“A novel paced like a thriller but written with the aching grace of literary fiction. A gorgeously dark, harrowing debut.”—Riley Sager, New York Times bestselling author of Lock Every Door
The Dry meets The Silence of the Lambs in this intoxicating tale of literary suspense, set in the relentless Alaskan landscape, about madness and obsession, loneliness and grief, and the ferocious bonds of family....
It's been twenty years since Elisabeth’s twin sister, Jacqueline, disappeared without a trace. Now thirty-year-old Elisabeth is living far from home in a small Alaskan town. She's in a loveless marriage and has a precocious young daughter she loves more than anything but who reminds her too much of her long-missing sister.
But then Alfred, a dangerous stranger with a plan of his own, arrives in town and commits an inexplicable act of violence. And he offers a startling revelation: He knows exactly what happened to Elisabeth's sister, but he'll reveal this truth only if she fulfills his three requests.
Increasingly isolated from her neighbors and imprisoned by the bitter cold and her own obsession, Elisabeth can almost hear her sister's voice saying, Come and find me. And so she will, even if it means putting herself—and her family—in danger.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.45(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.85(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Raymond Fleischmann
The rattling buzz of a bush plane awoke her that morning and, as it just so happened, Elisabeth had been dreaming of her sister.
She had been back at her childhood home in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Like all of the dreams about her sister, Elisabeth imagined Jacqueline as she was when she was eleven years old, when they were eleven years old, 1921, the year that Jacqueline disappeared forever.
But beyond those broadest details—her sister’s sad eyes, the vast creaking farmhouse, the clattering stalks of corn that surrounded their yard like an interminable forest—the rest of the dream was lost to Elisabeth as soon as she opened her eyes, that distant world and all its distant comfort obliterated by a postal plane grinding through the sky on its way into town.
Wait, Elisabeth thought, blinking sleep away. Oh, yes.
She was back in Alaska—Tanacross, Alaska, a village with a population of fifty-five people. About two hundred miles southeast of Fairbanks, Tanacross was a place so far from Pennsylvania that it sometimes felt like a different world.
Elisabeth sat up, one hand sweeping through her hair. Her husband John had been away at a seminar in Juneau for almost a week, and she never slept soundly without him, purely out of habit. And then there was the light, that ceaseless summer light. In Alaska, in July, the sun hardly ever went away. More often than not, Elisabeth’s nights were filled with dreams: sometimes about her sister, sometimes nonsense, sometimes music, just music, an indistinct melody playing in circles. No matter the dream, she rarely slept well in the summertime. They had been living in Alaska for three years, and each passing summer had been more difficult than the last.
“Mama, are you awake?”
Margaret was standing beneath the frame of the bedroom’s open door. She was dressed in the cotton nightgown that Elisabeth had made for her last Christmas. Glinting white light shined through the windows beside the bed, and Margaret’s blonde hair and pale skin made her look like a ghost. She looked, Elisabeth thought, very much like she and Jacqueline had looked when they were eleven years old, the same age that Margaret was now.
“Yes, honey, I’m awake,” Elisabeth said. “I’m sitting up, aren’t I?”
Margaret padded across the room. “I thought you might be a somnambulist,” she said, hopping up onto the bed. Margaret leaned back against Elisabeth, collapsing into her arms like a happy cat.
“I might have thought the same about you,” Elisabeth said, smiling, pulling her close. She glanced at her wristwatch on the nightstand. It was five-fifteen in the morning. “What are you doing up so early? Studying your vocabulary?”
“No, I memorized everything last night. I’ve already—” Margaret paused, tugging at a loose button on her gown. “—I’ve already learned all the requisite words.”
“I can tell.” Elisabeth leaned closer to the top of Margaret’s head. Her daughter smelled like sleep: musty, yet also vaguely sweet. “From what I hear,” Elisabeth added, “I’m sure you’ll do very well on your test. You always do.”
That she did. Though Margaret was just eleven years old, she acted and read well beyond her age. Since moving to Alaska, Elisabeth and John had educated her themselves, at home, and Margaret took to everything they taught her with a speed and retention that was sometimes shocking. She eschewed Nancy Drew for H.G. Wells, traded toys for books of logic problems. For Christmas, in addition to the nightgown, Elisabeth and John had given her the first three letters of an encyclopedia series, a massive book that she read from one cover to the next as if it were a novel.
Margaret looked up at her, tilting back her head. “Was that Mr. Glaser’s plane?”
“Probably,” Elisabeth said. “He’s supposed to come by today. He’s awfully early, though.”
“He woke me up.”
“Will he have my book?”
For weeks, Margaret had anxiously awaited the arrival of a science book they had bought through a catalogue. It contained instructions for thirty different experiments that children could conduct from home. Baking soda and vinegar became volcanic lava; paperclips defied all logic and floated on water; vegetable oil and club soda mixed to make an alien sea, its waters churning with florescent yellow globules. Once a week, the Post Office delivered mail, groceries, clothing, books, and medical supplies—anything they ordered, though certain requests took longer than others. They had sent for Margaret’s book six weeks earlier.
“Maybe he’ll have it,” Elisabeth said, and she pulled Margaret tighter, closing her eyes and wishing for sleep again. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“If he doesn’t have it, can you ask him what’s taking so long?”
“I’m not going down there right now. I’m not meeting him.”
“But Mr. Glaser—”
“He’ll leave his deliveries on the landing strip,” Elisabeth said. “He doesn’t need any help.”
And Elisabeth didn’t want to give it. Walter Glaser was nice enough—nice, though always in a hurry—but there were few things that seemed less appealing right now than getting dressed, stepping out of bed, and meeting someone, anyone, on the landing strip at five-fifteen in the morning. But Margaret wouldn’t let it go.
“Please,” she said, “please,” and she wiggled out of Elisabeth’s arms. Margaret knelt in front of her, bouncing lightly. “I need the book for my lessons,” she said. “I have a lesson next week I need it for.”
But Margaret didn’t hear the question. “Please ask him what’s taking so long, Mama. Please. Mama—”
“If he doesn’t have it, he doesn’t have it.”
“But you can ask him why.”
“He’s probably already left.”
Margaret hopped off the bed and pulled a curtain aside from the nearest window. “He’s still there,” she said. “I can see the tip of his tail fin over Mr. Wallis’ house.”
Elisabeth was pushing the sheets away from her legs.
“Mama, please,” Margaret said, bouncing on her toes. “Mama—”
“Let me think about it,” she said, but they both knew that this was code for, Okay, okay. I’ll do it. If she took her time going to the bathroom and pulling on her clothes, by then Mr. Glaser really would be gone. Raising children, and Margaret in particular, was partly a question of winning battles by slight of hand, and at times Elisabeth could be masterful in that respect. Margaret dove onto the bed.
“Thank you, Mama,” she said, beaming. “I’m so obliged.”
Elisabeth dressed, fed the dog, did her business in the outhouse. Then she headed for the landing strip. Tanacross shined in the morning light, the sun already high and hot in the sky. About twenty-five homes comprised the town, each of them squat and square, single-story, their walls built from the hewn trunks of pine and hemlock trees. There were no paved roads in Tanacross, only roads made of dirt, and these were as hard as rock in the winter but almost liquid in the summer. Elisabeth moved quickly, her Oxfords sucking against the mud. She walked with her head down, both hands pulling her cardigan up and over her chin and nose. The summers in Tanacross were filled with swarms of mosquitoes unlike anything she had seen in Pennsylvania. Here, the insects flew in bunches as dense as floating ink. In the summertime, it was always best to move quickly and dress in layers. Elisabeth wore a pair of wide-leg slacks and a plain cotton blouse beneath her cardigan.
The landing strip lay on the north side of town. It seemed that everyone was still asleep, everyone except for Henry Isaac and his grandfather, who were splitting wood in front of their home. Though Henry was strong and young—twenty-nine, two years younger than Elisabeth—his grandfather was doing all the chopping. Henry just stacked the pieces of wood. Both of them nodded and smiled as Elisabeth approach, and Elisabeth did the same.
“Why aren’t you the one chopping?” she said, pausing in the road a few feet away.
Henry threw up his hands. “He insisted. I couldn’t stop him.”
“Lies,” Elisabeth said, and she smiled again. “Tell ch’enděddh’ he’s got a lazy grandson.”
Chuckling, Henry turned to Mr. Isaac and said a few words in their native Athabaskan. Mr. Isaac laughed, speaking quickly in response, too quickly for Elisabeth’s meager understanding. Henry turned back to her.
“He says if it wasn’t for lazy grandsons and all the extra work they make, he’d probably be dead.”
Elisabeth laughed. “Fair enough,” she said, and she started walking again. “Naa su’eg’ęh, both of you.”
She knew that wasn’t quite the right phrase. She had told them Good luck, or something to that effect, an expression as close to Have a good morning as she could manage. But even if she was far from the point, Henry and Mr. Isaac didn’t seem to hold that against her.
“Naa su’eg’ęh,” Mr. Isaac said, nodding and smiling. Then he raised the ax once more.
Twenty minutes had passed since Mr. Glaser arrived, and Elisabeth had every hope that he would already be on his way out of town. He wasn’t airborne yet—she would have heard the plane taking off—but, as she turned the corner and approached the landing strip, she felt certain that she would hear the first catch and clunk of the plane’s engine, and a minute after that Mr. Glaser would be gone.
But when she stepped onto the gravel runway, Elisabeth found that it wasn’t Mr. Glaser who had landed. An unfamiliar plane stood about two hundred feet down the landing strip, its nose slightly crooked, its front left wheel resting in the grass. Equal parts white and canary yellow, the plane resembled most others that Elisabeth had seen in the Alaskan bush, if not for one detail: Painted to the left of the propeller was a black-and-white German balkenkreuz, which stood out like a mole on the side of someone’s nose. The plane’s wings stretched across the top of the fuselage like a huge rounded paddle and, directly in the center, just above the cockpit’s window, a man sat with his knees pulled up against his chest.
For a moment, Elisabeth thought that he was fixing something—tightening a bolt, adjusting a panel, aligning this or that. No matter the season, the conditions in Alaska were tough on planes, and she had seen Mr. Glaser fix such things in the past, sometimes with the help of Teddy Granger, a local who had briefly served as a mechanic in the Army.
But this man was just sitting there, motionless, his back turned toward her. He was staring at the trees that lined the landing strip, woods as dense as the cornstalks that had once encircled Elisabeth’s home. He didn’t notice her approaching. A haze of mosquitos flickered around his head, but he didn’t seem to notice that either.
“Good morning,” Elisabeth said, and she came to a stop a few yards from the plane.
The man jolted, sitting straighter. Then he turned his head and gazed over his shoulder. His eyes were wide and dazed.
“Hello,” he said. “Oh, my goodness. Hello.” His voice was a peculiar blend of German and British accents, quick and sharp with the consonants, slow and soft with the vowels. He pushed himself to his feet and stood staring at her from atop his plane. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you walking up.” He flashed a nervous smile. “My apologies.”
For the most part, he looked normal enough. Mid-forties. Tall and rather slender. He wore a plain white button-up shirt, brown slacks, black suspenders, knee-high boots. He parted his hair to the right with his bangs swept up in a wave, a match for the neat, curving moustache that bent across his face. Elisabeth could tell that he had once been very good looking. He certainly wasn’t ugly in his middle age; it was just that his cheeks and nose were too pointed, too bony, though it was easy to imagine how he might have looked as a softer, younger man. As it was, from his angle high above her, the man owned a certain look of intensity that wasn’t especially inviting. He reminded Elisabeth of a falcon or an eagle. Somehow, even as he smiled, he seemed to scowl.
“I’m sorry I startled you,” Elisabeth said.
“No, no,” the man told her. “That’s all right. I’m fine. That’s quite all right.”
An awkward second passed between them. Still smiling, the man stared at Elisabeth as if waking from a trance. She wondered if he had been drinking.
“I’m Elisabeth Pfautz,” she said.
Cordially, the man bowed his head and lowered his eyes. “Alfred Seidel,” he said. “Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Pfautz.”
She took a single step forward. “What were you looking at?” Elisabeth turned to the woods, half-expecting to see the hulking shadow of a moose or a caribou. But there were only trees—ragged, tired trees—endless as ever. Tanacross was the largest settlement for a hundred square miles.
Alfred lowered his eyes again, bashful. “I was just looking at—” he began, pausing for a second. “—Oh, just everything.” He started walking down the spine of the plane.
“Yes, you know,” he said, gesturing with one hand. “All of it. The woods. The bush. All the beautiful world.” He hopped to the ground, facing her now. His eyes were an iridescent shade of blue, and they narrowed at her as he walked a few steps forward. “Did you say your name is Pfautz?”
Alfred set his hands on his hips. “You’re a German, then?”
“Pfautz is my husband’s name,” Elisabeth said, “but yes, I’m German, at least by stock. My father was from Hamburg, and my mother was from Bremen.”
“Munich,” Alfred said, and he tapped two fingers against his chest. “I’m a German, too.”
“I can see that,” Elisabeth said, motioning at the German cross on his plane. Alfred briefly turned.
“Oh, that,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how uncomfortable that makes some people. But I have no shame in my heritage, never mind what’s going on now.” He grinned, and his eyes flashed as if they had just shared a secret. “I’m sure you understand,” he said. “As a countryman, I mean. By God, it is good to meet you, Mrs. Pfautz. I’ll tell you: Countrymen are rare up here in the wilds,” and as he said that word—wilds—he puckered his lips as if the phrase itself tasted foul.
Elisabeth shook it off. “What brings you to Tanacross?”
“The Post Office,” Alfred said. He paced back to his plane and unlatched the cabin door.
“Where’s Mr. Glaser?”
“In Lincoln, Nebraska.” Alfred leaned inside the cabin and retrieved a single white box of mail, filled only halfway with envelopes and packages. He set it on the ground between them. “I fly a route west of Fairbanks, but I’m pitching in for Glaser this week. His daughter is getting married.”
In a flash, it came back to her. Months ago, Mr. Glaser had mentioned his daughter’s coming marriage. He had been unhappy about the location and how far he had to travel. But your little girl getting married only happens once, he had said, and then paused, adding, Or it damn well better.
“Well, that’s good of you to fill in,” Elisabeth said.
Alfred shrugged. “It’s only my job,” he said, but then a shadow seemed to pass across his face, and he rolled his head side-to-side like a boxer dodging punches. “I do have a favor to ask, however.”
He nodded. “I’ve been flying all day and all night. My route and Glaser’s, you see. I’m exhausted. I need to rest. I need a place to stay, Mrs. Pfautz, and I’ve been told that you have a guestroom.” He lowered his chin, and his eyes steadied on hers. “So, if you’d be so kind, I’d like to stay with you.”
A place to sleep. It wasn’t an odd request in itself. Elisabeth and John’s home was the largest in Tanacross: three bedrooms, two fireplaces, a dining room adjacent to the kitchen and a living room not far from that. And all of this was only one half of the house; the southern half served as the local school, the reason they had come to Tanacross in the first place. Their move was John’s first post with the Office of Indian Affairs. During the past three years, he had helped renovate and update the school, both the building itself and its curriculum. He taught writing, mathematics, and biology, the last of which involved monthly fieldtrips to study the flora and fauna of Glaman Pond, a sickled body of water not far from the house. They had hosted many guests in the past: officials from the Department of the Interior, officers in the Army, other teachers on their way to other posts throughout the territory. The third room was meant to be a guestroom, particularly for those connected in some way to the government.
But there was something about this man that unsettled her, and there was something strange in the way he had looked at her and spoken to her. He wasn’t inviting himself into their home, and he wasn’t demanding it. He desired it—I’d like to stay with you, he had said—and somehow a desire felt more unnerving than a demand. Elisabeth had no wish to know anything about this man’s desires, and she had no wish to fulfill them.
And yet she felt trapped. Their guestroom was intended for exactly this type of stay. Even with John out of town, what option did she really have? It was her job—hers and John’s—to put him up. She felt trapped by obligation, trapped by situation, trapped by a dozen different things at once. But mostly, her eyes locked on him now, she felt trapped by Alfred Seidel.
“The room is free,” she said, hoping that he would hear how this wasn’t the same thing as an outright invitation, “but don’t you have more deliveries to make?”
“You’re my last.”
Elisabeth shuffled her feet, briefly glancing down. “The room isn’t much,” she said. “It’s not exactly the Ritz. Are you sure you’ll be comfortable?”
He smiled. “I’m always comfortable with my countrymen.”
“I see,” Elisabeth said. “Well, you should know that my husband is away on business, so it’s just me and my daughter,” and again she hoped that this would dissuade him, that he would understand her awkward position and all its implicit discomfort.
He didn’t. Alfred smiled merrily, holding up both hands.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Countrymen. Countrywomen. I’m sure I’ll feel right at home.” Turning back to his plane, he reached inside the cabin again, this time retrieving a large green duffel bag. He began to close the cabin door, but then he stopped himself. “Oh, I nearly forgot,” he said, and he dropped his bag to the ground. He leaned inside the plane and started digging around a mass of empty boxes and padding blankets.
Elisabeth leaned to the side, trying to sneak a better look. “Do we have another box?” she said.
“Not quite,” Alfred told her, “but I do have a special delivery.” He turned to her and handed Elisabeth a flat package wrapped in brown paper. A note was affixed to it. For Margaret Pfautz, it read. “Our dear Mr. Glaser set it aside,” Alfred said. He grinned, and again his eyes seemed to flash. “Margaret. Your daughter, I presume? Such a pretty name.”
To his credit, Alfred Seidel wasn’t rude or unfriendly in any way. He wore a daft, cheerful smile almost constantly, and he chatted good-naturedly about the weather, Alaska, Bob Hope’s performance in Road to Zanzibar. He was thankful and effusive about everything and anything; judging from his reactions, the guestroom may as well have been the Ritz, and the coffee may as well have been champagne.
Not the least bit rude, no. But he was peculiar. During bouts of silence in a conversation, his lips would continue to move as though he was still speaking, though Elisabeth could never quite discern what he was saying to himself. In the guestroom, he removed his boots and set them on his pillow—muddy soles and all—and he pushed his hands against each of the four walls as if testing their sturdiness. Before breakfast, in the midst of describing his favorite recipe for mincemeat pie, he reached inside his shirt pocket and retrieved a handful of pebbles, which he tossed into his mouth like grapes.
“Good for digestion,” he said, answering Elisabeth and Margaret’s puzzled stares.
Minutes later, after learning that Margaret had recently read War of the Worlds, Alfred described at length how he had sometimes seen enormous, far-away aircrafts hovering above the battlefields during the Great War.
“The men on the ground couldn’t see them, but those of us in the air certainly could,” he said, calm and matter-of-fact, undeniably serious. “They weren’t zeppelins or observation balloons. These were made of metal. Shining steel. I can’t guess what they were. I can only say that it seemed as if they were watching us—just watching the show.”
Even Margaret, credulous and always curious, bowed her eyes and went on eating her eggs and hard roll without offering much of a reaction. Elisabeth cleared her throat.
“You were a pilot, then?” she said. “In the war, I mean?”
Alfred nodded. “Two years,” he said. “I flew a Fokker Dreidecker. Wonderful plane. I miss it every day.”
“Did you ever meet the Red Baron?” Margaret asked.
“No, little one,” Alfred said. “I’m afraid I never had the chance.” He looked at Elisabeth. “Such a delightful child. So bright and well-informed. And your spit and image, Mrs. Pfautz. Your absolute twin.”
At that, both Elisabeth and Margaret tensed, but Alfred didn’t seem to notice any hint of awkwardness. He turned back to Margaret.
“I suppose you could teach me all sorts of things,” he said, and then he made a show of scrunching up his face in thought. “Let’s see. Who was the fifth president of the United States?”
“James Monroe,” Margaret said, “but that’s an easy one.”
“Well, then, who was the thirty-fifth?”
Margaret chewed, thinking. “We’ve only had thirty-one,” she said. “President Roosevelt is number thirty-two.”
“Ah, so I’ve stumped you,” Alfred said. “You see, my dear, you will be the thirty-fifth. You, my darling,” and with one finger he touched her nose and roared with laughter.
Finally, with breakfast finished, Alfred went to the guestroom and slept. And almost at once, his sleep was a presence in their home like nothing else. His snoring howled through every room, sleep so loud that it sounded greedy, as if he was sucking up all of the home’s air for himself alone. And it was endless. Hour after hour passed, and the snoring went on. No more meals. No trips to the bathroom. Not a single, silent pause. By lunchtime, it was humorous. By evening, annoying.
“How long is Mr. Seidel staying?” Margaret asked as Elisabeth cooked dinner, a meal of seasoned pork chops and thyme-sprinkled radishes from the greenhouse out back. Margaret sat on the floor with her back against the icebox, reading her encyclopedia while idly stroking Delma, their three-year-old malamute.
“Just tonight,” Elisabeth said. She flipped the pork chops in the enamel pan, and they fizzled in their pool of lard. Grease nipped at her knuckles. “Perhaps he’ll leave even sooner. He’s slept a lot already.”
Margaret turned a page. “He said I look like your twin.” She didn’t look up from her book. She kept on reading, or pretending to read. “Is that true? Do I look like Jacqueline?”
Margaret knew only the basics about Jacqueline. She knew that Elisabeth had once had a twin sister, and that Jacqueline had disappeared when they were children. But apart from the simplest facts, Margaret didn’t know much, though she knew that her mother rarely spoke of the matter. She knew to tread lightly, and Elisabeth was glad to do the same.
“I’d say you look like me,” she told Margaret, poking the chops around the pan. “But in a sense you look like her, too, yes.”
Margaret nodded, still reading. “I hope Mr. Seidel leaves soon,” she said. “He smells bad,” and the moment passed, to Elisabeth’s relief.
After dinner, both of them were itching to leave the house. Elisabeth went to visit Mack Sanford, and Margaret went to Betty Northway’s house to play Which, What, or Where?, a geography trivia game that they had inherited from their predecessor at the OIA school. Though Margaret excelled at so many things, geography had never been one of her strong suits.
It was strange—geography seemed so much easier than everything else, so much simpler, yet Margaret struggled with it more than any other subject. She could recite the definition of acrimony and rattle off the multiplication tables without missing a beat, but when it came to correctly labeling Alabama and Mississippi, suddenly she would find herself at a loss. Elisabeth chalked it up to a simple lack of interest.
“Why do I have to learn about places so far away?” Margaret had asked her once. She was staring down at a map of the South Pacific.
“Because those places aren’t actually far away at all,” Elisabeth had told her, trying to whet her interest. “Think about it. Everyone lives on the same globe. If an earthquake happens on one side of the world, it can make a wave that travels across the whole ocean. Those places may seem far away, but they’re not as far as you may think.”
Margaret was quiet, still staring at the map. Then she looked up. “Can I just learn about earthquakes?” she said. “Those are much more interesting than maps.”
Spelling, math, and science—those were the subjects that Margaret enjoyed, and that was why Elisabeth was visiting Mack. She needed motor oil for Margaret’s first experiment, and Mack was the only person in town who owned a motorized vehicle: a small bulldozer speckled with rust. There were no cars in Tanacross, no plumbing or running water. The town’s only source of electricity was a small hydroelectric generator in the Tanana River, and this powered one thing only: the Army radio intended strictly for emergencies. During Christmas, Father Ingraham—the priest who had run the town’s Episcopalian mission for nearly thirty years—would sometimes play carol music from a crackling wind-up gramophone but, apart from this, as far as technology went, Mack’s bulldozer was the beginning and the end.
Mack was their closest friend in Tanacross. Witty and gregarious, quick to laugh, quick to joke, he had always reminded Elisabeth of John—John in the early years of their marriage, the good years, before they had soured, before they had gotten too used to each other. Mack and John even looked alike in certain respects: broad shoulders, barrel chest, thick legs. Mack was shorter than the other Athabaskan men, most of whom were tall and lanky. Still, he was all Athabaskan and, to that end, he bore many of the traits so common among the people in Tanacross: almond eyes, dark skin, wavy black hair, eyebrows that were thick and flat, qualities that made them look almost Asiatic, much different than the Indians outside of Alaska or, rather, much different than the pictures and drawings Elisabeth had seen of them.
And that, it seemed, was a fair enough summation of the town as a whole: different, unexpected. Before moving to Tanacross, what Elisabeth had known about the Athabaskans was what little she had learned from books and pictures—grainy photographs of dour-faced men clad in heaps of fur, dogs pulling rickety sleds, hollow-eyed children huddled against their unsmiling mothers. The pictures always showed a place untouched by the rest of the world, and that was what Elisabeth had expected to find. The frontier. The edge of civilization. A town the world had yet to reach.
But instead, what she had found was this: The rest of the world had already gotten here. Yes, Tanacross was isolated. Yes, it was free of certain conveniences and, yes, Tanacross existed inside a kind of bubble, but that bubble wasn’t as impenetrable as she had been led to believe. Away from the cold, the men wore slacks and button-up shirts. The women wore blouses and tulip skirts and fussed about their hair. People gossiped, fought, worried about the war and the sons and brothers who might soon be fighting in it. They went to church, smoked cigarettes, played cards, read the newspaper. Of course Tanacross had its own culture—in writing letters to friends and family back home, Elisabeth still used quotation marks whenever she mentioned sweat baths or potlatches—but the town didn’t feel as foreign as she had thought that it would. It still felt lonely. It still didn’t feel like home, and Elisabeth was certain that it never would. But foreign? Not exactly. Not entirely.
Mack lived on the north side of town, a few hundred feet from the landing strip. His house was smaller than most of the other homes in Tanacross, but Mack didn’t need much space. Years ago, his wife and infant daughter had died from tuberculosis, and now he lived alone. He had scores of family in Tanacross—brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins near and distant—and he could lend an able hand with nearly any task or problem. He could fix chairs, clocks, lanterns, guns, boats, fishing reels, traps, and sleds. Two summers ago, he had helped John reinforce the roof and windows of the school. Not long after that, he and John had built the greenhouse out back.
Mack also bred dogs. Malamutes. It was Mack who had given them Delma—the runt of a litter who would have been drowned had they not taken her in. Mack kept the dogs in three large kennels beside his house: one for the males, one for the bitches, and one for the mothers and their pups. The kennels were long and narrow and lined with chicken wire.
They began to stir as Elisabeth approached. Some of the dogs paced while others jumped against the mesh, bracing their front paws on the wire and wagging their tails as if they expected Elisabeth to feed them. Despite their excitement, none of the dogs barked; the dogs in Tanacross only howled, and this they did at night, howling for ten or fifteen minutes straight, a chain of call-and-response with the wolves way out in the bush.
“What the heck’s going on out here?” Mack said, smiling as he opened his door and walked down the steps of his stoop. “You stirring up my dogs, Else? Causing trouble?”
“I’m always causing trouble,” Elisabeth said. “Don’t you know that by now?”
“I do. I do,” Mack said. “And I’ll admit it: As long as it’s got your name attached to it—” He winked. “—Trouble doesn’t seem so bad.”
Elisabeth felt her cheeks flush, and she bowed her head. She was smiling—she couldn’t help it—but instantly the air around them seemed to shift. They were quiet for a beat. Then Mack cleared his throat, and he tapped one foot against the stairs’ bottom step.
“So,” he said, straightening up, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Mack dug around inside for a while. The bulldozer, he said, hadn’t been used since last May, and it wasn’t something he regularly maintained.
“It’s not exactly a Cadillac,” he told her. “I change its oil about as often as I take it to a carwash.”
Mack’s home was more or less a workshop. Tables were piled high with half-completed projects. Bookshelves were crowded with cans of greases, paints, and oils. Sawdust covered the floor like a sheen of snow. Rows of tools hung on every wall, wrenches and saws and measuring instruments of all shapes and functions. Why in the world do you need so many collets? Elisabeth had asked Mack one of the first times she visited his home. Why in the world do you know what a collet is? he had replied, and with that she had reminisced about her father—a tool and die maker with the graceful touch of an artist. Before her sister’s disappearance and her father’s passing not long after, his workshop behind their home had been one of the mainstays of her and Jacqueline’s childhood.
A toolmaking shop was a strange place for children to enjoy, but its strangeness was exactly the reason why their father’s shop had been so interesting. It seemed like the laboratory of a wizard or Dr. Frankenstein, a place of tricks and odd little gadgets, a place of invention and, sometimes, a place of mystery. Their father used to make them toys in that shop and, once, when they were eight years old, he made them a doll built from wood and glass and metal pins that held its limbs together. The doll’s eyes were wide and unmoving but, when you held it up to the sun or another bright light, the eyes would slowly close as though the brightness was too much to bear. How does it do that? Elisabeth had asked. Magic, her father said.
“Ta-da!” Mack called out, lifting up a canister of motor oil. He was crouched beside a workbench near the door, and now he rose to his feet. “What’s she need this for, anyway?” he said, clomping across the room. Mack swayed stiffly when he walked, hardly bending his knees at all. Car accident, he had once explained, and left it at that.
“We’re learning about viscosity,” Elisabeth said.
“Oh, sure.” Mack handed her the canister. “Everybody’s got to learn about viscosity.”
“Absolutely,” Elisabeth said. She smiled a little. “Well, thank you for this. I’ll bring it back in a few days.”
“Take your time, take your time.” Slowly, wincing, Mack lowered himself into a chair beside his stove, a cast-iron Favorite that sat in the middle of the room. “So,” he said, “I hear you got a guest.”
“Word travels fast.”
“Word doesn’t have far to go. Sometimes folks know what I’m doing before I’ve even done it.”
“Is that so?” Elisabeth said, feigning an impressed frown. “Well, yes, we’ve got a guest, and what a guest he is.”
She filled him in on all the details—the snoring, the boots on the pillow, the stones that Alfred gulped down like hors d’oeuvres. When she came to the part about spacemen, Mack just shook his head.
“Martians,” he said. “I’ve always hated how nosy they are.”
But his joking belied something else. The longer she spoke, the more she saw it: A pinch in Mack’s eyes, a shadow of unease. He was judging Alfred, but in that process he was also judging her. Suddenly, Elisabeth didn’t want to talk about her guest. Suddenly, she realized that Alfred wasn’t the only one being cross-examined. She was, too, and with that realization she felt an unexpected compulsion to defend Alfred’s stay—and her own decision to allow it.
“Suffice it to say, he’s an eccentric,” she told Mack, hastily coming to an end. “He’s an interesting fellow.”
“An eccentric?” Mack said. “Is that what you’d call all that?”
Elisabeth shrugged. “I don’t know what else to call it. Some people are just a little off-kilter, you know? Especially in the summertime.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Mack said, turning his head toward the window. It was eight o’clock at night, but the world outside was awash in a mustard-colored glow. “But honestly,” he said, “are you sure this guy should be staying with you?”
“Do I have a choice in that? It’s my responsibility, isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” Mack said. “Maybe. But don’t you think these are, I don’t know, exceptional circumstances?”
“Because of his—”
“Because of everything,” Mack said, and he chuckled briefly, though his eyes had no sense of humor in them. “John is out of town, and it’s only you and Margaret in that house with the guy. And he’s not the most—” He shook his head. “—Well, he’s not the most normal guy, obviously, and on top of that there’s his background.”
“Yeah, you know.”
He stared at her, waiting for her cue, her flicker of understanding, but Elisabeth gave him nothing. Mack wilted. The skin on his face was pocked with acne scars, decades-old marks that made him look older than he really was—thirty-seven—only two years senior of John.
“Okay,” he said. “If we’re leveling with each other, I’m not sure I’d trust any of them these days.”
“Sure,” Mack said. “You said it yourself. Where he’s from, I mean. They’re fanatics, you know.”
Ah, Elisabeth thought. That, and she couldn’t help but feel stung. She leaned back on her heels, shifting the oil canister from one hand to the other.
“And I’m not talking about you guys,” Mack said, holding up both hands. “Obviously, I’m not. But it’s something that’s been on my mind. That’s all. Especially with John out of town, I just don’t know how good this is, Else.”
“Well, eccentricities aside, I’m not too concerned about that. Sometimes people just find themselves on the wrong side of a war. That was the case for a lot of people.” Like my entire extended family, she could have added, and John’s, too, but she decided against mentioning that. “Besides, the war was a long time ago.”
“A long time? I’m talking about now, Else. There’s a war going on right now. Don’t you remember?”
Elisabeth bobbed her head. “So, you think he’s, what, spending his weekends at rallies in Nuremberg?”
“I think,” Mack said, “that you should simply be careful.” He slouched back in his chair. “I’m not telling you to kick the guy out. I’m not telling you your business.”
“I don’t want him staying with us either, you know. Believe me, I don’t.”
“I know,” Mack said. “I understand the tough position you’re in. And again, I’m not telling you your business. I’m not telling you to do anything, really. I’m just saying my bit. I’m saying what’s on my mind, one friend to another.”
Elisabeth was quiet for a while, thinking. She was studying the tools that lined the walls of Mack’s home. Some were rusted and warped—hammers that bent like crippled limbs, saws so tarnished that they looked like strips of bark—but, mixed among those, other tools were gleaming and new, each of their various teeth and chiseled edges still sharp and stiff and strong. No matter. They would all wear away with age. Even if Mack never used them, they would all wear away. Everything did—everything and every one.
“Well, I appreciate your concern,” Elisabeth said. “I appreciate your bit.”
But I can take care of myself, she wanted to say, but didn’t.
“Good,” Mack said. “Thank you.”
Slowly, cupping his knees, he stood up, and together they walked to the door.
“Tell Margaret I said ‘Hello,’ okay?”
“I certainly will.”
“And tell Delma the same,” Mack said.
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”
Mack reached for the doorknob, but then his hand paused, and again his face went slack with seriousness. “Just let me know if you need any help,” he said. “I’m not far away. Remember that, will you?”
“I will,” Elisabeth said. “And thank you again for the oil.”
“That’s no trouble,” Mack told her, smiling as he opened the door, and his eyes were sweet and sad and deeply sincere. “No trouble at all.”