Top of the World
Alice and her mother lived in a trailer park just outside of Fairbanks. Her father had won it in a poker game two decades earlier. He’d left when Alice was six, but still sent an occasional check. Otherwise, her mother got by on disability payments and spent most of her time drinking and going through unsavory boyfriends who drank with her.
Barren was a word Alice grew to understand from a young age. It described the tundra that surrounded the trailer park in all directions, the wall of the Alaska Range to the south, the empty ribbon of highway in the other direction where it literally ended at the town of North Pole, the distant stand of caribou that sometimes migrated through in the fall or spring, the wide sky, the absence of sound. Barren was what she felt inside during the long hours by herself in the trailer while her mother was out, or rising alone in the morning to the lingering haze of whiskey and cigarettes. She had no friends; there was no one near her age in the trailer park. At school, she remained as invisible as possible. She was plain in all regards: a limp tangle of dark hair, an uneven complexion, big eyes that always appeared slightly startled.
Alice liked to knit. The old lady in the next trailer taught her how before she passed away when Alice was in ninth grade. She knitted scarves, mittens, caps, socks, sweaters, and sold some of them at crafts fairs and a consignment shop in town. She’d been carefully saving the money she earned from that and babysitting in a coffee can under her bed throughout high school. She liked the click the knitting needles made. She liked the steady, numbing movement of her hands. She liked the production of useful things she could hold, things that brought warmth.
Life with her mother held some fond moments. When she was little, Alice could remember her mother reading to her. Several times, they baked together. There was a period of a few months when Alice was in second grade during which her mother attended AA meetings and was home almost every afternoon when she got off the school bus. There was another stretch in middle school when they regularly attended a Sunday church service. And there were often nights when she was younger when they sat together on the couch watching television. But, mostly what filled her life at home was a succession of her mother’s boyfriends and drunken chaos and barrenness. Alice had been counting the days until her high school graduation for a long time.
A winter night finally came when two occasions collided. Her mother’s boyfriend at the time was named Roy, and the two of them left for a bar in his car shortly after Alice got home from school. Alice waited until they were gone to pack her duffel bag and write a note to her mother; she left both beside her bed and fell asleep around ten watching the Northern Lights outside her window. Later during the night, she awoke when she heard Roy stumble into the trailer mumbling, pass her room to her mother’s, and collapse on the bed there. Alice wasn’t sure how long she’d fallen back asleep again before sitting bolt upright in bed. She listened closely to the sound of Roy’s snoring until she was sure that she didn’t hear her mother’s, as well.
Alice pulled a coat on over her flannel nightgown, boots over her bare feet, and hurried through the living room outside. It was a snowless night and one of the coldest of the year; she’d heard on the news that temperatures would approach twenty below. A streetlamp on the corner two trailers away lit the orange extension cord that led from their trailer to the engine block of Roy’s crazily parked car; somehow, he’d remembered to plug it in. But when she got to the car, her eyes already watering and her fingers and cheeks numbing against the cold, Alice could see that he’d either forgotten or ignored the fact that her mother was passed out across the back seat, lying in her own vomit.
Alice opened the rear door and stiffened against the stench. Her mother’s breathing was hoarse but shallow, and her skin was frigid to the touch, blue-white in the streetlamp’s dim glare. Alice tried to lift her mother under the arms, but her hair and part of her face had already frozen into the vomit on the upholstery. She found an ice scraper under the front seat and grunted as she whacked away with it against the frozen mass, but was unable to break through the seal that had hardened between her mother’s head and the puddle.
Alice ran back into the trailer and returned with her hair dryer. She unplugged the extension cord from the engine block and into the hair dryer, turned it on high, and climbed onto the floor mat next to her mother. She held the blower against the frozen seal and slowly peeled away with the ice scraper at the melting vomit to free her mother’s face and hair. She quickly lost feeling in her own fingers and toes, but just whimpered quietly for the handful of minutes it took to finally lift her mother’s head off the seat. She hooked her arms under her mother’s and dragged her out of the car, across the snow to the front door, and inside onto the couch.
Alice went into her bedroom, tore off all of her blankets, and used them to cover her mother. She turned up the heat in the trailer before running back outside, plugging the extension cord back into the engine block, and returning with the hair dryer. Alice squirted dish soap into a basin in the kitchenette and ran hot water from the sink filling it. She brought the basin and a handful of dish towels over to the couch and began cleaning her mother’s face and hair as best she could.
Her mother never awoke while she worked. When she’d finished, she set the basin and towels on the floor, and looked at the clock. It was two-thirty. Alice sat back on the couch, took one of her mother’s hands in her own, and dozed on and off until it was time to get up, dress, and meet the school bus. She left the note to her mother on the kitchen counter, kissed the top of her head, and carried the duffel bag to the bus stop. A flush had spread over her, and her heart had quickened.
No one on the bus asked about the bag or, when they arrived at school, why Alice headed away from its entrance instead of up to it with the other students. She walked the several blocks to the Alaska/Yukon Trails bus station, bought her ticket, then checked her watch. She had twenty minutes before her bus departed, so she went into the little diner that adjoined the waiting room. Except for a large woman in a culinary uniform who was filling a decanter with coffee behind the counter and the sound of someone moving in the kitchen, the place was empty and full of white light. The waitress turned and looked first at the duffel bag, then her eyes met Alice’s; the waitress’ eyes were downturned at the outside edges and gentle. She nodded at the stool closest to her at the counter, brought over a cup, and poured coffee into it from the decanter. Alice set her bag on the linoleum at the base of the stool and sat down.
She said, “Thank you.”
The waitress set a dish with creamers and packages of sugar on the counter, as well as silverware and a paper napkin, then asked, “Need a menu?”
Alice shook her head. She took a sip of coffee. The waitress regarded her until she said, “You’re out early.”
“Don’t you have school?”
“Not anymore. Passed my G.E.D. last week after the semester ended.”
“So, you’re a high school graduate. Congratulations.”
In the kitchen, something was spitting on a hot grill. Otherwise, it was still. The waitress kept her gaze on Alice. She asked, “Travelling somewhere?”
Alice lowered her eyes and said, “Something like that.”
“Your folks know?”
“Not yet. It’s just my mom. I left a note, so she will.”
“What will she think?”
Alice shrugged. “Won’t matter. I’m eighteen. Today’s my birthday.”
The big woman nodded, studying her, and Alice swallowed over a hardness that had risen in her throat. The waitress went through a swinging door behind her into the kitchen. Alice could hear low voices in there. She supposed the waitress was about her mother’s age. She smoothed the napkin and sipped her coffee. The diner was warm enough that condensation had formed around the perimeter of its front window.
A few moments later, the waitress came back through the door carrying a plate of scrambled eggs and buttered toast. She set it down in front of Alice and said, “Here.”
Steam rose from the food. Alice looked from it to the waitress and smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “Thanks very much.”
The waitress returned the smile and refilled her coffee cup. Alice took a bite of toast. After the waitress had replaced the decanter on the warmer, she resumed her position in front of Alice and watched the girl eat quickly and hungrily. “You know,” she said after a while, “I left home, too, when I was about your age. What I was leaving wasn’t a very good situation.”
Alice paused. She set down her fork. Although the waitress hadn’t asked her anything, she said quietly, “Yes.”
“And things worked out for me,” the waitress said. “I bet they will for you, too.”
They looked at each other. Alice’s lips had begun to tremble. The waitress put a hand over one of hers and gave it a squeeze. “You on that first bus?”
“You’d better finish eating, then, and go.”
Alice nodded again. She took her wallet out of her coat pocket.
“No,” the waitress said. “Happy birthday. Happy birthday and safe travels.”
She gave Alice’s hand another squeeze, then pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen. Alice ate the rest of her food and stood up. She started towards the door, but stopped and unzipped her duffel bag. She took a new pair of socks she’d knitted from the bag, put them next to her plate on the counter, and left.
Alice took a seat alone near the front of the bus. She stared out the window into the darkness as it left the city and started south down the highway she’d never been on before. She looked at the piece of paper she held in her hand. On it were two addresses in Anchorage. One was for the hostel where she’d made a reservation. The other was for a cousin of the woman who ran the consignment shop who might have a job for her in a fabric and crafts store there. She didn’t know what lay ahead, but she understood well what she’d left behind. She thought about the waitress at the diner, and a little bubble of something like hope rose in her. She shook her head, looked back outside, and a small smile creased her lips.
William Cass has had a little over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as December, Briar Cliff Review, and Ruminate. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.