I Will Return
a short story by
Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
Cover Design: Jennifer Arnett/Canva.com
San Fransisco, CA
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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SHARA LIFTED a basket of linens up to her father on the deck of the boat, her small frame quivering under the weight of the cargo. Her father set down the basket and reached his hand out to her.
“All done. Come up here, squirt,” he said, pulling her up on the deck with his strong arms.
Shara loved his strong arms. When the wolves howled in the woods, she would cower into her father’s side, beneath the stock of his raised shotgun. They were the arms that tucked her into bed every night, the arms that would lift Mama upstairs every evening, and the arms that chopped the wood that kept her warm in the harsh Alaskan winter.
“Mama said you’d be back before Thanksgiving,” she said.
Her father kissed her on the cheek. “I promise. It should only take a week to get out to the islands, and a week back.”
Shara admired the way her father never acted on emotion. In the two years since Mama had been sick, he always did what was necessary. He always had an inner strength about him—a hope that everything would be okay in the end. She never once saw him cry or stay in bed too depressed to rise. No, he stuck by Mama’s side, always holding back her flowing blonde hair when her body was too weak to heave into the toilet.
“Shara, you take care of Mama. Keep her warm and be sure to cook up all of that moose stew before it goes bad.” Her father’s gaze turned towards the sea, a tear building in his dark eyes.
Shara shivered as a gust of wind blew across the small bay. “Please don’t go,” she said. She knew what her father did was important. His trading with the villages provided for her family and gave the villages good nutrition and medicine. Until Mama got sick, she would go with him. She made friends with some of the kids in the village and would trade her sticker collection for handmade dolls and whittled pieces of wood.
She loved to watch her father do business with the villagers. He was always honest and kind towards them, often bringing the kids books and chocolates as personal gifts. Two years ago when a forest fire left the village as a black skeleton waiting to be covered in the white blanket of winter, her father stayed for an extra month to help them rebuild enough structures to shelter them for the winter. In the spring, he returned to see how they had fared, and they honored him with a party that lasted three days. Usually the villagers were suspicious of, and often unfriendly towards mainlanders, but they respected her father and treated him as one of their own.
Her father felt the wind tighten, and he turned his eyes to the sky—to the dark clouds building in the west. “A storm is coming in. I’d better get to the first island before it hits.”
“I love you daddy,” she said, wanting to be a little girl curled up in her daddy’s arms, but knowing that it was time to be an adult—to protect and care for Mama.
Her father stroked the golden waves that descended down her back. “You are stronger than you know. I’m proud of you—I really am.” He kissed her forehead. “I love you, Shara. Now, go bring in firewood from the shed. The storm could last a few days and you’ll want it dry.”
“Yes, father,” she said, her voice strong and determined—the voice of an adult and not a child.
Her father held her hand as she jumped from the boat onto the wooden dock. She untied the mooring lines and waved as her father turned on the engine and pointed the bow of the boat towards the west.
The days became colder and the snow started to build up around the house. Everyday Shara would clear the pathway to the shed so she could bring in the firewood. The bitter cold made her hands numb and the tip of her nose tingle, but she tried to enjoy her work, knowing that her father was depending on her to keep Mama warm.
One night Mama was so weak that when she threw up, she could no longer position her body over a cooking pot on her lap. She heaved all over herself, sending streams of chunky bile flowing down her nightgown. Shara spent the whole night, until sunrise, cleaning Mama, talking to her softly as she whimpered in pain, and holding back her hair. When Mama finally went to sleep, Shara went up into her room, so Mama wouldn’t hear, and cried herself to sleep.
One night, she heard the wolves come up close to the house. They must have smelled the food she had cooked for Mama, and came in to investigate. She had tucked Mama in by the fire, had turned out the lights in the living room, and was about to head up to bed, when she heard them howl. They sounded so close, she thought they might be walking around the porch.
They barked and snarled. It scared Shara to have them so close to the house. She crept up to the window and saw their hollow translucent eyes glaring at her. One growled and launched its body at the window. It was a horrid sound, as the wolf’s claws pawed at the glass. Shara grabbed a chair from the kitchen and ran to the coat closet by the door. She stood on the chair and grabbed a box of her father’s ammo out of an old army can. She pulled out a couple of rounds and loaded them into the rifle her father left hid behind the wall of winter coats.
The wolf launched again at the window and Shara screamed, dropping a round on the ground as her small fingers pushed them against the stiff spring of the magazine. She sat on the living room floor, with a straight line of sight to the kitchen window. She raised her rifle and vowed that if anything came through, she wouldn’t think twice about pulling the trigger.
Shara heard the wolves scratch at the front door. Then she heard the kitchen window crack as one of their claws hit the glass hard enough to send a spiderweb of cracks shooting out to the corners. With the glass compromised, one of the wolves hit it again, and she watched glass spray into the kitchen sink.
Shara pulled the trigger, and a loud shot rang through the house, causing her ears to ache from the loud bang. She heard the wolf shriek and whimper. Moaning as it retreated from the house. All night long she kept her rifle pointed at the broken window, the cold air freezing her to the core. She dared not go get a blanket and turn her back to the open window.
The early morning light hit her face and startled her awake. She sat up from being slumped over the rifle and looked frantically towards the open window. A dusting of snow had blown in during the night. She had meant to stay awake, but sleep had eventually overtaken her. Rifle in hand, she opened the door and peaked out onto the porch.
There was a pool of blood in the snow, and red paw prints heading off into the woods. She put on her coat and walked the perimeter of the house, with the stock of the rifle shoved into the soft tissue of her shoulder. The forest was quiet, with only the soft wind in the trees creaking the upper branches.
She slung the rifle over her shoulder, and made her way to the shed. She picked out a piece of wood that her father was saving to make a table top out of next spring—an anniversary gift for Mama, he had confided in her. She grabbed a box of nails and a hammer from his toolbox and headed back over to the house. She cleared away the glass, then nailed the board to the hollow window, putting in extra nails, just to be sure.
Shara rubbed Mama’s hand and watched as her dull blue eyes opened.
“What was all of that noise last night?” Mama asked.
“A pack of wolves knocked out the front window. I know it’s not like them, but they must have been really hungry.”
Her mother gasped and grabbed her arm. “Are you okay?” she asked, looking Shara over for any injuries.
“I’m fine,” Shara answered. “I shot one of them and they left. I boarded up the window this morning.”
“Even with the fire I thought it was cold in here,” Mama said, her voice dry and weak. Her mother smiled. “Do you know what day it is?”
Shara thought about it for a minute, not remembering how many days ago her father had left them. For the first few days she drew notches on a piece of paper to count. Her days became so consumed with taking care of Mama that she forgot how long it had been.
“Today is Thanksgiving,” Mama said. Shara’s eyes lit up, but then a dark sadness overtook her.
“Daddy said he’d be home by today.”
“I know,” her mother soothed her. “He must have been delayed, I’m sure he’s doing everything he can to come back to us soon.”
“He promised,” Shara said.
The days became shorter and colder, the storms coming in, in week long droves. Shara used her father’s radio to see if anyone had seen him. Her father had a friend, Buckley Collins, who lived out on one of the islands he passed every time he made the journey to the villages. Buck said that her father had stopped by for a visit on his way to the villages, but that he hadn’t seen him return. Buck even sent a message out to the Coast Guard, but a few weeks of searches had landed them in mid-December, and still silence.
Everyday Shara would stand at the water’s edge and watch the horizon, waiting for her father to return. She refused to believe that her father was shipwrecked or lost at sea. She knew that he would move heaven and earth to return home to her and Mama. As the days turned to weeks, and Christmas was fast approaching, a sick feeling began to rise in her stomach and she could no longer shake the fear that her father might never be returning home.
On Christmas Eve, the longest storm of the season cleared, and the sun came out and danced on the perfectly white blanket of snow. Shara stood on the shoreline, soaking in the last bit of sun before it set. She looked back at the house, then out to the pink hue that was taking over the evening sky. She thought she saw something and strained her eyes at the horizon. She was soon sure that it was a boat, and hopefully waited to see if it was her father’s. When the boat pointed towards the bay, she knew that it was her father’s boat. She climbed up on the dock and waited until it was only a hundred feet away and started yelling in gleeful anticipation. “Daddy,” she screamed, bounding around on the dock like a young child.
As the boat got closer, she saw a man with long dark hair and a fur coat at the helm. It wasn’t her father, but the man looked familiar. When the boat nudged up against the docking bouys, she tied it off.
The man stepped down from the deck. “I’m Koda, a friend of your father’s. “
“Where is he?” Shara asked, a look of horror on her face.
“He’s resting down below. He got pneumonia and was taken to a nearby village to be treated by a missionary doctor. There wasn’t a radio in the village and the storms came in too strong to return home. The doctor thought he should stay a few weeks, but he wanted to make it home for Christmas. He was too weak to come alone, so I have come with him. I plan to stay until spring to help your family out.
“Can I see him?” Shara asked.
“Sure, but he might be sleeping.”
Shara headed down into his room and rubbed his hand. He was sickly looking, and not the frame of the strong father she once knew. He had lost a lot of weight and his face was pale and moist.
“Daddy,” she said.
Her father opened his eyes and seemed comforted by Shara being by his side. “What day is it?” he asked.
“December 24th, Christmas Eve.”
“I made it,” he said, a look of relief coming over his face. “I missed you so much. How is your mother?”
“She’s very sick. The doctor visited on a snowmobile last Thursday. He said I should do everything I can to make her comfortable, that…” her voice went low and cracked, “she doesn’t have very much time left.”
Her father held her as tears came down her cheek, for it was then she realized that this would be their last Christmas together.
About the Author
Jennifer Arnett is a California Bay Area author and screenwriter. Her films have been shown at The California Independent Film Festival, The Palm Springs International Film Festival, The Newport Film Festival, and screened at the historic Shattuck Theatre in Berkeley. She is best known for her film Unfamiliar Grounds, which was nominated for two MMTB awards for Best Picture and Best Cinematography.
Jennifer holds a degree in Creative Writing from Cal State Long Beach. When she isn’t publishing, she runs several blogs on minimalism, adventure travel, and writing.
Goodreads: [+ https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8649979.Jennifer_Arnett+]
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The harsh Alaskan winter has been ruthless. While Shara's father is trading with the Natives in the Aleutian Islands, she has been left behind to care for her ailing mother and fend for herself. With wolves on her property, her mother put on hospice, and her father missing at sea, Shara finds courage, within herself, to face her wildest fears. With winter giving harsh blows, and Christmas fast approaching, will Shara's father ever return to her? Will she have the endurance to continue taking care of her mother when hope is dwindling? I WILL RETURN is a heartwarming story that takes you on an adventurous ride.