After dropping Tapio off at his station, Lumi returned home and opened the pre-fabricated shed where her uncle kept his tools. Tapio had promised to drive himself home in the state pickup truck he cared so little for in the next hour or two—he reasoned they might as well have all the vehicles in one place. She loved it when he called her cabin “home.” He couldn’t argue against the fact that her place had a more lived-in feel than his near-barren station.
Out in the yard, she didn’t know what she was doing other than turning over some soil in a patch big enough to be a sizable garden, but after a while, she stood back and looked at the plot. They had no seeds, but she could harass Oliver for some the following day. His wife must have a garden. They seemed like the types. Content, she wiped the sweat from her brow, leaned the shovel against the cabin’s back wall, then went inside for a glass of water.
The old kitchen clock informed her she’d been outside for two hours. Her arms agreed. Tapio would be home soon, a realization that made her heart thump. She was a mess, covered in all the lawn she’d been dredging.
After hurrying outside, she kicked the generator on and didn’t bother to wait for the water to warm up before she jumped in the shower. The brisk water reduced her agonizing throb to an irritating flutter, motivating her to bear it as she went through her entire routine.
She stared at her closet for longer than she realized as she fretted over what to wear. Immobilized by indecision, she finally grabbed a hoodie and a pair of jeans. If she put too much thought into it, it would make things weird. It was best to be herself.
When she passed through the kitchen again, the clock notified her another hour had passed. She turned off the generator and wandered to the front yard, where she stared down her driveway. He ought to be home. If he was half as antsy as her, he should have rushed back.
She sighed as she jammed her hands in her hoodie’s kangaroo pocket.
Knowing him, he sat on his station’s porch, worrying about what he’d gotten into. He may have overpromised in the heat of the moment. It’d been a stressful twenty-four hours, and people acted strangely when things got intense.
She reached inside the front door, grabbed her keys from the hook, and jumped in her SUV. His station was a few miles away; she just needed to find him and tell him she had zero expectations. A mantra she whispered to herself until she believed it as she turned onto the highway.
She expected to see a thousand things when she pulled into his station nestled into the first half-mile of the state forest, like him standing in the bed of his truck, his feet surrounded by canisters, or him on the porch, zoning out as he stared into the woods behind his station, or even him helping some bewildered campers coming in from the trail that originated near his driveway. She didn’t expect to see his state pickup sitting with its driver’s door ajar, several red jerrycans strewn on the ground behind it.
She hurried out of her SUV and checked his truck, where she found his keys still in the ignition. She tugged them free and jammed them in her pocket. After scanning the mess at the foot of the pickup’s tailgate, she jogged to the station. The screen door hung open, creaking on its hinges in the gentle breeze, and the heavy door behind it had been smashed open. Her confusion became fear as her mind raced for explanations.
Calling his name, she made her way into his small office, and her eyes searched the weathered wooden floor in the dim light. There came no response, and there was no Tapio. She came to a dead stop when she spotted large muddy footprints on the floorboards surrounded by several sets of smaller ones. She recognized the treads of Tapio’s boots but not the others.
Between the truck, the front door, and the footprints, it quickly became evident there had been a struggle, but it made no sense. He had lived here for nine years—who would break in now, of all days, and kidnap a seven-foot-tall man?
She worked her way back to his pickup and poked at the gas canisters with a stick. She didn’t want to leave fingerprints since all of this might be considered an active crime scene. The canisters were still full. Whoever took Tapio didn’t care about the gasoline, as valuable as it may be in the current crisis.
The looming dark green firs crowded her as she leaned on the back corner of his truck and put a hand to her swimming head.
When she removed her hand, she blinked and stared at her palm. It was covered in a black ichor that felt like blood when she opened and closed it. Upon further examination, she discovered the ground beneath his tailgate was slick with the same substance.
Gripped with escalating terror, she fled to his bathroom and scrubbed the strange substance from her skin. If it was blood, she had even more questions. Her reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror showed a different woman than the one who had spent a little extra time brushing her hair just a few hours ago.
She could hear Smith’s condescending voice in the back of her mind. According to Oliver and Elias, the woman fancied Tapio, and she had said some bizarre things earlier in the day, things about him being a “forest master.” Kidnapping him, though, seemed extreme, given his stature. Her heart raced as her breath came fast and sharp. She couldn’t give into panic, not at that moment. It wouldn’t help anyone. She slapped her cheek and forced her anxiety down into her belly. She could fall apart later.
Without the internet, her best source of information would be Oliver. She left the scene almost exactly how she left it and ran back to her SUV. She ignored her seat belt and had the Isuzu in gear before she was fully in her seat, then peeled out of the drive and headed for her older friend’s home.
The moment Meri stepped out of her kitchen and saw Lumi behind her steering wheel, she knew by looking at her that something terrible happened. Lumi couldn’t help but wear it all over. The older woman listened as she led a babbling Lumi from her SUV to the kitchen table, where she poured her guest a large, black cup of coffee. The two women didn’t know each other as well as Lumi knew Oliver, but she was as good as family to the aging couple. After finally understanding Tapio had disappeared, she fetched Oliver from the backyard.
“From the beginning.” Oliver joined her at the small table tucked in the corner by the sink’s edge.
She gave him every detail, and he sat back in his chair as he tapped his fingers on the table. After glancing over his shoulder to his wife, who kept busy at the nearby kitchen counter, his gaze took a roundabout path, traveling the edges of the basement doorway behind Lumi, then to the ceiling, before settling on her again.
“How much do you know about Tapio?” Oliver asked.
“Very little,” she said quietly.
“You’re not alone. We all know very little about Tapio Leppanen,” he said. “You know me, Lumi. I’m a busybody. I like to know what’s going on. So, I’ve been keeping tabs on that boy over the years. I’ve noticed these screwballs drive out to his station every now and then.”
“How do you know it’s them?” She slouched in her chair.
“They’ll stop in town for gas or something, and they’ll hawk their bullshit, ask to put up their fliers on community bulletin boards. We know,” he said.
“Small town.” Meri kneaded her dough at the counter.
“Small town,” Oliver echoed. “I never ask him what they want, but they never stay long.”
“They’re the ones that believe in that Viking city?” she asked.
“Vineta,” he said. “Their leader is a real piece of work.”
“Yeah. She stopped by my cabin earlier today.”
“She did?” Oliver asked.
“First, she insulted me, then she tried to woo Tapikka right in front of me.”
“I’m sure that went well.” Oliver snorted.
“No. It did not.”
“For a long time, I thought Smith was just scamming people. Now I’m starting to think she’s a fanatic.”
Lumi clutched the sides of her mug, absorbing the coffee’s warmth. She had yet to take a sip. The last thing she needed was caffeine—her blood pressure spiked long ago, and her head floated with bizarre possibilities.
“For the record, I don’t think she’s channeling any goddess, but if she hauled off Tapio, she might think she is,” Oliver said.
“What do you mean by that?” Lumi asked.
“It’s not my place to explain,” he said. “You ever learn to shoot a gun?”
“No!” she cried as she sat up with a jolt, and coffee spilled over the rim of her mug onto her hands.
Meri appeared in an instant to wipe the table, then put the rag in Lumi’s hands so she could finish the rest.
“Well, kid, I got a canister of bear spray with your name on it,” Oliver said.
“W-what do you mean?” Lumi asked.
“We’re going over to Yoak, and we’re going to politely ask if they’ve got your boyfriend.” He winked as he stood.
She got up, her knees bumping the table as her chair hit the door behind her. Before she could spill any more of her coffee, she slammed it, forgetting whether she needed it. It felt right as it hit her stomach, the first good thing that happened to her since Tapio stepped out her door earlier in the day.
She followed him as he opened the door behind her and hustled down to his cluttered basement, full of boxes of canned food, more MREs, batteries, jugs of water, and whatever one might need to survive the apocalypse. Maps lined his walls, some of the local area, the broader region, and North America. He had racks of weapons that all made her nervous just to be near—she wasn’t sure owning any of them was legal. He paused at a crate and produced a can of bear spray, then held it out to her. She took it without thinking, then trailed him as he led her up a set of back stairs, out a pair of reinforced cellar doors, and finally to his old Jeep.
“Oliver,” she said as she hurried to his side. She now noticed he had strapped a handgun to his hip. “You’re not going to shoot anyone, are you?”
“It’s not loaded,” he said.
“It doesn’t need to be,” he said. “I’ve got you.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s hard to explain. You’ll have to see for yourself.”
He climbed into his Jeep, and she followed suit. After buckling up, she stared at the canister he handed her and hoped she’d never need to use it, given the numerous warning labels.
HAZARDS TO HUMANS: May cause irreversible physical eye damage if sprayed in the eye at close range. Contact through touching or rubbing eyes may result in substantial but temporary eye injury. Strongly irritating to nose and skin. Avoid contact with skin or clothing.
Deploying the spray against another human would surely count as battery, which wasn’t something she wanted on her record. A shudder ran down her spine as she settled in for the drive. The idea of someone kidnapping Tapio seemed too strange. She hoped they were wrong, that he wandered around in the forest with a case of amnesia.
But as they took to the road, she felt that hope slip away. After coming to Oliver, she felt more certain than ever that Smith was involved with Tapio’s disappearance, and they wouldn’t stop until they found him. She squeezed the cold canister in her hand, its weight a reminder of her renewed dedication to him.