When they reached Oliver’s home, he excused himself and went inside without saying anything else. The front porch light remained on, welcoming Lumi and Tapio when they felt ready. The two of them sat in the back seat and exchanged glances. It was easy to goof around, but tackling the topic of what had happened took more effort.
“I rolled with a lot of things mentally back there because I had to, but I’m really lost, Tapikka,” she said, breaking the silence.
“I would like to explain some of these things at home.” He wrung his hands in his lap. “You know, I was going to explain them when I got home from the station anyway.”
“Do you think home is safe?” she asked.
“I don’t think Imogen will let Smith out of her sight tonight.”
With a sigh, she headed inside to fetch the things she had left behind. When she returned, she had an armful of hot dinner wrapped in a cloth from Meri. They climbed into her Isuzu and made the trip home, neither of them sure what to say.
After thoroughly investigating the cabin to ensure no unwelcome intruders were present, they locked it down and pushed chairs in front of the doors. While Smith likely found herself detained, Lumi still worried about her most devout followers. Once they felt the slightest bit secure, they unwrapped Meri’s dinner to find a generous portion of clam chowder. They collapsed onto the living room floor and annihilated the entire crock.
“Who are you, Pikka?” She scraped her spoon against the side of her bowl as she peeked at him from the corner of her eye.
Though they hid in the living room’s darkness, the moon provided enough light through the large window to see the weariness in his face. “I’m the same man you’ve always known. I haven’t hidden my name or where I came from,” he said.
He stood and offered her his hand, which she used to get to her feet. He guided her to her much darker bedroom and sat her on the edge of her bed. She watched his tall silhouette peel his shirt from his lean chest. As he fumbled with his belt buckle, she realized his hands trembled. When she touched his fingers, he nudged her away and undid his pants, letting them fall to the floor. He reached behind his lower back and pulled at something.
“Here.” He twisted his body and motioned for her to grab the mysterious thing at the base of his spine.
It filled her hand when she clasped it, and a bit of examination revealed something thick, half a foot long, and covered in soft fur. She ran her hand up from the tip until she discovered its top connected to his back, right above his posterior. It flapped over the top of the waistband of his boxers and twitched in her hand as she groped at it. Unsure, she felt its length again. She patted his buttocks over his boxers, then tugged at the thing to confirm it, in fact, existed.
“Tapio,” she said.
“Yes, pulu,” he replied.
“You have a tail.”
“You can turn to stone.”
“You have big ears and live in the forest.”
“Please don’t say I’m slow or stupid.” He rested his hand on the top of her head.
“This isn’t real.” She laughed. “I’ve passed out, and it’s all a dream.”
“My mother is hiisi. My father is otso,” he offered. “You know what those are?”
“Sort of. Hiisi is a hill spirit, right? Like a giant or troll? And isn’t otso . . . the spirit of a bear?” she asked slowly.
“Not just one bear. All bears,” he said.
“Are your mom and dad still in love?”
“Of course,” he said. “They are very happy.”
“Then, this is the part I don’t get. Why would Smith mistake you for some other spirit when your name is Tapio?” she asked.
“Mmm, I don’t think her atlas goes much further than Poland. Besides, I don’t look anything like the actual Tapio.”
“Have you met him?” she asked.
“Have you met the forest?”
She knit her brow, but before she could press him for a better answer, her eyes flashed with realization as she forgot completely about his inscrutable response. “The coins!”
“Yes, I feel welcome here because your uncle buried coins under the house,” he said. “And you did, too.”
He sat beside her and undressed until he wore only his boxers. With some trepidation, he placed her hand on his chest. The same short hair she had felt on his arms covered his skin. She ran her palm along his pecs, then over his abdomen, finding the same soft body hair everywhere. It felt like velvety moss that grew on boulders. His tail flicked on the bed behind them as she pawed at his body, though she didn’t know if it was from nervousness or delight.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I’m still adjusting to the fact that mythical creatures are real and that my boyfriend is one of them,” she said.
“Poikaystävä.” He repeated the word “boyfriend” in Finnish with a certain amount of pride.
“What else would you be?” she asked.
“The strange guy you tolerate because he’s the only option within a fifty-mile radius,” he said.
“It was good for my ego, you know.”
“What was?” she asked.
“Two women gripped in combat over me.”
“You can go sleep in the tool shed,” she said flatly.
He laughed as he flipped her onto her back, eliciting a surprised cry from her. She could hear his tail flapping against the fabric of his boxers. This time, it was definitely from delight. He looked so tired back in the living room, yet somehow, he had found a wellspring of energy. She smiled as she playfully batted his arms away from her—if he shared some of that energy with her, she would have appreciated it.
“I really ought to do something about your wound,” she said.
“You’re covered in blood, Pikka.”
“Ah. Yes. Where’s your first-aid kit?”
“In the bathroom.”
“Then I’ll go shower and dress my injury. You sit here and relax. I’ll be right back.” He kissed her forehead and slid off the bed.
She watched him duck through the doorway, slapping its top as he went, and light spilled from the bathroom into the hall moments later. The sound of the shower followed, filling the silence. She groaned and collapsed into her pillows, restless. She got him home safe, but nothing about life felt remotely normal. Grappling with his revelations presented a new source of stress. It’d been easy to dismiss Smith and her followers as nutjobs when they mistook him for a forest god, but they’d been closer to the truth than they realized. He fell short of being a god, but he happened to be the son of two powerful spirits.
Why was he in the middle of the Pacific Northwest?
Her stomach flipped, then growled. She grabbed her throat. It hadn’t been her stomach making that noise . . . She snarled as her thoughts tumbled. She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and pushed her head between her knees. She’d had panic attacks before, but nothing like this. Frantic, she ran her hands through her hair and took deep breaths, but the sounds only grew more primal. She didn’t remember falling but suddenly lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling. The world seemed strange. The reds were all wrong, and she could see everything much clearer, like someone turned the lights on.
She looked for the window. Fresh air would do her good. After struggling to her feet, she fumbled with the latches and threw the lower sash open. The moon seemed bright, and she could smell everything on the wind. The stream several hundred yards away. The pungent aroma of the trees. The soil she had tilled earlier in the day. It was enough to give her a headache.
I need to get out there, she thought.
She shimmied her body through the small window, fell onto the ground outside with a grunt, and then bolted for the treeline without looking back.
Several minutes later, Tapio returned to the bedroom, towel-drying his hair. “You can barely see the wound now.”
He stopped in the doorway, stared at the empty bed, and then turned his attention to the open window.
“Lumi?” he asked. “Pulu?”
After checking the doors, which hadn’t been disturbed, he returned to the bedroom and examined the window. On the latch were traces of fresh blood and a clump of flaxen fur. He lifted it to his nose and gave it a sniff. It smelled exactly like her.
“Now what have we gotten into?” he muttered.