Brett: Do you want to back out on meeting?
Misty: No! Just afraid you’ll be sorry.
The cursor blinked and blinked as she waited for his answer. Finally…
Brett: Sometimes you gotta take a leap of faith. Either you’re in or you’re not.
Misty: I’m only scared.
Brett: Don’t want to frighten you. Trust me.
Trust. It seemed like all she did was trust other people to lead her through life. She wanted to be in charge for a change, no longer the absentminded tomboy, the needy sister. Rather she would be a take-charge woman.
A hand tapped her on the shoulder.
Gasping, she jolted. Even four years after losing her hearing, she still wasn’t accustomed to the shock of having someone sneak up on her. She was getting better at coping strategies, like feeling a slight tremble in the floor or gust from an opening door, but she’d apparently let herself become too absorbed in her online conversation.
Thank God for her sister’s dogged insistence on expanding their Internet capabilities, because here, at least, Misty had no limitations.
She spun, careful that her back covered the computer screen, and found her older brother with his wife. Astrid stood closer, while Phoenix hung back by the door with his year-old son strapped to his chest in a BabyBjörn. An image of Brett holding his baby niece flashed into her mind. She wanted that for herself, and that wouldn’t happen for her here.
Take charge. Pioneer her own future. She mentally recited her new mantra.
She held up a hand asking them to hold on for a second and turned back to the computer to type.
Misty: Gotta sign off. More later. Love.
Love. She shivered. Could she love someone she’d never met in person?
As she turned back to Astrid, Misty scratched her neck, not because of any itch but to gauge her voice by the vibrations against her fingertips. “Yes?”
Astrid dropped into a chair beside her, her face scrunched with worry and exhaustion. The former New York teen model wore her platinum blonde hair in a lopsided ponytail and her gray sweatshirt was dotted with what looked like pureed carrots.
The new mother had left behind a potential seven-figure career and fame ten years ago to join their community. “Have you seen Sunny?”
“Not since she left yesterday.” One hand still against her throat, she fidgeted with her own shoulder-length brown hair. Would Brett prefer it longer? Chemically highlighted? Maybe even with a bold steak of color like Sunny’s? “But you know how she is.”
“Damn.” She hitched the quilted diaper bag onto her shoulder, always careful to keep her face toward Misty for lip-reading. “I was hoping she could take my lunch shift at the snack bar so I could take J.T. for his well-baby checkup, and Phoenix has a class to teach.”
Clinic appointments were tight since one of their nurse practitioners had left last fall, determined to become a doctor. What a loss that she couldn’t come back. The rigidness of the city council’s rules made her want to scream. Silently of course.
“I can take your shift. I promise to be extra careful in taking the orders, no mistakes, even if I have to make them write down what they want.” She was weary with everyone cosseting her. She’d worked so hard to accommodate for the deafness that had resulted from a fierce case of meningitis, and still everyone babied her.
Her smile wobbly, Astrid hugged her hard and fast, diaper bag swinging around to thump them both. The scent of baby clung to her sister-in-law’s clothes. Did she even know how lucky she was?
Pulling back, Astrid scrunched her nose. “Sorry. I forget sometimes. I just wanted to say thank you for helping, and I wish there was some way to pay you back.”
Hopefully Astrid could help Phoenix understand why she had to go. It was so much easier for Sunny to stick it out here. She had options.
When the boundaries of their community became too constrictive for her, she hiked into the mountains, teaching survival courses. Camped. Kayaked.
But Sunny wouldn’t miss saying good-bye. Of that Misty was sure. If only Sunny could be the one to escort her out instead of their brother—their half brother, rather. Phoenix’s biological mom had died when he was two, then their dad remarried…
Misty watched him stride away and sit on a stationary bike, baby strapped to his chest while he started his workout. Phoenix didn’t talk much, but he was a good father. She couldn’t remember a time when her brother hadn’t been quiet, almost like a ghost from one of their grandmother’s Yupik legends.
Astrid waved a hand in front of her eyes, snapping her fingers. Misty jerked and turned fast.
“Sorry. I was daydreaming.”
Facing her, Astrid tapped the top of the computer. “You never have to worry about bad breath with an Internet boyfriend.”
“But true.” She leaned closer to clasp Misty’s hands. “You can do better than this.”
“Here? With all of a half dozen guys that are even remotely appropriate for me to pick from? No thanks.”
“Lindsay’s brother Jayden would treat you like a queen. He’s obviously adored you since he got here two years ago.”
“Be real. He adores my boobs.” She clapped her hands over her D-cups, which had filled out by junior high. “He’s never even looked me in the eyes once. Not to mention, he cheated on his last two girlfriends.” An unforgivable sin in her eyes. “He’s just running out of women to screw over, since he’s plowing through the females in this town so fast.”
“Okay, you could have a point.” Astrid tugged a bib apron from her backpack and slung it over her neck for her breakfast shift at the shop. The oatmeal-colored fabric hid the carrot stains and transformed her into a professional barista.
Misty helped her wrap the tie around twice until she could knot it in the front. “And seriously, what a dumb ass. This is such a small community, it’s not like anything’s a secret. Did he actually expect to get away with it? Twice?” She gave the knot a final tug, her hand gravitating back up to her throat. “I can’t hide here forever. I want a life like other people have. Like you have.”
Astrid’s face lit with the sympathy that was all too common around here since Misty’s illness, looks she could only erase if she left here. Her parents were dead now, gone in a car accident. Her brother was married with a family of his own. Sunny had her business.
There was nothing left to keep her here. Why couldn’t they support her need to start her own life? She would honor their decision to keep this place quietly under the radar, but it was their choice to cut off contact with everyone else. Her going didn’t have to be the end of their relationship.
But she was willing to accept those consequences if that’s what it cost to leave. To have access to medical technology that would never reach this far. She didn’t blame her parents for the meningitis caught and treated almost too late.
But she wouldn’t let anyone keep her from the surgery that could restore the hearing she’d lost.
Tears stung her eyes and she massaged her throat to check for vibrations and make sure no sob sounds slid free. How much longer would she be able to talk understandably if she didn’t get a cochlear implant? How strange did her voice sound already after almost four years without hearing herself?
She studied Astrid’s mouth but she wasn’t speaking, her lips didn’t move. Even though Astrid was good about keeping her face where Misty could always see it during conversations, so much was still lost in translation. Lip-reading only worked for about 50 percent of the words, even though she was meticulous about watching not only the lips, but also the tongue, teeth, cheeks, and neck, as well as facial expressions and gestures. It had been so damn exhausting at first on top of the grief.
So many sounds she’d taken for granted before and now missed with an ache so deep, she felt a part of her life had been amputated. Maybe if she didn’t know what she was missing… Maybe…
Unable to hold back the flood of emotion, she shot to her feet. “See you at lunchtime. I gotta go.”
Misty snagged her parka off the back of her chair and raced for the entrance by instinct, her sight blurred, further locking her away in a world with limited senses. She slammed through the front doors and burst outside, leaving behind the musty, sweaty scent of the gym. The crisp outdoors enveloped her, the smell of the pure mountain air even more intoxicating since she’d lost her hearing. Still, it wasn’t enough to replace what had been taken from her.
Blinking fast and swiping an arm across her cheeks, she cleared her eyes until Main Street—the only street, really—took shape again. Stores and homes were built in tiered levels, notched into a ridge, conforming to the natural dips and rises of the mountainside. Her parents had owned the whitewashed building across and at the end of the road and she still lived there with her brother and family since their parents had died two years ago.
Twenty-two and still living at home, unlike Sunny who had a loft apartment in the log cabin that housed her business.
She stepped out onto the road and felt the vibration under her feet. She looked up sharply just as a rusted Reva screeched to a halt an inch away from hitting her. She held up a hand in apology to the electric car’s driver.
Come summertime, snow would melt away to open bike trails for even more traffic. Frozen lakes would thaw and fast fill with kayaks. But she wouldn’t hear the gurgle of the water or the laughter from the boats.
It was a perpetual vacation, and some thought she was crazy to leave. She already planned to search out a more open community after her surgery. Surely she could find one, with over two hundred thousand families living off-the-grid in the United States these days.
Surely Brett would join her.
Hands stuffed in her parka pockets, she tromped through the sludge on the sidewalks. Why did it have to be such a big deal because she wanted to leave, to have surgery, to have a future with Brett? He could come here, but that still wouldn’t help her, not in the way she needed. It was so unfair that life made her choose between being with her family and regaining her hearing.
She thought of the chubby-cheeked nephew she would never see grow up. Adult choices sucked. Not that she really had much of a choice. She had to leave this place to receive a cochlear implant, and the longer she waited, the tougher those good-byes would become—and the lower her chances of success would be with the procedure.
The local doctor assured her she was a good candidate. She’d been born with her hearing, only losing it nearly four years ago during the bout of meningitis. While they had a hospital here, the facility wasn’t specialized enough for the procedure.
She had no choice but to leave, and leave soon. Even though Sunny was the best guide, there were others who could escort her down. Still, Misty couldn’t bring herself to leave until Sunny came back. She had to say good-bye to her sister.
And then she would follow Madison and Ted’s path out of this place forever.
Brett downloaded the data received during the latest chat with Misty. Sometimes things were just too easy. He had Misty right where he wanted her, and his hired help from the local sheriff’s office was taking care of the messier details on the mountain. He was perfectly positioned halfway between civilization and no-man’s-land.
Clicking through the commands to file and save, Brett finished with a final tap, then spun in the leather chair to face the four-paned window. From his third-floor tiny office in the Alaska Peninsula Power Plant, he could overlook Bristol Bay in the distance, imagining it feeding into the Bering Sea. Fishing boats dotted the thawing waters along the peninsula that led to the Aleutian Islands.
And here he sat, in the perfect position to use the untapped potential of one of those islands. Far enough away from the scrutiny of major cities like Anchorage or Fairbanks, but not completely isolated on one of those godforsaken islands.
How naïve for Misty and her friends to think they could live off-the-grid as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. The world was too global, even in the remotest corners of Alaska. Those who grabbed control first, those who created opportunity out of even a barren wasteland, the kingdom builders like himself… They would survive in the end.