I thought of simply calling to express my intentions at first. But then I realized: no. I wanted them to see me from the beginning — the color of my skin, the veil, the fact that I am a woman.
And then if they rejected my offer, I would know why.
The morning drive was roughly an hour away. The scenery, even during this drab transition from fall to winter, took my breath away.
When I knocked on the weather-beaten screen door at the side of the house, the owner himself answered. Although he was dressed in a flannel shirt and work boots, he didn’t seem to be working very diligently — in my humble opinion, at least. Over his shoulder, I glimpsed a sports game on a large-screen TV, a swiftly assembling and reassembling mass of figures. Ice hockey, unofficial religion of the Northern Plains.
He looked surprised. People outside of the city usually are when they see me.
“Can I help you?”
“Are you Brandon?” I asked.
He nodded and leaned against the doorway. He was in his forties, I guessed. Tall, lean, clean-shaven. He had been handsome as a younger man.
“I would like to buy your farm.”
With that, his indifferent stare hardened into defiance.
“Oh hell no.”
And then the door, slammed in my face.
Why do you want to buy a farm?
The question is usually asked inquisitively, not unkindly, and I have my answer ready. As a child, I had read about the Midwestern United States — the pioneers, the settlers, the simpler way of life — and I had fallen in love. People worked hard in this place, grew wise, lived honorably. Families watched out for each other here. They stuck together.
So when I was looking for a place to settle, I came to Minnesota. When I saw the picture of this family’s property on the Internet, I had a premonition about my future there. And when I drove up in real life, I knew it was the kind of place I had imagined.
Then, because it was only fair during my second visit, a visit I hoped would be more successful, I asked my hosts the same thing:
What are you doing here?
I could tell that these relatives lived in the city. This was apparent from their clothing and mannerisms and the clean shine of their vehicle in the driveway.
Helping to settle the estate was the first, obvious answer. The elderly owners had passed in the span of one year, long, full lives followed by short, brutal illnesses. And the couple running the farm — Brandon the son, whom I had met, and Shelly his wife — couldn’t handle all of this by themselves.
A more cryptic answer followed, multiple articles launched on a laptop computer in multiple browsers.
Here you go.
“I’ve kept my mouth shut about this ridiculous situation for nearly two years,” the woman declared, a petite, pretty woman, stylishly dressed and suddenly bursting with long-simmering fury and determination.
“I’ve been told — no, ordered — never to speak about this situation,” she informed me. “And I’ve obeyed, putting myself in danger. Like a good sister. Like a good daughter. Like I was the one who fucked things up. But Mom and Dad are dead and we’re selling this place anyway. So nothing left to lose anymore.”
Her tired young husband interjected, speaking with an accent I couldn’t place. “Are you serious?”
But ultimately he relented. She was the dominant party in this relationship after all — even I could see this. He handed me a laptop with the articles.
I swiveled the computer toward me and read.
What did I learn? Nothing about the farm. I learned instead about a business in North Dakota, investigated by the police and federal authorities just a few years before. The photo showed a warehouse, nondescript, rusted and hardy on the scrubby plain. A food delivery service for oil company employees on the surface, its true product illegal substances. Where oil exists, so soon do drugs. Workers to be energized, money to be made.
Such a scandal — the story had occupied the North Dakota news for weeks. As my hosts conferred in the other room, I read interviews with the illegals who had worked the kitchen. I read interrogations with the work camp managers who had signed for the deliveries.
The case never went to trial. After the owner had been murdered in a seemingly unrelated event, all the charges had been dropped, and the investigation soon afterwards.
How did all of this activity in North Dakota connect to this property in Minnesota? I began to receive more details, if not necessarily answers, from my hosts. They spoke and I listened as we waited and waited for the brother to return from the city, from wherever he had fled to in order to hide from me.
Theirs was a two-person story, as these things usually are, with rapid volleys, minor disagreements and the frequent completion of sentences. It led off with a sardonic preface by the female speaker — “so, a little bit about what makes this farm special, this farm which our family is selling for no good reason” — followed by a glare to her partner — are you with me? — an animated exchange of glances, then, ultimately, a conspiratorial nod.
So they began.
It was early November. Friday night. I remember that because I was still at the studio, party animal that I had become. Starting your own business is a shit-ton of work, pardon my language. No one ever tells you that.
Her door was unlocked, so I assumed it would be fine. I just walked in.
He did. I heard footsteps, but I was really caught up in this tricky design so I didn’t really look up right away. Three-dimension isn’t the easiest when you’ve spent your whole career working on a screen, let me tell you.
I closed the door and locked it behind me. It was dark and South Minneapolis sometimes isn’t safe for a woman alone.
But it’s really just fine. White people like us are always weird about things like this. My apologies, Amina. It’s wrong.
I wondered, should I say something or wait for her to notice me? I was nervous, and as I was trying to decide what to do, she saw me standing there.
You scared the shit out of me! I was on the run. I was living in fear. You could have been somebody sent to kill me.
I had no way of knowing that. But I should have knocked. I should have called in advance. Because all she said when she saw me was “hi there.” And I thought to myself, really? After six months of worrying about her, looking out for her, wondering what had happened, trying to track her down. After all of that, “hi there” was the best she could manage?
Jesus fucking Christ, give me a break! I was stunned speechless and scared shitless. I had been running for my life for the past six months.
She doesn’t want to see you, I thought. She’s probably fucking another guy.
Yeah, right — me on the run and like I had the time. He looked like he was going to turn right around and leave, so I panicked. “I wanted to call you!” I blurted out. “Every day, I wanted to call you. But Brandon ordered me not to.”
Why had I been such a complete ass to her in that moment? Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was the mention of her brother. Who you met, so you can understand why. But I was not happy. You’re 32 years old, I told her. Do you always do what your brother orders you to do?
Thirty three. I just had a birthday, I informed him.
And so I wished her a happy birthday.
And so I retorted fuck you. I thought he was being sarcastic.
I wasn’t. I really wanted her to have a happy birthday.
So I just let him have it and told him everything: how I had discovered meth and pot and oxy and even heroin in my delivery van. How everyone at work had acted completely, freakishly normal when I returned to the warehouse. How Brandon had ordered me to get the hell out of North Dakota when I told him. So I did.
Can you believe it, Amina? The entire time, days between when she found this out and when she disappeared, I never suspected. She never said a thing to me. She just left for work one morning and never came back.
I had to keep it together. Seriously, what else was I supposed to do? I had no choice. I had to pick up my camper — that’s what Brandon had me living in to avoid wasting money in rent — and drive like a bat out of hell, scared to death, back to Minnesota. And Brandon instructed me to throw away my iPhone — the new model, too, fuck my life — and dunk the SIM card in Mountain Dew to erase its memory.
That actually doesn’t work, by the way.
When Raymond my boss noticed me missing from work, he went nuts. He called up Brandon every day. “Where the hell is she?” And do you know what it’s like to live in a camper in an abandoned campground for a month? I waited for things to ease up while freezing my ass off, eating Hormel beans from the can, washing my t-shirts and long underwear in a sink and drying them over a battery-powered space heater. I was in contact with no other human being except my brother — and you can imagine how delightful that was. It was only after the cops arrested Raymond –
Soon after you left North Dakota. I don’t think that was a coincidence.
But I didn’t tell anyone anything!
As she was sharing all of this with me there in the studio, she was really getting upset. And so was I, picturing her in that terrible situation. Jesus, what an asshole I had been! So I put my arm around her and changed the subject. I asked her about her work. She showed me the mask she was working on — she designs custom-painted goalie masks for young hockey players, that’s her business by the way. Was that the mask that looked like the creature from “Avatar”?
No, it was one of the St. Cloud team’s masks, the zombie.
In any case, you’re sitting in front of a very talented woman, Amina.
Thank you. Anyway. So here he and I were sitting next to each other, stunned, exhausted, emotional. We hadn’t seen each other in six months. Before long, we ended up kissing, of course. My apartment’s right upstairs, I said. I think we should go up.
I had boxes and supplies stacked everywhere, so the only place to sit was the bed. Conveniently enough. “When do you have to drive back to North Dakota?” I asked him.
Never, I told her. And I told her the story of my past six months— selling my house, finding a job in the Twin Cities, searching for my missing girlfriend.
Who he eventually tracked down through my company website. Pretty cool, huh?
I tried to send a message to her through the automatic contact form but it never went through.
Yeah, Tristan had been slacking on the code updates. He had some personal stuff going on.
Tristan is her webmaster. We should introduce you. I think you’d like him.
Tristan’s gay, remember?
Introduce as a friend, I meant. But we digress. Every day I had checked her company’s website. Every day I found the same thing, the spinning hockey mask, the gallery of products. Then one day articles and photos appeared on her blog –
Posting pictures of myself was a big risk. After North Dakota, I was told to keep a low profile.
Told by Brandon, of course. But thank God she posted them. When I saw those pictures, I had never been more relieved. I knew she was okay.
I brought out a bottle of peppermint schnapps from the kitchen cabinet. Because hard conversations call for hard liquor. It was something left over from a Christmas party a few years ago that had survived my move. It was disgusting, but we finished off the whole thing. I would take a swig, he would take a swig. We’d pass it back and forth, like we did with a flask out on his patio in North Dakota, bundled up in coats and blankets.
She and I would watch the deer and talk, well into the night.
In any case, there we were in Minnesota, huddled on my bed, sitting in that tiny dark room half drunk and reeking of peppermint. No deer. I went to reach into the nightstand for my gun — that’s what I usually did before going to bed, for protection, being on the run and everything — and he stopped me. He pulled me close and whispered to me. “You’re safe now. I’m never going to let anything happen to you again.”
And the next summer, our son was born. Because, well, you know, no birth control in that night stand, happy to see each other, that’s what happens.
A car engine ripped me out of this story, tires against the gravel driveway followed by the creak of a screen door. Just as the woman’s swift hand slammed the laptop with its many articles closed, a dark-haired woman in jeans, boots and a man’s flannel jacket strode up the walk, a phone pressed to her ear.
“There’s a car in the driveway, this could be our way out.”
When she appeared in the doorway, and saw me, the energy in the room changed. She paused, at a loss for words. Her expression fell.
Yet Brandon’s wife had been raised to be polite. I could tell in the way she dismissed me.
“We appreciate the interest. We really do. And I’m glad to see that Melissa and Niko have been keeping you entertained. But you’re wasting your time. Brandon’s not going to sell you the farm.”
Shelly waited for me to stand and say goodbye. But I made her wait a long time. I don’t give up that easily.
© 2016 People and Places. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Views of the characters do not necessarily reflect the views of the author.