her back on them, watched Alyeska hustle Matthew through the mourners, over to a quiet corner in the back. Leni followed, eased between people who stank of wood smoke and sweat and body odor. Bathing was a luxury in midwinter. No one did it often enough. Matthew stood alone, staring blankly forward, with his back to the charred, black-peeling wall. Soot peppered his sleeves. She was shocked by how changed he looked. He couldn_t have lost that much weight in such a short time, but his cheekbones were like ridges above his hollow cheeks. His lips were chapped and bloodied. A patch of skin was white at his temple, the color a sharp contrast to his windburned cheeks. His hair was dirty, and hung in limp, thin strands on either side of his face. _Hey,_ she said. _Hey,_ he answered dully. Now what? Don_t say, I_m sorry. That_s what grown-ups say and it_s stupid. Of course you_re sorry. How does that help? But what? She edged forward cautiously, careful not to touch him, and sidled up beside him, leaning back against the burnt wall. From here, she could see everything_the lanterns hanging from burnt rafters, walls covered with dusty antique snowshoes and fishnets and cross-country skis, ashtrays overflowing, smoke blurring everything_and everyone. Her parents were huddled with Mad Earl and Clyde and Thelma and the rest of the Harlan family. Even through the cigarette smoke haze, Leni could see how red her dad_s face was (a sign of too much whiskey), how his eyes were narrowed in anger as he talked. Mama looked defeated beside him, afraid to move, afraid to add to the conversation or to look at anything except her husband. _He blames me._ Leni was so surprised to hear Matthew speak that it took her a moment to process what he_d said. Her gaze followed his to Mr. Walker. _Your dad?_ Leni turned to him. _He couldn_t. It_s not anyone_s fault. She just _ I mean, the ice__ Matthew started to cry. Tears streamed down his face as he stood there, stock-still, so tense he seemed to be vibrating. In his eyes, she glimpsed a bigger world. Being lonely, being afraid, a volatile, angry dad; these were bad things that gave you nightmares. But they were nothing compared to watching your mother die. How would that feel? How would you ever get over it? And how was she, a fourteen-year-old girl with troubles of her own, supposed to help? _They found her yesterday,_ he said. _Did you hear? One of her legs was missing, and her face__ She touched him. _Don_t think__ At her touch, he let out a howl of pain that drew everyone_s attention. He roared with it again, shuddered. Leni froze, unsure of what to do_should she pull away or push forward? She reacted instinctively, took him in her arms. He melted into her, held her so tightly she couldn_t breathe. She felt his tears on her neck, warm and wet. _It_s my fault. I keep having these nightmares _ and I wake up so pissed off I can_t stand it._ Before Leni could say anything, the pretty blond girl moved in beside Matthew, put an arm around him, pulled him away from Leni. Matthew stumbled into his sister, moving unsteadily, as if even walking felt unfamiliar. _You must be Leni,_ Alyeska said. Leni nodded. _I_m Aly. Mattie_s big sister. He told me about you._ She was trying hard to smile; that was obvious. _Said you were best friends._ Leni wanted to cry. _We are._ _That_s lucky. I didn_t have anyone my age in school when I lived here,_ Aly said, tucking her hair behind one ear. _I guess it_s why Fairbanks seemed like a good idea. I mean _ Kaneq and the homestead can feel as small as a speck sometimes. But I should have been here__ _Don_t,_ Matthew said to his sister. _Please._ Aly_s smile wavered. Leni didn_t know this girl at all, but her struggle for composure and her love for her brother were obvious. It made Leni feel strangely connected to her, as if they had this one important thing in common. _I_m glad he has you. He_s _ struggling now, aren_t you, Mattie?_ Aly_s voice broke. _But he_ll be fine. I hope._ Leni saw suddenly how hope could break you, how it was a shiny lure for the unwary. What happened to you if you hoped too hard for the best and got the worst? Was it better not to hope at all, to prepare? Wasn_t that what her father_s lesson always was? Prepare for the worst. _Of course he will,_ Leni said, but she didn_t believe it. She knew what nightmares could do to a person and how bad memories could change who you were. * * * ON THE DRIVE HOME, no one spoke. Leni felt the loss of every second of light as night fell, felt it as sharply as a mallet striking bone. She imagined her father could hear them, the lost seconds, like stones clattering down a rock wall, plunking somewhere into black, murky water. Mama huddled in her seat, hunched over. She kept glancing at Dad. He was drunk and angry. He bounced in his seat, thumped his hand on the steering wheel. Mama reached out, touched his arm. He yanked away from her, said, _You_re good at that, aren_t you? Touching men. You think I didn_t see. You think I_m stupid._ Mama looked at him wide-eyed, fear etched onto her delicate features. _I don_t think that._ _I saw how you looked at him. I saw it._ He muttered something and pulled away from her. Leni thought he said, Breathe, under his breath, but she couldn_t be sure. All she knew was that they were in trouble. _I saw you touch his hand._ This was bad. He_d always been jealous of Tom Walker_s money _ this was something else. All the way home, as he muttered under his breath, whore, bitch, lied, his fingers played piano keys on the steering wheel. At the homestead, he stumbled out of the bus and stood there swaying, looking at the cabin. Mama went up to him. They stared at each other, both breathing unsteadily. _Make a fool of me again _ will you?_ Mama touched his arm. _You don_t really think I want Tom__ He grabbed Mama by the arm and dragged her into the cabin. She tried to pull free, stumbled forward, put her hand over his in a feeble attempt to make him ease his grip. _Ernt, please._ Leni ran after them, followed them into the cabin, saying, _Dad, please, let her go._ _Leni, go__ Mama started to say. Dad hit Mama so hard she flew sideways, cracked her head into the log wall, and crumpled to the floor. Leni screamed. _Mama!_ Mama crawled to her knees, got unsteadily to her feet. Her lip was ripped, bleeding. Dad hit her again, harder. When she hit the wall, he looked down, saw the blood on his knuckles, and stared at it. A high, keening howl of pain burst out of him, ringing off the log walls. He stumbled back, putting distance between them. He gave Mama a long, desperate look of sorrow and hatred, then ran out of the cabin, slamming the door behind him. * * * LENI WAS SO SCARED and surprised and horrified by what she_d just seen, she did nothing. Nothing. She should have thrown herself at Dad, gotten between them, even gone for her gun. She heard the door slam and it knocked her out of her paralysis. Mama was sitting on the floor in front of the woodstove, her hands in her lap and her head forward, her face hidden by her hair. _Mama?_ Mama slowly looked up, tucked the hair behind her ear. A red splotch marred her temple. Her lower lip was split open, dripping blood onto her pants. Do something. Leni ran into the kitchen, soaked a washcloth with water from the bucket, and went to Mama, kneeling beside her. With a tired smile, Mama took the rag, pressed it to her bleeding lip. _Sorry, baby girl,_ she said through the cloth. _He hit you,_ Leni said, stunned. This was an ugliness she_d never imagined. A lost temper, yes. A fist? Blood? No _ You were supposed to be safe in your own home, with your parents. They were supposed to protect you from the dangers outside. _He was agitated all day. I shouldn_t have talked to Tom._ Mama sighed. _And now I suppose he_s gone to the compound to drink whiskey and eat hate with Mad Earl._ Leni looked at her mother_s beaten, bruised face, the rag turning red with her blood. _You_re saying it_s your fault?_ _You_re too young to understand. He didn_t mean to do that. He just _ loves me too much sometimes._ Was that true? Was that what love was when you grew up? _He meant to,_ Leni said quietly, feeling a cold wave of understanding wash through her. Memories clicked into place like pieces of a puzzle, fitting together. Mama_s bruises, her always saying, I_m clumsy. She had hidden this ugly truth from Leni for years. Her parents had been able to hide it from her with walls and lies, but here in this one-room cabin there was no hiding anymore. _He has hit you before._ _No,_ Mama said. _Hardly ever._ Leni tried to put it all together in her head, make it make sense, but she couldn_t. How could this be love? How could it be Mama_s fault? _We have to understand and forgive,_ Mama said. _That_s how you love someone who_s sick. Someone who is struggling. It_s like he has cancer. That_s how you have to think of it. He_ll get better. He will. He loves us so much._ Leni heard her mother start to cry, and somehow that made it worse, as if her tears watered this ugliness, made it grow. Leni pulled Mama into her arms, held her tightly, stroked her back, just like Mama had done so many times for Leni. Leni didn_t know how long she sat there, holding her mother, replaying the horrible scene over and over. Then she heard her father_s return. She heard his uneven footsteps on the deck, his fumbling with the door latch. Mama must have heard it, too, because she was crawling unsteadily to her feet, pushing Leni aside, saying, _Go upstairs._ Leni watched her mama rise; she dropped the wet, bloody rag. It fell with a splat to the floor. The door opened. Cold rushed in. _You came back,_ Mama whispered. Dad stood in the doorway, his face lined in agony, his eyes full of tears. _Cora, my God,_ he said, his voice scratchy and thick. _Of course I came back._ They moved toward one another. Dad collapsed to his knees in front of Mama, his knees cracking on the wood so loudly Leni knew there would be bruises tomorrow. Mama moved closer, put her hands in his hair. He buried his face in her stomach, started to shake and cry. _I_m so sorry. I just love you so much _ it makes me crazy. Crazier._ He looked up, crying harder now. _I didn_t mean it._ _I know, baby._ Mama knelt down, took him in her arms, rocked him back and forth. Leni felt the sudden fragility of her world, of the world itself. She barely remembered Before. Maybe she didn_t remember it at all, in fact. Maybe the images she did have_Dad lifting her onto his shoulders, pulling petals from a daisy, holding a buttercup to her chin, reading her a bedtime story_maybe these were all images she_d taken from pictures and imbued with an imagined life. She didn_t know. How could she? Mama wanted Leni to look away as easily as Mama did. To forgive even when the apology tendered was as thin as fishing line and as breakable as a promise to do better. For years, for her whole life, Leni had done just that. She loved her parents, both of them. She had known, without being told, that the darkness in her dad was bad and the things he did were wrong, but she believed her mama_s explanations, too: that Dad was sick and sorry, that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like Before. Only Leni didn_t believe that anymore. The truth was this: Winter had only just begun. The cold and darkness would go on for a long, long time and they were alone up here, trapped in this cabin with Dad. With no local police and no one to call for help. All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home. TEN _Come on, sleepyhead!_ Mama called up bright and early the next morning. _Time for school._ It sounded so ordinary, something every mother said to every fourteen-year-old, but Leni heard the words behind the words, the please let_s pretend that formed a dangerous pact. Mama wanted to induct Leni into some terrible, silent club to which Leni didn_t want to belong. She didn_t want to pretend what had happened was normal, but what was she_a kid_supposed to do about it? Leni dressed for school and climbed cautiously down the loft ladder, afraid to see her father. Mama stood beside the card table, holding a plate of pancakes bracketed by strips of crispy bacon. Her face was swollen on the right side, purple seeping along the temple. Her right eye was black and puffy, barely open. Leni felt a rise of anger; it unsettled and confused her. Fear and shame she understood. Fear made you run and hide and shame made you stay quiet, but this anger wanted something else. Release. _Don_t,_ Mama said. _Please._ _Don_t what?_ Leni said. _You_re judging me._ It was true, Leni realized with surprise. She was judging her mother, and it felt disloyal. Cruel, even. She knew that Dad was sick. Leni bent down to replace the paperback book under the table_s rickety leg. _It_s more complicated than you think. He doesn_t mean to do it. Honestly. And sometimes I provoke him. I don_t mean to. I know better._ Leni sighed at that, hung her head. Slowly, she got back to her feet and turned to face her mother. _But we_re in Alaska now, Mama. It_s not like we can get help if we need it. Maybe we should leave._ She hadn_t known it was even in her head until she heard herself say the terrible words. _There_s a lot more winter to come._ _I love him. You love him._ It was true, but was it the right answer? _Besides, we don_t have anywhere to go and no money to go with. Even if I wanted to run home with my tail between my legs, how would I do it? We_d have to leave everything we own here and hike to town and get a ride to Homer and then have my parents wire us enough money for a plane ticket._ _Would they help us?_ _Maybe. But at what price? And__ Mama paused, drew in a breath. _He would never take me back. Not if I did that. It would break his heart. And no one will ever love me like he does. He_s trying so hard. You saw how sorry he was._ There it was: the sad truth. Mama loved him too much to leave him. Still, even now, with her face bruised and swollen. Maybe what she_d always said was true, maybe she couldn_t breathe without him, maybe she_d wilt like a flower without the sunshine of his adoration. Before Leni could say, Is that what love is? the cabin door opened, bringing a rush of icy air with it, a swirl of snow. Dad entered the cabin and shut the door behind him. Removing his gloves, blowing into the chapel of his bare hands, he stomped the snow from his mukluks. It gathered at his feet, white for a heartbeat before it melted into puddles. His woolen tuque was white with snow, as were his bushy mustache and beard. He looked like a mountain man. His jeans appeared almost frozen. _There_s my little librarian,_ he said, giving her a sad, almost desperate smile. _I did your chores this morning, fed the chickens and goats. Mom said you needed your sleep._ Leni saw his love for her, shining through his regret. It eroded her anger, made her question everything again. He didn_t want to hurt Mama, didn_t mean to. He was sick _ _You_re going to be late for school,_ Mama said quietly. _Here, take your breakfast with you._ Leni gathered up her books and her Winnie the Pooh lunch box and layered up in outerwear_boots, qiviut yarn tuque, Cowichan sweater, gloves. She ate a rolled-up jam-smeared pancake as she headed for the door and walked out into a white world. Her breath clouded in front of her; she saw nothing but falling snow and the man breathing beside her. The VW bus slowly sketched itself into existence, already running. She reached out with her gloved hand and opened the passenger door. It took a couple of tries in the cold, but the old metal door finally creaked open and Leni tossed her backpack and lunch box on the floor and climbed up onto the torn vinyl seat. Dad climbed into the driver_s seat and started the wipers. The radio came on, blastingly loud. It was the Peninsula Pipeline morning broadcast. Messages for people living in the bush without telephones or mail service. __ and to Maurice Lavoux in McCarthy, your mom says to call your brother, he_s feeling poorly__ All the way to school, Dad said nothing. Leni was so deep in her own thoughts, she was surprised when he said, _We_re here._ She looked up, saw the school in front of her. The wipers made the building appear in a foggy fan and then disappear. _Lenora?_ She didn_t want to look at him. She wanted to be Alaska-pioneer-woman-survivor-of-Armageddon strong, to let him know that she was angry, let it be a sword she could wield, but then he said her name again, steeped in contrition. She turned her head. He was twisted around so that his back was pressed to the door. With the snow and fog outside, he looked vibrant, his black hair, his dark eyes, his thick black mustache and beard. _I_m sick, Red. You know that. The shrinks call it gross stress reaction. That_s just a bunch of bullshit words, but the flashbacks and nightmares are real. I can_t get some really bad shit out of my head and it makes me crazy. Especially now, with money so tight._ _Drinking doesn_t help,_ Leni said, crossing her arms. _No, it doesn_t. Neither does this weather. And I_m sorry. I_m so damn sorry. I_ll stop drinking. It will never happen again. I swear it by how much I love you both._ _Really?_ _I_ll try harder, Red. I promise. I love your mom like__ His voice dropped to a whisper. _She_s my heroin. You know that._ Leni knew it wasn_t a good thing, not a normal mom-and-dad thing, to compare your love to a drug that could hollow your body and fry your brain and leave you for dead. But they said it to each other all the time. They said it the way Ali McGraw in Love Story said love means never having to say you_re sorry, as if it were gospel true. She wanted his regret, his shame and sadness to be enough for her. She wanted to follow her mother_s lead as she always had. She wanted to believe that last night had been some terrible anomaly and that it wouldn_t happen again. He reached out, touched her cold cheek. _You know how much I love you._ _Yeah,_ she said. _It won_t happen again._ She had to believe him, to believe in him. What would her world be without that? She nodded and got out of the bus. She trudged through the snow and climbed the steps and entered the warm school. Silence greeted her. No one was talking. Students were in their seats and Ms. Rhodes was at the chalkboard, writing, WWII. Alaska was the only state invaded by Japanese. The skritch-skritch-skritch of her chalk was the only sound in the room. None of the kids was talking or giggling or shoving each other. Matthew sat at his desk. Leni hung her Cowichan sweater on a hook alongside someone_s parka, and stomped the snow from her bunny boots. No one turned to look at her. She put away her lunch box and headed to her desk, taking her seat next to Matthew. _Hey,_ she said. He gave her a barely-there smile and didn_t make eye contact. _Hey._ Ms. Rhodes turned to face the students. Her gaze landed on Matthew, softened. She cleared her throat. _Okay. For Axle, Matthew, and Leni, turn to page 172 of your state history books. On the morning of June sixth, 1942, five hundred Japanese soldiers invaded Kiska Island, in the Aleutian chain. It is the only battle of that war fought on American soil. Many people have forgotten it, but__ Leni wanted to reach under the table and hold Matthew_s hand, to feel the comfort of a friend_s touch, but what if he pulled away? What would she say then? She couldn_t complain that her family had turned out to be fragile and that she no longer felt safe in her home, not after what he_d been through. She could have said it before_maybe_when life had felt different for both of them, but not now, when he was so broken he couldn_t even sit up straight. She almost said, It will get better, to him, but then she saw the tears in his eyes and she closed her mouth. Neither one of them needed platitudes right now. What they needed was help. * * * IN JANUARY, the weather got worse. Cold and darkness isolated the Allbright family even more. Feeding the woodstove became priority number one, a constant round-the-clock chore. They had to chop and carry and stack a huge amount of wood each day, just to survive. And as if all of that weren_t stressful enough, on bad nights_nightmare nights_Dad woke them in the middle of the night to pack and repack their bug-out bags, to test their preparedness, to take their weapons apart and put them back together. Each day, the sun set before five P.M. and didn_t rise until ten A.M., giving them a grand total of six hours of daylight_and sixteen hours of darkness_a day. Inside the cabin, the Dixie cups showed no new green starts. Dad spent hours hunched over his ham radio, talking to Mad Earl and Clyde, but more and more of the world was cut away. Nothing came easily_not getting water or cutting wood or feeding the animals or going to school. But worst of all was the rapidly emptying root cellar. They had no vegetables anymore, no potatoes or onions or carrots. They were almost to the end of their fish stores, and a single caribou haunch hung in the cache. Since they ate almost nothing but protein, they knew the meat wouldn_t last long. Her parents fought constantly about the lack of money and supplies. Dad_s anger_kept barely in check since the funeral_was slowly escalating again. Leni could feel it uncoiling, taking up space. She and Mama moved cautiously, tried never to aggravate him. Today, Leni woke in the dark, ate breakfast and dressed for school in the dark, and arrived at her classroom in the dark. The bleary-eyed sun didn_t appear until past ten o_clock, but when it did show up, sending streamers of brittle yellow light into the shadowy lantern- and woodstove-lit classroom, everyone perked up. _It_s a sunny day! The weatherman was right!_ Ms. Rhodes said from her place at the front of the classroom. Leni had been in Alaska long enough to know that a sunny, blue-skied January day was noteworthy. _I think we need to get out of this classroom, get a little air in our lungs and some sunshine on our faces. Blow out the winter cobwebs. I_ve planned a field trip!_ Axle groaned. He hated anything and everything that had to do with school. He peered through the rat_s-nest fringe of black hair he never washed. _Aw, come on _ can_t we just go home early? I could go ice fishing._ Ms. Rhodes ignored the scruffy-haired teenager. _The older of you_Matthew, Axle, and Leni_help the littles put on their coats and get their backpacks._ _I_m not helping,_ Axle said flatly. _Let the lovebirds do everything._ Leni_s face flamed at the comment. She didn_t look at Matthew. _Fine. Whatever,_ Ms. Rhodes said. _You can go home._ Axle didn_t need more encouragement. He grabbed his parka and left the school in a rush. Leni got up from her seat and went to help Marthe and Agnes with their parkas. No one else had shown up for school today; the trip from Bear Cove must have proven too harsh. She turned back, saw Matthew standing by his desk, shoulders slumped, dirty hair fallen across his eyes. She went to him, reached out, touched his flannel sleeve. _You want me to get you your coat?_ He tried to smile. _Yeah. Thanks._ She got Matthew_s camo parka and handed it to him. _Okay, everyone, let_s go,_ Ms. Rhodes said. She led the students out of the classroom and into the bright, sunlit day. They marched through town and down to the harbor, where a Beaver float plane was docked. The plane was dented up and in need of paint. It rolled and creaked and pulled at its lines with every slap of the incoming tide. At their approach, the plane_s door opened and a wiry man with a bushy white beard jumped down onto the dock. He wore a battered trucker_s cap and mismatched boots. The smile he gave them was so big it bunched up his cheeks and turned his eyes into slits. _Kids, this is Dieter Manse, from Homer. He used to be a Pan Am pilot. Climb aboard,_ Ms. Rhodes said. To Dieter, she said, _Thanks, man. I appreciate this._ She glanced worriedly back at Matthew. _We needed to clear our heads a bit._ The old man nodded. _My pleasure, Tica._ In her previous life, Leni wouldn_t have believed this man had been a captain at Pan Am. But up here, lots of people had been one thing on the Outside and became another in Alaska. Large Marge used to be a big-city prosecutor and now took showers at the Laundromat and sold gum, and Natalie had gone from teaching economics at a university to captaining her own fishing boat. Alaska was full of unexpected people_like the woman who lived in a broken-down school bus at Anchor Point and read palms. Rumor had it that she used to be a cop in New York City. Now she walked around with a parrot on her shoulder. Everyone up here had two stories: the life before and the life now. If you wanted to pray to a weirdo god or live in a school bus or marry a goose, no one in Alaska was going to say crap to you. No one cared if you had an old car on your deck, let alone a rusted fridge. Any life that could be imagined could be lived up here. Leni stepped up into the plane, ducking her head, bending in half. Once inside, she took a seat in the middle row and snapped her seat belt in place. Ms. Rhodes sat down beside her. Matthew lumbered past them, head down, not making eye contact. _Tom says he_s not talking much,_ Ms. Rhodes said to Leni, leaning close. _I don_t know what he needs,_ Leni said, turning back, watching Matthew take a seat and strap his seat belt tight. _A friend,_ Ms. Rhodes said, but it was a stupid answer. The kind of thing adults said. Obvious. But what was that friend supposed to say? The pilot climbed aboard and strapped himself in and put on a headset, then started the engine. Leni heard Marthe and Agnes giggling in their seats behind her. The float plane engine hummed, the metal all around her rattled. Waves slapped the floats. The pilot was saying something about seat cushions and what to do in case of an unscheduled water landing. _Wait. That means a crash. He_s talking about what to do if we crash,_ she said, feeling the start of panic. _We_ll be fine,_ Ms. Rhodes said. _You can_t be Alaskan and be afraid of small planes. This is how we get around._ Leni knew it was true. With so little of the state accessible by roads, boats and planes were important up here. In the winter, the vastness of Alaska was connected by frozen rivers and lakes. In the summer all of that fast-moving water separated and isolated them. Bush planes helped them get around. Still, she hadn_t been in an airplane before and it felt remarkably unsteady and unreliable. She clutched the armrests and held on. She tried to sweep fear out of her mind as the plane rambled past the breakwater, clattered hard, and began lifting into the sky. The plane swayed sickeningly, leveled out. Leni didn_t open her eyes. If she did, she knew she_d see things that scared her: bolts that could pop out, windows that could crack, mountains they could crash into. She thought about that plane that had crashed in the Andes a few years ago. The survivors had become cannibals. Her fingers ached. That was how tightly she was holding on. _Open your eyes,_ Ms. Rhodes said. _Trust me._ She opened her eyes, pushed the vibrating curls out of her face. Through a circle of Plexiglas, the world was something she_d never seen before. Blue, black, white, purple. From this vantage point, the geographical history of Alaska came alive for her; she saw the violence of its birth_volcanoes like Mounts Redoubt and Augustine erupting; mountain peaks thrust up from the sea and then worn down by rocky blue glaciers; fjords sculpted by rivers of moving ice. She saw Homer, huddled on a strip of land between high sandstone bluffs, fields covered in snow, and the Spit pointing out into the bay. Glaciers had formed all of this landscape, cut through and crunched forward, hollowing out deep bays, leaving mountains on either side. The colors were spectacular, saturating. Across the blue bay, the Kenai Mountains rose like something out of a fairy tale, white sawlike blades that pushed high, high into the blue sky. In places, the glaciers on their steep sides were the pale blue of robins_ eggs. The mountains expanded, swallowed the horizon. Jagged, white peaks striated by black crevasses and turquoise glaciers. _Wow,_ she said, pressing closer to the window. They flew close to mountain peaks. And then they were descending, gliding low over an inlet. Snow blanketed everything, lay in glittering patches on the beach, turned to ice and slush by the water. The float plane swerved and banked, lifted up again, and flew over a thicket of white trees. She saw a huge bull moose walking toward the bay. They were over an inlet and descending fast. She clutched the armrests again, closed her eyes, prepared. They landed with a hard thump, and waves pounded the pontoons. The pilot killed the engine, jumped out of the plane, splashing into the ice-cold water, dragging the float plane higher onto the shore, tying it to a fallen log. Slush floated around his ankles. Leni got out of the plane carefully (nothing was more dangerous up here than getting wet in the winter), walked along the float, and jumped out onto the slushy beach. Matthew was right behind her. Ms. Rhodes gathered the few students together on the icy shore. _Okay, kids. The littles and I are going to hike over to the ridge. Matthew, you and Leni just go exploring. Have some fun._ Leni looked around. The beauty of this place, the majesty of it, was overwhelming. A deep and abiding peace existed here; there were no human voices, no thumping footsteps, no laughter or engines running. The natural world spoke loudest here, the breathing of the tide across the rocks, the slap of water on the float plane_s pontoons, the distant barking of sea lions lumped together on a rock, being circled by chattering gulls. The water beyond the shore ice was a stunning aqua, the color Leni imagined the Caribbean Sea to be, with a snowy shoreline decorated with huge white-covered black rocks. Snowcapped peaks muscled in close. Up high, Leni saw ivory-colored dots scattered on the impossibly steep sides_mountain goats. She reached into her pocket for her last, precious roll of film. She couldn_t wait to take some pictures, but she had to be judicious with the film. Where would she start? The ice-glazed beach rocks that looked like seed pearls? The frozen fern fronds growing up from a snow-rounded black log? The turquoise water? She turned toward Matthew, started to say something, but he was gone. She turned, felt icy water shushing over her boots, and saw Matthew standing far down the beach, alone, his arms crossed. He had dropped his parka; it lay inches away from the incoming waves. His hair whipped across his face. She splashed through the water toward him, reached out. _Matthew, you need to put your coat on. It_s cold__ He yanked away from her touch, stumbled away. Filtered away from me,_ he said harshly. _I don_t want you to see__ _Matthew?_ She grabbed his arm, forced him to look at her. His eyes were red-rimmed from crying. He shoved her away. She stumbled back, tripped over a piece of driftwood, and fell hard. It happened fast enough to take her breath away. She lay there, sprawled on the frozen rocks, the cold water washing toward her, and stared up at him, her elbow stinging with pain. _Oh, my God,_ he said. _Are you okay? I didn_t mean to do that._ Leni got to her feet, stared at him. I didn_t mean to do that. The same words she_d heard spoken by her dad. _There_s something wrong with me,_ Matthew said in a shaky voice. _My dad blames me and I can_t sleep for shit, and without my mom, the house is so quiet that I want to scream._ Leni didn_t know how to respond. _I have nightmares _ about Mom. I see her face, under the ice _ screaming _ I don_t know what to do. I didn_t want you to know._ _Why?_ _I want you to like me. Sometimes you_re the only thing _ Oh, shit _ forget it._ He shook his head, started crying again. _I_m a loser._ _No. You just need some help,_ she said. _Who wouldn_t? After what you_ve been through._ _My aunt in Fairbanks wants me to come live with her. She thinks I should play hockey and learn to fly and see a shrink. I_d get to be with Aly. Unless__ He looked at Leni. _So you_ll go to Fairbanks,_ she said quietly. He sighed heavily. She thought maybe it had already been decided and he_d been waiting to tell her all along. _I_ll miss you._ He was going. Leaving. At that, she felt an aching sense of sorrow expand in her chest. She would miss him so much, but he needed help. Because of her father, she knew what nightmares and sadness and a lack of sleep could do to a person, what a toxic combination that could be. What kind of friend would she be if she cared more about herself than him? I_ll miss you, she wanted to say back to him, but what was the point? Words didn_t help. * * * AFTER MATTHEW LEFT, January got darker. Colder. _Leni, would you set the table for dinner?_ Mama asked on a particularly cold and stormy night, with wind clawing to get in, snow swirling. She was frying up some Spam in a cast-iron skillet, pressing down on it with her spatula. Two slices of Spam for three people was all they had. Leni put down her social studies book and headed for the kitchen, keeping her eye on Dad. He paced along the back wall, his hands flexing and fisting, flexing and fisting, shoulders hunched, muttering to himself. His arms were stringy and thin, his stomach concave beneath his stained thermal underwear top. He hit his forehead hard with the heel of his palm, muttering something unintelligible. Leni sidled around the table and turned into the small kitchen. She gave Mama a worried look. _What did you say?_ Dad said, materializing behind Leni, looming. Mama pressed the spatula down on a slice of Spam. A blob of grease popped up, landed on the back of her wrist. _Ouch! Damn it!_ _Are you two talking about me?_ Dad demanded. Leni gently took her father by the arm, led him to the table. _Your mother was talking about me, wasn_t she? What did she say? Did she mention Tom?_ Leni pulled out a chair, eased him into it. _She was talking about dinner, Dad. That_s all._ She started to leave. He grabbed her hand, pulled so hard she stumbled into him. _You love me, right?_ Leni didn_t like the emphasis. _Mama and I both love you._ Mama showed up as if on cue, put the small plate of Spam alongside an enamel bowl of Thelma_s brown-sugar baked beans. Mama leaned down, kissed Dad_s cheek, pressed her palm to his face. It calmed him, that touch. He sighed, tried to smile. _Smells good._ Leni took her seat and began serving. She poured herself a glass of watery, powdered milk. Mama sat across from Leni, picked at her beans, pushed them around on her plate, watching Dad. He muttered something under his breath. _You need to eat something, Ernt._ _I can_t eat this shit._ He swept his plate sideways, sending it crashing to the floor. He shot up, strode away from the table, moving fast, grabbed his parka off of the wall hook, and wrenched the door open. _No g-damn peace,_ he said, leaving the cabin, slamming the door behind him. Moments later, they heard the bus start up, spin out, drive away. Leni looked across the table. _Eat,_ Mama said, and bent down for the fallen plate and glass. After dinner, they stood side by side, washing and drying the dishes, putting them away on the shelves above the counter. _You want to play Yahtzee?_ Leni finally asked. Her question held as much enthusiasm as her mother_s sad nod. They sat at the card table, playing the game for as long as either could stand the pretense. Leni knew they were both waiting to hear the VW rumble back into the yard. Worrying. Wondering which was worse: him being here or him being gone. _Where is he, you think?_ Leni asked after what seemed like hours. _Mad Earl_s, if he could get up there. Or the Kicking Moose, if the roads were too bad._ _Drinking,_ Leni said. _Drinking._ _Maybe we should__ _Don_t,_ Mama said. _Just go to bed, okay?_ She sat back, lit up one of her precious last cigarettes. Leni gathered up the dice and scorecards and the little brown and yellow fake-leather shaker, and fit them all back into the red box. She climbed up the loft ladder and crawled into her sleeping bag without even bothering to brush her teeth. Downstairs, she heard her mother pacing. Leni rolled over for her paper and a pen. Since Matthew had been gone, she_d written him several letters, which Large Marge mailed for her. Matthew wrote back religiously, short notes about his new hockey team and how it felt to be in a school that actually had sports teams. His handwriting was so bad she could barely decipher it. She waited impatiently for each letter and ripped them open immediately. She read each one over and over, like a detective, looking for clues and hints of emotion. Neither she nor Matthew knew quite what to say, how to use something as impersonal as words to create a bridge between their disparate lives, but they kept writing. She didn_t yet know how he felt about himself or the move or the loss of his mother, but she knew that he was thinking about her. That was more than enough to begin with. Dear Matthew, Today we learned more about the Klondike Gold Rush in school. Ms. Rhodes actually mentioned your grandma as an example of the kind of woman who set out North with nothing and found_ She heard a scream. Leni scrambled out of her sleeping bag and half slid down the ladder. _There_s something out there,_ Mama said, coming out of her bedroom, holding up a lantern. In its glow, she looked wild, pale. A wolf howled. The wail undulated through the darkness. Close. Another wolf answered. The goats screamed in response, a terrible keening cry that sounded human. Leni grabbed the rifle from the rack and went to open the door. _No!_ Mama yelled, yanking her back. _We can_t go out there. They could attack us._ They shoved the curtains aside and opened the window. Cold blasted them. A sliver of moonlight shone down on the yard, weak and insubstantial but enough to show them glimmers of movement. Light on silver fur, yellow eyes, fangs. Wolves moving in a pack toward the goat pen. Filtered out of here!_ Leni yelled. She pointed her rifle and aimed at something, movement, and fired. The gunshot was a crack of sound. A wolf yelped, whined. She shot again and again, heard the bullets thwack into trees, ping on metal. The screaming and bleating of the goats went on and on. * * * QUIET. Leni opened her eyes and found that she was sprawled on the sofa, with Mama beside her. The fire had gone out. Shivering, Leni pushed back the pile of woolen and fur blankets and restarted the fire. _Mama, wake up,_ Leni said. They were both wearing layers of clothing, but when they_d finally fallen asleep, they_d been so exhausted they_d forgotten the fire. _We have to check outside._ Mama sat up. _We_ll go out when there_s light._ Leni looked at the clock. Six A.M. Hours later, when dawn finally shed its slow, tentative light across the land, Leni stepped into her white bunny boots and pulled the rifle down from the gun rack by the door, loading it. The closing of the chamber was a loud crack of sound. _I don_t want to go out there,_ Mama said. _And no. You_re not going alone, Annie Oakley._ With a wan smile, she pulled on her boots and put on her parka, flipping the fur-lined hood up. She loaded up a second rifle and stood beside Leni. Leni opened the door, stepped out onto the snow-covered deck, holding the rifle in front of her. The world was white on white. Snow falling. Muffled. No sounds. They moved across the deck, down the steps. Leni smelled death before she saw it. Blood streaked the snow by the ruined goat pen. Stanchions and gates had been torn apart, lay broken. There were feces everywhere, in dark piles, mingled with blood and gore and entrails. Trails of gore led into the woods. Wrecked. All of it. The pens, the chicken yard, the coop. Every animal gone, not even pieces left. They stared at the destruction until Mama said, _We can_t stay out here. The scent of blood will draw predators._

  • WALL-E / - (Disney, 2012)    WALL-E / - (Disney,
  • Revealed /  (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2013) -   Revealed / (by P.C.
  • Rory Wants a Pet /     (Pritchard, 2014)    Rory Wants a Pet /
  • Dumbo /  (Disney, 2012) -   Dumbo / (Disney, 2012)

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