from the 14th Kate Shugak novel
“I’ll get it,” Kate said, and fetched the Crisco forthwith.
Auntie Vi eyed her. “Your auntie not that old, Katya.”
“I know, auntie,” Kate said. “But I was closer.”
She had, in fact, been in the next room at the time, but Auntie Vi, exercising monumental, not to mention unnatural restraint, forbore to comment.
“I can do that,” Kate said, taking the scraper out of Old Sam’s hand. The Freya was in dry dock, where her hull had been drying out above the high tide in preparation for a new coat of copper paint.
Old Sam took the scraper back. “I can do it myself.”
“I know, but I can help,” Kate said, reaching for the scraper again.
Old Sam warded her off. “Yeah, and the next thing I’ll be listening to you whine about getting the goddamn copper paint outta your hair. Now you get outta mine, girl.”
“I can do that,” Kate told Bernie, and took the bar rag out of his hand.
“You know that’s what I do,” Bernie said, watching her with a wary eye.
“I know, but I’m here,” Kate said, chasing an elusive drop of beer.
“You certainly are,” Bernie said, and went to pour himself a beer, an event almost unheard of in the annals of the Roadhouse, and sat down at a table, an event unparalleled in memory of man.
“Oh shut up,” she told Harvey Meganack at the July board meeting. “You know Billy’s right, any moron knows there’s no way the shareholders are going to vote to open up Iqaluk to drilling anyway.”
Harvey’s face turned a dark and unbecoming red.
There was a collective suck of indrawn air around the conference table in the Niniltna Native Association’s board room, followed by a thud as the forelegs of Billy Mike’s chair hit the floor. “You know, Kate,” he said, “I really appreciate you dropping by.”
He propelled her to her feet and frog-marched her to the door.
“I was just trying to–“
“Come back anytime,” he said, closing the door in her face, “really, I mean it.”
“That’s nice of you, Kate,” Ruthe Bauman said, looking askance at the cord of wood stacked next to the back door of her cabin. “It’ll go real well with the five cords I already ordered from Darryl Totemoff.”
“You can never have too much wood,” Kate said.
Ruthe looked down into Kate’s earnest face. “No,” she said, “I suppose you can’t.”
“Give her to me,” Kate said, stretching out her arms.
Bobbie glared. “I can diaper my own damn daughter!” he bellowed. “What the hell’s got into you, Shugak, the Red Cross? Jesus!”
Hurt, Kate said, “I just wanted to help.”
“Well, stop it!” Bobby said. He rolled his chair over to Katya’s changing table. Katya stared at Kate over his shoulder, blue eyes blinking at Kate from beneath a corkscrew assortment of black curls.
Kate went to stand next to Dinah. “I could dry those dishes for you,” she said in a small voice.
“You can wash them, dry them and put them away if you want,” Dinah said amiably.
Brightening, Kate took the sponge and waded in.
“What in hell is going on with that broad?” Bobby demanded of his wife, soul mate and chosen partner in life when the sound of Kate’s truck had faded across the Squaw Candy Creek bridge. “I can’t lift a hand in my own goddamn house! For crissake, Dinah, I’m not some cripple!”
“I know,” Dinah soothingly. In fact his was missing both his legs below the knee, souvenir of a land mine in Vietnam, but it wasn’t as if it slowed him down much. Or at all.
Bobby settled Katya into her crib for her afternoon nap. Katya, infuriatingly, stuck her thumb in her mouth and her butt up in the air, gave a deep, satisfied burp, and promptly fell asleep. “She never does that for me,” Dinah said enviously.
But Bobby was not so easily distracted. “So what’s wrong with her?”
Dinah deduced correctly that he wasn’t speaking of their daughter. His face, taut black skin stretched over high cheekbones, a broad brow and a very firm chin, bore an anxious expression that didn’t become him, mostly because she’d never seen it before. Her heart melted, and she subsided gracefully into the lap there was enough left of his legs to make. “I think it’s her house.”
He was honestly bewildered. “Her house?”
“The one the Park built for her. I think she feels like she owes us.”
He still didn’t get it but he was calming down. He tucked a strand of white blonde hair behind her ear. “Why us?”
“Not just us us,” Dinah said. “Everybody in the Park us. Everyone who had a hand in the construction and the furnishing thereof, anyway. And the purchase of materials for.”
“Oh, sure,” Bobby said after a moment. “I get it. Her cabin burns down and the Park rats build her a new one, so she turns herself into a one-woman version of the Salvation Army, with a little Jimmy Carter thrown in?”
“All summer long,” Dinah said, nodding her head. “Billy Mike told me he had to throw her out of an NNA meeting before things escalated into a shooting war.”
She was happy when Bobby grinned, and then threw back his head and laughed out loud. “I’d like to have been a fly on his wall that day.”
“Yeah, Billy said Kate kept insisting on telling the truth, out loud and in front of god and everybody. Said it took him a month to calm the board down to where he could get a decent vote out of them.”
Bobby shook his head. “How long do you think she’s going to keep this up?”
“I don’t know. She’s been at it all summer. Edna told me Kate got her and Bernie a counselor so they could work on their marriage. Annie Mike says Kate’s been calling in favors all the way up to the state supreme court to help out with Vanessa’s adoption.” Dinah paused, and said with a straight face, “I hear tell where she took Keith and Oscar fishing for reds down at the aunties’ fish camp.”
Bobby stared at her with an expression as close to awe as his face could humanly manage. “You gotta be shittin’ me, Cookman.”
Dinah shook her head, grave as a judge. “I shit you not, Clark. She camped out with them, and then she took them into Cordova, where she treated them to breakfast at the Coho Café.”
Bobby whooped so loudly this time that Katya grumbled and wiggled her butt. There were actual tears of mirth in Bobby’s eyes this time. “Did they hit on any of the fishermen?”
“Not that I’ve heard.”
He wiped his eyes. “She’s gonna help the whole friggin’ Park into an early grave, is what’s she’s gonna do.”
Dinah grinned. “If someone doesn’t help her there first.” “I also hear tell that she was sitting in on one of the aunties’ quilting bees at the Roadhouse the other night.”
There was a moment of dumbstruck disbelief. Bobby’s jaw might even have dropped.
“She sewed the quilt they were working on to her jeans.”
This time his whoop was so loud Katya did wake up.
“Okay,” Old Sam said. He took a deep, calming breath, and removed the boathook from Kate’s hand.
“Go to the galley,” he said. “Write fish tickets.”
Old Sam didn’t sound calm that often, and when he did it always presaged a Force 10 storm. Johnny held on to his pew with both hands, watching with wide eyes as Kate obeyed orders, and spent the rest of the sunny August afternoon stuck at the galley table, writing fish tickets for fishermen who were always absolutely certain that they had delivered half a dozen more reds than Old Sam had counted when they were transferring them to the Freya’s hold. Even Mutt deserted her, preferring the open air on the bow to the claustrophobic confines of the galley. Miserable, Kate didn’t blame her.
When the period ended and the last fisherman cast off, Old Sam fired up the engine and they left Alaganik Bay for the cannery in Cordova. Johnny hid out in the chartroom, nose stuck assiduously in an old beat up paperback copy of Zenna Henderson’s PILGRIMAGE. They could have used a Presence on the Freya, was what he was thinking.
Old Sam didn’t say a word to Kate the whole way, even when she brought his lunch to the bridge. It was a corned beef sandwich, too, with lots of mayo and mustard and a layer of lettuce thick enough to choke a horse, served on homemade sourdough bread, his favorite sandwich in the whole entire world.
Still in silence, they delivered their fish, took on fuel and found their slip in the boat harbor. Shitting Seagull waved from the harbormaster’s shack and disappeared, leaving Kate to wonder why he hadn’t come down to say hi like he always did. She had a bit of walrus tusk that she’d scored from Ray in Bering, part of a gift package she’d received from the Chevak family. She should probably head on out to Bering sometime soon, come to think of it, see if Stephanie was the youngest astronaut in NASA yet, and if she wasn’t, to sit down and help her figure out a career path to get her there.
In the meantime, the walrus tusk went to Gull, who carved ivory whenever he got his hands on some, and sold the results through a gift shop in Anchorage. If they hadn’t already been presold to Andromedans in town on a joyride from the Great Spiral Nebula. Kate pulled the last knot tight and climbed the ladder to the wheelhouse.
“Hold it,” Old Sam said. He was still sitting in the captain’s chair, tilted back against the wall.
She paused. “What’s up, uncle?”
He cranked his head around the door into the chartroom. “You?”
“Me?” Johnny said.
“You. Uptown. Go visit your girlfriend.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Johnny said.
Johnny delayed long enough to carefully mark the page in his book, and vanished.
Old Sam pointed at a stool. “You,” he said to Kate. “Sit.”
She sat. “What?” she said. She craned her neck to see Johnny hotfooting it down the float toward the harbormaster’s shack. Probably going to ask Gull what alien ships were moored in transient parking this week. Last time they were there it had been Cetaceans. Or maybe a bureaucrat from the Council of Planets on a regular inspection, driving Gull nuts with demands for colder water to cool the drives, she kind of lost track of Gull’s hallucinations after a couple of trips into town.
“You’ve got to get a grip, Katya,” Old Sam said.
The lack of the usual bombast and profanity, plus the use of her family name pulled her gaze back to the old man. Honestly bewildered, she said, “A grip on what, uncle?”
“You’re gonna mother us to death, whether we want you to or not,” he said. “And most of us don’t.”
“So we built you a house,” he told her. “Ain’t nothing we wouldn’t have done for any of us in the same situation, specially if there was a kid involved. I know, I know,” he said, holding up a hand to ward off her protestations, “you always pay your debts. It’s one of the qualities that make you a marginally acceptable human being.”
Overwhelmed by this unaccustomed amount of praise heaped all at once upon her head, Kate remained silent.
“The thing you don’t get,” he said, fixing her with a stern and piercing eye, “is you don’t owe us squat. Shut up.”
Kate closed her mouth.
“One of our own lost her home. We, her family, friends and neighbors, replaced it with a couple days’ labor and when it comes down to it very little cost, to ourselves.”
“The house kit, the materials had to cost a lot,” she said immediately.
“Most of it was donated,” he said. He paused, the wrinkles on his face creasing and uncreasing as he fought an internal struggle. “The fact is, for whatever misguided reasons of their own, a lotta people in the state think they owe you, and most of ‘em were willing to kick in to get you under a roof again. Not to mention which it’s good politics for people who do business in the Bush to be nice to a Shugak from the Park.”
There was a long, weighty silence. Everything he’d said was true, and what’s worse, Kate knew it. Still.
“What?” he said.
She couldn’t help herself, she actually squirmed. “I hate owing anyone, uncle,” she blurted out. “I hate it. Especially those people that helped out because I’m Emaa’s granddaughter.”
“Yeah, well, suck it up,” he said, unimpressed. “Stop trying to run everyone’s life and start taking care of your own, including that boy of yours.”
She looked up quickly. “Is Johnny in trouble?”
He said unblushingly, “What fourteen going on fifteen-year old isn’t in trouble? I’m telling you to start minding your own business instead of everyone else’s. Starting right now, with mine. I ain’t yet so goddamn decrepit I can’t pew my own goddamn fish.”
Kate turned as red as Harvey Meganack. “I’m sorry, uncle,” she said in a small voice.
“You sure are,” he said, and cackled when her eyes narrowed. “Now I’m writing up my tender summary like I always do, and so far as I know I ain’t yet lost the ability to perform long division. You got it?”
“I got it, uncle,” she said, and slunk aft to her stateroom, changed into clean clothes and slipped down to the float to hotfoot it up to the harbormaster’s shack, where Gull was regaling Johnny with an account of the eating habits of the Magelleni. They liked their food still trying to get away, it appeared. Neither of them seemed exactly overjoyed to see her, and after a few moments she went uptown, where the streets seemed to be markedly empty in every direction she turned.
She looked down at Mutt, who looked back, ears up, tail waving slightly. Mutt didn’t look at all intimidating. Well. As unintimidating as a 140-pound half husky, half wolf could look. Couldn’t be her clearing the streets.
Kate was forced to admit, if only to herself, that Old Sam might have a point.
She thought of the two-bedroom, two-bathroom home, now outfitted with electricity and running water, sitting where her cabin had been, before a man set it on fire hoping she was inside. The cedar pre-fab house was so new it made her teeth hurt, so clean she was afraid to let Mutt get hair on the rug, so large she imagined an echo when she spoke.
Well, okay, maybe it didn’t echo. But it sure as hell was big compared to what she was used to, with all the room in the world for her newly adopted son, Johnny, an orphan of his father’s death and his mother’s neglect.
She climbed the hill past the old high school and found a spot to sit and look at the view, including Orca Sound and Hawkins and Hinchinbrook Islands, outlined in orange and red and hot pink by the setting sun. To the east tiny Mummy Island stood out in bold relief, to the west the passage to Prince William Sound. It was beautiful, but suddenly she longed for her own place in the world, the clearing filled with a semicircle of buildings surrounded by wildflowers and diamond willow and spruce and alder and birch. Mutt sat next to her, leaning against her side, a warm, solid, reassuring weight. Kate knotted a hand in Mutt’s ruff and felt three months of tension begin to gear down, one ratchet at a time.
Three notes sounded in the still evening air, a pure, descending scale. She cocked her head to hear them better when they repeated.
“Okay, emaa,” she said softly, in reply. “Time to go home.”
She’d see out the red season, but after that it was back to the homestead. If it was an unfamiliar roof, a roof lacking in any family history whatsoever, at least it was hers.
Besides, she thought, getting to her feet, it was more than time to continue her bedevilment of Trooper Jim Chopin.
She smiled. It was more a baring of teeth than an expression of amusement, and if Jim had seen it the marrow would have chilled in his bones.
Oh, yes. Kate Shugak had plans for Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Jim Chopin.
Fun fact: It surprised the hell out of me when fans went into an uproar over Kate and Jim’s relationship. Subtle is not exactly my middle name. I mean, the guy kissed her in the second Kate Shugak novel, A Fatal Thaw. Evidently nobody noticed except me.
the 23rd Kate Shugak novel
coming April 11, 2023
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.
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