From the International bestselling author of The Underside of Joy comes an atmospheric novel about a man who returns to his Alaskan hometown after twenty years
Alaska doesn't forgive mistakes. That's what Kachemak Winkel's mother used to tell him. A lot of mistakes were made that awful day twenty years ago, when she died in a plane crash with Kache's father and brother—and Kache still feels responsible. He fled Alaska for good, but now his aunt Snag insists on his return. She admits she couldn't bring herself to check on his family's house in the woods—not even once since he's been gone.
Kache is sure the cabin has decayed into a pile of logs, but he finds smoke rising from the chimney and a mysterious Russian woman hiding from her own troubled past. Nadia has kept the house exactly the same—a haunting museum of life before the crash. And she's stayed there, afraid and utterly isolated, for ten years.
Set in the majestic, dangerous beauty of Alaska, All the Winters After is the story of two bound souls trying to free themselves, searching for family and forgiveness.
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All the Winters After
By Seré Prince Halverson
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Seré Prince Halverson
All rights reserved.
Evening crept its way into the cabin, and she went to get the knife. Always this, the need to proclaim: I was here today, alive on this Earth.
She took the knife from the shelf to carve a single line in the log-planked stairwell that led from the kitchen to the root cellar. She'd carved them in groups of four one-inch vertical lines bisected with a horizontal line. So many of them now, covering most of the wall. They might be seen as clusters of crosses, but to her, they were not reminders of death and sacrifice but evidence of her own existence.
There were left-behind carvings too, in dated columns filling the doorjamb on the landing at the top of the stairs. These notches marked the heights of growing children, two living in the forties and fifties, and two in the seventies and eighties, one of whom had grown quite tall. She saw the mother standing on a footstool, trying to reach the top of her son's head to mark the wood with pencil, while he stood on tiptoes, trying to appear even taller. She almost heard their teasing, their laughing. Almost.
Six stairs down, she dug the tip of the knife into the wall. The nightly ritual was important. While she no longer lived according to endless rules and regulations, with all those objects and gestures and chants, she did not want her days flowing like water with no end or beginning — shapeless, unmarked. So she read every night, book after book, first in the order that they lined the shelves, turning them upside down when she finished reading and then right side up for the second read and so forth, returning to her favorites again and again. And during the day, she did chores — foraging, launching and checking fishing nets, setting and checking traps, gardening, tending house, feeding chickens and goats, canning and brining and smoking — all in a certain order, varying only according to the needs of the season. Her days always began with a cold-nose nudge from the dog, and not one but two enthusiastic licks of her hand, as if to say not just good morning, but Good Morning! Good Morning!
Then there were the mornings she ignored the dog and unlatched the kitchen door so he could push it open with his nose to let himself out while she returned to bed to stay, dark mornings that led to dark days and weeks. During those times, only under piles of blankets did she feel substantial enough not to drift away; they kept her weighted down and a part of the world. But her dog's persistence and her own strong will eventually would win over, and she'd drag herself up from the thick bog and go back to her chores and her books, carving the missing days into the wall so they did not escape entirely.
It was surprising, what a human being could become accustomed to — a lone human being, miles and years from any other human being. She balanced two more logs and a chunk of coal in the woodstove and, with the dog following her, crossed the room in the left-behind slippers, which had, over time, taken on the shape of her own feet. She'd been careful to keep things as she'd found them, but those slippers were another way she'd made her mark, left her footprint, insignificant as it might be.
She sat in the worn checkered chair and picked up one of the yellowed magazines from 1985. Across the cover: Cosmetic Surgery, the Quest for New Faces and Bodies — At a Price. "A new face, this would help," she once again reminded Leo, who thumped his tail. Unlike the people in the article, she said this not because she was wrinkled (she wasn't) or thought herself homely (she didn't). "It would give us much freedom, yes? A different life."
She opened the big photography book of The City by the Bay and took in her favorite image of the red bridge they called golden and the city beyond, as white as the mountains across this bay. So similar and yet so different. That white city held people, people, people. Here, the white mountains held snow. "And their bridge," she told Leo, closing the book. "We could use that bridge." He cocked his head just as she heard something scrape outside.
A branch. In her mind, she kept labeled buckets in which she let sounds drop: Branch, Moose, Wolf, Bear, Chicken, Wind, Falling Ice, and on and on. Leo's ears perked, but he didn't get up. He too was used to the varied scuttlings of the wilderness. She drew the afghan around her shoulders and opened a novel to the page marked with a pressed forget-me-not.
Yes, she knew a certain comfort here — camaraderie, even. How could she be truly alone, when outside her door, nature kept noisy company and at her feet lay a dog such as Leo? Then there were the books. She'd traveled inside the minds of so many men and women from across the ages. And she had such long, uninterrupted passages of time to think, to ponder every turn her mind took. For instance, there was the word loneliness and the word loveliness. In English, one mere letter apart, and in her handwriting, the words looked almost identical, certainly related. This she found consoling, and sometimes even true.
But now, another sound, and then many unmistakable sounds — determined footsteps coming toward the house. Leo's ears flipped back before he plunged into sharp barking and frantic clawing. She froze. All those years practicing what she would do, but she only sat, with the book open in her trembling hands. Where did she leave the gun? In the barn? How had she grown so careless?
The knife on the shelf in the stairwell. She bolted up to grab it. Flipped off the lights, took hold of Leo's rope collar, tugging him from the door and up the stairs to the second floor. She peered out the window. Though the moon was full, she couldn't see anyone. She pulled the shade, but it snapped up, so she yanked it back down. With all her strength, she dragged Leo, pushing and barely wedging him under the bunk bed with her, and clamped his nose with her hand just as the loose kitchen window creaked open below. A male voice, a yelling, though she didn't hear the words over Leo's whining and the blood pum-pumming in her ears.
It was him, she was sure of it. Shaking, shaking, she squeezed harder on the handle of the knife and wished for the gun. But she was good with a knife; she was sure of that too.CHAPTER 2
There he was, Kachemak Winkel, on a plane of all things, finally headed home of all places. Yes, his fingernails dented the vinyl of the armrests, and the knees of his ridiculously long legs pressed into the seat in front of him, causing the seat to vibrate. A little boy turned and peered at Kache through the crack between B3 and B4. Kache motioned to his legs with a sweep of his hand and said, "Sorry, buddy. No room." But he knew that didn't account for the annoying jittering.
"Afraid of flying?" the man next to him asked, peering above his reading glasses and his newspaper. He wore a tweed blazer and a hunting cap that made him look like a studious Elmer Fudd but with hair, which poked out around the earflaps. "Scotch helps."
Kache nodded thanks. He had every reason to be afraid, it being the twentieth anniversary of the plane crash. But oddly, he was not afraid to fly and never had been. If God or the Universe or whoever was in charge wanted to pluck this plane from the sky and fling it into the side of a mountain in some cruel act of irony or symmetry, so be it. All the fear in the world wouldn't make a difference. No, Kache was not afraid of flying. He was afraid of flying home. And that fear had kept him away for two decades.
He shifted in his seat, elbow on the armrest next to the window, his finger habitually running up and down over the bump on his nose that he'd had since he was eighteen. The plane window framed the scene below, giving it that familiar, comforting, screened-in quality, and through it he watched Austin, Texas, become somewhere south, just another part of the Lower 48 to most Alaskans.
He had spent the majority of those two decades in front of a computer screen, trying to forget what he'd left behind, scrolling column after column of anesthetizing numbers and getting promotion after promotion. Too many promotions, evidently.
After the company had laid him off six months ago, he replaced the computer screen with a TV screen. Janie encouraged him to keep looking for another job, but he discovered the Discovery Channel, evidence of what he'd suspected all along: even the world beyond the balance sheets was flat. Flat screen, forty-seven inches, plasma. That plasma became his lifeblood. So many channels. A whole network devoted to food alone. He learned how to brine a turkey, bone a turkey, smoke a turkey, high-heat roast a turkey. The same could be said of a pork roast, a leg of lamb, a prime rib of beef.
Branching out, he soon knew how to whisper to a dog, how to declutter his bathroom cabinets, how to flip real estate, and what not to wear.
Then he came across the Do-It-Yourself Network, and there he stayed. "Winkels," his father had liked to say, long before there was a DIY Network, "are do-it-yourselfers exemplified." Thanks to all the TV, Kache finally knew how to do many things himself. That is, he could do them in his head, because, as Janie often reminded him, head knowledge and actual capability were two different animals. So with that disclaimer, he might say he knew how to restore an old house from the cracked foundation to the fire-hazard-shingled roof — wiring, plumbing, plastering, you name it. He knew how to build a wooden pergola, how to install a kitchen sink, how to lay a slate pathway in one easy weekend. He even knew how to raise alpacas and spin their wool into the most expensive socks on the planet. Hell, he knew how to build the spinning wheel. His father would be proud.
Kache did not know how to rewind his life, how to undo the one thing that had undone him. His world was indeed flat, and he'd fallen off the edge and landed stretched out on a sofa, on pause, while the television pictures moved and the voices instructed him on everything he needed to know about everything — except how to bring his mom and his dad and Denny back from the dead.
* * *
The little boy in front of him grew bored and poked action figures through the seat crack, letting them drop to Kache's feet. Kache retrieved them a dozen times but then let their plastic bodies lie scattered on the floor beneath him. The boy soon laid his head on the armrest and fell asleep.
On Kache's first plane ride, his dad had lifted him onto his lap in the pilot's seat and explained the Cessna 180's instruments and their functions. "Here we have the vertical speed indicator, the altimeter, the turn coordinator. What's this one, Son?" He pointed to the first numbered circle, and Kache didn't remember any of the big words his father had just spoken.
"A clock, Daddy?" His dad laughed. Then he gently offered the correct names again and again until Kache got them right. It was the only memory he had of his father being so patient with him. How securely tethered to the world Kache had felt, sitting in the warm safety of his dad's lap, zooming over land and sea.
Why had it been impossible to hop on a plane and head north, even for a visit? He tried to picture it: Aunt Snag, Grandma Lettie, and him, sitting at one end of the seemingly vast table at the homestead, empty chairs lined up. Listening to one another chew and clear throats, drumming up questions to ask, missing Denny's constant joking and his father's strong opinions on just about everything. Who would have believed he'd miss those? His mother's calm voice, her break-open laughter so easy and frequent — he could not recall her without thinking of her laugh.
So instead, once he began making decent money, he'd flown Gram and Aunt Snag to Austin for visits, which provided plenty of distractions for all of them. As he drove them around, Grandma Lettie kept her eyes shut on the freeway, saying, "Holy crap!" The woman who'd helped homestead hundreds of acres in the wilderness beyond Caboose, who'd birthed twins — his dad and Aunt Snag — in a hand-hewn cabin with no running water, who'd faced down bears and moose as if they were the size of squirrels and rabbits, couldn't stand a semi passing them on the road. She loved the wildflowers though. At a rest stop, she walked out into the middle of a field of bluebonnets, undid her braid, and fluffed her white hair, which floated like a lone cloud in all that blue, and lay down and sang her old, big, persistent heart out. "Come on, Kache!" she called. "Sing with me, like in the old days."
He kept his arms crossed, shook his head. "Do you know that crazy lady?" he asked Snag.
Gram was of sound mind and body at the time, just being herself, the Lettie he had always adored. Every few minutes, Aunt Snag and Kache saw her arm pop out of the sapphire drift, waving a bee away.
But in the past four years, Gram's health had declined, and Aunt Snag didn't want to travel without her. When he'd talked to Snag early that morning, she'd said Lettie was deteriorating fast. "And I'm not getting any younger. You better hurry and get yourself home, or the only people you'll have left will be in an urn, waiting for you to spread us with the others on the bluff."
He'd let too much time slip by. Twenty years. He was thirty-eight, with little to show for it except a pissed off and, as of last night, officially ex-girlfriend, along with a sweet enough severance package for working his loyal ass off for sixteen years and a hell of a savings account — none of which would impress Aunt Snag or Grandma Lettie in the slightest or do them any good.
* * *
After a stop in Seattle, another three and a half hours and countless thickly frosted mountain ranges later, the plane landed in Anchorage, which Snag and Lettie grumpily called North Los Angeles. Nevertheless, it was their destination for frequent shopping trips, and they didn't hesitate to get their Costco membership when the store first opened there. The in-flight magazine said that just over six hundred thousand people lived in the state, and two-fifths of them resided in Anchorage. So even though it was Alaska's biggest city, it had over three million to go before catching up with LA.
He caught the puddle jumper to Caboose. During the short flight, he spotted a total of eight moose down through the bare birch and cottonwood trees on the Kenai Peninsula, along with gray-green spruce forests, snow-splotched brown meadows, and turquoise lakes. The plane banked where the Cook Inlet met Kachemak Bay, whose name he bore. Across it, the Kenai mountain range, home to nesting glaciers, rose mightily and stretched beyond sight.
From the other side of the inlet, Mount Iliamna, Mount Redoubt, and Mount Augustine loomed solid and strong and steady. But looks deceive — Redoubt and Augustine frequently let off steam and took turns blowing their tops every decade or so, spreading thick volcanic ash as far as Anchorage and beyond, darkening the sky with soot. Kache's mom used to say Alaska didn't forgive mistakes. As a boy, he wondered if those volcanic eruptions were symptoms of its pent-up rage.
There was the Caboose Spit, lined with fishing boats, a finger of land jutting out into the bay where the old railroad tracks ended, the rusty red caboose still there.
"See that?" his mom had shouted over the Cessna's engine that first day they'd all flown together, his dad finally realizing his dream of owning a bush plane. "The long finger with the red fingernail pointing to the mountains? I bet the earth is so proud of those mountains. Wants to make sure we don't miss seeing them." She tucked one of Kache's curls under his cap, her smile so big. "As if we could! Aren't they amazing?"
It had always been a breathtaking view, the kind that made him inhale and forget to exhale, especially when the clouds took off, as they just had, and left the sea every shade of sparkling blue and green against the purest white of the mountains. He had to admit he'd never seen anything anywhere — even now during the spring breakup, Alaska's ugliest time of year — that came close to this height or depth of wild beauty.
Excerpted from All the Winters After by Seré Prince Halverson. Copyright © 2016 Seré Prince Halverson. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Breakup 2005,
Part Two: Land of the Midnight Sun 2005,
Part Three: The Fall 2005,
Part Four: Winter Tracks 2005-2006,
Part Five: Breakup 2006,
Reading Group Guide,
A Conversation with the Author,
About the Author,