Interactive Stories / Life in a Northern Town

The Lift Bridge

“You need to come home.”

Back in North Dakota, it hadn’t been about the money, the meeting point or the flight arrangements he hoped no one would track. No, this dilemma had been about safety standards — namely the complete lack thereof.

“You know they are doing something illegal.”

Yes, yes, of course he did. He wasn’t stupid.

“You know something will go wrong. Someone will end up dead.”

“Probably,” he texted back, with a long pause before he hit send. Because things likely would go wrong. This was dangerous work. He had known this going in, they all had. What else could he say?

For his father in Helsinki, it was early morning. Here, it was night, late for dinner but not quite time for bed. He wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway, not with recent events playing in his head. The technical details he kept to himself because sharing them would have bored his father and frustrated them both. But he had recounted the rest of it: presenting the diagrams, first to his immediate team, then to a colleague who led a related part of the operations. Structurally unsound. Fundamentally unsafe. We have to take the time to develop an alternative.

His coworkers agreed, of course. They were engineers as well. But the owner of the company — that was another story. The man was slick and charming as even the rougher tycoons tended to be in oil country.

The secretary had sensed the urgency of his request and found room in the busy schedule. Earlier that day, she had ushered him in between the landing of the private plane and the dinner at the steakhouse with the investors, not even a blip on the day’s agenda.

For a second he was flattered by the audience. Showed just how far he had risen in the ranks, a foreigner with a work visa, still relatively young in the whole scheme of things. Then he remembered the gravity of his case, and the absurdity that he had to make it in the first place.

He tried to appeal to the owner’s business instincts. To the bottom line. Imagine the fees. Imagine the bad publicity. He didn’t even mention the moral aspects, only those details he hoped would resonate.

Then we’ll just pay the fines.

Case closed. Back to work to meet that deadline.

“Americans always cut corners,” his father remarked. “They try to get away with things.”

“People from all countries cut corners.” Every year he stayed in the United States, he found himself inexplicably liking the place more and more, gun-toting, willfully ignorant nation that it was.

He looked up. An older woman in a bulky parka and bright headscarf shuffled through the doorway. That was unusual. Usually he was alone in that poorly lit little dining room.

Very few people knew of this defiantly unglamorous business tucked away on the outskirts of town. They called it a spa but that was stretching it, in his opinion, this cleverly repurposed old supermarket with an adjacent restaurant that was also open 24 hours.

What had possessed a family of Koreans to try to make a go at such a thing in the middle of North Dakota? He had no idea besides the usual explanation of where there’s money to be made, the immigrants will follow but he was glad they had. The kimchi was good, and the spa gave him a place besides his house to sit and think.

The older woman passed his table, a plastic bag in her hand crackling as she shifted it out of his way. Auntie or granna of the owners, he guessed. Relatives were always cycling through this establishment to help out. They flew in via a distinctively different route than the investor.

His phone buzzed. Another text. “All you do is work and work.”

I know, I know.

“Year after year. And every year you say, this is it. Now I’m going to start enjoying my life.”

Yeah, you’re right Dad. I do say that. He let the phone sit on the table, watched the screen fade out.

It lit up again.

“You’ve made enough money.”

And again.

“How much is enough, Niko?”

Shit. He pushed his bowl of soup aside, half-eaten, now cold. He checked the time. Six hours before he’d need to shower up and face the cold again. Face all those problems.

“You’re right,” he started to type. Then another shadow darkened the doorway. A petite, graceful shadow, distinctively female. Dark bangs falling across her face. Sleek pants and a t-shirt that was snug and modern, like something you would wear to run a marathon, not lounge around in for a bowl of soup. Her head turned first to the menu — same three items, nothing new to see there — and then toward a table, onto which she slung her massive backpack and coat.

Character by character, he erased what he had typed into his phone. “Not yet,” he sent instead.

She came in every night.

If he set his phone on the mirror-like selfie setting and propped it up just so, he could watch her while appearing to be engrossed in his book. She arrived directly from the facility’s bath section around nine, face still flushed, hair still dripping.

A woman still getting used to eating alone, he observed. For the first half hour of her time in the dining room, she made herself too busy, fussing with her bag, scrolling, typing or talking into her own mobile device.

Her voice was tart and low. He concentrated hard to make out her conversations. Some friend named Shelly. Some guy named Tristan. A boyfriend, just his luck, he thought until he listened harder and realized that this Tristan had a boyfriend himself.

This girl became his new preoccupation. This, unlike the issues at work, was a situation he actually could do something about.

Eventually, she would clear her tray, settle in and watch the TV on the far wall, in no hurry to go anywhere else. One channel, one show, looped over and over. He had viewed it once and found it asinine, but it was an excuse to walk over and introduce himself.

“I’m from Minneapolis,” she replied. “That’s where my fancy accent comes from.”

Unnecessarily bitchy. That was his first thought. His second: Absolutely beautiful. Big brown eyes. Sweet rosebud mouth curled up in a smirk. When she leaned forward, he could stare right down the front of her top, a loose t-shirt with a wet patch where her hair had dampened it. Not that he had been trying to look, of course.

She probably had assholes approaching her all the time, with 50 men for every woman out here, he rationalized. Naturally her guard was up. So that was his mission, to prove to her that he wasn’t one of those assholes.

Besides, he had already started to pull a chair out for himself at her table, so he was committed.

Whatever he did next — it was all a blur, swiftly thinking on his feet after months of such banter gone rusty— must have worked. Within minutes he knew her story, unemployed graphic designer working as a delivery driver. By the end of the evening, they were joking and conversing freely. Within the week, she had accepted his invitation for dinner.

Melissa laughed easily. She brought beer. Once her prickly reserve thawed, she seemed kind — not to be confused with nice, which was saccharine and not his style — and relatively normal, given the circumstances. When 2 a.m. found them still at that dining table which otherwise sat idle as a resting place for beer bottles and old files, drinking and talking, he tucked her into his bed and took a blanket and a pillow downstairs for his own sleeping arrangements. To demonstrate that he wasn’t an asshole.

“Have you given them your resignation?” his father texted. “Have you put your house up for sale?”

Niko watched her drive off into the morning light.

Not yet.

By day, the designs went into production, cutting corners, using the faulty materials, meeting the deadlines. At night, he grew to enjoy the movies Melissa brought over on old-fashioned CDs. French noir. Gritty independent dramas. The occasional documentary. She was a smart girl, cultured for an American, and at least she didn’t subject him to any of that Bridget Jones shit. But he teased her mercilessly about her taste in cinema because complaining about the movies gave them an excuse not to watch them. Netflix and chill, as the kids would call it.

He learned more about her. She had grown up a farm girl, which he never would have guessed. She was curious, always full of entertaining stories about the things she saw on her routes, the families she watched at the McDonald’s over her lunch break, the people she was starting to befriend, like the Russian stripper girls whom her brother called trouble.

And she was tough. Living in a camper, for starters. People died that way, he told her, with the sub-zero temperatures and the propane heaters they used for warmth. But her brother had insisted. Save money on rent and build up a nest egg for once, were his words.

Brandon this, Brandon that. That was the brother. Shelly from all the phone conversations was Brandon’s wife, Melissa’s sister-in-law. Melissa’s phone buzzed with their texts. Just checking in.

If her family was so concerned about her welfare, you’d think they’d find her somewhere safe and warm to live in North Dakota, he thought, so she wouldn’t have to squat overnight at a 24-hour Korean spa to avoid freezing to death or rely on the kindness of strangers. But Niko just smiled and nodded. It wasn’t his place to question the habits of American families.

They gamely posed for a quick photo to send back, to assure her brother and sister-in-law that she was with a nice guy, not a criminal, not a threat.

“Is everything okay?” his father asked, a phone call this time after so many unanswered text messages.

Couldn’t keep it a secret much longer. “I met a girl.”

You seem unusually happy, Niko.

That was his colleague he had collaborated with on the designs. Nothing at work had changed — same flagrant safety violations, same breakneck pace for extracting natural resources from the earth.

Not that you were ever unhappy or anything. Just so serious all the time. Now you’re actually carefree, or something like that.

Carefree. Free of cares. Not the usual vocabulary oil field engineers bandied back and forth in reference to themselves but yeah, that was him. From the moment he drove off the employee lot, past the security gate, his troubles were behind him. He could not wait to get home.

Melissa’s car would be waiting out front, cranking loud music he could feel as he drove past into the garage. She’d grin and wave through the window, grab her backpack from the passenger seat and drag it all into the house as the heavy metal garage door slowly descended. Quick, nimble and surprisingly strong, she insisted on darting through after he pushed the button. Reminded her of a game she took part in as a kid, she told him. Playful — he appreciated that. And sometimes they wouldn’t even make it past the entryway because passionate was another word that aptly described Melissa.

“Don’t take advantage of her situation,” his father had cautioned him because, well, when she wasn’t with him she was living in a camper, in a metal box where she might freeze to death or implode in a propane fireball. His townhouse was potentially life-saving shelter.

Too late, he had the good sense not to type back.

Nights previously quiet and pensive at that low-rent spa were now fully appreciated at home. Within mere days, they were teasing each other, texting each other throughout the day with stupid videos they found online, doing the things that couples do that seem ridiculous to others. She showed him her designs and artwork. They chugged beer and continued to mock that TV show from the Korean spa and restaurant. In the mornings, they woke each other up well before dawn, making the most of every minute before the buzz of the alarm clock.

“You need to do something about your work situation,” his father reminded him.

“I will,” he promised.

“Don’t let this girl distract you.”

Too late, he wanted to reply but didn’t.

The weather grew warmer. He and Melissa moved to the back porch, drinking from a flask, watching the deer, making plans. She started a business of her own, putting elaborate designs onto hockey masks for young goalies. Flames, monsters, zombies. The money Americans spent on their kids. He helped her. A freak snowstorm blew in, stranding them both at work. Then clear skies, a snow day, finally a shared day off that was spent in exactly the way such days were intended to be spent.

Back in the oil fields, somebody did die on the job. It was out on a rig, it was inevitable, and it happened right in front of him. He found his way back home slowly, through daylight this time, and was uncharacteristically quiet as he collapsed face down on the bed.

Pulled a muscle climbing around, he lied to Melissa later, thinking what an evil, evil place this was. She accepted his explanation without question and applied her hands to his back, his legs. She kissed him, comforted him.

“Feel better?” she asked.

And by the end of the week she was gone.

He called and called. No reply. Was something wrong with her phone? Had something happened to the cell towers and the reception? Was there somebody else?

Then the drama started unfolding and did not stop.

Her former workplace, under investigation for delivering heroin, coke, meth and oxy as well as daily meals to the crew camps. Her former employer, arrested, released, then murdered by the security guard of his old complex. Oh, they knew that security guard.

“Tell me where she is. Tell me where she’s hiding.” Waved beneath his chin: the surveillance camera photo from the crew camps, a person in a snowsuit making a delivery and not of food, someone who looked a hell of a lot like Melissa.

That hadn’t helped matters.

He didn’t like to think about that time — unreturned calls, unanswered questions, every detail of the situation growing more and more bizarre. His father was incredulous. He himself was baffled.

Do you think this brother and sister-in-law had something to do with this?

I don’t know, I never met them.

Do you have their contact information — a phone number, an email address?

No.

Do you want me to get your uncle involved?

No, that’s not necessary.

Are you certain you want to find this woman, Niko?

In passing, he had mentioned something to his father about all of the money in Melissa’s bank account. Some joke about being a kept man in the heart of oil country. God, what had he been thinking?

Yes, yes, I’m sure.

Sleepless nights. Exhaustion. Frustration. Finally, one morning before dawn, he clicked on that bookmark for her company’s website. The motion was out of habit, like a tic. He never expected to see anything new, but this time the content had been updated. There was a blog now with photos. One of the most recent showed Melissa and a young customer, a girl goalie grinning and looking fierce. Back in Minneapolis. Alive.

“I’ve sold the house,” he finally told his father.

The lift bridge was in Minnesota, just outside of St. Paul. But Niko wasn’t aware of it or of its future significance when he moved to the state. All that concerned him, besides getting settled into the new job, was Melissa’s studio in South Minneapolis.

She was surprised to see him, to say the least. Yeah, he should have called first, he realized, especially as they started bickering at each other.

Because there she was, safe and sound. Living her life. Running her business. Why hadn’t she told him? What did she mean Brandon had forbidden her to contact him? Why did she have to listen to her brother? Wasn’t America the country of free will? How old was she anyway?

But when Melissa started crying there in front of him, frazzled from her story and work, too thin, telling him her tale — the drugs she had uncovered, the month in hiding and on the run, betrayed and berated by her brother. You started looking where you shouldn’t have been looking. You fucked it up for us all 

They went upstairs to her small apartment. They shared a bottle of horrible peppermint schnapps and even more horrible stories, like Melissa’s stripper friend found dead, only a teenager as it turned out. The security guard at Niko’s complex driving hundreds of miles to gun down Melissa’s employer. The harassment by that security guard beforehand.

The investigation by the FBI. The drug ring in which Melissa’s brother had most certainly been involved.

They clung to each other as survivors. He kissed her even more deeply. They shoved sweaters and flannel and fleece out of the way, unbuttoned what needed to be unbuttoned and unzipped what needed to be unzipped, her peppermint breath in his ear, her strong fingers digging grooves into his back.

I missed you so much. I thought about you every day.

And that’s how you both came to be, he thought of telling his kids someday, Lucas as a direct result and Elisa as a later byproduct of the marriage.

Then, more appropriately: If you are ever as happy as your mother and I were during our first month together in Minnesota, you will be very lucky indeed.

And then he got to know her family

Their marriage deserved more than 20 minutes at the justice of the peace, he believed, passing through a metal detector during a lunch break from work.  We have to keep this on the down-low, Melissa insisted. He had wanted a nice celebration in Minneapolis, although not a ceremony as neither of them were particularly religious. He also had wanted a second gathering in Finland at some point with his father and cousins and a few old friends from school.

But time hadn’t been on their side. Melissa was already a month along, and they had to make themselves respectable before meeting her family for Christmas.

Melissa assured him that after the initial surprise, everything would be fine. Who could resist happy news during the holidays?

Niko had his doubts. They drove up to the farm, gifts in back. So much land. So much wealth.

Shelly the sister-in-law answered the door, nicer than expected. That wouldn’t last. Brandon turned out to be younger looking than expected for the father of teenagers and less of a redneck, on the surface at least, that certain type in the United States who loved football and hunting and had everything in life go his way.

This man is a drug dealer, Niko reminded himself. A drug dealer who willingly placed his sister in danger. A man who now unfairly blames her for his misfortune.

Where were the parents? In Florida, retired after a life of hard farm labor. Besides, they always took Brandon’s side anyway, Melissa reminded him.

What did the two children know? Not much, it seemed, the boy all wrapped up in video games and the girl sulking around clueless.

In most situations, the announcement of a new marriage and a child on the way is met with joy. Not in this case.

The neighbors and kids at least followed through with a toast and congratulations, deflecting attention from the hissed arguments of Brandon and Shelly on the back porch.

He knows everything. And now he knocked her up. Is it too late to tell her to get rid of it?

Are you fucking serious? Niko remembered these words when he met his son for the first time, as he watched the child grow from a baby to a toddler and then into a wonderful little boy.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Melissa repeated on the drive back, crying.

“Please be kind to her,” he told his father the next day, before putting Melissa on the phone and switching the conversation to English. It was an unnecessary warning because his father was kind to everyone. “Her own family’s not being so great about the whole situation right now.”

After Niko explained it all to his uncle years later, as they watched Melissa and the kids playing in the yard, his uncle delivered his opinion. “I can see why you followed her. I see why you listen to her. ‘She’s so pretty, she’s so fun, she fucks my brains out.’ Which must have happened. You have not made one sensible decision since you met her.”

After that ill-fated Christmas, they visited friends, ignored Melissa’s family, prepared themselves for parenting and fell into a comfortable groove of daily existence. With the money he brought over from North Dakota, including a sizable bonus for meeting the production deadline, he bought them an amazing house.

“It’s too much,” Melissa marveled in disbelief. He disagreed. As he watched her walk through the rooms and smile, hand across her belly, he thought it was just right.

The next property transaction delivered far less joy

In Lucas’ first year of life, the young boy’s three remaining grandparents passed on, and duty and obligation brought Melissa back to the farm.

For Niko’s father, the culprit had been a sudden heart attack, a summertime burial followed by Melissa’s labor pains somewhere over Greenland, a squalling baby boy three days later. For Melissa, Parkinson’s and dementia had brought her parents back from Florida, back to the farm for a brief and final stay.

“It’s the least you owe us, helping us pack up,” Brandon told her mere weeks after the final funeral. “He’s making a fresh start,” Melissa convinced her husband.

So Melissa, the woman who started looking where she shouldn’t have been looking, left her business in Tristan’s care, and Niko, the guy who knew everything, took the remainder of his vacation time. They closed up their beautiful new house and drove to the farm to volunteer their help.

Maybe things would work out, somehow?

Had his father still been living, Niko would have called him from the porch late at night, after his wife’s family had gone to bed. I see now where the hard edges come from. He would have described Brandon’s constant insults and Shelly’s disingenuous cheer. “I never trusted you,” the sister-in-law would later accuse. He would have complained about their young boy being unhappy with his unfamiliar surroundings and how sadness, anger and grief had turned his wife a shadow of her usual self.

“Do you want them to sell the farm?”

He asked Melissa this as they sat on the porch and watched the moon, exasperated.

“Brandon does,” she replied.

And without a word between them, just an unspoken agreement, that settled it. They would make things difficult for Brandon and Shelly, just as Brandon’s activities had made life difficult for them.

When Amina arrived — the African, Muslim, female immigrant with more money than all of them combined, the potential buyer Brandon refused to address— they befriended her. Sworn to silence about the illegal activities that had brought the family to this position, they told her everything they knew about the drug ring.

Are you sure you want to do this?

It’ll fuck up the sale. And that’s what we want – isn’t it?

But Amina was no stranger to vice and corruption. Family conflict and sordid secrets only heightened her intrigue about the property, and strengthened her resolve.

Exhausted, bitter, frustrated, trapped in that farmhouse with its endless boxes to be packed with Brandon glaring or insulting them at every turn, they found themselves at a loss. Yet at their lowest moment — maybe it was after Melissa signed everything over, maybe it was when they realized the sale was inevitable, they discovered their solution.

Years after the sale, Niko’s uncle summed it up.

So, you stayed at the farm of your own volition. You kept your infant child in the company of a known drug dealer. Your feelings were hurt, you thought you’d be clever, and you decided to take revenge.

Niko tried to explain. They had tried to do the right thing.

And because of your actions, your wife’s family farm, the biggest asset her family owned, sold for half of its anticipated price. 

Brandon was a criminal and a racist, Niko retorted. It’s what he deserved after how he treated Amina, the buyer, a fellow immigrant. How he treated Melissa, his own sister.

Was it your place to interfere?

Niko wondered that himself, especially when he considered the dominos of action they had set into motion: Brandon and Shelly now broke, the kids without money for college, the divorce, their new house in the city — the windfall, the fresh start — fallen into foreclosure.

Brandon’s desperate scheme to get it all back.

And what came after.

Years later, Niko considered the lift bridge. He thought how amazing it was that he and Melissa and the kids had never gotten around to visiting it as a family when living in Minnesota. It was a popular summer day trip. The town was quaint, filled with antique shops and brew pubs and ice cream stands and even a defunct town hall turned into an organic grocer.

They’d bring a picnic to the riverside. He and Lucas would watch the boats. Melissa would pick up a loaf of bread at the store, from the organic grocer most likely, for feeding the ducks and squirrels. She would rip off small pieces to fit in Elisa’s hand.

Now their weekend outings were long hikes through the woods, another continent, another life. The kids were older. Their legs could take it. They had good conversations, talked about nature, about life, and sometimes they asked the big questions.

Why did we leave the Minnesota house? 

The kids, the boy at least, remembered bits and pieces, like the big glass windows that flooded the living room with warm winter sun. The sprawling yard. The treehouse in back. He imagined actually telling them the truth, resting on a fallen tree for a picnic lunch, the boy at his knee, the little girl on his lap. A story rife with deception, drink, firearms, drugs and murder. A stupid, cock-eyed plan that had been their only option. Repercussions that had led to a frenzied flight. And now there they were, half a world away.

“Because Finland’s a nice place, that’s why we moved back,” he finally replied. “And we have family here.”

Sure, they wouldn’t see sunlight for seven months of the year. But they were safe now, and that was worth something.

Soon after their arrival, Melissa begged to move out of the city. Big crowds, random noises, questionable strangers scared her on the few times she attempted to go out alone for groceries. This is Helsinki, not fucking Syria, Niko pointed out, and not like danger couldn’t find them in the more rural parts. She should know that better than anyone.

With the help of his uncle, they found a place in the country.

It was a log home on a large plot of land, smaller than the house in Minnesota of course but with ample room for the kids to play. Did it remind Melissa of the farm? He never asked, and she never said.

The times they spent with each other in those first years were quiet ones. She crawled out from bed, wrapped in a blanket, to join him in the dark for coffee before he left for work. Later, also in the dark, they shared a flask and stared at the fireplace after putting the kids to bed.

The first year, Melissa was quiet from the shock. The second, she was spent from language lessons. After several months, several hours a day, her skills became passably proficient, enough for solo trips to the grocery store and small talk with the neighbors at least. Her accent and pronunciation still made his cousins cringe at times, but they were kind enough to hide it.

For him every day was a two hour drive into the city, then back again, to the job his uncle had found for him. Not the broad expanse of North Dakota. Not the city streets of Minnesota. Sure, the scenery was beautiful. But he had grown up with it all, so on some mornings — most really — it was just a matter of you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.

Mostly, the trees and the drive gave him the space to think. Think about how he could have prevented everything from going so very, very wrong.

During their first walks, he and his uncle said little. Just the countryside, the cold air, not being alone, that was enough. But then the questions began. How did you get here? He thought about these conversations as he drove.

Why did you even go through with the delivery?

Because they were expecting Melissa.

His uncle was having none of it. Why didn’t you just call the police?

That would have gotten her brother arrested. He has two kids.

So do you. And he ended up murdered anyway. Thanks to your actions.

We had no way of knowing that. We never even imagined.

Are you sure about that?

He got what he deserved.

Who are you to say? Who are you to judge?

He was a racist. A cheat. A terrible brother to Melissa. Insulting her constantly — how shitty of a daughter she was, how shitty of a parent she was.

Insulting you, too.

That didn’t matter.

Didn’t it? Why didn’t you go to the police? If Brandon was such an evil, evil man, why didn’t you turn him in? Why didn’t you do the right thing?

Niko had no good answer for that.

Where is everything now?

Tristan said he’d take care of it.

Tristan. How did this Tristan accomplish this?

I don’t know. He didn’t tell me.

Can you ask him?

I could but I won’t. He doesn’t deserve to be brought into this mess any more.

He would be a good friend, at the very least.

These conversations played in his mind as he drove to and from the city for work, two hours in, two hours back.

The idea of atonement came up after Melissa’s miscarriage.

He hadn’t intended to say anything to his uncle. But as with all bad news, it was too much to keep to himself. They had been trying for a third, a child to mark this new home and stage of life.

“It’s probably for the best. We’re getting old,” he babbled on. “The kid would have had five arms, flippers growing out of its head.”

His uncle stopped right there on the trail, horrified. Was that a joke about birth defects he had just heard?

“Melissa thinks that God’s punishing us for what we’ve done.”

“For the farm?”

“That as well.”

“Do you think God’s punishing you?”

“I don’t know. We had no choice.”

“I thought you were an atheist.”

“Agnostic.”

“You worship money, that’s what you worship.”

To prove his uncle wrong, to silence his brain during those long weekday drives, to put an end to this chapter of their lives once and for all, Niko formulated his plan. It would be an exchange, handled by the person who would know what to do at a place no one would suspect.

I’ve done well over the years.

Tristan asked no questions as he accepted the Skype call, not where the hell have you been the past years nor why the hell should I help you? Weird shit like this happened in Tristan’s world all the time. He understood.

They spoke in hushed tones, mindful of Melissa and the kids in the other room. After meeting Niko at the lift bridge, Tristan would exchange the bills into dollars and get the money where it needed to go — to Brandon’s two kids who never deserved this, to the family of the man in North Dakota in the accident that wasn’t an accident, to a few of the more worthy charities relevant to the wreckage of Brandon’s business — and the business of Melissa, to be honest. Plus a cut that Tristan declined.

How would Tristan handle the logistics for so much money? I have my ways.

For the fatherless children in North Dakota and Minnesota, the gesture was disgracefully late. It wouldn’t bring anybody back to life, it wouldn’t turn back time.

But it was better than nothing.

“There’s a conference in Calgary they’d like me to attend,” he lied to his wife the next day.

Her eyebrows raised. Canada? Sure, he had gone to work events before, but always in Europe, usually in the north. “It’s a big one,” he explained. “They asked me to be on a panel so I can’t really not go but if you are really, really against it-“

No, no, it was fine. Then, “I’ll be okay. It’s a shame that you’ll be away during the last few days of summer but you have to do what you have to do.”

He’d be back home before she knew it, he promised.

After she went to bed, Niko scoped out his destination on the computer. Past the old train depot, past the new lofts, the first brew pub, the second brew pub, the organic grocer then turn right at the old fashioned ice cream shop. He used Google Street View to familiarize himself with the town and the whereabouts of this landmark, a tactic that reminded him of those sleepless nights scanning the North Dakota landscape, searching for a sign of Melissa’s car after she had disappeared.

Here we go again.

Out of the airport, into the rental car, one hour drive, meet Tristan, hand over the money, one hour back and pick up the plane again. That was his plan. Years had passed since the men with the guns, true, but staying any longer would be unsafe.

Men like these had long memories.

“You can’t just wire the money?” his uncle wondered. This was two days before he was scheduled to leave. Niko shook his head. No, this needed to be done in person.

As they completed their walk, his uncle turned to him with a rare expression of tenderness. “Your father would have been proud of you.” Maybe, Niko thought. Now he and Melissa were enjoying the sun and watching the kids play. Who knew what the dead thought? And why didn’t anyone come here to this playground anymore? he wondered. Too lazy and busy with video games, he figured.

Oh well, they had the place to themselves.

Here at the playground, the boy hoisted himself up and up on the monkey bars, higher and higher, while the girl stubbornly attempted to spin herself on the merry go round, legs just long enough to reach the sandy ground and gain traction.

“Cute kids, wonder whose they are,” he remarked, slipping his arm around his wife and sliding her closer to him on the bench. As she looked up, he kissed her.

“All ours,” she smiled, pretty rosebud mouth with a slight smirk on one side, absolutely beautiful.

In his coat pocket were the airline tickets. Twenty four hours round trip, not to a conference in Calgary. Ready to set things right. A fresh start. Across from him, his children. Pointed toward him, far from his field of view, the scope of a rifle.

Through the sunshine he looked over and waved, the last thing he saw.

Read on.  Go back to the map.

 

 

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