Chapter One

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The small town of Kalakala, Washington sat perched on the cliffs of the Columbia River. Its original name was Kalakalama, pronounced “kal-ak-a-la-ma.” After displacing the first inhabitants, white interlopers dropped the final syllable out of laziness, and maybe a little spite. As decades passed, the townsfolk couldn’t be bothered to pronounce the name correctly, simplifying it further to “Kala-Kala.”

However, the town of Kalakala was neither state-of-the-art nor popular among tourists. It had an elementary school that served the larger area, a hardware store, two liquor stores, and one bar. It also lacked a church, but Lumi didn’t mind these details. She hadn’t moved to the town because she considered it a dream location—her uncle left her a cabin with a lovely view and a nice yard when he died. Besides, it was close to Astoria or Long Beach, two towns with plenty to do. While she preferred the city, she knew better than to refuse a free home with almost no property taxes.

Her new home covered more acreage than she could reasonably care for, entirely surrounded by land controlled by the state forestry service. The worn driveway consisted of parallel quarter-mile-long ruts and had been granted an easement. She lived at the end of the power line, and in the few months she’d been there, there were enough outages to justify the generator her uncle installed.

The place remained largely untouched. It was still very much Uncle Aleksi’s cabin. He moved to Washington from Minnesota in the 80s, and her family visited him annually for as long as she could remember. He had been her mother’s favorite brother, and with no children of his own, he had doted on his niece as if she were his own daughter. That left her with a sense of obligation to her deceased uncle. Selling the cabin seemed wrong, and renting it felt like a violation.

This area of Washington, once Chinook territory, now had its share of Finns. Enough so that Aleksi collected several drinking buddies who spoke Finnish. Her grandparents had been fluent, and so were their children. She had a juvenile grasp of the language; her mother didn’t use it much with her when she was a child, and once her grandparents died, she found few reasons to speak it. When she first arrived, these old companions greeted her with affection and invited her to drink with them, which she did from time to time when her liver could handle the task.

On one particular evening of drinking with these adopted friends, who were all well into their 60s, a much younger man she didn’t recognize joined them. It was impossible to miss him as he entered the bar since he ducked to get through the front door. He must have stood around seven feet tall. As he made his way to their table, the older men lifted their drinks, hollering to him.

“Peikko,” Oliver shouted.

The younger man, dressed in a hunter-green forester uniform, raised his hand in acknowledgment. Elias, who had been sitting next to Lumi, vacated his chair.

“I’ll get another pitcher,” Elias said. “Peikko, you sit with Lumi.”

The young man’s curly, chestnut-colored hair was drawn back into a short ponytail, and his jacket was zipped up to his stubbled-covered chin. He had round brown eyes, and his face was marked by high, prominent cheekbones, further highlighted by large, symmetrical ears that stuck out from his head charmingly. Patches on his arm and chest revealed he worked for the Washington DNR. When he nodded at her, she realized she’d been staring and blushed in embarrassment.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just looking at your jacket. And I’ve had two beers on a fairly empty stomach. Didn’t mean to gawk.”

“It’s fine. I’m used to it,” he mumbled as he sat, his accent thick.

“Meet your new husband, Lumi.” Oliver shot them his broadest grin.

She turned to the group of older men, all seemingly pleased with themselves. Oliver, much like Elias, was a shorter, rounder gentleman. She didn’t know what their younger selves looked like, but years of sitting at the bar surely put some extra weight on them. They were becoming de facto uncles in Aleksi’s place.

“We’re doing arranged marriages now, are we?” she asked.

“You two are the only ones in town your age,” Oliver said. “You should get to know each other. Poor Peikko needs a date!”

Elias set down two pitchers of beer, eliciting another cheer from the men. She returned her attention to Peikko as she rolled her eyes, only to find him studying her.

“My name isn’t Peikko.” His voice was soft enough that only she could hear him.

“I figured,” she said. “They gave it to you because of your height, didn’t they?”

“You speak it then? Suomi?”

She shook her head.

“I’m afraid your English is better than my Finnish. I stopped speaking around eight, so I can have some great conversations about puppies and naps with toddlers.”

My actual name is Tapio.”

“Lumi.” She held out her hand. “Tapio . . . isn’t that . . . ”

“My mother was a little presumptuous to name me after the forest god, but I suppose it’s fitting since I became a forester.”

He took her hand in his own and shook it, his long fingers wrapping around hers.

“I also don’t mind Peikko. It’s grown on me.”

Their hands remained intertwined for an awkward moment before he recoiled, as if he had touched a hot stovetop.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m not great with . . . people.”

Her brows knitted, but she chuckled nonetheless. He seemed friendly, but strange. Being a forester suited him if he wasn’t the social type. The guys were right; they had few peers in the area. She was thirty-four and assumed he wasn’t far off. Everyone in Kalakala was either a kid or much older. Anyone in their twenties or thirties escaped small-town life for Seattle or Portland. Or at least Astoria. It was an ideal place to live for those who preferred solitude.

“You’re the one in the cabin off Twenty-one Hundred, then?” He stuffed his hand in his coat pocket.

“That’s me. I’m sorry. Your accent is so charming. I love the way you roll your Rs.”

He had the thickest accent she had heard on any English-speaking Finn, except perhaps for her grandparents. She could understand him just fine, but imagined plenty of people might not.

Her compliment brought pink to his cheeks, which he attempted to conceal by leaning forward and pouring himself another beer. Without looking at her, he refilled her glass as well. It was official: he captivated her. The rest of the table grew absorbed in their own conversations, happy to leave the two of them alone.

“Is the state road in good condition? I haven’t driven down Twenty-one Hundred in a month,” he said.

“Oh, it’s just—actually, there’s a part about a fifty yards from my turnout that’s washing out.”

“I’ll come look.”

“Stop by when you do. I’ll make you a little lunch. You like coffee?”

He raised his brow, his cheeks still flushed. It was a silly question. Finns drank more coffee than anyone else in the world, after all. His expression told her what she needed to know.

“So, black with the consistency of mud, then?” she asked.

“I prefer cream.”

She laughed again, then held up her pint. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tapio.”

He clinked his glass against hers.

The rest of the evening was cribbage, card games, and enough alcohol that the wives had to fetch their husbands. Tapio lingered until closing time, a fact the men would comment on. He typically left first when he bothered to show up at all. The consensus among the older men was he stayed because of her, which he met with a series of small smiles but no formal acknowledgment.

When she stood around 1:58 AM, she realized she was too drunk to drive. Normally, she helped the guys call their annoyed wives and loaded them into their vehicles. She panicked for a moment. It was a fifteen-mile trip home, and she couldn’t walk that. The only option was to sleep it off in her old Isuzu.

“Would you like a ride?” Tapio towered over her.

“How am I going to get my car in the morning?” she groaned.

“I’ll drive you in. My station isn’t far from you.”

Now it was his turn to laugh as she stared up at him with a pained face.

“I’m sorry, Tapio.”

“It’s okay.”

She followed him to his truck like a scolded child, her head ducked low, and he opened the door for her, but she refused his help into the cab. The dark ride was quiet, with only his music to fill the silence. She didn’t recognize the band, but she knew prog metal when she heard it. If she wasn’t so embarrassed, she could have commented on it.

Maybe tomorrow, she decided.

“If you come by about noon, I’ll make you lunch,” she said as they turned off the state road and onto her bumpy “driveway.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

She could hear the smile in his voice as he pulled up to the little cabin and put the truck in park. As he moved to climb out, she held up her hand. She already felt better.

“I’ll be okay,” she said. “Thank you again.”

He nodded as he watched her slip out of the cab and reach her front door. She fumbled in her purse for a few moments before retrieving her keys, then waved as she let herself in. She heard him turn around in the yard, and the light from his headlamps faded as the truck trundled back down the ruts.

Once inside, she poured several glasses of water and stared out the kitchen window into the black woods. After a few moments, she realized she no longer felt embarrassed but excited to see him the next day. Before she crawled into the queen bed covered in old cozy quilts, she set some ibuprofen and another tall glass of water on her nightstand.

The morning mirror revealed a tired blonde woman with dark circles under her blue eyes. She splashed some cold water on her face and dug around the pantry. It was already 10:30 AM, leaving her little time to cook and transform back to human.

Sandwiches and coffee would be fine—a shower was more important. The hot water relieved the rest of her headache, and the myriad of facial products she brought from the city invigorated her senses. Her uncle had left behind a giant bottle of combination shampoo/conditioner and some bars of Irish Spring. He hadn’t been a metropolitan guy. She didn’t have the heart to throw them out, though, so they stayed in the shower caddy.

A bit of makeup later, she passed for awake and coherent. After ten minutes of staring at her closet, she realized she hadn’t started the coffee, so she threw on her oversized UMD Bulldog hoodie and flannel pajama pants. Putting on makeup seemed pointless in retrospect.

She was plunging her giant French press when there was a gentle but firm knock. The handmade clock on the wall read 11:42 AM. She’d been so preoccupied she hadn’t even heard his truck. With a quiet curse, she abandoned the coffee to answer the door.

Tapio smiled as the old wooden door swung open, his curly hair hanging around his long face. He was still dressed in his forestry gear, his coat now unzipped, revealing a black band t-shirt with white script she couldn’t read due to its epic over-stylization. She wasn’t even sure if it was English.

“Am I too early?” he asked.

“No, no, come in. I’m making coffee.”

He noticed the French press on the counter and rounded the timeworn oak table toward it. As he crossed the room, he stumbled slightly, caught himself on a chair, then apologized for his clumsiness. He glanced at the floor as if it had offended him, then headed for the counter. Before she could shoo him away, he resumed pushing the plunger for her.

“I can finish this.”

“Thanks. You’re too nice, Tapio.”

From her fridge, she pulled the meatloaf she had made two days ago and warmed it in the microwave briefly before slicing it and putting it on bread. She felt his eyes on her as she moved, but his stare seemed innocent. Having lived so long in the city, she had honed her creep detector; he didn’t come close to setting it off.

“Sorry, it’s not much.” She grabbed two mugs.

He brought the press to the table and poured them each a cupful. She motioned to a chair and only sat after he did.

“It’s nice to eat someone else’s cooking,” he said.

His eyes lit up as he took a bite of his sandwich.

“It’s good!” he said with a mouthful.

His compliment warmed her, and then some. Once she was sure he told the truth, she set in on her own food. They were quiet for a few minutes as they ate, and before she’d gotten halfway through her own, he finished his entirely.

“May I have another?” he asked.

“Of course.”

He cut himself a thicker slice of meatloaf this time, making a second sandwich corresponding to his height. He devoured it like he’d been starving for weeks.

“Finish it if you want,” she said.

He grinned and demolished the meatloaf with surprising speed. She’d never seen a grown man eat so fast.

“Please make more of that soon,” he said.

She nodded, taking a drink from her mug. The taste of black coffee reminded her of the previous night’s conversation, and she bolted out of her chair toward the refrigerator, where she fetched her whole milk. He blinked a few times, looking from her to the half-gallon container as she set it on the table.

“Sorry, I don’t have any cream.”

“Milk is fine. Thank you.”

She sat down, suddenly feeling awkward. He would think she was strange if she kept this up. She took a quiet, deep breath and centered herself. Don’t be weird, she repeated in her head. Make normal conversation.

“You listen to prog metal,” she said.

“I do. You like metal?”

She nodded. “I didn’t recognize who you had on last night, though.”

He dumped half a cup of milk into his mug and downed it in a single gulp. He then stood, the top of his head inches from the old cabin’s ceiling. Every time he went from sitting to standing, it shocked her. When he sat, his long legs splayed to the sides, and when he stood, he unfurled like a fern. He had a fluid grace his lankiness did not immediately convey.

“I’ll play you some more on the drive,” he said. “If you’re ready.”

She made him a thermos of the rest of the coffee, and they piled into his truck. As they drove down the driveway, he fiddled with his stereo until he found a song he liked.

“Are you in a hurry to return to town?” he asked, glancing at her.

“Not especially.”

“I need to check on some spots people have called in. Your wash out, things like that. It’s pretty boring to drive alone, so it’d be nice to have your company.”

“Sure. You can introduce me to some new music, too.”

“I’m glad we met, Lumi.”

She stared out her window, putting her hand over her mouth, obscuring half of her face with her oversized hoodie’s sleeve. She simply nodded and made a sound of agreement. It was better than letting him see her bright red cheeks.

They drove for two or so hours, mostly listening to music. Although he spoke sparingly, he occasionally referred to the current band or his job. She sat and watched him from the truck as he examined various fallen trees or road damage. With his mop of loose curls and gangly limbs, a drunk hunter might mistake him for a Bigfoot in the dark.

She found herself a bit sad when he pulled up to her SUV, not bothering to put his truck in park. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given how nice of a time she had with him doing absolutely nothing. The back roads of Washington always reminded her of the state’s breathtaking beauty.

“Thank you, Tapio.” She stalled, her hand on the door. “I had fun. Invite me along again.”

“Definitely,” he replied.

With that, she slid out the passenger side, her feet hitting the gravel parking lot. She stood next to her Isuzu, watching as he drove off, feeling both excitement and sorrow. She would have spent the whole day with him if he’d asked, and she looked forward to the next time she saw him—it couldn’t come soon enough.

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