First Night

2021 Annual Literary Contest

2nd Place
Short Stories

Susan Katz
Toronto, ON

Alice, curious and restless, gazed through the cockpit window. Twirling the end of her brown, waist-length braid, she watched behemoth stretches of whitecapped, snaggle-toothed peaks and steel-blue frozen lakes, pass below. The air taxi winged towards Segovia, Alaska and her dream: to crew in the summer salmon fishery.

Alice had paused her university program in Wildlife Biology; she’d become bored and had the grades to prove it. She needed to get away from dissecting pickled fish and fetal pigs–and her equally pickled love life–to earn some money.

“I made it! I got here with my last few dollars! I can earn enough money from salmon fishing to finish university–AND see cool new wildlife species.”

Suddenly, the pilot swooped, nearly grazing the tops of snowy conifers. Her stomach leapt, as did a bull moose below, which ran frantically across the snow.

“Welcome to Alaska, Alice! Betcha never had a’ airplane chase a moose before!”

Shaken, she saw a group of small buildings ahead at the end of a lake, and the nose of the Cub pointed downward to land.

Frigid air smacked Alice as she popped open the cockpit door. She quickly pulled on her woolen watch cap and gloves and zipped up her bright orange parka; the grinning pilot slung over her bulky backpack. The terminal, a curious-looking, white inflatable dome, was a Quonset hut. Once inside, she searched for her Segovia host.

In a corner stood a tall diminutive figure in dungarees, knobby hands fidgeting a duckbill cap, eyes darting around sheepishly beneath his greying hair.

Alice cinched up her backpack, cleared her braids from the straps, and walked towards him. He grinned, eyes still darting as she approached.

“Why, you must be Alice.”

“Yes, and you must be Lonnie, Barry’s cousin.”

“Wull, yeah! Let’s get ya home and have some o’ the grub that Mollie’s been cookin’ all afternoon for ya.”

Winking, he put on his cap, and they drove off in his powder-blue VW Bug. The road banked with deep snow to their left, and swans gracefully slid over the green-black lake to their right. Alice squinted towards the birds, curious.

“These are rare species back home!”

Tall, shy, Lonnie-of-the-Quonset-hut, now became animated:

“I see ya like lookin’ at the lake an’ them birds.”

“I do, I love it here already! The birds and the snow and all this wild country…. That’s what I came here for.”

“Wull, yup, this ain’t the city! City folks come here, an’ don’ like it, an’ turn right aroun’ an’ leave.” “Seein’ that you’re likin’ it here, though, we’ll have a ball: snowshoein’, an’ huntin’, an’ trappin’, an’ we’ll run the ol’ snowmobile, too.”

With a sheepish grin, he popped the clutch into third gear. “I’ll show ya how ta do that, t’morrow.”

At first glance, Mollie’s house was an old shack, such as Alice had seen on backcountry ski trips. Except Mollie’s lights were on, and warmth bellowed from the corrugated roof’s old tin stovepipe.

Crunching deep snow they opened the front door, left their jackets in a cold entryway, then opened a second door. In the dark, they followed the musty smell of old wood, shoes, and leather along a railing, then down worn and bowed knotty wooden steps.

Now, a bare light bulb revealed the kitchen. An antique oil cookstove warmed the entire house and the smell of roasted chicken and potatoes overpowered them.

Mollie entered: an angel with golden wings, a yellowing oilcloth apron, a wooden spoon aloft in her hand; and an ear-to-ear John Denver grin.

“Wull, dinner’s up, Lonnie! an’ Mel’s been waitin’ here for you and your guest.” “Nice to meet you, Alice! Mel needs to eat right away, so’s we’ll talk while we eat. C’mon an’ sit. You must be hongry from your long trip!”

The newly configured family ate voraciously from cracked plates. Only the occasional rocking of the wobbly table broke their trance. She forgot her City diet, realizing that extra calories would be essential up here, and acquiesced to the passing of plates, taking seconds, and thirds. She could see them nodding approval to each other.

Afterward, Alice excused herself for a walk. It was sharp and cold outside, the sun low in the sky. Feeling the dusk, she strolled down a footpath of bare gravel and slippery boardwalk strips, toward the water.

A stranger walked by, watching her. She looked down at her feet. She didn’t want him to know where she was going, not that she knew herself. She stopped at a fencepost, lit a cigarette, then squatted and rocked on her heels, staring seaward.

A few kittiwakes hovered over the rocky beach. New gull chicks circled, sporting first-year plumages. They watched older gulls pick up mussels, drop them against rocks below, then pull out sweet orange meats. After the older ones left, the young ones picked at the remains.

Alice tugged on a braid, curling the end in her fingers. She was alone, but the solid shore beneath and calm waters ahead, held her.

They had packed her gear into the children’s bedroom, and left her. The room was cold, but Alice felt as if she’d been there before. The wallpaper was from the era of boys’ dreams, with ducks and rowboats and cattails on a tan background. Against one wall was a handmade wooden bunkbed with cheery down blankets neatly tucked into thin mattresses. Opposite that was a wooden gunrack with three rifles calmly waiting for autumn. Fishing boots and model ships lined the baseboards; adventure books, westerns and seamen’s manuals lined handmade bookshelves. A single window alongside the top bunk overlooked the harbor.

She pulled off her layers of familiar clothes and got into bed. The cold in the room surrounded and muffled her head, while the warm blankets soothed her tired body. She turned over to look out the tiny window and lay on her stomach and sighed as she watched the lights and figures in the harbor below.