After returning home, little changed. They resumed their truck rides and quiet evenings, listening to music and playing cribbage. The dreary spring gave way to a pleasantly mild summer. After all, western Washington only had two seasons: rainy and dry. The days grew longer, and he helped her put up the sauna, which he never used.
He also never spent the night and didn’t extend an invitation to his place, but he would sit with her on the sofa, his arm draped around her shoulder as they watched whatever she had on hand. She ran into Long Beach often enough to send her revisions to her editor since her satellite internet was unreliable, so she took the opportunity to torrent something popular. He never asked what she did for a living or what drove her away from the city. He simply wanted to sit with her. There were parts of her past she’d rather forget, anyway.
Living out in the forest at the end of a state-maintained road was isolating, so she quickly lost track of any world news. None of it mattered out here. Occasionally, she missed the sound of traffic, but not being constantly exposed to the world’s woes turned out to be more of a benefit than a detriment. Her world now revolved around her writing, the noisy crow that liked to hang out on her porch, Tapio, and occasionally, the boisterous crew at the bar.
He had yet to kiss her, but she didn’t mind much. She assumed it was only a matter of time. He’d idly toy with the back of her flaxen hair as they sat together, which satisfied her. The atmosphere had grown less awkward, and she had learned how to read his mood and intentions from how he held himself and the way he squinted his eyes.
She never locked her door but gave him a key regardless. He was welcome any day at any time, whether or not she was there. Sometimes, she’d come home from Long Beach or Astoria to find him asleep on her much too short sofa. One pleasant, warm evening, she found him there, the windows open, listening to a Devin Townsend vinyl. His arm hung off the edge, his hand near a half-full pint of imperial stout.
To her surprise, he wore only a black t-shirt, missing his standard jacket or hoodie, making her realize she had never seen him sleeveless. She snuck to his side and put his beer on the end table, then sat on the edge of the sofa by his chest, her legs bumping against his inner forearm.
She rested her fingertips on his cheek, her thumb on his chin. His hair flared around his head on the pillow like a mane, giving him a wild and almost otherworldly appearance. Recalling his statement the night she confessed her feelings, she couldn’t help but wonder if there was something more to him.
Moni kakku päältä kaunis, he had said. It was a Finnish expression that literally meant “many cakes are beautiful on top.” It was similar to “beauty is only skin deep” or “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but the Finnish phrase had a more pessimistic implication.
It had been a strange thing for him to say at that moment.
He murmured as her touch brought him back to the waking world, his hand reaching for her. It found her knee as he let out a loud yawn. She hadn’t noticed until that moment how hairy his arms were—she hadn’t been given an opportunity—and the hair on his forearms was short and dense but looked soft, almost velvety.
“I fell asleep,” he said as he rubbed his eye with his other hand.
“It’s a beautiful evening,” she replied and stroked the line his cheekbone carved along his face.
“How was town?”
She leaned in and rested her head on his chest, wrapping her arms around his frame.
“Full of strangers,” she said. “But I got us a rhubarb-strawberry pie.”
“I’ll make some coffee.”
He made absolutely zero effort to get up, his hands sliding over her back. They lay together, listening to the jays and crows outside in the trees. After a bit, she lifted her head and locked his eyes with hers. A breeze brought the scent of flowers and pine sap into the room. Time slowed as she lowered her face to his, their lips brushing. She felt his hands grasp her shirt, but he didn’t stop her.
The kiss was slow and soft, more tender than anything else. He froze at first, his body language unsure, but soon surrendered to the moment as he let her guide him. To her relief, he didn’t push her away or panic as he would have weeks ago. They stayed there, entwined in each other’s arms as the golden pink glow of the setting sun seeped into the room.
It was only when the music stopped that they paused. She buried her face in his neck and pressed her lips against the underside of his jaw. Before she could do anymore, he sat her up and gripped her shoulders. The sleep was gone from his big, brown eyes, replaced with something more urgent.
“Coffee,” he said as he stood and grabbed his pint glass.
“Sorry,” she said as she followed him. “You looked so sweet, I took advantage of a lovely moment.”
His laughter turned quickly into a series of Finnish curses as he stubbed his toe next to the table. He lifted his foot to grip his toes with a grimace as he leaned on one of the chairs. After several aggravated huffs, he centered himself and stood up straight.
“You alright there?” she asked.
“These floorboards will be the death of me,” he said as he slid over to the sink and dumped grounds into her French press while she hovered nearby, watching him.
“You are forgiven,” he said.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Joo,” he said.
“Your arms,” she said.
He looked down at them and came to a halt, realizing for the first time he wasn’t in long sleeves.
“What’s the name of that condition,” she muttered as she pulled her phone out and wandered to the one corner of the cabin where she could get reliable data. “Hypertrichosis. Is it that?”
“Hyper what?” he asked.
“They used to call it werewolf syndrome because it sometimes gives people soft hair all over their face, but it can cause hair to grow anywhere,” she said.
He ran his hand over the top of his forearm, thinking for a moment, then shook his head and returned to preparing the coffee. She rejoined him, fetching two mugs and the creamer from the fridge. He said nothing as he poured near-boiling water from her electric kettle into the press, staring at the cupboard in front of him.
“My mother and sisters are this way, too,” he said.
“It’s genetic,” she said.
“It’s not this hypertri…”
“Hypertrichosis,” she offered.
“It’s not that,” he said. “And I promise I’m not a werewolf. It’s difficult to explain. Does it bother you?”
“No!” she said as she set everything down on the counter, then wrapped her arms around him from behind. “Of course not! If you’ve been hiding your arms because you’re worried about what I’ll think, you can stop.”
He let out a long sigh of relief from months of pent-up anxiety, his shoulders slumping forward as he tended to the coffee. She gave him a squeeze, then stepped to his side again and reached up to brush his hair from his face. He nuzzled her hand, making her smile.
“I like everything about you, Tapikka,” she said.
“Promise?” he asked.
She lowered her hand to his waist and pinched him through his shirt, earning a deep yip from him. He playfully kicked at her feet to shoo her away since his hands were busy, and she obliged. After strolling across the kitchen, she opened the front door, letting the evening breeze in through the screen.
“I promise,” she replied. “Do you want to go into town for a beer after dinner?”
“Sure, pulu,” he said.
The bar was busier than usual, and after she commented on the fact, Elias poured a beer from the pitcher in the center of the table with a hearty laugh, then pushed the glass toward her.
“It’s Saturday,” Oliver said, taking the chair on her left-hand side.
“I didn’t work today,” Tapio said from her right side as he took the pitcher for himself.
“Not having a day job really fucks me up,” she said. “Also, I didn’t realize you had shifts. Aren’t you always working, Tapikka?”
“Sort of,” he said, filling his own beer. “But I closed the station today.”
“What did you kids do?” Elias asked.
“Errands,” she said.
“Napped,” Tapio added.
“On my sofa, listening to my albums,” she said.
“She has a good collection,” Tapio said with a shrug when he saw the pleased expression on Elias’s face.
After a few rounds, the crew fell into their natural banter, approximately a quarter of which consisted of giving the young couple a hard time in the most good-natured way possible. Tapio and Lumi both knew that the best way to end a line of questioning they didn’t like was to order more drinks for the table. However, after their talk at the cabin earlier that day, it seemed much harder to bother Tapio. He’d simply smirk and smooth Lumi’s hair as she joked with the guys.
None of them noticed an older woman approach their table, likely due to the heated argument over cribbage scoring. With a polite wave of her hand, she attempted to get their attention, and when they all looked up, she pulled out several cards from her pocket, then handed them out one by one to everyone at the table. When she approached Lumi and Tapio, she smiled extra wide.
Tapio refused the card the woman held out, and when Lumi went to take one, he pushed it back, then hung his arm around her shoulder and dragged her, along with her entire chair, closer to him, as if to shield her from this friendly-looking stranger.
“You’re always welcome, Mr. Leppanen,” the woman said.
Tapio turned his shoulder, ignoring her as Lumi wondered what terrible sin this kind-looking old lady must have committed to offend the notoriously laid-back forester. He filled Lumi’s pint glass, brushed her hair from her forehead, and gave her temple a long, obvious kiss.
“If you do come, it might be best if you leave your friend behind,” the older woman said as she cleared her throat.
The woman turned and headed for the door, stopping briefly at the bulletin board near the front, where she pinned a flier. Once she exited, Tapio stood and approached the board, ripping the fresh piece of paper from the cork in a single swipe. Lumi watched, frowning, then turned to Oliver.
“Nehalennia’s Academy of Awakening,” he said. “You heard of them?”
“Isn’t that screwball cult over in Yoak?” she asked. “Something about some goddess of the sea and some long-lost Viking city?”
“Their leader, Linda Patricia Smith, claims she can channel Nehalennia, an old goddess associated with the North Sea and the coast of the Netherlands,” Elias said. “Nice and cryptic, good for making up bullshit.”
“Once all her disciples have experienced their divine awakening, she says she’ll lead them to the long-lost island of Vineta,” Oliver added.
“Vineta?” she asked.
“It was a fortress on the German coast of the Baltic Sea. Some tales paint it as a global port of excess, while others describe it as a small harbor with room for no more than three ships,” Oliver said.
She took a long drink from her full pint glass.
“That lady knows Tapio,” she said.
“The Academy,” Oliver said, using liberal air quotes, “is made up of a lot of elderly ladies, and they all seem to have a crush on your seven-foot-tall mystery man.”
Tapio, having returned, grumbled as he set his hand on Lumi’s shoulder. She rested her palm over his fingers and looked up at him, noting his sour expression. The whole thing had put him in a mood she’d never seen before, and he didn’t seem like he wanted to sit back down and chat. She finished her beer, then gathered her things.
“Drink my share,” she said with a small wave.
He didn’t say much walking out to his pickup, nor did he offer anything else on the ride home. She’d grown accustomed to a comfortable silence between them, but this was different. He was upset.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’ll feel better when we’re back at your cabin,” he said.
She sat back and watched the dark trees pass by out her window, feeling helpless. He wouldn’t talk about it, so she’d have no way to alleviate his concerns or, quite frankly, hers. She only knew as much as he told her, and there didn’t seem to be any good reason why he wouldn’t share more.
When they arrived home, he helped her from his truck and, as if to apologize for his distant behavior, held her to him tight as they walked across the yard. Before she opened the front door, he stopped her, his fingers curled around her wrist. She looked up at him, keys in her hand, then let out a muffled cry as he captured her in a kiss, tipping her to the side. Her arms windmilled until she dropped her keyring and grabbed his biceps to steady herself. Whatever irritation she felt back in the truck vanished as he dipped her a little further, then stood her back up.
“Tapio,” she wheezed.
“Sorry,” he said as he picked up her keys and unlocked the door, looking guilty.
“Do you want to come in?” she asked.
He set her keys in her hand and glanced back at his truck, then at her front door. She could see him weighing his options and it made her happy that he appeared to be considering her offer. It came as no surprise when he shook his head and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“I’ll be in a bad mood. I don’t want to sulk all night around you,” he said.
“I can help put you in a better mood,” she said with a grin.
“Lumikki, let me start with a better mood,” he said.
She patted his chest and nodded. Taking her reaction as a good sign, he brushed his thumb across her cheek, then headed back to his truck. She waved as he drove off, then let herself inside with a dejected groan. Shedding articles of clothing between the kitchen and her bed, she flung herself into her bed and wrapped herself in her quilt until she had blocked out the rest of the world.
The day had been going so well.
She woke to the feeling of something tickling her cheek, and when she attempted to scratch her face, her fingers found soft, loose curls. She mumbled, scrunching up her face. A large hand clasped her bare waist, and she felt callouses against her skin. Her eyes fluttered open and she found Tapio leaning over her, his hair responsible for rousing her from her sleep.
“Hyvää huomenta,” he said.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Eleven. I brought donuts and I’ve already made coffee,” he said.
“Donuts,” she muttered. “You drove to get donuts?”
“Last night ended poorly. I’m sorry,” he said. “Will you forgive me?”
She hummed as she hugged him, pulling him down into bed with her. He didn’t fight her embrace, landing at her side. She then untangled herself from her quilt and pulled it over both of them, her cheeks flushing as she realized she was naked and he had seen some of her.
“Of course, Pikka. As long as you remember that you can tell me things,” she said.
“Of course, Lumikki,” he said. “You’re cute when you’re asleep.”
“As opposed to when I’m awake?” she asked, reaching for him under the blankets.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” he said as he blocked her attack.
“So, do I look like Sleeping Beauty?” she asked.
“You look like you were struck by a tornado,” he teased.
She pressed her lips together in a straight line, leveling an unimpressed stare at him.
“It’s very you, Lumi. I think it’s nice,” he said, squeezing her hands in his under the blanket. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Oh yes, very much.”
He slid out from the covers and left her bedroom, ducking as he passed through the doorway. She practically fell out of bed and managed to stumble her way into some sweatpants and a shirt. When she made it out to the kitchen, there was a mug of coffee and a bear claw on the table waiting for her. She took a chair and stretched her limbs before starting on her donut. He kissed the top of her head, then sat opposite her with a cinnamon roll.
“I’ve never seen you upset, Tapio,” she said. “Last night was the first time. I know you’re not going to tell me more, but I’m at least relieved you experience an entire spectrum of human emotions.”
“You’ve never seen me around my sisters,” he said.
“Do they piss you off?” she asked.
“They’re little devils.”
“What do you want to do today?” she asked with a chuckle.
He swirled his coffee in his mug for a bit, then perked his brow.
“Would you like to drive up an access road and listen to some music while we look at some hills and rivers?” he asked.
“Can we park at a vista and kiss a whole bunch?” she asked as she brushed the donut crumbs from her shirt.
“That’s what I was implying,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if you actually wanted to sit quietly and stare at a river, Pikka,” she said.
“When was the last time you sat by the water and did nothing but listen to it flow?” he asked.
“With you two weeks ago when we drove down to the creek. I’ll go get ready.” She stood as she finished her last bite and took her coffee with her as she disappeared from the kitchen, leaving him humming to himself as he pulled apart his cinnamon roll.