No Fences in Alaska
Harper’s plan was beautifully wicked: go to Trish’s house to work on a school project and then spend the night, sneak out of her bedroom window, meet Zachary on the corner, and party all night at his place. His real 21st birthday was Saturday, but he wanted a pre-party celebration with her. Trish would let her back in the next morning, and Harper would drive them both to school. A full night with Zachary, some smack, and a case of beer. She couldn’t wait. And she’d bring a little something back for Trish. She smiled at herself knowingly in the mirror as she hummed and curled her lashes. Of all the times she had been with him, this would be the first she could spend the entire night.
“Where are you going, Harper?” asked Alex, her 11-year-old sister, who had her face behind a hand mirror, working on her lips. They shared a bedroom. Not the best arrangement for Harper’s escapades, but Alex was now her confidante.
“To spend the night with Trish.” Harper smiled at her through the dresser mirror.
“Uh-huh. Don’t think so.” Alex smiled, her top lip bright red. “Is he cute?”
“Oh my God, you wouldn’t believe!” Cute was an understatement when it came to Zachary. He was gorgeous, ripped, and tall, with the softest lips that matched hers perfectly.
Alex giggled, shaking her thick, curly bangs over her huge eyes.
“Isn’t that my lipstick?” asked Harper.
“You said I could use it. Besides, you don’t use red anymore.”
No, she didn’t use red anymore, not since boys in her class taunted her with “hot lips” and especially “horny lips.” Harper didn’t want her sister to experience that.
“It’s OK for dress-up at home,” said Harper, “but use something more subtle for school.”
Alex rolled her eyes.
They rarely fought. Alex admired everything about Harper and always provided support when their parents pulled theirs, sometimes dragging Alex into arguments she hadn’t started. Little Jack, who slept down the hall, never experienced such falls from grace. He was the angel of the family, and he knew it.
Harper admired her outfit in the mirror: tight, white shorts that she had cut off an extra few inches. She admired her long legs, which she tried to show off as much as she could get away with. They were her best feature. Her hot-pink top was strapless, coming just to her ribs to reveal her stomach and her rose-colored stud belly ring. Her eyeliner enhanced the blue in her hazel eyes. Her long nails made her fingers look tantalizingly sensuous, and she could just imagine how good they’d look running down Zachary’s chest. Harper turned and struck her most alluring pose—lips partly open in a circle, one hand behind her head lifting her hair, her other hand hooked into the band of her shorts, pulling them down slightly.
“Am I hot?” she purred.
“On fire!” said Alex.
“Hopefully Zachary thinks so.” She turned around and added more gloss to her lips.
Alex finished her bottom lip and practiced her pucker. “How long before I look like you?”
Harper stopped and frowned at her sister in the mirror. Alex’s side of the room was full of dolls on shelves and princess posters. She even had a Frozen bedspread. Where Harper’s side was bare except for the bottles of makeup, brushes, nail polish, and lip-gloss crammed onto shelves on either side of her dresser mirror. Her shocked parents had removed all her “entirely inappropriate” posters last month—shirtless guys with bulging pecs gripping beautiful, barely dressed women. They even made her toss her adult romance novel collection—over two hundred books—because they had caught Alex reading one.
Four years ago, when Harper’s side looked similar to Alex’s, a friend of her 16-year-old brother Chris opened her bedroom door “by mistake.” Luke wore only boxer shorts and was gorgeous with a toned figure like a runner, messy blonde hair and blue eyes. Harper froze, standing before her mirror in a bra and panties; a dark red blush covered her face and spread to her chest.
Luke gasped and stared.
“How old are you?” he asked, a bulge forming in his shorts.
“Twelve,” said Harper, snapping out of her shock and covering herself with her pillow.
“Wow! You look eighteen at least.”
Harper stared at his shorts. Part of her wanted to shove him out of the room and lock her door. But another part of her, a darker part, was curious and wanted him to come closer. He noticed and smiled, more of a sneer, and it unsettled her.
“Too bad you’re only twelve,” he teased and left.
The next time Luke visited, he spent the night with Chris and happened to mistake doors again. Harper tried very hard not to look or act twelve during her first make-out experience. She didn’t know if she really liked or wanted him or if she just wanted the experience that she had heard so many older girls murmuring about. What was the big deal about a kiss? What did it feel like?
And it was nothing like she imagined.
There was lust and thrill, but there was also fear and guilt. While the kiss and the way he touched her made her feel alive, it didn’t feel right.
Then her brother walked in and all hell broke loose.
Later, Luke claimed the horny little girl attacked him, forcing him to accommodate her inexperienced efforts. Chris punched him a few times, and her father never looked at her the same way again. She didn’t know what hurt more, Luke’s accusations or that her father had believed him.
However, it wasn’t the damage to her moral reputation that bothered her, but her lack of experience, which she quickly gained during the next few years, doing everything except intercourse. At the time she still thought it was important to preserve her virginity. Or at least her parents and the church did. Every other act was fair game, as far as she was concerned. Boys her age were like matches against a flamethrower. Though some tried to keep up with her, they inevitably scampered away, calling her names, trying to shame her to hide their own hang-ups. So she looked elsewhere and found Zachary.
Now she stared at her sister, still very much a little girl, and didn’t want the same future for her. Lying. Secret parties. Drugs and alcohol. Unrestricted sex with a college guy. That was Harper’s life, not her little sister’s.
“Hey, Earth to Harper!” shouted Alex. “How long before I look like you?”
“You don’t want to look like me, Alex,” Harper said, grabbing a tissue, intent on wiping the make-up from her sister’s lips. “Just be you.”
Alex stood and moved away. “Are you kidding? You were hot at twelve, and I’ve done everything at least a year sooner than you did, according to Mom. I should have boobs any day now. I can’t wait!” She shoved a stuffed animal under her pajama shirt against her chest, stood, pushed out her “boobs,” and lifted her shirt past her hip. “Am I hot?” She puckered her full red lips and lifted her hair over her head until it hung seductively over her face.
Harper’s jaw dropped. Maybe she needed to hide more of her secrets from Alex, but Harper already felt so isolated and lonely in her own house. Harper realized she was staring at her sister, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She tried to smile.
“You should see your face!” Alex flopped onto her bed in a heap of giggles.
Harper heard her phone ring down the hall and ran to the bathroom where she had left it.
“Hey, Zachary,” she whispered as she closed the door.
“Hey, Lovebug. Plan still a go?”
She turned on the sink faucets and walked toward the tub to ensure no eavesdroppers could catch anything. “I’ll be at the corner in about ten minutes. I’m bringing a hot birthday present for you. Something to change into,” she groaned softly, “and then out of.”
“I like the out of part,” he replied huskily.
“Won’t be long. I’ll see all of you soon.”
She ran back to the bedroom to finish dressing, leaving the door open. She had met Zachary through Trish’s brother, Larry; both were in college. Harper was a sophomore in high school, visiting Trish when the young men stopped by. Zachary made his interest in her obvious. He told her he loved her large blue-green eyes and golden-brown hair, and her strong nose with the little uplift at the end. And, of course, her figure of generous curves in all the right places. But her lips were his favorite part: full, pouty, shiny with burnt orange gloss. She gave him her number and the secret dates began. Her parents would never approve of Zachary, and the secrecy made their meetings even more intoxicating.
* * *
From the top of the stairs, Greg looked at his sixteen-year-old daughter standing in front of her dresser mirror and gasped in horror. The decision to confront her about the missing twenties from his wallet left his brain. Her long hair piled on top of her head, cut-off shirt and shorts, and flat sandals revealed as much flesh as possible, an image he couldn’t believe his daughter wanted to project. Why would she want to look like that? A little smear of pink and white was all that kept her from total nudity.
He watched her slip on a baggy, long-sleeved shirt, buttoned to her neck to hide her real outfit, then dab perfume on her chest. When she wiped a streak along the inside of each long thigh, his shock turned to anger.
Greg stomped down the hall toward her open bedroom door. “What the hell are you doing?”
Harper kept staring at herself in the mirror, adding more rings to her ears. “I’m going over to Trish’s.” She shoved her phone into her shirt pocket, grabbed her overnight bag from her bed, and tried to move past him, but he held out his arm against the doorframe to stop her. She tried to shoulder past him, but she couldn’t budge him.
He wouldn’t let his daughter go anywhere looking like that. Did she think he was stupid? As if she’d dress like that for Trish. She shouldn’t ever dress like that. Period.
“Who are you really meeting?” he asked, his face reddening.
“I already told you. We’re working on a school project.” She tried to walk through him but bounced off. “Can you move?”
He gently grabbed her shoulders. “Harper—”
She shoved off his hold. “Don’t touch me! I’m going, and you’re making me late!”
“For what? If you were just going to hang out at Trish’s, she wouldn’t mind. Tell me one good reason for putting perfume on your legs.”
“You watched me?”
“As if I wanted to see that.” He matched her tone of disgust. “What is going on with you, Harper?”
Harper pulled out her phone and punched out a text with her thumb. Greg took a deep breath to try to compose himself.
“Who are you texting?” he asked.
“Trish. I’m spending the night at her house. I already told you. Now please get out of my way.”
“She’s going to see Trish, Dad,” said Alex. “I heard her call her just a minute ago.”
Harper glanced at Alex, who nodded back.
Greg looked at his younger daughter and was astounded again. He noticed her red lips. Great. Harper was corrupting Alex. He wouldn’t let Alex become Harper 2.0.
“Give me your phone!” he demanded, holding out his hand to Harper. He didn’t know who she was texting, but he was sure it was another bad influence in her life. Damn it, he wouldn’t see her end up like he was in high school or worse, like Heather, his dead sister. He had to stop this now.
“It’s my phone!” Harper ran to the other side of the room and fumbled to turn on the camera.
“I pay for it! Give me the phone!”
Just as Harper lifted the phone to start the video, Greg yanked it out of her hand. Harper pulled on his arms as he held the phone up out of her reach, trying to see her latest text. But he already knew she’d called him a pervert for watching her dress.
Two weeks ago, he and Harper had argued about the clothes she planned to wear to school. After he made her put a bra on under her tank top, she sent a note to her friends: “My dad keeps staring at my boobs!” Kids talked to parents, and a few had called him. He was just as stunned and disgusted by her accusations as they were. He couldn’t believe Harper hated him so much as to subject him to that. Now he’d have to deal with the awkwardness again, all because his daughter had found the one weapon she could use to challenge his authority. He had no idea how they had gotten here. Why couldn’t she see he was doing this to protect her?
“Give me my phone!” Harper raked her nails down his arm.
“Damn you!” Greg saw drops of blood ooze on his forearm.
“Dad!” yelled Alex. “Just let her go!”
“Natalie!” Greg yelled for his wife as he leaned out of the doorway. “I need you up here!” Then he slammed Harper’s door shut.
“Get out of my room!” yelled Harper. “What’s wrong with you?”
Greg sat against the door inside her bedroom. Harper twisted the handle above his head and pulled, but the door wouldn’t open. She put her foot against the wall and pulled the handle, bending the door against Greg’s body. He pushed his back toward the frame and snapped the door closed.
Natalie knocked quietly from the other side. “Greg? What’s going on?”
“You’re not leaving,” Greg ground out to Harper. “I want to know who you were planning to meet. And why you think it’s appropriate to wear those clothes and wipe perfume on your legs. Why your legs, for God’s sake?”
Greg was horrified. He suspected she was acting a little wild around boys, especially now that she attended a public school, but he’d tried to deny the clear signs of sex and drug use. They’d both been missing cash during the past few months. A week ago, Natalie had found the bag of marijuana in Harper’s car, which she claimed belonged to someone else, as well as the sensuous rubbing oils. Their daughter was a liar and up to no good. They needed to clamp down hard on her, but he didn’t want to admit the truth. He couldn’t believe his own daughter was following the same path as Heather, a victim of drugs, alcohol, and liberal parenting. He had tried so hard to make his house different from his parents’, yet the same problems arose. What was causing this?
“Get away from the door!” Harper kicked at her father’s legs, but he grabbed her foot and pushed her back.
She stumbled and picked up a bottle of nail polish from her dresser and whipped it at him. He blocked it with his large forearm. She threw another, and it smashed into his temple, just missing his eye.
“Dammit!” he yelled.
“Just let her leave!” Alex yelled. “I can’t stand this!”
“Let me go,” Harper warned, ready to throw another bottle.
“You’re not going anywhere,” said Greg, “until you tell me who you’re meeting and what you plan to do tonight.”
“I’m not telling you anything!” She threw the bottle against the door, breaking the top, splattering red polish on his shirt and neck.
“You throw anything else at me and I’m calling the police,” said Greg, hoping the threat would be enough to subdue her.
Harper stormed to a window and jerked it up. “I’ll jump out if you don’t move! Don’t think I won’t!”
Cold swept through his veins, cooling his skin and his temper. She was such a good liar he couldn’t tell if she was serious or if this was just another one of her antics. “You’ll die if you jump.”
“Then you’d have to explain why your daughter killed herself.”
An idea flashed in Greg’s mind. A way to protect himself, get professional help for Harper, and have time to figure out what to do with her. He wouldn’t lose her like this.
“Natalie,” Greg shouted, “call the police and tell them our daughter is threatening to kill herself.”
“What?” Natalie panicked and banged on the door.
“She’s going to jump out the window. Call the police!”
Harper huffed in disbelief. “You’re calling the police? Such a dork.” Harper tore off the window screen and tossed it outside. She straddled the windowsill. “What’s it going to be Daddy-O? A bloody splat on your driveway or an open door?”
He raised a brow. “Up to you. But you’re not leaving the house tonight.”
“Aren’t you going to stop her?” Alex asked him breathlessly. “Please don’t, Harper.” She ran over to her sister, crying, and pulled her arm. “Please.”
“I know you don’t like hearing this, Alex. I sure didn’t like hearing him tear into Chris when I was your age.” She glowered at him. He returned her glare, undeterred. “They tore into him until he couldn’t wait to get out of here. He’d rather join the Army and get shot at in Afghanistan than live under this roof.”
He wasn’t going to rise to her bait. “Your brother turned out to be a fine young man,” said Greg. “He knows we’re proud of him.”
“Only after he left your house. You never said anything good about him when he lived here. He couldn’t wait to leave.” She spit her words at him. “Just like me!”
Greg remembered all the fights he had with Chris, how they could never seem to just talk. God, was he destined to go through the same thing with Harper? How could he stop this?
Harper climbed back inside, and Greg hid his sigh of relief. Alex hugged her tightly. Harper kissed her head and led her back to her bed. “Don’t worry, Alex. He’ll probably care more for you than he does for me.”
She sat at her desk, while Alex chewed her fingernails on the bed. She watched him for a minute, and he could see the wheels turning. She spoke calmly, “Dad, I need to call someone.”
“Who?” Greg snarled.
“Please. Just let me have my phone. I’ll even change my clothes if that’s what you want.” She smiled sweetly.
He wasn’t buying it.
His eyes narrowed. “Who are you meeting?”
Her face dropped and she exploded. “None of your damned business!” She leapt off the chair and closed her hands into fists.
“It is my business. You’re my daughter, and I pay for the phone with the money you don’t steal from me!”
“Damn it! I need to leave!” Her face was bright red and her eyes took on a sheen.
Good, he was getting to her. “What’s wrong?” asked Greg. “Are you out of marijuana? Or are you hooked on something stronger?”
She scoffed. “As if you care.”
“I do care. Very much. That’s why I’m not letting you leave.” Why couldn’t she see that?
“Yeah, you cared so much about me that you kicked me out of your precious school last year.”
“Because you had beer on a volleyball trip!” he shot back, exasperated. He was Headmaster of The Cross Academy, founded by Natalie’s parents, John and Zoe, who had made a fortune in various Christian businesses.
“I didn’t buy it! The other girls gave it to me. I told you a hundred times. They told you the same thing!”
“And that’s supposed to make it OK? You should’ve turned them in. As soon as they gave you the beer, you should have told the coach.”
Her eyes shot daggers. “That would’ve made you proud, wouldn’t it? Rather than disgusted and embarrassed!”
“That’s what a respectful daughter would have done.”
“And one who would have no friends. No social life.”
“And this is your social life?” He motioned to her outfit. “Dressing like a slut to sneak off to a party or some guy?”
The flicker of pain across her face punched him square in the gut. But the words were out, and there was no taking them back.
“So now I’m a slut?” her voice quivered. “Then why don’t you kick me out of the house? I would love to leave.”
“We could make that happen, young lady. But tonight, you are telling the truth. Who are you meeting?”
“Greg!” Natalie banged on the door. “They’re on their way!”
“God, I hate you!” she bellowed, throwing her hands up.
“Regardless of what you may think, I care for you,” said Greg.
“Then care enough to stop me."
She climbed through the window and stuck both legs out. Alex screamed. Greg jumped to his feet.
“That’s concrete beneath your window with nothing to break your fall,” Greg informed her as he cautiously crossed the room. “The least you’ll end up with is a broken leg, but you could crack your skull.”
“I don’t care!” she threw over her shoulder.
“Harper, please!” shouted Alex, leaping off her bed.
Sirens grew louder as a patrol car roared up their street.
“The only reason you’d care if I jumped,” said Harper, “is that you’d have to explain why the great Godly Greg’s daughter wanted to kill herself. Oops! Not so Godly after all. I forgot about your annotated Bible that Chris found in the garage. The one you used in college. The one with ‘BS’ written in all the margins. And your research paper revealing the Bible as nothing but lies. Let’s not forget that gem!”
Here it comes. He kicked himself every day for not tossing out all of his college books and papers. Chris had found the crate in the garage during his senior year, which had added fuel to the ongoing fire between them. Natalie was especially unhappy with Greg at the time. She knew he wasn’t religious when she met him, but she didn’t know he’d actually hated religion. The rift between them took months to mend.
Fortunately, Natalie’s parents never found out.
Harper scooted out farther and leaned forward.
Alex shrieked again and ran to her sister, grabbing a handful of her shirt and pulling her back in.
“Please, Harper. Don’t!” Tears poured from her eyes. She looked back at Greg. “Dad, please stop her!”
Greg froze. He knew she wouldn’t jump, that she was just manipulating him to get her way. Always the drama queen. But he also worried if he got too close, she just might scoot farther away and slip. Did she despise him so much that she’d rather fall out a window than let him hold her?
Harper climbed back inside. “Notice that our father didn’t move, Alex. Guess that claim of caring about me was as false as he considered the Bible during his college days.”
“I was raised in a Godless house, as you very well know. I wrote that paper long before I met your mother and found Jesus Christ.”
“And her parents’ money,” she smirked.
Greg could have punched that smug smile right off her face, but he prayed quickly for patience. He was the spiritual and moral leader of his family. His kids were supposed to fear their father as they feared God. His job was to keep his school and house protected from the world’s evils and not subject to drugs, sex, and selfish indulgence. Now his daughter was defying him in front of Alex. He couldn’t tolerate this.
Greg inhaled deeply. “Harper, you can lash out at me all you want, but you aren’t leaving this house tonight. I’m through playing games.”
“So am I.” Harper opened a drawer and pulled out a large pocketknife. With the blade pressed against her forearm, she walked slowly toward Greg.
“Open the door or I bleed,” said Harper.
Alex ran towards her.
“Stay away, Alex!” Harper said.
“I don’t want you hurt!” Harper pressed the blade harder against her left arm while glaring at Greg. “Last chance. Move or I cut.”
“The police are here,” shouted Natalie through the door.
A heavy knock followed her words, and a man’s muffled voice ordered. “Please open the door, sir.”
Greg stood, his legs quivering. She was bluffing. She had to be. “Put the knife down, Harper.”
“Move away and let me go to Trish’s,” she said firmly.
“You are not leaving this house!”
Harper ripped the blade up her forearm and screamed, “I hate you!”
“Oh, my God!” Greg breathed. He opened the door.
Everyone looked at Harper holding up her bloody arm with emotions that ranged from stunned to determined.
“I’ll do it again if you don’t let me go.” Harper moved the blade toward her arm.
Two officers, a tall man and a stocky female, strode into the bedroom. The female wore latex gloves, smiled at Harper, and placed one hand around her cut arm and the other around her hand holding the knife.
Claire’s eyes locked onto Harper’s with sympathy. “I’m Officer Claire. Let me help you, Harper.”
Greg stood there in bewilderment. She’d so easily done what Greg couldn’t—show genuine concern without anger.
Harper panted. “I need to leave!”
“We want to help you,” Claire told her with a reassuring smile. “Let us take a look at your arm. OK?”
Harper relaxed a little, and Claire took the knife.
“This is Officer Robert.” She nodded to her partner.
Robert had a large shaved head and a big smile, which produced thick wrinkles in his forehead. Harper stared blankly at him. “Got too much skin up here,” he chuckled and patted his head. “Hey, I like all those earrings. Where’d you get them?” he asked as he put on gloves.
“At the Ear Shop in the mall. It’s a kiosk.”
“Great. I’ll tell my daughter about it,” said Robert. “Let me see your arm, Harper." He turned toward Natalie. “Can you get me a towel or bandage, please?”
Natalie ran out of the room and shortly returned with a towel and handed it to the officer, who then dabbed the blood off Harper’s arm.
Greg went to Alex who had covered her head with a pillow at some point during this madness. He sat on the bed and put his arm around her. “You OK, Alex?”
Alex removed the pillow and seethed. “Go away!”
Greg tried to rub her back.
“Go away!” She shook off his hand. “Mom!”
Greg stood and looked at Natalie, who moved to Alex’s bed.
“I’ll get some bandages,” Greg said to the officers seated on either side of Harper on her bed. He returned with the first-aid kit and handed it to Claire.
“Why did you cut yourself, Harper?” asked Claire, taking out a roll of gauze and sterile tape.
“Because my father wouldn’t let me leave.” Tears trailed down Harper’s cheeks.
“Did you threaten to jump out the window?” Claire asked as she dressed the superficial wound that was already clotting.
“Would you have done it?”
She hesitated, meeting Greg’s eyes. Her lip pursed. “Yes.”
“Did you worry about hurting yourself?”
Harper rolled her eyes. “I didn’t care. I want to leave. Please don’t make me stay here. I’ll cut my other arm if I have to stay with him.” She waved at Greg.
Greg stopped breathing. This didn’t sound like manipulation. She was serious.
The officers glanced at each other. Robert nodded to Claire.
“We have a good place for you to go, Harper. We’ll take you there.”
They helped her stand up.
“Where?” Harper’s eyes watched them carefully. “I just want to see Trish.”
“Maybe she can visit you at the hospital.”
Harper looked stricken. “Hospital? I don’t need a hospital.” She tried to pull her arms away from the officers.
Greg wasn’t sure this was the right course of action either. Had he pushed her to do this? Or did she really need help? He just didn’t know.
“You tried to hurt yourself, Harper,” said Claire, gently, smiling. “We know some good doctors who will help you.”
“I’m fine now,” said Harper. All the make-up on her face couldn’t hide how pale she went.
“We know you are, but we need to take you to the hospital,” said Robert.
“Why? Everything’s OK. It’s just a little cut.”
When Greg glanced his way, Robert beckoned him aside. “Pack some clothes for Harper and meet us at the Behavioral Hospital at the Medical Complex.”
“You threatened to kill yourself,” said Claire. “We need to make sure you don’t hurt yourself again.”
Harper struggled against Claire’s grip on her arms.
“Harper.” Claire’s tone remained amiable. “If you struggle, I’ll have to handcuff you, and I don’t want to do that. You’ve been through enough already.”
“I need to go to Trish’s house!” She broke away from Claire and grabbed her overnight bag. Claire gently but firmly took her arm and led her out of the room. Harper glared at her parents as she walked past them into the hallway. “You’re having me locked up? I’ll never forgive you for this. Never!”
Alex ran toward the bedroom door. “I want to hug her! Harper!”
Greg caught her with an arm around her waist, securing her to his side. Natalie bent down and hugged Alex’s shoulders.
“We’ll get to see her soon,” said Natalie.
“I love you, Alex!” shouted Harper as she descended the stairs, past all the children’s portraits, professionally posed in ornate chairs with hand painted enhancements, when each child was four years old. Then up the foyer past the living room and the baby grand piano Harper had been forced to play until she refused at fourteen. And past the placards of scripture and crosses decorating all the walls.
Greg stood rooted at the top of the stairs with Natalie and a teary-eyed Alex.
Harper turned at the front doorway and looked around her, pointing at placards on the walls. “‘Bless this house.’ ‘Love Never Fails.’ Oh, and my favorite, ‘Family is Everything.’” Harper let out a broken sounding laugh that wrenched Greg’s heart. “I never realized these sayings were supposed to be jokes. Very funny!”
She kept laughing as Claire and Robert led her through the door.
Greg was the first to move, coming downstairs to gaze out the windows framing his front door, trying to see if anyone was watching his house or the patrol car. With its lights blinking, it almost begged his neighbors to come outside and look. He watched his daughter walking toward the patrol car. Should he have done something differently? He’d called the police without thinking it through. Stupid.
Alex broke away from Natalie, ran down the hall, and slammed her bedroom door.
Greg sighed. He knew his anger had caused this. Stomping up the stairs to blast his daughter for stealing from his wallet. Again. Then he saw her clothes and knew what she was about to do. He’d seen his sister do the same thing countless times.
The patrol car pulled away. Harper didn’t even look out the window at him. She didn’t look back even once as the car strolled down the street or even as it turned the corner.
Part of him wanted to run after the car, beg them to stop, to let her go. But he didn’t move.
Maybe someone at the hospital could help her.
He never could.
Cooper Lyons removed his pistol from its leather holster and wondered if he had the courage to use it on himself.
“A .44 magnum is the only pistol that can take down a grizzly.” The salesman’s words echoed in Cooper’s mind as he stared down the four-inch barrel. He’d bought it when he first moved to Alaska sixteen years ago for protection against bears. At the time, that was its only purpose. Since then he’d mainly shot it at the firing range in his hometown of Anders Fork, Alaska, though he’d carried the heavy Mountain Gun while walking among grizzlies and polar bears all over the state during his various teaching jobs and visits to wildernesses.
He considered the irony of its purchase for protection and its final use for his own death. He hoped that when the time came he wouldn’t forget why his finger was on the trigger.
He’d often forgotten something a few seconds after trying to fix it in his head: which tool he needed to fetch or what he was looking for in the pantry. Websites, however, said such lapses were normal.
But when he started hallucinating a few weeks ago, he decided to see a doctor in Fairbanks.
After driving the eighty miles to town, Dr. Johns’ nurse, Hannah, fussed at him because he hadn’t come by for a physical since he retired from teaching two years ago.
“Have my numbers changed?” asked Cooper as he stepped off the scale.
“No, they haven’t. They never do.”
“Then you didn’t miss anything,” he chuckled.
“But your ponytail is longer and maybe a little whiter, so something’s happening.” Hannah smiled. They had known each other for years. “Tell me about these episodes you mentioned.”
“A few weeks ago, I was walking my year-old retriever toward the river park, something I do two or three times a day. I had just emerged from the trees into an open field covered in dandelions. I stopped to admire the view when Snowball saw something and tore off, pulling me down before yanking the leash out of my hand. I looked up and thought I saw snowflakes drifting all around me. I tried to remember which month it was and couldn’t figure out why snow would be falling.
“Then a large white dog ran toward me like a fullback. I thought it was going to attack me, so I tried to run away. I slipped, and the dog started licking my face. After a few seconds I realized it was Snowball.
“I sat up and saw the poplar pollen floating over the field like it always does this time of year. Always reminded me of miniature paratroopers. That was my snow—just a bunch of cotton floating in the breeze, trying to find a place to plant its seeds.
“A week later, I was tilling the dirt in my raised planters, getting them ready for the vegetables I’d been raising inside for the past few weeks. All of a sudden, I was staring at my arms sticking out of the dirt, wondering what had happened to my hands. Then I looked at my house and saw the housewrap where I hadn’t finished installing the siding last summer. I wondered why Tyvek had put his name all over my walls.”
Hannah stared at him, concern pinching her lips and wrinkled brow. Her pen was still poised over her clipboard. “I’m real sorry, Cooper. Do you have any family nearby?”
Cooper thought about his son, Greg, his grandkids, and his ex-wife, Rachel, back in San Antonio. A pain tightened in his throat as he thought of Heather, the daughter he lost seventeen years ago. He tried to speak, but coughed. After swallowing, he said, “No. They’re all back in Texas.”
“Maybe you should see them,” she advised, not knowing what she was asking of him.
Cooper closed his eyes, trying to stop the tears from running down his face. That wouldn’t be possible. They wouldn’t want anything to do with me. But out loud he said, “Maybe.”
After tests and images, Dr. Johns told Cooper he might have been experiencing dementia episodes, which are possibly indicators of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Though he’d expected the diagnosis, hearing it confirmed sent a wave of helplessness and despair through him. What would happen to his puppy and kitty? With no kids to fill his days after retirement, he thought he needed new pets before he got too old to handle a puppy or kitten. Now at 65, he might be.
Who would take care of them as his mind continued to fail? His heart ached over thoughts of having more episodes where he wouldn’t recognize them. They were all he had left, and soon even they’d be gone, against his will. Frustration chased away his pain, and he exhaled heavily. Why did it have to come to this?
“My mother-in-law had that,” said Cooper. “She died after several very difficult years in a nursing home. Still no cure, is there?”
“Not yet,” said Johns. “But we have better medicines.”
Cooper looked at Dr. Johns and raised his eyebrows. “No bullshit, Doc.”
“We can’t stop it, but sometimes we can slow it down and reduce the memory lapses.”
So, he was destined to a gradual disappearance from his life, just like his mother-in-law.
No way. He couldn’t do that.
He drove home through the hills west of Fairbanks, providing amazing views of the Alaska Range and Denali, all blazing in the sun, still increasing its time above the horizon every day. He stared numbly through his bug-smeared windshield, his mind still reeling. Would he have time to finish his latest novel? He’d self-published his first two books, but a small company in Texas had recently offered to publish his newest book next spring. Would he be around for the release? Would he be able to read his own book?
He came home to a crazed Snowball, nearly tackling him when he opened the front door. His seven-month-old kitten, Houdini, a long-haired forest cat, escaped outside.
“Dammit, Houdini! Get your ass back here!” He chased the cat across the yard, with Snowball in pursuit, forcing the kitty to run faster, until he reached a swampy area. Houdini hesitated at stepping into the water, and Cooper scooped him up.
“Crazy cat!” Cooper berated. “Don’t you know we got lynx and owls out here?”
Back inside the house, he opened the bag the nurses had given him and removed a labeled weekly pill sorter and a whiteboard calendar to stick onto his fridge, with three appointments already written in.
A sense of dread washed over him. This was going to be his life now. And what was the point really? None of these pills were going to save him from the inevitable end. Nothing could.
He sighed, cleared a space on his crowded counter, and set down the sorter. He removed three bottles of pills from a bag then looked at an old photo of Heather taped to the top of the fridge door. She looked so happy and innocent in tenth grade, but even then she was popping every pill she could get her hands on. Now he could see the sadness in her eyes, even as she dazzled everyone with her smile.
The rest of the door was covered with his grandkids’ pictures: Chris, Harper, Alex, and Jack, along with his son, Greg, and his daughter-in-law, Natalie. He’d never met Alex and Jack, and Harper and Chris he hadn’t seen in ten years. The photos were sent each Christmas with no message, other than the implied one of, “This is what your bad behavior prevents you from seeing.” Natalie must have insisted on this cruel ritual each year. His son wouldn’t have bothered.
Each year, Cooper sent Christmas gift cards to each child along with a handwritten note—“Hope to see you someday”—his phone number, address, website, and email. He’d never heard anything from them. Maybe Greg had tossed the notes and just given them the money.
A picture of Rachel, his wife of twenty-five years who divorced him sixteen years ago, was fastened above the icemaker. The photo was old, taken when she was 48. He didn’t have anything more recent. They hadn’t had any contact since the divorce.
He couldn’t find a place to put the calendar without removing photos, so he tossed it outside into the yard and slammed the door. He didn’t want pills or appointments, which ultimately would do nothing except slow the disease’s progress—maybe.
He still split his own wood and shoveled the snow from his driveway and went backpacking each summer. Whatever pains his body threw at him, he could handle. And he hadn’t yet found his limit of emotional pain: he’d lost his only daughter to drugs and alcohol and his family to his own stupidity, three of his village students had killed themselves, and he knew so many other sad stories about young girls and babies. Yet he’d survived.
But he had never confronted losing his mind before.
He never thought, mere days later, he’d be staring down at a pistol in his hand. He returned it to the backpack he always kept hanging by the door, ready to grab if he had reason to believe a bear or wolf was in the area.
The pistol had a different purpose now.
Could he end things on his own terms, or would he acquiesce to becoming a vegetable?
Cooper walked back into the kitchen where Houdini had jumped onto the counter to demand his food. He fluffed and shook his long tail at the cabinets, arched his striped back, opened his mouth to emit a plaintive plea, then followed Cooper as he fetched a can of food.
Cooper sighed. “I should never have bought you or Snowball.” The dog heard his name and jumped up, ready to be fed. “No, it’s not your time for food.” The dog plopped onto the floor, head on his paws, looking offended. “What am I going to do with you two?”
He considered calling his son, whom he hadn’t heard from in years. Maybe they could actually talk without screaming at each other. Maybe Greg could pretend to be concerned about his dying father. He’d had one visit from Greg, Natalie, and their two eldest kids ten years ago. They’d spent a week being happy tourists in Seward before father and son had argued, dragging up old, painful memories and making bitter accusations. Since then, nothing.
He wouldn’t even answer the phone if I called, he thought.
Cooper stared at the one photo he had from that trip, taped to the side of the fridge by the coffee pot. He had dropped to one knee and put his arm around six-year-old Harper as they smiled at the stranger holding his camera. He’d asked the nice lady quickly, unexpectedly, just after Cooper had dropped off his family at the airport, before Greg and Natalie could stomp away. They’d promised to send copies of their trip photos, but never did.
He remembered Harper staring out through a window on a tour boat at the men shouting at each other, having no idea she had started the tirade. Harper loved to sing loudly, with passion, and in front of anyone at any time. She’d stood on a table belting out a song to the other passengers on their boat to see Northwestern Glacier. Such spunk! And what a big voice. Too big, according to her parents, and ill-timed.
He wondered if she still sang so easily. It would be nice to hear her sing again.