Chapter Five

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Previous: Chapter Four

Tapio offered to sleep overnight on her sofa, which she found comforting yet disappointing at the same time. After making sure he was comfortable, she lay on the old queen bed in her small bedroom, trying not to fret about the day or wind herself up over him being so close. Both were difficult, but she must have fallen asleep at some point because the next thing she became aware of was the sun streaming through her window and onto her face.

She sat on the edge of her bed and yawned, rubbing her eye as dust danced in the unrelenting sunbeam. The world hadn’t exploded. The birds hopped around and tweeted like any other day, having zero clue about what the humans were doing to themselves.

He was already frying some eggs and bacon while brewing coffee in an old white and blue percolator that lived on the back burner but usually went unused, and was dressed in an oversized t-shirt and flannel pants he brought from home. She had never seen him in such things, and it made her pause. He normally looked so lanky in his regular clothes, but at the moment, he seemed to be swimming in his pajamas.

Huomenta,” he said, clearly having been awake for a while.

“Oh no,” she said as she dragged herself into the kitchen and sat at the table. “You’re a morning person.”

“Don’t complain about the man who is feeding you,” he said as he set a mug in front of her and filled it nearly to the brim with black coffee. After a few more minutes, he sat with her, bringing two plates of food.

“Thank you, Pikka,” she said.

They ate without talking, the only sound to be heard the silverware scraping on their plates. At a certain point, she paused and craned her head toward the kitchen window. A thrum crept up on the gentle quiet of the woods. As it approached, she recognized it as the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. It passed nearby, then faded, only to be replaced by another.

“That’s something,” she said as she stood and walked out the front door. She couldn’t see anything in the sky, but she counted at least four distinct helicopters by sound, all seeming to move from north to south. He stepped out behind her with a coffee in hand, his loose hair ruffled by the morning breeze.

“It sure is,” he said.

“Well, what should we do today?” she asked.

He leaned in the doorway and stared right at her, not around or past her like usual. His brown eyes absorbed her, taking in every detail where her light summer sleepwear clung to her figure. She could tell he had something he wanted to say, but he held back.

Whatever it was, his body instead decided to convey the message. His flannel pajama pants did little to hide his thoughts. She tried not to gawk, keeping her eyes on his face. He was either oblivious or simply didn’t care.

“Maybe it’s best if we stay home,” he said.

“Sure, yeah,” she said. “We’ll find something to do.”

She had difficulty remembering a moment of her life when she felt more flustered than she did right then. She’d been with her share of men while living in Seattle. Perhaps more than her share. The backstory he never asked for went like this: she had made herself miserable working for the publishing arm of a certain giant corporation with a vice-like grip on the city. She spent her evenings drinking her misery away, hunkered over the bar of an eclectic taco joint, and went home with whoever sat next to her. As much temporary joy they brought her, those men never really saw her.

Not the way he saw her in that moment.

She wanted to hide from him, worried the thinly applied veneer she had scraped over herself would chip away if she stood there much longer. She slid past him in the doorway, painfully aware of where their bodies brushed against each other, then slunk off to the living room and stared out the window at the overgrown patch of grass one might call a yard.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked as he followed her and sat on the sofa, crossing his shins and ankles.

“Always,” she said.

“Did I ever… frighten you?”

She laughed, the thought absurd. She hadn’t known him for long in the grand scheme of things, but she felt she had a good idea of who he was. He was a bit strange, but she never felt unsafe around him. In fact, quite the opposite.

“No, Tapikka,” she said, sitting with him.

“Good, I’m glad to hear that,” he said.

He leaned in and paused, then connected his mouth to hers, and she rested her hand on his cheek. Tilting his head, he deepened the kiss, and she reflexively opened her mouth, her tongue meeting his. She nearly spilled her coffee in her lap, the shift in his attention startling her. With panicked hands, she attempted to set aside their drinks before she could make a mess when she heard the sound of a vehicle trundling down her old driveway.

He heard it, too, and broke the kiss to peer over the back of the sofa, out the large picture window into her front yard. Eventually, an old Jeep broke the treeline into the clearing with Oliver at its wheel. After parking, he slung a rifle around his shoulder and hauled out a few gallons of water, which he hefted toward her front door.

She had it open before he could knock.

“Hey kid, I wanted to bring you some supplies,” Oliver said, huffing. “I stopped by the station and saw it was locked up, so I figured Tapio was here. I know you’re probably okay. Aleksi was self-sufficient out here, but you know how the wife worries.”

After he dropped off the water, he brought in a box of MREs and set them on her table. After the MREs, he piled several bundles of wood on her porch while she and Tapio watched quietly.

“You think the gun is necessary?” she asked.

“It’s not even loaded,” Oliver said with a wink. “Can’t hurt to send a message, though. People finally figured out it’s not just the local substation that’s gone out. They cleaned out the Save & More this morning like it’s the goddamned apocalypse. It took them one day to lose their minds.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Humans panic so quickly,” Tapio muttered as he studied an MRE, flipping it over as he read the packaging.

“Sure do,” Oliver said. “Not everyone’s a mysterious creature of the woods like you, forester.”

Tapio’s eyes darted to the older man, who winked again. Tapio held his gaze for a long moment, long enough for Lumi to find uncomfortable. The only thing that interrupted them was her clearing her throat.

“That should hold you for a while. I’ll come back in a week. How’s that sound?”

“I appreciate it,” she said. “Really. If we don’t see you in a week, we’ll come find you.”

“Us weirdos gotta stick together,” Oliver said. With that, he turned and made his way to his vehicle, waving his hand as he went.

Tapio waited until Oliver had loaded into his Jeep and pulled out before making a soft, disgusted sound. She glanced, not accustomed to hearing him make such noises. He even looked irritated.

“He doesn’t need to be such a busybody. We will be okay,” he said.

“What’s this about?” she asked. “You like Oliver. Don’t you?”

Tapio hooked his arm around her waist and guided her inside, kicking the door shut behind them, then tossed aside the MRE he had been scrutinizing. With both hands on her hips, he squared her in front of him until they stood toe to toe. Her gentle giant’s brown eyes smoldered with an intensity she had never seen before.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “But we don’t need anyone else’s help.”

His hands drifted up along her arms until they reached her shoulders, which he gave a firm squeeze before tugging her into a hug. She gripped the back of his shirt, bunching the cloth in her hands as she listened to the sound of his heart. Or rather, she listened for it—she could barely make it out. It was there, but it beat so slowly and faintly, it was almost impossible to detect with raw senses alone.

“It wasn’t on the top of my list of things to do, but if what Oliver said is true and the town is panicking about supplies, someone will eventually realize my station has gasoline and propane,” he said. “We should transfer it here.”

“How many trips will that take?” she asked.

“I have time to spare,” he said.

“You could get Oliver to help.”

He held out his long arms, implying how much work he could achieve on his own. Compared to him, Oliver looked like a gnome. While she always believed more hands were better, he might actually do better by himself.

“We just talked about this, Lumi,” he said. “We don’t need Oliver’s help.”

“I know, but it’s good to have a commun—”

They heard another rumble, this one different from the sound of Oliver’s jeep, and they wandered back to the screen door. The birds vacated their perches in a wild flutter of wings as a crimson vintage Buick Skylark pulled in and stopped next to Tapio’s truck. Not recognizing her guest, Lumi stepped out onto the porch. Tapio squeezed her shoulder to keep her from going, but she brushed him off. She watched as a woman with chestnut brown checked her makeup in the rearview mirror before opening her door.

“Is the ranger here?” the brunette asked. She was dressed in a long white tunic with a mandarin collar, flowing white pants, and sandals, all of which looked more expensive than anything Lumi owned.

“It depends on who’s asking,” Lumi said.

“Limp hair, murky eyes. You must be the little leech Imogen mentioned,” the woman said as she looked her up and down.

“Excuse me? Do I know you?” Lumi asked.

The screen door clattered shut behind Lumi as Tapio joined her on the porch. His face twisted into displeasure as he marched toward the women, pointing his finger down the driveway. From his expression, Lumi guessed this wasn’t his first run-in with her.

“You can go, Ms. Smith,” he said, punctuating his words with emphatic pointing.

“But Tapio, I came because I was worried about you,” the brunette said. Her demeanor changed as he approached them, the chill disappearing from her face. What replaced her cold demeanor was less sweet and more saccharine.

“I don’t want to have this conversation again,” he said.

“We can do so much together,” Smith cooed, taking a step toward Tapio. “Think about it. You and I, together.”

He took a step back, avoiding her as she reached for him.

“The only thought I have is that you are deranged. You need to go. Now. You are not welcome here.”

Smith withdrew her hands and gave him a wounded look, then turned to Lumi, who stood her ground as she approached her. Smith gripped her chin and lifted it, peering at the younger woman as if she contained some secret. After a moment, she released Lumi with a huff, crossing her arms over her well-endowed chest. Now that Smith was this close, Lumi could tell she was at least a decade older than her, and while she had plenty of natural beauty, she used far too much makeup in all the wrong ways.

“You’d rather waste your time with this child?” Smith asked.

“Lady, get in your car and go home. He said no,” Lumi said as she crossed the yard and yanked the Buick’s door open.

“The forest master doesn’t need you to stand up for him,” Smith said with an abrupt laugh.

“No, but he’s too polite to say what he’s thinking, which is you need to get your creepy ass back in your car and leave him the fuck alone for the rest of his life,” Lumi said.

Smith regarded her newfound opponent briefly with shrewd intensity. It was the type of look that meant to intimidate Lumi, but she held fast. If this woman thought it took a mere glare to throw her off after years of bullshit at her corporate job, she was sorely mistaken. Instead, she opened the car door wider and motioned for Smith to take a seat.

“Not one for manners, are we?” Smith said, then waved her hand in defeat. “Fine. I’ll leave for now. But Tapio, my dear. If you need anything, you know where to find me.”

“We’re good,” Tapio said.

Lumi stepped back as Smith climbed into her Buick and slammed the door. The woman honked the horn, making Lumi jump at the deep, grandiose sound, and with a petty laugh, Smith backed out of the yard and headed down the driveway. Tapio and Lumi waited and watched, not satisfied until they could no longer hear the car.

“I’m sorry, Lumikki,” Tapio said, looking guilty. “Never in a thousand years did I think that woman would show her face here.”

“Was that… the lady who has that ‘academy’ in Yoak?” Lumi asked.

“It was.”

“She’s got the hots for you, huh?” Lumi asked.

He grumbled and motioned toward the cabin. As she approached him, he draped his arms around her and herded her back inside.

“Why did she call you ‘the forest master’?” she asked.

“She has some bizarre ideas,” he said. “Me being who I am fits her silly little narrative.”

“You being a tall, handsome man from Finland?” she asked.

“I wasn’t going to compliment myself, but yes, thank you. That’s nice of you to say, Lumi,” he said with a grin.

“Are you worried about her at all?” she asked.

“We can keep each other safe, Lumikki,” he said.

She burst into laughter, which she muffled in the center of his chest.

“Are you doubting your strength?” he asked.

“Well, it’d be rude to doubt yours,” she answered.

“If I were in trouble, I believe you’d kill a man. Or woman.”

“I’ve never even shot a gun,” she said.

“You don’t need a gun,” he said, mussing her hair.

“I’ll rip them apart with my bare hands, then,” she said.

“See, you understand,” he said.

He gave her a reassuring hum as he spun her around and guided her toward the living room, where he sat her on the sofa. She watched as he wandered out of the cabin, then heard the generator sputter as it came to life in the backyard. He reappeared and, ignoring anything else that might require power, made his way to the turntable on her media cabinet and put on an album of melancholy folk metal. 1

He took his spot next to her, sliding his arm across the sofa’s top, his hand draping over her opposite shoulder. His fingers spun a loose curl in her hair as he settled in, causing her vision to blur. Months of uncertainty had become months of chastity, and in the last twenty-four hours, he opened up in a way she had always hoped for—but now that it was happening, it didn’t feel real.

“Are you okay?” he asked.


“You seem terrified, like I’m going to eat you,” he said.

She relaxed, resting her head against his arm, and he tugged her against him.

“I’d probably fit. There’s enough of you,” she said.

He gave her an insulted look.

“I meant heightwise, Pikka.”

“What if you’re right? What if I gobbled you up? You must be tender,” he said as he pushed his face against her neck and muttered something in Finnish against her skin she didn’t understand.

“You lost me there,” she said as he nuzzled her.

“I said you look as pure as viti,” he whispered.

That word she knew. Finns had dozens of words for snow—her name was one of them—and viti meant the fresh, powdery kind. While she hadn’t understood what he said, she knew enough to realize he hadn’t compared her to any particular type of snow. Whatever he said, he didn’t want to repeat it.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine. Nothing could ruin my mood today, Lumi. Not even that woman. There’s something you never asked me,” he said, changing the subject.

“Asked what?”

“Something I always thought you’d be curious about,” he said.

He wanted to divert her attention to a new topic. She put a mental pin in his words and raised her brow as she leaned away from him. He grinned and shook his head to indicate it wasn’t anything dire.

“You never asked if I knew your Uncle,” he said.

“Did you?” she asked.

“Of course I did. I’ve lived here for nine years. How could I not?”

“Why did you never say anything?” she asked.

“Because the past is the past. Your uncle is dead. But I did know him,” he said. “We didn’t talk much. You might find this hard to believe, but I don’t talk much to anyone except you.”

“That’s a joke, right?” she asked.

“Of all the tollot in that bar, I liked your uncle the best,” he said. “When he died, I stopped going.”

“Then what made you start coming again?” she asked.

He stretched his long legs out in front of him, curled his toes, then hooked them together as he stared at the cabin’s ceiling. Her eyes traced the line from the tip of his chin, along his extended neck, and over his prominent Adam’s apple. He hadn’t shaved in more than a day, so his five o’clock shadow was starting to resemble a beard, and a bit more beard than she expected.

“Oliver drove up to my station one day and said Aleksi’s niece had moved into his cabin and that she’d taken his spot at the table,” Tapio said.

“He didn’t mention how pretty I am?” she asked.

Tapio shrugged, a small smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“He said he felt sorry for you, always picking up after a bunch of old drunks.”

“What did you think of Aleksi?” she asked.

“He was quiet. Almost as quiet as I am. But when he drank, he was very friendly. Just like you.”

“I loved him dearly, so that means a lot to me,” she said.

“He was special to you, then,” he said.

“Very. When I moved to Washington, I promised I’d see him often, but my job kept me from coming down as much as I liked. We always had a good time playing cards, drinking beers, things like that,” she said. “He lived the life I wanted.”

“Now you have it,” he said as he kissed her forehead. “Speaking of beers, would you like one?”

“Oh my god, yes,” she said.

He gathered his legs beneath him and stood, then meandered into the kitchen. On his way to the pantry, he stumbled, cursed, and pounded the floor with his heel.

“Doesn’t this board bother you?” he asked.

“What board?” she asked as she leaned over to look at him.

“This loose one,” he said.

“Is it loose? I’ve never tripped on it,” she said. “Maybe it’s just your big feet.”

“Maybe,” he said.

He continued to thunk on the board, along with those around it, with his bare foot. He then left the cabin and returned with hand tools from her shed. When he pried up the floorboard, she rested her chin in her hand, unsure what she was watching.

“Take a look at this,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“Your uncle was a superstitious man.”

She got up from the sofa and joined him in staring at the dirt beneath the floorboard, where she saw several markka coins pushed into the soil. Reaching down, she picked one up and examined it. There was nothing special about the coin. It wasn’t old or unique in any way; it was merely a common coin from the ’80s. He took it from her, put it back where it came from, then pointed at her purse.

“You should add some,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“It’ll make the maahinen happy,” he said. “They won’t disappear you.”

“We’re not in Finland,” she said with a laugh.

“Everywhere has earth people, pulu,” he said.

Deciding to humor him, she fetched her purse and found a loose quarter and a nickel, then crouched next to him again and pressed them in the dirt next to her uncle’s old, defunct markka. Tapio covered everything back up with the floorboard and hammered it into place, tighter than before. Once finished, he gave her a spirited kiss on the temple and bounded to his feet.

“Let’s clear off the table and have lunch,” he said.

“Tapikka,” she said as she stood and dusted off her hands.

Joo, muru?”

“What are we going to do for food if the power never comes back?” she asked.

“We could start a garden.”

She pulled the quilt from the fridge and unwrapped several things from plastic bags, each wet from their slow thaw. They had enough to make a few more breakfasts and a stew that would last them a day or two at the rate he ate, and then the fridge would be empty. The pantry was still full of nonperishables, and now the MREs Oliver had gifted them.

“Will a garden be enough?” she asked.

“I can hunt. You don’t need to worry,” he said.

Never, in the history of the world, did telling someone not to worry keep them from worrying. In this particular instance, Tapio’s certainty somehow exacerbated her concern. As much as she wanted to trust him, she had learned to be wary of male overconfidence. It usually got everyone involved in trouble.

“Will you do me a favor?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said.

“Teach me how to shoot your rifle.”

He set his soggy box of frozen asparagus on the counter and bent over, squinting at her until her face turned red.

Ihanko totta?” he asked.

“Yes, really,” she said. “I’m not going to rely on you for everything.”

He abandoned his chore and wrapped her in his arms, covering her face in kisses until she shrieked and melted in his grasp. He lifted her onto the table behind them, then tipped her backward until she lay on her back. She felt him between her legs as he loomed over her and ran his index finger down the center of her chest. His touch made her lightheaded, and her heart raced so fast, it seemed like it might leap from her chest.

“Let’s make lunch,” he said.

“Okay,” she whispered, blinking several times.

“Then I’ll run to my station.”


“Then I have something very important I’d like to show you.”

“Okay,” she barely managed, breathless.

After a few long moments, he helped her sit up and slid her from the table. They returned to preparing lunch, their pace hastened. Neither of them cared what their meal tasted like. All they knew was that they had to use up the ingredients, get the pot on the stove, and get him out the door.

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