From the top deck of the Athlon, Pearl shivered. Sinclair Inlet lay so faint in the distance it faded to a mere speck. A speck. That’s how big Pearl felt as the steamer sliced through the vastness of Puget Sound. Only unlike the steamer, she had no sense of direction, no definite course for her future besides the lofty goal of becoming the first person in her family to graduate from high school. The last time she’d been on the Athlon was two years earlier when she attended her cousin, Charlotte’s wedding, now she was moving into Charlotte’s empty room to attend Seattle High. Waves lapped at the hull of the steamer. A sprinkle of salt hung on the breeze and Pearl licked the salty spray from her lips. Her teacher, Miss Ambrose, first raised the question about her future prior to the final eighth grade exam. “Have you given any consideration to what you will do next year?” Embarrassed, Pearl admitted she’d given it little thought. “Since there’s no high-school in Port Orchard, I’d have to go away to school. Mama’s busy with my little sister and the farm. Papa works in Shelton and only comes home once or twice a month. When he’s home, there are chores that require my help. Even though my parents want me to continue with my studies. I don’t think I can leave. My family needs me.” From the creases of concern across Miss Ambrose’s forehead, Pearl guessed her teacher had heard similar tales from other students many times before. Miss Ambrose placed her hands on Pearl’s shoulders, and gazed at her. “It’s often hard on families, but you owe it to yourself, and your family, to further your education if you can.” Miss Ambrose shook her head without attempting to hide her dismay. “You’re a smart young woman. Think about it.” Standing on the bow, gazing out over the water, white foam churned beneath the hull like drifts of snow, cold and threatening. Crossing the immense body of water alone, a shiver surged through her as she remembered a sister ship of the Mosquito Fleet, the Clallam, sank two years earlier resulting in the drowning of more than fifty souls. The thought of the passengers leaving home, never to return, washed a sinking feeling of unease over her. What if something happened to her in the strange big city? Engulfed in indecision and uncertainty, Pearl shuddered with the same anxiety she felt last spring talking with Miss Ambrose. Pearl gripped the side rail so tight her fingers turned red and stiffened. Though she loved being an only child, after Edna’s birth, Pearl delighted in having someone with whom she could share her days. Now, moving away, leaving Edna behind, the loneliness she’d known as an only child would be felt again not only by her, but by Edna as well. She closed her eyes hoping to erase the memory of her promise to Edna to always being there. Alone, adrift on the vast ocean, clouded in the unknown, her spirits as damp as her hair from the salt water spray, Pearl went inside to sit and wait for the boat to dock. A middle-aged man about a decade younger than her father, with a clean-shaven face and a kind smile, scooted across the varnished mahogany bench to make room for her. He nodded. “Please, Miss, have a seat.” Tendering a smile, Pearl set her luggage down and smoothed the navy-blue twill skirt Mother had made especially for the occasion, and sat next to the man. The cold from the wood bench penetrated her clothing. She shifted her position and clutched her arms to her chest and rubbed them. “Traveling alone?” The stranger eyed the two pieces of baggage at her feet. Uncomfortable and uncertain how to respond, Pearl pulled the suitcases closer and glanced around the numerous passengers lining the many benches. She suppressed her nervousness. “Yes sir.” “Who, or what, takes you to the big city?” “I’m going to live with my mother’s older sister and her husband, in Seattle, while I attend high school.” The man’s head bobbed with obvious pleasure. “I believe that is wise. I imagine these modern times are going to require much more education than was required in my day. I consider myself quite lucky. My parents were hardly well to do, but I managed to become the first in my family not only to go to high school, but to attend university. My name’s Lucien. Doctor Lucien Chapman.” “I’m Pearl Mooney. Pleased to meet you, Doctor Chapman.” Pearl took in the stranger’s dark suit and the top hat sitting on the doctor’s lap, and the black bag at his feet. “Do you like being a doctor?” “It’s hard work. Long days, but it’s extremely rewarding.” Pearl nodded her understanding. “Do you know Dr. Wilkes in Port Orchard?” “No. I’m sorry, I don’t. My practice is in Seattle. I’m on my way back home. I take the steamer once a week to visit the navy yard in Bremerton and help the naval doctor there with his needs.” Pearl sat enthralled by the accomplished man who put her at ease and spoke to her like an adult, not a child, though she had no clue as to what to say to him. “Do you know what course of study you wish to pursue?” Having never considered her future, other than not wishing to become a seamstress like her mother, Pearl blurted out the first thing she thought of. “Do I need to go to the university if I want to be a nurse?” “Ah.” Doctor Chapman rubbed his chin. “Not at this time. Most nurses don’t have even their high school diploma. Heck, when I became a doctor near twenty years ago, most doctors didn’t attend any university or medical school. Still today, most don’t have medical degrees but I expect it won’t be long until it’s required. The field of medical arts is growing and changing rapidly. Can’t say I’m up to date on the latest, but I can assure you, your high school education will pay off.” Chewing on her lip, Pearl turned to peer out the window. It seemed a lot brighter outside. The meeting with Dr. Chapman and her memory of Edna’s birth, sparked a thought. Perhaps she would study to become a nurse. The Athlon gently turned. Looking through the big windows, the distant shoreline came into view and reached out to the water like welcoming arms. A short distance beyond the waterfront, steep hillsides rose high above the city. Not far from the Coleman dock, Pearl spied what she guessed was the towering Alaska building which Papa told her stretched over two-hundred feet into the sky and was the tallest building in Seattle. A group of seagulls, keeping pace with the boat, flew alongside, welcoming her to her new life. Now, with the skyline of Seattle within view, a last-minute tremble of fear gripped her. “You’ll be fine. I’m sure you feel the pressure of not only making your parents proud, but also your teacher and the town.” Pearl nodded. He’d plucked the words right from her head. “It’s okay to be nervous. But remember, in spite of the uncertainty, the vastness of your opportunities is endless.” Out the window, the sound stretched endless. Pearl swallowed. Dr. Chapman was right. Her whole future stretched out before her. She had the power now to sink or to swim. As the Athlon jockeyed into its place at the dock in Elliot Bay, Pearl’s optimism soared as tall as the clock tower of the Colman Terminal building. She thanked Dr. Chapman, lifted her luggage along with a boost of self-confidence, and marched down the plankway. Her stomach churned and her head spun, panicked at the thought of reaching the bottom with no one there to meet her. On shore, tall stacks from port-side businesses spit dark sooty smoke into the otherwise clear sky. Pearl glanced ahead to the hillside where her aunt and uncle lived. Massive mounds of dirt from the work being done to knock down hills to level the city and make it easier to navigate, rose like misplaced crumbling forts amidst the modern brick castle looking buildings that extended to the sky. Gulls squawked overhead, diving toward the disembarking passengers hoping for tidbits of food. Above the noise a man’s voice rose from the hubbub of disembarking passengers. “Pearl Mooney.” His arm shot into the air with a grand waving motion. The knot in Pearl’s stomach released as she returned the wave. Stepping out of the crowd, Pearl looked back across the water, past the ships and tug boats, to the mass of land on the other side. Back to where her journey began a mere hour earlier. Yet here in Seattle with its skyline streaked with towers jutting into the sky, Pearl felt a world away. And she knew her journey was just beginning.
A single shot shattered the silence. Max covered her ears. A bitter odor mingled with the fresh air where thirty feet ahead, her father lowered his rifle. She stood as frozen as the pond near their house. She knew better than to speak or move before Daddy motioned the okay. “Got him.” Her father, Ralph Kirkwood, turned with a smile. “It’s a bull, and a big one at that.” To appease her father, Max clapped her hands despite the topsy-turvy churning in her stomach. Her father raised his index finger to his lips. He tipped his head and listened for any sound, any indication the shot was not fatal. At twelve, Max knew the danger of approaching a wounded animal of such size. An angry bull elk could charge and severely injure, if not kill, the incautious hunter. The frosty morning air invigorated Max, but she detested the reason for her early rousing. Her father motioned her closer. “Ready?” Max nodded and pushed aside the branches of the fir and aspen trees as she followed him in the direction of his target. From the branches, jays jeered and scolded her, guilting her for her role in the kill. A hundred feet ahead, faint labored breathing came from a small clearing in the otherwise silent forest. Max stared at the helpless bleeding animal. Her lips quivered at the sight of its large brown pleading eyes. Ralph Kirkwood pushed his daughter behind him. “Stay back.” “What are you doing?” “It’s in pain. I have to put it out of its misery.” Her father plodded toward the dying beast. “Turn around and cover your ears.” With barely time to obey, her father raised his rifle in one swift movement. Max winced at the second of death and looked up to the sky. Aspen and maple leaves floated delicately to the ground, a contrast to the harshness of the action. She wiped a tear with her oversized blue mitten. Daddy wouldn’t stand for any tears. Hunting was a means to an end. The elk would be the primary source of meat for her and her parents. Free meat meant there would be money for other goods, which the family sometimes did without when her father’s furniture sales were slow. Max looked down at her green woolen jacket that warmed her but was only another one of her mother’s thrift shop finds. Her well-worn jeans, a tad long, even rolled up at the ankle, were a hand-me-down from her cousin Maureen. The meat would allow some new clothes and maybe even fabric for her mother to sew a new dress. The echoes of the shot died down. Max stepped closer to the beast whose life was sacrificed so she could eat sausage and steaks and be better dressed. “He’s a beauty, ain’t he?” Mr. Kirkwood patted Max on the back. “We’ll have plenty of meat this year. Your mom will be proud.” Liquid life pooled around the entry wound, staining the ground a deep scarlet hue not too dissimilar to the crimson maple leaves carpeting the forest floor. The cool morning air mixed with the sickly smell of death. Max gagged and stepped back. Though her father never intended to be mean, he laughed. He had a way of belittling her, toughening her up as he called it. Max frowned, turned, and started to run off. “Come back. You’ll get lost.” Her father was right; she couldn’t find her way back to the truck on her own. She stopped, plopped to the ground, and sulked. He strode over to her and shook his head. “You’re going to be thirteen in a few weeks, don’t you think it’s time you get over your childishness? It’s about time you learn to use a gun.” Max forced a smile. She remembered how her hand trembled when Daddy let her hold his rifle after cleaning it. She hated the idea of killing animals. She hated the smell of sulfur and the loud crack that fractured the crisp Montana air, and she certainly hated the smell of death, all bitter and vile and final. But Max knew as the only child of Ralph and Norma Kirkwood, guns and hunting were a destiny she would be obliged to fulfill. She also knew better than to tell her father she didn’t like the idea of killing living things, even if it meant food for the family. For her father, she was the son he wished for. The moment their old pickup truck rolled to a stop at home, Max flung open the car door and rushed toward the house. She hugged her mother around the waist, then dashed to the bathroom to wash the odor of death away.
Flashbacks of her morning hunt haunted Max’s nights for days, but she finally put the unpleasant experience behind her and awoke rested. She pulled back the pink curtains that she pleaded with her mother to sew, though her father insisted they were an unnecessary extravagance. Outside, a clear sky welcomed her thirteenth birthday and, in the kitchen, a breakfast of eggs, toast, and elk sausage greeted her. A flash of the dead animal strobed in her head. Her father handed her a rectangular box wrapped with butcher paper. “Happy Birthday, Max.” Confused by the size and weight, she knew it wasn’t either the watch or the camera she dreamed of getting. She shook it. Her stomach sank as she contemplated the contents. She hesitated, then tore open the paper. She paused to inhale before she removed the cover. Her stomach sank. She forced a weak smile. “It’s a gun.” Mr. Kirkwood grinned. “It’s not just a gun. It’s a Winchester 30-30. Now I can teach you how to shoot. You can join me on my next hunt. Maybe you’ll come back with your first kill.” Max struggled to avoid her mother’s gaze; afraid she would cry. “Thank you, Daddy.” For the following weeks, after schoolwork, Daddy insisted she practice shooting at the range behind his workshop. Each day she studied longer to delay the unpleasant chore. Each night she prayed she would never have to raise the gun to a living animal. When she received her report card the following month, Max beamed. Her studying had paid off. It would give her an excuse to avoid the shooting range and maybe even the dreaded hunting trip. She rushed home and waved her report card in front of her mother. “Three A’s and 2 B’s, that’s wonderful. Your father’s in his workshop. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled. But don’t interrupt him while he’s working.” With the old barn turned into his workshop, her father built what everyone in town called some of the finest furniture in the mid-west. She wished he made enough money selling furniture so he didn’t have to hunt. He loved his work, and when he worked, he became so absorbed that he lost sight of anything else. Max knew the dangers. He’d drilled it into her. The electric saw and sanding instruments were powerful enough to cut even the hardest wood. She knew the damage they could cause to human flesh. Max bolted to the workshop and flung open the door. “Daddy, guess what?” The buzz of the blade ripping through wood drowned out her voice. Her father spun around at the intrusion. He spotted his daughter in the doorway for only a moment before his face contorted in dread and agony. Max stared in horror as she struggled to understand what had happened. The whine from the saw ceased. Her father slumped to the ground clutching his right arm. Crimson liquid soaked his twisted and ragged shirt, with her father’s arm torn and tangled within the ripped cloth. In his eyes, pure terror. “Call the fire department. Tell them to hurry.” His voice cracked but remained calm. Blood puddled on the wood before seeping between the floorboards. Max opened her mouth to apologize, but her words caught in her throat. How could she ever apologize for this? “Max, please.” Her father’s voice sounded raspier, weaker, more commanding. The sparkle in his eyes flickered like a light about to go out. She saw the same look of helplessness, hopelessness in her father’s eyes as she’d seen in the elk’s eyes. Its pleading look right before her father lifted his rifle and fired. She saw her father’s pain, his will to live. Then his eyes fluttered closed. Was he dying? Was he dead? If he died, she would never again have to hunt. Hadn’t that been her prayer? Would his death haunt her as the elk did? Her father’s eyes opened a slit. His life was in her hands, as her father held the elk’s life in his. She stared at her father’s mangled arm. She doubted he would ever raise a gun again. She rushed toward the door, then stopped and looked back. “My name is Maxine, not Max.”