CHAPTER 1: ALASKA
The Clark family vacation was a yearly affair. Every July, they would pack up their tents, portable gas stoves, outdoor clothes, and plenty of mosquito repellent, and drive to the airport to board a plane for Alaska. Thomas Clark, Maddie’s father, had a good relationship with a local travel agent office, which cut him a good rate on vacation packages for a vacation in Petersburg. A connecting flight to Petersburg airport would land them on the tip of Mitkof Island, where they would take a small boat to the the opposite shore on Kupreanof Island. From there, the family hiked a quarter mile inland and pitched their tents.
Maddie herself was a dark-haired girl, with a pleasant face that certainly wasn’t gorgeous, pale skin, and a slight, boyish build. She’d grown up close to her father, who was now past fifty, and mostly tolerated her mother – not yet forty – who usually played the role of disciplinarian. Her little brother Josh was four, and just beginning to outgrow being cute enough to get away with anything. Over the past year, Maddie found him increasingly more annoying than cute, especially since Josh seemed to delight in making mischief at her expense. In school, Maddie had been pretty enough to get the attention of some of the boys, but too bookish to be very popular; Brad had been her first serious relationship… Serious enough that Maddie had planned to ask her parents if he could come along with them to their vacation in Alaska. She was still reeling from the shock that he wasn’t there with her now.
She had one more reason to sulk, too: Maddie’s mother always took extra-special care not to spoil her only – since Josh, eldest – child, and so there was no free replacement for the smartphone Maddie had so expertly demolished. With that, Maddie’s 21st Century social life had effectively ended. Through the car ride to the airport, while they waited in line to check-in and then for the security checkpoint, and during the flight, Maddie was completely cut off from her friends back home.
At first, she pouted and sulked in withdrawal, but by the time they had reached Petersburg, Maddie had completely resigned from having a social life of any kind, and indeed seemed almost determined to extend her vow of silence to her family, too. For her, brooding about Brad and what must have been wrong in their relationship to make him reject her so bluntly was the only thing worth doing. For her mother and father, however, the only thing worth doing seemed to be pretending that nothing bad had happened.
Some part of Maddie’s brain knew that their intentions were good, but she still couldn’t help but resent them for not having the courage to talk to her about it directly. Their silence about Brad felt to her like lying, and some part of her felt they deserved resentment for betraying the picture she had in her mind of them as beacons of honesty. It was a stretch, she knew, but that didn’t make her feel any less acidic. After all, wasn’t it a sort of pretension that everything had to be alright because they were just such a normal family that they couldn’t ever have any problems? She found that her brooding was fueled by the fact that she kind of liked hating her parents, and that made her feel guilty.
Depression and loathing was becoming for her a sort of queer emotional mud that Maddie could wallow in, and she broke from it only to sleep, eat, and for the occasional times when her dad managed to convince her to come fishing with him and Josh.
She was on a break from wallowing now, sitting in a fold-out chair by the side of the lake with one of her father’s fishing rods in her hand, waiting for a trout. Her brother was standing next to her father, squealing with delight as the elder Clark brought out the nightcrawlers for bait. When she was younger, Maddie had loved fishing with her father, and it looked like Josh was set to outdo the standard of enthusiasm she had set. Even now, she couldn’t quite muster up quite the intensity of sulking that she had before. Watching Josh pull out nightcrawlers and squeal in delight as he dropped them back into their detritus-filled styrofoam container stirred fond memories in her that threatened to derail her bad mood entirely. This is stupid, I wish my dad would just let me go back to the tent. I don’t want to be here, I don’t even want to be in Alaska. Her brooding creed fell a little flat, though, unable to completely drown the warm nostalgia of past fishing trips with her father.
With the rod, she was not getting much luck. More than likely, the worm had wriggled off the hook or been picked off by a clever trout, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. By now, Josh had a fully rigged junior rod, and their father was showing him how to cast it to get the best range to reach out to where the trout were likely to swim. Josh’s first few tries resulted in the line being caught in the bank, but after showing him how to time the line’s release, her father re-baited his line and, eventually, Josh sank it out a few yards from shore. Maddie caught herself smiling a little at the kid’s high-pitched victory cry, but she looked away before her dad could see.
As if sensing the crack in her depressed facade, her father finished teaching Josh to hold the rod steady, told him to be patient, and walked over to where Maddie sat.
“Your line’s coming in a bit, Mads. Nothing biting?” By this point, her line looked like it was getting ready for a date with the weeds near the shore.
She jerked her head behind her as if suddenly coming awake, and looked up to see the signs of deep concern showing through her father’s jovial smile. After a moment, she said “Yeah… I guess it is.”
Her father’s smile began to fade as she reeled in the line, breaking the illusion of a happy man enjoying a fishing trip with his children. They sat there together in silence for a short but awkward moment before he broke it.
“You doing OK, Mads? You’ve been spending a lot of time in your tent.”
Maddie went back to her laser-fixed stare towards the lake. “I’m fine. Just… Haven’t felt like doing anything. Seriously.”
If it sounded twice as convincing as it had felt in the saying, her father still wouldn’t buy it for a second. Hesitating, she turned back to look at her father, only to be surprised. He wasn’t peering down with that look of parental concern she had expected, but rather was kneeling, staring off intently in the distance, like she had been. His shoulders were hunched forwards, and his hands were in each other, as if working through some uncomfortable feeling. He spoke.
“When I was in high school, before I met your mother, I knew this girl… It was so long ago, I hardly remember her name. I think… Ah, yeah, it was Laura…” A nostalgic smile broke his intense look. “Anyway, I had never been with anyone before at the time, oh, this must have been when I was sixteen, just a little older than you. I was completely taken with Laura, she seemed like the absolute perfect girl to me. Smart, funny, creative, gorgeous. She had this great, thick hair, you know one of those crazy perms they used to get in the eighties.”
Her father chuckled at the thought, then let out a sigh. “Anyway, I asked her out to the homecoming dance, and she actually said yes. I couldn’t believe it, I was over the moon. That night we danced together… I’ll never forget it.”
Something began to break in Maddie’s chest, as if her heart was a five ton weight on a floor that could only hold two, and the floor was starting to give. Before it could collapse, her father continued.
“Laura and I… It feels like we went out for months, but I think it was just a few weeks. We spent a lot of time together, spent a lot of it kissing, hah-”
Maddie felt her throat tighten as she remembered kissing Brad. She tried to hold back the rising water of her memories of her relationship with Brad, and their break up. It was getting harder.
“-But then one day she told me she didn’t want to be with me anymore. I was completely blindsided then, but when I think about it now, the signs were there. Anyway, I think right now you’re feeling a lot like I was then-”
The dam burst. Maddie burst out into tears, going from a dry face to a snotty, tear-soaked mess in just a couple of seconds. The sudden release of pressure completely overwhelmed her; she dropped her fishing rod and put her head in her hands as if to stopper up the tears.
Her father’s reaction was instantaneous. He grabbed the fishing rod, set it aside in a holder, and knelt beside her chair.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry! I didn’t meant to make you cry.”
Maddie was lost, riding the torrent of tears as far as it would take her. Through sobs, she said, “Brad… Why did he break up with me? I…” A cry of anguish punctuated a painful thought. “Is there something wrong with me? Am I ugly?”
Her father was taken aback. He brought himself in closer and put his arm over her soulder. “What? No! Who told you that?”
More tears flowed from her face, punctuated by choking sobs. “I just don’t understand… Why wasn’t I good enough for him? What is wrong with me?”
Tom looked at the side of his daughter’s face, which was messed up by tears, cheeks flushed bright red with emotional pain. His brown furrowed with deepened concern. “Madison,” he said, taking his hand and pulling her head towards him, “I want you to listen to me. You are a beautiful, intelligent young woman, no matter what anyone says. I didn’t really get to know this Brad guy, but he doesn’t have any idea how much of an idiot he really is if he thinks he can do better than you.”
Something inside of Madison instinctively recoiled at her father’s attempt at comfort. A wordless voice spoke with feelings inside her mind. Of course your father would tell you you’re perfect. His words are meaningless. He is blind. Anyone else could plainly see you for what you are: A failure! The voice reached deep inside her, penetrating her heart. A fresh wave of emotional anguish rose up and broke, washing over her like an epileptic fit. She broke down completely, convulsing with sobs.
Her father’s look of concern suddenly mixed with surprise, as he thought: What did I say?
After they returned from the fishing trip, Maddie began her retreat again. Over the next few days, she lay in her her tent and read one of several books she had packed with the rest of her luggage. One afternoon, she found herself lying on her back in the big tent staring upwards at a page of the worst supernatural romance ever written, when the call came from outside. “Hey, Mads…” The caution her father was now taking was obvious. What did he want? “Yes?” She didn’t mean for it to sound like a challenge. What is wrong with me? “Hey, honey, I’m watching the bass out here, and Josh wants to go see the skookum pole. Can you take him?” He didn’t come in.
The totem pole wasn’t very far from their campsite, further inland by maybe half a mile. It was an old Tlingit pole that her father had showed her over and over again when she was a kid. Locals called it the “skookum pole”, all with the same knowing grin on their face that meant none of them had any idea why. Josh had seen it probably half a dozen times by now, but always with his mom and dad. He was far too young to go that far from camp by himself.
“Dad, I am reading. Can’t mom take him?” Thousands of miles from civilization and I still can’t just be left alone.
“Your mother is working on the vegetables, Madison. You’ve been reading almost all week. You should get up and enjoy the outdoors a bit anyway, it’s really nice out right now.” Her father had a talent for persuasion that Maddie had a hard time resisting. Some part of her did want to get up and enjoy Alaska, just like she had before.
“Ugh, fine.” Too sharply, again. “I’ll take the little brat to see his stupid pole.”
“Thank you, Maddie. And, uh, don’t call your brother a ‘brat’.” The way he said it told Maddie he was deliberately ignoring her sulky tone, but that she could only push it so far.
Whatever, she thought, but didn’t say out loud. In the back of her mind, she wondered what he’d done to piss her off so badly.
The walk to the totem pole was not very long; in the temperate Alaskan summer air it was downright pleasant, save for the mosquitos. Josh’s enthusiasm for the territory was set to rival his older sister’s: He hopped and jumped with self-satisfied excitement the whole way. In his small voice, he sang: “We’re go-ing to see the po-o-ole, we’re go-ing to see the po-o-ole, the skoo-kum pole, the skoo-kum pole!” That was apparently the limit of the four year old’s creativity, as he repeated it over and over again for the entire fifteen minute journey to the old pole. Maddie’s annoyance was immediate, but she brooded instead of lashing out. She felt like a kettle about to boil over but for a great weight sitting on its lid. Josh was going to get it if he didn’t shut the fuck up soon.
The curse surprised her. She didn’t tend to do that, even in her internal monologue. Well, Josh is just being really annoying, that’s why, she thought. A part of her wasn’t entirely convinced.
As they made their way along a faint path, through the evergreen trees and the underbrush of ferns and moss, the totem pole became visible. Despite her annoyance, it still captured her imagination the way it had in previous years. The single-log pole wasn’t bright and colorful like the totem poles shown in educational books at the library back home. This one was no more than twelve feet tall, dark and weathered, the wood grayed with exposure to the elements, the barest evidence of original paint still visible. The figures carved in the wood were strange, too. At it’s base, the pole depicted four women with their heads down as if in shame or grief. Above that, a ring of twelve human skulls supported a grimacing face with gnashing teeth and an extended tongue, still slightly red. In the middle, a stylized animal skull with antlers sat subservient to a wise-looking face with a solemn Mona Lisa stare. Topping the pole was a carving of a bird with a head crest of rounded feathers, which Maddie’s dad insisted represented the thunderbird. The pole looked old, like it could be a thousand years older than the tourist-bait poles in Petersburg.
“Look, squirt, there’s your pole.” Maddie felt her bad mood recede as the memories of her and her father in years past came back. She couldn’t for the life of her think why she’d snapped at the old man before.
Josh went running off, towards the totem pole, squealing with delight. She called out, more resigned than worried: “Stay close, Josh! Mom and dad would kill me if I lost you.” As Maddie broke through the last of the pines to the clearing near the pole, she saw Josh had picked up a stick and begun a frenzied run around it, whacking the trees and the pole with his newfound weapon. Only he knew what imaginary scene was running through his mind.
“The pole is crappy enough as it is without you hitting it, Josh.” He didn’t seem to notice. Maddie didn’t have her mom’s talent for striking the fear of God into the four-year-old, but then the only times she’d really tried had been when Josh had broken something of hers.
Josh continued his rampage for a minute or two, then seemed to become distracted from his play. The boy became very quiet, suddenly, and began poking around the edge of the clearing. Suddenly, the four-year-old bolted into the woods, away from the direction of their campsite. “Josh! No, come back here!” She followed as fast as she could, pushing spruce branches aside as her feet dodged the green stems of ferns and shrubs.
Keeping the boy in sight proved challenging, the only aid being his bright red shirt darting in and out between the trees. He showed no sign of slowing his push inland, and worry began to set in on Maddie’s mind. “You’d better get back here, Josh! I am going to kill you!” Panic colored the anger in her voice. If I lose him, Mom and Dad are going to kill me, she thought.
The pursuit continued for close to half an hour. More than once, Maddie was sure she’d lost her brother, only for him to suddenly reappear through the trees at the edge of her vision. As a tired ache began to set into her thighs, Maddie began to slow. She thought, in between gasping breaths, he’s got to stop soon. How much energy can a four-year-old have? By the end, her hair and clothes had absorbed the slow, drying sweat of exertion on a mild day.
Finally, once the underbrush fell away and the spruces rose so tall that they blotted out most of the Sun, she found him again. The area was clear, bare tree-trunks several feet apart, capped by foliage high above their heads, over a floor of vines, small plants, moss, and detritus. No birds were singing close by. He was standing still and silent as a statue.
“Josh! Jesus christ, what is wrong with you? Why would you run off like that? I called and called-”
“I saw a bunny, Maddie! But it’s gone.”
Maddie was breathing heavily, now that the adrenaline was subsiding. “Well, it’s like a thirty minute walk back to the camp site, so I hope you’re happy.”
“It’s dead now…” He said it completely matter-of-factly.
“What? What did you say?” Maddie could have sworn he said “dead”.
“It’s dead. The bunny.”
“You didn’t catch it, did you?” She couldn’t imagine he would kill the animal if he somehow managed to catch it, but maybe accidentally? That didn’t really make sense either, surely Josh wasn’t strong enough to accidentally kill a rabbit, but then how fragile were rabbits, anyway?
“No, I didn’t catch it. He did.” Josh pointed to Maddie’s left, and she noticed he’d been looking in that direction the whole time.