FRIDAY—JUNE 7, 1996
Settling into the chair under the orange tent, I scan the rows of market vendors as my fingers lazily stroke my beard. Marja smiles kindly across the way, and I offer her a nod, but keep my gaze from lingering before moving on. The last thing I need is to attract her attention. The wind sweeps my hair into my face, so I grab a rubber band from my pocket and tie it back as I look over my table one last time. Everything is in place for customers.
In an attempt to get comfortable and prepare for the long summer day, I cross my arms and lean back. People pass by. People browse. Fellow Finns nod with a ‘moi’ or ‘päivää,’ which I return out of habit.
Leena might think it is good for me to meet the customers, but I would rather remain unseen at home in the workshop where I do not have to be bothered with the bustle of the city. Leena better feel well tomorrow. A full day at the kauppatori is more than enough for me. If I have to stomach another day of tourist after tourist, business will not do well. I am not Leena. It is why I hired her to run the stand in the first place. Isä or Ukki could come and be the face of the family business when they were alive, but that is not me. Not anymore.
The sun is high in the sky as I finish my lunch. I lick my thumb and crumple the wrapper before tossing it away as a beautiful blonde with a hiking pack slung across her back leisurely wanders up to the stand.
“Päivää.” I sit back, allowing her to peruse in peace.
“Oh, I don’t speak—” Her hand waves through the air, like she is swatting away the word as she continues, “Finlandish, or whatever.”
Ah, American girl. Ignorant American girl, at that.
I will speak to be polite, but do not expect me to carry on a conversation for long. It is not in my blood.
Though, if she does not even know what we speak, I am not sure I want to rescue her and speak English. I have already had to carry on conversations with several different Americans today and it is only twelve o’clock.
I do not have the energy, so I nod respectfully and cross my arms, releasing her from conversation. I will resort to hand gestures and pointing if she asks for prices.
Her eyes wander the table, studying it intently. I study it with her, seeing it as she does. Vases line the back. Glass birds and eggs sit atop glass stands on the right. Candlesticks and bowls dot the front. She carefully picks up a vase and smiles. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s designed to look like a lake? It’s amazing.”
“Tha— Kiitos.” Hemmetii. Her eyebrow arches. Good. She has no idea I thanked her. I bite my tongue, holding back that I understand her.
“Do you, uh . . . make these?” Her hands mimic what she must think my job looks like. Is she molding imaginary clay?
I stare blankly. Does she think I am dumb?
“You have no idea what I’m saying. Perfect. I’m making an idiot of myself speaking English to a hot, grizzly Finlandman.”
My lips twitch, but thankfully she cannot see it behind my long, wild beard.
She sets down the vase with a heavy sigh and waves. “Thanks.”
“Ole hyvä.” I take too much pleasure answering her in Finnish.
“Yeah, have a good day or . . . you too . . . or whatever you said.” She tucks a wisp of hair behind her ear as she turns away.
Shaking my head, I muffle my laughter behind my hand.
Word to the wise, American girl, learn a little bit about the country you are visiting before making the trip. It will get you far. Understanding the smallest phrases like ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ might save you from humiliation or tip you off to the fact that I understand everything you say.
Her huge pack knocks into the stand holding the hand-blown ornaments. “Oh!” she squeaks. The glass clinks as they knock into each other.
I shoot up with a curse, grabbing for the wooden tree.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t see those there.” Her hands and arms fly about as she catches her bottom lip with her teeth.
Does she have tears in her eyes? I grunt a dismissal of her apology and steady the ornaments. I examine them. Nothing broken. She can relax. No need to cry.
Her swift intake of breath catches my attention.
“Planes.” Her fingers stretch out, plucking a clear, gold airplane hanging from the tree. “These are—” She sighs, her eyes catching mine for the first time. “Beautiful,” she says, her voice filled with awe, one hand covering her heart.
Beautiful, indeed. Her eyes match the sky. Every shade of blue swirled into one. Could I match the blues of her irises in glass?
“How much?” Her fingers rub together. Is that the universal sign for cash? I point to the sign at the base of the ornament stand.
“Oh, I didn’t see that.” She flashes a half-smile as she digs through her wallet and hands me ten euros. “Thank you.”
I nod. Why did I choose her to hold back my English? My mouth opens to respond, to keep her here. For what? To talk to a pretty girl a little bit longer? I cannot start speaking English now. I have taken this too far.
Her shapely figure disappears into the crowd and I force my attention on the next customer approaching.
I am calling Leena as soon as I get home to see how she is doing. I sold well enough, but I cannot handle another day of interacting. The tourists would appreciate someone who does not mind being here, I am sure. We need more pieces to sell, anyway. No one is going to get that done except for me.
Boxing up the remaining pieces of glass, I haul them to the van. When I return to the tent for take down, I am distracted by the beautiful blonde American from earlier walking over the cobblestone toward me. She does not look as carefree and cheerful as she did a few hours ago. Her full lips turn down as she scours the emptying tori, a frantic look marring her striking eyes.
I am in trouble.
She pauses in front of my stand and her brows furrow when she looks to me. Her mouth opens, but she shakes her head and turns away. Probably thinking I am no help. Is she okei?
“Oletko kunnossa?” I rest my hand on her shoulder, offering what little concern I have. She has no idea what I am saying, but maybe she will give me something and I can lead her in the right direction. For all I know, she has to go to the bathroom.
“I . . . I think my stuff was stolen.” Her palms press against her eyes. She slips her fingers into her hairline as her blue eyes fill with moisture. “My passport, my wallet. I can’t believe this.”
She curses low, her head swiveling around the tori. It has cleared out. Only vendors cleaning up remain.
“What do I do? They’re going to kill me.” She kicks at the ground, scolding herself.
I sigh heavily. Obviously, I need to help this poor girl. Time to break my silence. “What do you mean you think it was stolen?”
Her hands drop as her gaze snaps my way. “You speak English?”
I look at her and confess, “Yes.”
She huffs, a light laugh parting her lips as her head shakes. “Of course you do.”
“I can try to help, if you tell me what happened.”
Her face lifts to the sky like she is searching for divine intervention. “Yeah, sure. Why not?” She plunks her hands on her hips with a sigh. “Um, I was here with some friends. We were throwing our bags in the car and I decided to run to the restroom. When I came back, they were gone.”
“The car? Maybe they had to move it? Traffic or some other reason?”
“You don’t think I thought of that? I stood around waiting for thirty minutes. I wandered these streets for an hour.” Stomping her foot, she groans. “And now I’m lost.”
“Would your friends leave you? Could they have gone back to your hotel?”
She ignores me and returns to her search, spinning in a slow circle. Her eyes dart around the tori. She slaps her palm across her forehead with a pout. “Oh my gosh. How could I be so careless and stupid?”
She’s dressed in ripped jeans with a plaid flannel shirt tied around her waist. Her band T-shirt is two sizes too small, clinging to her curves and baring her belly button. My eyes pause on her smooth stomach before scanning up her shapely body. Beautiful. She is free of makeup, making her look fresh and innocent. The longer I study her, the younger she seems. Hemmetii, how old is she? What kind of friends leave a girl looking like this alone in a foreign country?
“How well do you know these friends of yours?”
She hesitates, her expressive blue eyes fixing on mine. “Uh. ‘Friends’ is probably an overstatement.” The right side of her lip curls up slightly as she lifts a shoulder.
My eyes narrow, one brow lifting. Curiosity and worry equally peak.
She groans. “I’m backpacking Europe. Have you ever done that?”
I snort a laugh.
“Duh, obviously you’re European, I guess not.” Pink stains her cheeks. “I’ve been picking up friends on and off for months. You meet at hostels and travel together, hang out.”
Oh, you naive American girl. Are you crazy? Or just that careless?
Shapely brows scowl over her narrowed eyes. “Don’t look at me like that.”
My jaw works as I chew on my bottom lip. It is difficult to wipe the judgmental expression from my face. She must be young, too young to know better.
“I know what you’re thinking. I’m not stupid. I . . . I just didn’t think.” She folds her arms beneath her chest. “I always carry my bags with me. I know better. I just—” She blows out her cheeks. “What am I supposed to do? This is all I have in my possession.” Her hands sweep up and down her body.
I heave a sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose. It is clear she is terrified. Lost in an unfamiliar country without a dime or any identification. “Have you spoken to the police?”
Her head shakes.
“Okei.” I swipe my hand down my beard and tug, contemplating. I cannot leave her here, though maybe it would help her learn her lesson. Clueless American girl. Trusting strangers. “If you let me finish packing up, I can take you to the police department. We will see what they can do for you.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“What will you do if I do not?” It is not safe for a beautiful young girl like her, especially a foreigner. I block out the possibilities if I do not help her.
“Is the station nearby? I can go on my own. I appreciate the offer, but I don’t want to bother you.”
“It will take you an hour by foot. It will only be fifteen minutes out of my way. Let me drive you.”
Indecision crosses her face. “Okay.” Her hands dig into the tight pockets of her jeans. “But I can pay you. I have—”
“No.” I turn away to take down the tent. “All I want is to know you are helped and safe. It is getting late, though it may not look like it. You should not be wandering around Helsinki on your own.”
“Thank you.” Her soft voice comes from directly behind me and I turn. She stands way too close. Clearing my throat, I take a small step away. I do not want to give her the wrong impression. This is a ride to the police station, nothing else.
“You are welcome.”
“I’m sure you think I’m a stupid American girl for putting myself in this position. I appreciate your help.”
At least she is aware it is stupid, though she does not appear to believe it is.
“At least let me help.” She moves to the tent as I round the other side.
“How do you take this down?” Stretching up on her toes, she reaches for the top of the poles. “Is there a button or something?”
I grunt and move toward her, pushing the button that’s just out of her reach. “Let me take care of it. Go ahead and get in the van.” I look down at her. She is shorter than I realized, such a small person with such a big personality. “I will be a few more minutes.”
Her head tips up, her eyes once again settling on my face. It is difficult to find my breath. Something expands in the space between us. When was the last time I was this close to a beautiful woman? I clear my throat and look up at the pole. Her arms drop as she strolls away. She moves slowly, as though the world has beaten her. Leaning against the van, she crosses her ankles and toys with the sleeves of the flannel around her waist.
“I wasn’t supposed to come to Finland, you know,” she calls across the distance between the van and my booth. “I have no idea what there is to do here. It was my friend Brigette who convinced us to ride the ferry over from Stockholm. She wanted to come here to the market for the day.”
I slide the bundled tent into the back of the van. “She had a good idea, though maybe you will pick your friends better next time.” I shut the back doors and walk to the driver’s side.
“They’re probably already heading back. Getting as far away as they can.”
I do not say it because she sounds so helpless, even though she tries to play tough, but I guarantee she will never see her stuff again. “You are probably not wrong, but we will see what the police can do for you.”
“I’m Amber, by the way,” she says as she climbs in and shuts her door.
“Olle.” I turn the ignition.
“Say it again. O-lay?”
“Ol-le,” I say a little slower.
“Ah-lay. Got it.”
No, she does not. “No. Not lay,” I over enunciate. “Leh. Olle.”
“Close enough.” Her hand waves my explanations away. “Your accent is so strong. You’re lucky I understand half of what you say.”
I shake my head and exhale. Ignorant American.
“So, do you pretend to not speak English with all your customers, or just American girls?” There is teasing in her voice.
I keep a straight face, though I am laughing inside. “Just the American girls.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
My eyes flit to her briefly and my mouth curves up. She bites her thumbnail, coyly looking at me from the corner of her eye. No wonder she got herself into trouble. Not only is she too trusting, she is a little vixen.
She angles her body toward the door as she leans closer to the window. “Well, keep that up. It works for you.”
I shift in my seat. This one needs to be kept at arm’s length or she is going to get me into serious trouble.
“By the way, you could have at least thanked me for the compliment.”
“I totally called you ‘hot’ earlier.” Amber cocks her head back toward the tori.
“Ahh, yes, ‘hot, grizzly Finlandman.’ That is a compliment?”
She gives me a once-over as she draws her lower lip between her teeth. “It most certainly was.”
If ‘Finlandman’ was a word. Pressing on the brakes, I come to a stop at a sign.
Amber inhales sharply. “I think that’s them! That dirty, little yellow car.” Her face presses against the window as her hand slaps at the door in search of the handle, yanking it open when she finds it.
I look for the car she describes, but do not see it before she jumps out. “Amber! Hei!”
She sprints across traffic. Hemmetii. I turn left onto a side street and park. Once I am out of the car on the intersection she bolted across, I search up and down the road and through the green of Espa in between the streets. Nothing. I jog up the sidewalk in the general direction she took off in, my eyes scouring the side streets.
I do not have time for this. Why am I bothering? Let her run off, Olle. It is clear she will do nothing but cause problems.
After several minutes, I nearly give up before I spot her a few blocks up. She sits on a curb with her arms resting on her thighs, head hanging low. My steps quicken. I holler as I near. “Are you crazy? You could have been hit by a car. What if I could not find you?”
“It wasn’t them.” She wipes at her face as vulnerability glosses over her eyes for the first time, her earlier anger turned to sadness. “I had my travel journals in there.” She sniffs. “And my clothes. My bracelet—” Her right thumb rubs across the top of her left ring finger. “My ring,” she says, her tone painfully sad.
A trail of red runs down her wrist and drips to the ground. I squat beside her on the sidewalk. “What did you do?” I take her hand. It is so small and soft compared to mine, despite the gravel and blood caking the scrapes in her palm.
“Hmmm?” Her chins lifts as she splays her hands palms up. “Oh, that? You Finns really should take the time to fix your walkways. They’re a hazard.”
“They would not be so bad if you were being careful. Up you go.” Grasping her arm, I help her to her feet. “We need to get you to the police department and get that hand cleaned up.”
I guide Amber back to the van and help her inside. I should have kept pretending I do not speak English. At this rate, I will not be getting home for hours. If I have to work the tori tomorrow, I will get no sleep tonight.
No, not helping her is out of the question.
Back on the road, I eye her as she watches the passing buildings and streets. Did this girl really come to Europe on her own? And her parents were okei with it? How old she is? She cannot be more than a teenager. Eighteen? Nineteen?
She sighs. “You keep looking at me. Go ahead, ask whatever it is you’re wondering.”
“You came here on your own, without your family?”
“To the absolute horror of my older brothers. Yes.” A faint chuckle falls from her lips.
Brothers. “And your parents? They could not have been comfortable with their daughter backpacking across Europe alone.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not a runaway or anything, and I’m of age.”
Well, that is somewhat comforting, but it is not what I asked. “How old are you?”
“How old are you, Olé?” she says my name like I am a Spaniard, her lips twisting up.
My grip tightens on the steering wheel. Do not laugh, Olle. I am trying to have a conversation, but she is very good at evading.
Rather than pressing, I answer, “I am twenty-seven.”
She bites on her nail again. Nervous habit? “I’ll be twenty-two in August.”
Twenty-two. We reach a stop sign and I study her with the new knowledge. She could be twenty-two, or she could be saying that to appease my concerns. It is encouraging to know I have not been appreciating the beauty of a teenager.
“To answer your first question, my parents passed away.” She tugs on her ponytail, smoothing the length of it. “Though, if they were still with us, I most certainly would not be here.”
My chest pinches with the familiarity of pain. “I am sorry to hear that. How long ago?”
Her face turns from my view. “It’s been a few years.”
Her answers do not make me feel better about her traveling alone, but it is not my concern. She is not my concern.
I park outside the police building, reluctant to let her go. Strange.
“Someone will be able to speak English well enough to communicate with you. Just tell them what happened. They will help you.”
Her focus remains on the windshield as she releases the lock to her seatbelt. “You’ve been kinder than most Americans would be in this situation, especially after I jumped out of your van like a crazy person.” She laughs self-deprecatingly. “Thank you.”
I wave off her thanks. “Do not worry about it.”
She turns partly toward me, her gaze darting to the back of the van where I keep my inventory. “Do you think I could buy another one of those planes? The first one was stolen, in case you hadn’t heard.”
I get out of the van without a word and open the back, pulling out the box with the glass ornaments. Meeting her on the passenger’s side, I offer her my last airplane. “No payment necessary. Something positive for you to remember Finland by.”
Amber smiles. A full blown, dimple-inducing smile that makes the pit of my stomach flip. Her hand covers the plane in my palm, her delicate fingers grazing mine. She lifts to her toes, pressing a kiss to the edge of my jaw. It is the first time I wish I did not have a beard so I could feel her full lips.
“I don’t think I’ll need the plane to have a positive memory,” she whispers as she pulls away.
With that, she spins and moves toward the police station. “It was nice to meet you, Olle.” Her voice carries over her shoulder. This time she pronounces my name correctly.
I smirk as she disappears into the building.
It is time for me to get on the road. The two-hour drive is not going to get any shorter. I still need to call Leena. If I have to work tomorrow, too, I have to get on the road so I can get some sleep.
I stuff my hands in my pockets. I cannot move. What if the police are no help? What will she do? Where will she stay? She needs to get to the American embassy for a new passport. They are closed now. Closed for the weekend.
Will she know how to handle any of that? She does not have any identifications on her. She has nothing.
Olle, she is not your responsibility. Getting tangled in this will not work in your favor. She is a grown woman who has survived in Europe for this long. She can handle this on her own.
Sure, a grown woman who trusted strangers with her valuables. And what about all those journals she lost? I cannot help with the jewelry or her identification, but I can get her a new journal. She is going to be hungry, too.
You are an idiootii, Olle.