Amma’s Diner was nothing special, a couple of tables, three booths, and a counter. Old-fashioned even by small-town standards, it served all-day breakfast every day and a fish fry on Fridays. The diner sat right off Route one, on the very edge of the property Amma Brinna and her family had owned for three hundred years, a vast, mostly untracked, stretch of forest and lakes reaching into Canada.
Tall and lean, braided white hair piled on top of her head, Amma Brinna had been in this part of Northern Minnesota for as long as any of the locals could remember. Not that there were many locals. Lemming, Minnesota was almost as small as towns got. The official population count was three hundred and twenty-four if you included the snowbirds who migrated south right after New Year’s and didn’t come back until Memorial Day. Nearby meant within a day’s drive or snowmobile, depending on the weather. Still, anyone passing through this area eventually stopped at Amma’s, even just to use the bathroom.
Cookie was short and fat and bald. He’d been behind the counter since the opening day almost no one alive remembered.
It was eight in the morning Cookie’s favorite time of day. After the small rush of caffeine-addicted long-haul truckers and early-morning hunters had gone and the regulars started coming in. They sat at the same table, ordered the same meals, and tossed around the same bullshit they’d been talking about for the last thirty years.
Cookie had been there so long the original crowd had passed on for the most part; these were the surviving sons and daughters of those old timers. Farmers, miners, and retired truckers, all drinking coffee and passing around pictures of grandkids in college sweatshirts and high school graduation gowns.
There were worse ways to spend a morning.
“Morning.” Cookie brought a pot of coffee over to the table. “Ladies.” The five regulars already had their mugs taken down from their places of honor on the pegboard on the wall. He didn’t usually take orders, but they were a little short-handed since Debbie had finally run off with the Lundgren kid, heading for parts warmer and more populated. He was surprised it had taken her so long. For the most part, this was a land of old people. A few native sons and daughters returned with young children in tow, looking to give the kids the same childhood they had fled from right after high school. It was to be expected. Kids had to go out and make their own mistakes, find their own way in the world. Cookie had left his family at the ripe old age of sixteen. Course back then, sixteen was full-grown. Cookie liked to tell people was older than the rocks dirt was made from.
“How about this weather?” he asked the table. “Pretty warm out.”
Nods all around. “For sure,” Old Man Williamson answered. Jake was his real name, not that anyone used it. His father had been Old Man Williamson and the moniker had transferred with the man’s death. He was all of sixty-seven years old but had worked many of those long hard years in the mines. “Not like Halloween ninety-one. Remember that?”
“You betcha,” Sarah Williamson said. “We almost lost the dog in a snow drift.”
Cookie filled up Martha Severson’s cup and gave her wink. “Looking good this morning, Martha. Is that a new shirt?”
She pulled her shirt away from her body to double check which one she wore. “Oh, no. Gosh. It was a present from my daughter-in-law. Jessica? The one down in Chicago with Tommy?”
“Sure, sure.” He nodded.
“You don’t think it’s too much, do you?”
He shook his head as he took in the black cat applique and the embroidered jack-o-lantern with flashing LED eyes.
“Nope, just right. So, the usual all around?”
Jake looked over the edge of his reading glasses at the menu. “You got any of the walleye hash? Any fresh?”
“You betcha. Nikolai brought me a fresh batch just yesterday.”
Sarah perked up her ears at that. Cookie knew Sarah had her eyes on the new boy. Not for herself, for her gay grandson. Everyone was out and proud now; Cookie thought it was better that way. Secrets were bad for everything and everyone. Had a way of eating you up from the inside like cancer.
“So,” Sarah said. “Did you find out if he has a girlfriend yet?” Her eyes twinkled. “Or a boyfriend?”
Cookie clicked his tongue sadly. “I think he might be dating Shyama.”
“The new waitress?” Shyama had only been at the diner three years. She had a good long while to wait before she was no longer new.
“Talking about that Russian boy?” Old Man Williams asked.
“I thought he was a Gypsy,” Pete added. That was a lot of words in a row for Pete.
“He’s probably Russian Roma,” Martha answered, nodding her head. “The gypsies from Russia. Good musicians, those.”
All eyes turned to her. “What? I read things. You think all I do is crochet baby clothes and watch morning shows?”
“Kind of. Yeah.” Sarah said.
“Oh you,” Martha laughed, swatting her friend on the arm.
“Whatever he was, he’s a good boy. Picked up hunting really quick.”
“Bow hunting?” Rich Wilson asked. He’d been bow hunting since he was a kid himself and was always looking for someone new to recruit.
“He’s got the eye for it.”
Cookie excused himself and went back to the kitchen to get started on the orders. The gang could and would help themselves to more coffee in between solving all the problems of the world and discussing the weather.
The doorbell jingled as he flipped a batch of whole wheat pancakes onto plates and poured the warmed maple syrup into tiny metal pitchers. Little things made a big difference in Cookie’s opinion. He didn’t pay much mind to the bell. The gang would let him know if he needed to take care of it.
Sure enough, Jake’s voice rang out. “Hey, Cookie, your boy is here. And he’s got a friend.”
Amma Brinna looked out the window at the sound of the horses’ hooves crunching across the gravel parking lot. Something must be wrong; she hadn’t expected Nikolai back for a few more days. Her breath caught at the sight of a second boy riding double on Wortako. Nikolai dismounted the tall horse with practiced ease. He stood with a hand on the stirrup, looking up at the other boy. The look on his face took her breath away. There is only one person he would be looking at like that. The boy laughed, brushing back his long white hair, and said something she couldn’t make out to Nikolai. He slid gracefully out of the saddle, ignoring Nikolai’s outstretched hand, and landed on the ground as lightly as a cat jumping from a shelf.
It was going to take them more than few minutes to unload Patsy and take care of the remains of the hunt. She didn’t see any carcasses, just some bloody canvas bags with antlers. For some reason, they’d bought back just the heads. She used the time to finish clearing up the dishes, doing her best to ignore the sense of unease prickling down her spine. By the pricking of my thumbs, she thought, wiping her hands on her apron. The bell over the front door chimed, and she took a deep breath, centering herself before heading out to greet the boys.
A blast of cold air came in with them. Winter was just around the corner. She smelled snow in the cold air.
“Hi, Mrs. Severnson, Mr. Williams,” Nikolai greeted the regulars as he passed. They were getting ready to leave, putting on coats and tossing fives and tens on the table.
“Hey, Nikolai,” Bill answered. “Good hunting?”
Nikolai made a so-so gesture. “Not bad. New bow was good.”
Brinna came out of the kitchen and gently herded the crowd out the door. They eyed Alexei curiously but didn’t ask any questions. Brinna thanked the gods for Minnesota reticence.
“Hey, Amma.” Nikolai leaned down to kiss her on the cheek.
He was such a good-looking young man, tall and strong, with curly black hair and blue eyes. Handsome and charming, all the single and not so single women, and some of the men, had had their eye on him since he’d shown up there two years ago. Nikolai had turned them all away, gently and kindly. Until, apparently, Shyama finally wore him down. Though Nikolai denied it, Brinna suspected there was more than simply friendship between them. Reading the body language between the two young men in front of her, however, she knew there was going to be a lot more solo television watching in Shyama’s future.
Nikolai’s introduction confirmed her suspicions. “Amma Brinna, this is Alexei. He’s back,” he ended simply.
Brinna knew there was nothing simple about it. She took the hand the boy held out, grasping it between both of her palms, much to his discomfort. “Look at me.”
Startled, Alexei did, green eyes opening wide. She grabbed his chin, turning his face this way and put her hand over his heart. Finally, she pulled back, looking between the boys. She jerked her head towards the counter. “Coffee?”
The settled on stools as she poured coffee for all three of them. For the first time in a long time, she wished she had something a little stronger to add to it. She placed the cheap ceramic mugs down in front of them, hoping they didn’t notice her hand shaking.
Cookie came out from the kitchen. “Hi, Nikolai. You’re back early. Good hunting?” He poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Well, let’s just say I got something I think you’ll want to see.”
Cookie extended a hand to Alexei. “Hi, there, I’m Cookie.”
Cookie nodded. They drank their coffee in silence, the occasional slurp sounding overly loud in the stillness. Brinna leaned back against the counter, staring at them.
Nikolai stopped just short of slamming his coffee cup onto the counter. “So.” He clapped his hands together once. “Anybody want to tell me what the fuck is going on?”
No. It wasn’t supposed to be Brinna’s job. That woman should have been there. Should have told the boy instead of grabbing Alexei and running away. Again. She always ran.
“Is the lady with you?” she asked Alexei.
“Her name is Stefanida. We were together, but we got split up.” He swiveled on the stool, taking in the whole diner as if she might have been hiding under a table. “I was hoping she was here.”
“Alexei fell out of a hole in the sky. Two really weird looking guys riding some kind of hell-elk came out the hole and tried to kill me. Anybody got anything that would possibly make that make sense?” When no one answered, he stood up. “Brinna? Nothing? Alexei, do you want to explain? No? Fucking great.” He stood. “Well, I got to get these horses put away. You know where to find me when you decide you want to let me in on the big secret.” He started to walk to the door.
Cookie stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll take care of the horses, son.”
“Nikolai, please. Come back. I’ll tell you what I know. I just don’t think you’ll believe me.”
“Yeah, you said that last night.”
Cookie slipped out the front door.
“Last night?” Amma Brinna asked.
“Yeah, you know I was headed towards the lake, right? Well, I was halfway there when he fell on me. Then we, you know, had to kill some things, and then he passed out. We barely made camp before dark.”
“Okay.” She finished her coffee. “But not here.”
“Let me guess,” Nikolai interrupted. “It’s not safe here?”
She fixed him with a long, hard glare. “It’s not safe anywhere, Nikolai. Not now. Ask him.”
The door opened, and the ringing of the bell caught them all by surprise. A young girl buried under layers of coats and a fur-lined cap with ear flaps and an overly-large pom-pom on top walked in. “Hey, guys. What’s going on?” There was a hint of an Indian accent to her speech, a deliberateness as if she was translating in her head before she spoke.
Shyama pulled off her cap, glossy black hair falling free. Walking over to Nikolai, she put a hand on the back of his chair and leaned over his shoulder. “You are home early. Did you scare the deer away with that giant circus horse of yours?”
Alexei’s eyes narrowed as he watched her hand creeping up Nikolai’s shoulder.
“You’re home early, too.”
Shyama shrugged. “What can I say? I missed you guys.”
Shyama turned to Alexei, the broad smile on her face not matching the hard look in her deep brown eyes. “Who’s this? Just passing through?”
Nikolai shrugged her hands off his shoulder. “He’s my brother.”
Her eyes widened. “The one who was missing?”
“One and the same.” Alexei wished he could slide his stool wasn’t bolted to the ground so he could slide closer to Nikolai.
“Wow.” She looked him over, top to bottom. “You are a babe; that’s for sure. But I have to say; you look nothing like Nikolai. Are you sure you are brothers?”
“No,” Nikolai echoed Brinna’s thoughts. “Not really. I think there’s a lot I don’t know about.”
“Oh.” She sucked air in through her teeth. “Well, so. This was very awkward, I think. I can tell you’re in the middle of something.” She twisted her hat in her hands. “Should I come back later, Amma?”
“No, thank you, Shyama. You aren’t on the schedule, and anyway, I’m going to close the diner early tonight. Why don’t you come in tomorrow for breakfast?”
“Sure.” She extended a hand to Alexei. Alexei reluctantly shook it. “It was nice meeting you. I hope I get to hear the whole story soon. Maybe Nikolai can bring you back tomorrow?”
“Maybe.” He pulled his hand away.
The door chimed again as Cookie came back in. “Horses are set, Nikolai.”
“I’m going to close up early today, Cookie,” Amma Brinna said.
Cookie nodded, taking off his gloves.
Shyama leaned in close to him. “So, Cookie, I saw you flirting with Martha Severnson the other day. Anything I should know about? Do I have to give you the talk?”
“Don’t get smart with me, young lady. You just live your own life. Don’t you be worrying about two dried up old coots and what we do or don’t do on our free time.”
“Oh, man, Cookie, I wasn’t thinking about that until you said it.” Nikolai covered his eyes. “Now I won’t be able to look Martha in the eye tomorrow.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, young man. Martha is a lady. Not that it’s any of your business, but nothing’s happened between us. We went to dinner once. Saw a movie. That’s it.”
“Better up your game, old man. Women don’t like to wait forever. Someone else will snap her up. She’s a catch.”
Shyama smacked Nikolai. “Like you’re one to give advice on what a woman wants.” She put her hat back on and turned to Nikolai. She leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, but he pulled away quickly, leaving her inches from his face. She frowned. “Does this new arrival mean we’re going to have to cancel our Netflix date for tomorrow?”
Nikolai looked down at the floor. “Yeah, I think so.”
She pouted, crowding against him, breasts pushed up against his arm. “Too bad. I really like our dates.” She straightened up. “Getting cold out there. You might want to change out of whatever that is you’re wearing, Alexei. Get some flannel. Cookie, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Later.”
She left, the door banging closed behind her.
Nikolai wouldn’t make eye contact with Alexei.
“Why doesn’t she just pee in a circle around you?” Alexei frowned at the door.
Brinna made a sound of disbelief, and they both turned to her. “I think a jealous girl is the least of your problems, Alexei Sirota. Don’t you?”
Alexei deflated. “Yeah. I do. I wish it wasn’t so.”
“I’ll go out the back, lock up,” Cookie offered.
Out in the parking lot, Nikolai opened the bloody canvas bags and showed Cookie the heads inside. Cookie gently touched one of the razor-edged antlers. “Huh,” he said. “That’s different.”
“Let’s go home. We have much to talk about.” She held out a hand to forestall Nikolai’s protests. “I promise. I will tell you everything I know. But I’m warning you now; it’s not much. I think Alexei is the one we really need to hear from. And he’s going to tell you everything. Right, Alexei? Everything?”
Alexei rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes as if he could push reality away if he didn’t have to look at it. “Yeah. But I wish I didn’t have to.”
“You wouldn’t have to if your mother hadn’t run away like she always did.”
“She said, the note said, that she had to. She had to leave with Alexei to keep us all safe.” Nikolai said.
Buying time to gather her thoughts, Brinna walked over to the front door, checking that it was locked and that the neon closed sign was glowing in the window. Satisfied, she walked over to her Black SUV. “Stefanida may have thought that, but I think she may have ruined us all.”