Authors: Wendy Delsol
Afi woke up from his nap and was hungry for dinner. “Wednesday’s beef stew at the restaurant,” he said. “You fly. I buy.”
Walking down Main Street, I passed the used bookstore. A woman waved to me from where she was setting gourds and pumpkins among the stacks of paperbacks in the front window display. I knew she’d introduced herself in the summer and asked about my mom, but I couldn’t remember her name. A few doors down, a man wished me a pleasant evening as he swept the sidewalk in front of the hardware store. I had no clue what is name was either.
Two doors past the antique store was the Kountry Kettle, my favorite hangout, mostly because Jaelle waitressed there. Jaelle was from Minneapolis and had more sass and presence than the whole town huddled on the green. I hip-checked the door open and stopped to savor something pumpkin. Idabelle, the café’s owner, had no eye for interiors — as evidenced by the ruffled curtains and milk-can decor — but the woman sure could pipe out some delicious aromas. Jaelle looked up from the counter and instantly her mouth stretched into a wide grin. She had a great smile, but one she didn’t spread thin the way so many of the adults around here did. Minnesota-nice, or whatever you want to call it, was like Michael Kors at Macy’s: the more you offer it to just anybody, the more it loses its appeal.
“Hey, Ice.” The first day we met, back in the summer, Jaelle had taken one look at my blond hair and proclaimed it ice-white. And as far as I could tell, Jaelle didn’t give out nicknames easily. Kind of ironic that she called me Ice, given my dislike of the cold. Jaelle leaned against the counter. Idabelle made the waitresses wear yellow button-front dresses, but Jaelle had a way of making it her own. A black lace-trimmed undershirt pushed through the V created by unfastened buttons, and black bicycle shorts and long brown legs pedaled under the shortened skirt.
“So what’s Mr. Vilhalminsson in the mood for tonight?” Jaelle asked. I always thought it interesting that someone as jive as Jaelle was so formal with elders.
“I’ll take two stew specials to go.” I sat at the lunch counter and spun the vinyl-topped seat a full three-sixty, something I could never resist.
Jaelle wrote the ticket and clipped it to the order wheel.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
“Russ and the crew left on Saturday for a job up near Baudette. Don’t know about anybody else.” Russ was Jaelle’s husband and the big hunk of a lumberjack for whom she had uprooted her life and moved north of civilization. It was a sore point with Jaelle that Russ’s work often took him away for weeks at a time. They’d only been married a year, and Jaelle was an outsider here, too. No wonder she was bored and restless and spent her tips at Tinker’s Tap, the local bar out on Highway 53. Rumor had it Jaelle liked tequila. And Norah Jones. And six-ball pool. Just give these townies something to yammer about and it spreads like mustard on a foot-long.
The door opened, and a waft of cool air blew in. I looked up to see Wade holding the door for middle-aged male and female versions of himself, complete with cropped hair and pig cheeks — even the mother. He continued to play doorman, and I was surprised when none other than Fru Dorit, Hulda’s suck-up, walked in. Wade ushered her in with a well-mannered, after-you gesture. Huh? A submissive Wade?
The parents passed solemnly, nodding terse good evenings to Jaelle. Dorit graced me with a lopsided grin, wacky enough to pass for old-lady eccentric but lingering enough to make me think we shared a secret. My stomach did a small flip.
Uh-oh. Did we really share a secret? Like membership to a clandestine organization?
Wade managed a suggestive smirk, quick and smug.
. They settled into a booth in the far corner of the restaurant.
“Do you know the Ivarssons?” Jaelle asked. “Wade must go to your school.”
“I’ve seen him around.”
“They’re an odd bunch,” Jaelle said in a low voice. She stacked the two containers of stew in a paper bag, wrapped two corn muffins in bakery sleeves, and then added napkins and plastic soup-spoons. “I guess it’s understandable, given the tragedy.”
I snuck a peek at their table, catching the father reaching across the booth to give Wade an upside-the-head smack. Some words were exchanged, but we were too far away to hear. I turned back quickly, not wanting to be caught staring — and wondering if “odd” was a comprehensive enough adjective.
“The death of the little girl, Wade’s sister, years ago.”
“On a camping trip. She fell down a hillside and hit her head on some rocks. She was only nine.”
“That is sad.”
“Wade was with her. Can you imagine anything so awful?”
“No.” I couldn’t.
“The grandmother, Dorit, is a hoot. When she’s on her own, she dishes on everyone and everything. That woman can yak, and that woman can obsess. She really loved that little granddaughter of hers, Hanna. I guess because she never had a daughter of her own. Wade’s dad was her only child, so she dwells on the loss sometimes. She was in here this June and just beside herself about it being the first day of summer and the anniversary of Hanna’s death. She really couldn’t have been any sadder. But most times she’s got a lot of spunk, and there’s no mistaking who rules the roost in that family.”
I took another quick look at their table, where Dorit was talking with a pointed index finger. Even Wade’s father had his head lowered.
All righty, then. Order up. Scoop du jour. One big steaming bowl of dysfunction
Jaelle folded the to-go bag neatly and handed it across the counter, sighing and rubbing her temples.
“Are you feeling OK?” I pushed Afi’s twenty across the counter and waited for change.
“I guess so,” Jaelle said. “Had a little headache since I woke up, but have only myself to blame.”
So maybe there was a little truth to the tequila rumors. I gave Jaelle a sympathetic look and noticed something above her head. Was it a bug? Did a throbbing headache actually bend air? I must have stared at the spot hard, because Jaelle started patting down her thick black curls. “What are you staring at?” she asked. “Is my hair that bad today?”
“No. Sorry. It’s me. I’m tired. My eyes can’t focus right.”
“You stressed out at school again?”
“Again? That would imply the stress had stopped and restarted.”
“OK, Miss Semantics. Are you
stressed out at school?”
“Remember. It’s a pit stop.”
I shoved a wad of bills and coins into my back pocket and made toward the door. “You mean it’s the pits.”
Jaelle pushed her hands into the pocket of her lace-trimmed apron. “Just don’t let ’em get to you.”
“I’ll try.” I tucked the paper sack under my left arm. “See ya, Jaelle.”
Afi waited at one of the checkers tables, technically a row of barrels flanked by rickety wooden chairs, set up for a crew of old-timers who liked to come in and push reds and blacks across a board. The tables had been out on the covered porch all summer, but had recently been moved close to the cast-iron box stove in the center of the store. Afi rubbed his hands in anticipation as I pulled his stew from the bag.
I looked around the empty store. “Not too busy, huh, Afi?”
“Had a couple sales while you were gone.”
We ate in silence, which was normal. My grandpa was a quiet guy. Amma had been the chatty one. Talked enough for two or three, truth be told. In her presence, Afi’s silent nature hadn’t been noticeable. I wondered what he’d been like with her. Had he always been the ear to her voice, or had she been able to oil his jaw hinge on occasion? He had to have made conversation once upon a time, right? You couldn’t go out with someone — what would have been called courting back then — and then marry them, I supposed, without some chitchat. Then again, I didn’t remember much talk between me and Wade. Ugh. Thinking about that stupid mistake rolled my stomach end-over-end. Afi dipped his corn muffin into the bowl, sponging up the last dribble of gravy. Maybe he just needed a little prompt, and I was curious about what Jack had said last night.
I leaned back and picked an apple out of the bin. “These any good?”
“Best in the county.”
“Jack Snjosson delivered them last night.” I rubbed the apple up and down my pant leg, polishing it to a nice shine. “So what’s the story with him? He seemed all cranked up about that development deal.”
Afi lifted the paper napkin from his lap and dropped it over the empty Styrofoam bowl. “The Snjosson kid?”
“Lars was supposed to deliver them.”
“Well, he sent his grandson.”
“Son,” Afi corrected.
“Whatever. What difference does it make?”
Afi took a long time, even for him, to answer. “It doesn’t really, but do me a favor. Don’t mention the Snjosson kid to your mom.”
“Just an old bit of family business. No big deal, but your mom’s got enough on her plate these days.”
Wow. That was more than I may have ever heard my
speak on any topic. And of course it got me thinking that the “old business” was why Jack expected me to know him already. “What old business?”
I could see the topic close in Afi’s squinty eyes. “Never mind about that.”
I knew better than to press. But maybe if I came at it from a different angle . . . “Jack is definitely against that development deal.”
“He’s entitled to his opinion.”
“Gonna sell if I can.”
I cracked a bite out of the apple. Tart, just how I liked them. “Then what would you do?”
“Rest. Find me a view over some water.”
Afi started to gather the trash. Either Amma had been way better at crowbarring information out of the old guy or that was as much as you got. Period.
“Would they really level all of Main Street?”
“Oh, that’s just one of about twenty different plans floating around. I’ve been to enough of the city council meetings now to understand that the whole thing is a mess. All I know is that this old building and little scrap of land is mine, and I can sell it to whomever I darn well please.”
Another long oration from Afi. Quite the occasion. He yawned and stretched his legs. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything else out of him for the night. “You want me to close up again for you, Afi?”
He looked up at me with milky blue eyes. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“You OK driving in the dark?”
So far the only good thing about Minnesota was that I got a car. A little used VW Bug, but I wasn’t complaining. Now that I had my license, the real thing, not some bozo learner’s permit, I had a newfound sense of freedom. “I’m a good driver. Besides, it’s not far.”
My mom had rented a house from a colleague who was on sabbatical. It was about a mile out of town and close to the highway my mom took to work. The house was nice enough. I could still hear my mom trying to sell it to me: two floors, three bedrooms, kitchen with granite countertops, formal dining room, hardwood floors, and a yard that backed onto a city park. And trees. She’d been over the moon about bushy, leaf-dropping, color-changing trees. I was just glad it wasn’t old and smelly. The agreement was that we’d give Minnesota a year, see how we liked it. And then talk about where I’d do my senior year. I wished I’d gotten that one in writing. Two weeks in a row I’d caught my mom with a highlighter and the Sunday real-estate section of the paper.
“Why don’t you go ahead and walk home, Afi?”
He yanked on his thick lopi sweater with the patterned circular yoke. With his tufts of white hair, ruddy cheeks, and wiry build, he looked like an old fisherman. All he needed was a net thrown over his shoulder. Afi came from a long line of seafarers — mariners, as he liked to call them. Fishermen, whalers, boatbuilders, merchant traders, and explorers with a lineage going back to the Vikings.
He left, and I took my usual spot up at the front register. I pulled out my sketchbook, envisioning a costume for Kay, the boy character in
The Snow Queen
. At Hulda’s, I’d seen a bolt of russet brown suede which would be perfect for a field jacket. I instinctively looked across the street to where the material was shelved, and a flicker of light caught my eye. It wasn’t the overhead lights, the way it had been yesterday. It was more like a lantern or flashlight moving through the store.
I froze, a confusion of emotions. My logical side had told me to ignore the store entirely and had talked myself, deeper and deeper, into an illness theory, possibly stress-induced and with very strange symptoms. This logical side, I discovered, to a combination of dismay and thrill, had a counterpart that was highly curious about all things mystical. What if I hadn’t been dreaming? What did “Icelandic Stork Society” mean, exactly? How had I been chosen? How on earth could they possibly influence who a baby was placed with — and not
really, more like
There it was again, a flash of light moving slowly. I sat paralyzed with fear. I finally wrenched my eyes away, covering my face with my forearm and taking big gulping breaths of air. After a few minutes, I lowered my arm by a mere fraction of an inch. I’d take one last look and then close early, exiting through the rear. Afi wouldn’t want me to go crazy all for the sale of a dozen eggs and a gallon of milk.
Holy cow! Hulda was pressed against the front window staring right at me and waving a lantern back and forth.
I tried to swallow, but my mouth was dry as chalk, and tasted like it, too. At least in LA you knew the basic shape of your worst fears: a drive-by, a carjacking, home invasion, or Zoey Simmons showing up to Mark Hall’s party in the same alice + olivia batik print blouse as yours. This, however, had a whole new eerie supernatural side to it, and made riots and earthquakes and wardrobe malfunctions seem mundane. With an upright bolt, I steeled my shoulders. The woman was old, BC old. And small — heck, there wasn’t enough of her to stuff a pillow. Just spooky with all her “The cap is a sign” ramblings, but not dangerous. It was time to get to the bottom of this. I grabbed the key out of the drawer, locked up the store, and marched across the street.