From Chapter one of At the Water's Edge
A pebble skittered across the rock and landed on the white sheet of ice below her feet. She looked over her shoulder to find the source—a man with blond hair and a dark blue coat. For an instant she didn’t recognize him.
“Hey,” he called. “Thought I’d find you here.”
Annela couldn’t decide whether she was glad to see him. I should be excited. I haven’t seen him for weeks. Usually she welcomed his smile, especially at emotional times, but today was different. “How’d you know I was here?”
“When I got home and you weren’t there, I called your cell. When that didn’t work, I tried your parents. Your mom said you’d left ten minutes before. Since I could hear your dad yelling something in Swedish, I guessed something had happened between you two, and you’d come here to escape.”
Annela’s father was from Swedish stock, and his first language tended to come out during angry tirades. Tommi took a seat beside Annela on the top of the huge outcropping overlooking the ice and kissed her cheek.
“It’s good to be back. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too.” She leaned her head against his shoulder and looked across the frozen sea. It was a relief to know she didn’t have to speak. She and Tommi felt no obligation to make small talk with each other and she realized she would miss him—miss the easy comfort they had with one another They gazed at the ocean inlet before them, encircled by land. The water had only a small opening to the ocean, blocked by an island of rock and pine trees in the center.
“It’s strange to think that this is really part of the ocean, isn’t it?” Tommi said after a few minutes. “It looks like a lake, but it’s part of the ocean, part of a greater whole.” Annela nodded mechanically. Sometimes Tommi embarked on philosophical tangents, and while she often listened to them with interest, she didn’t want to hear one now. Not with so much on her mind.
She could still hear the echo of the apartment door slamming, the sound of her father’s voice hollering in Swedish to himself on the other side. Normally his outbursts embarrassed Annela unbearably. Most Finns never drew attention to themselves unless drunk. She preferred to blend into the crowd. Her father didn’t require a drink to shed restraint like an old overcoat, although alcohol intensified his temper considerably.
Annela glanced at Tommi. His family was also from Swedish stock, and he must have inherited the accompanying outgoing temperament. Funny that the genes skipped her. Part of her wished she had them. It would make a lot of things easier to bear if she could feel so strongly and react aggressively to defend herself.
Tommi nudged her with his elbow. “So what’s behind those tears?”
She hadn’t noticed that her cheeks were wet again. She made a swipe at them with the back of her hand, and Tommi patted her knee in reassurance. “Is your dad still upset that you’re still seeing those ‘American boys’?”
Annela nodded. “But I wish you wouldn’t call them that. It makes you sound like my dad.”
“Oh, no. And we can’t have that,” Tommi said with an apologetic grin.
Tommi hadn’t taken her investigation into the Church seriously, but he hadn’t been around to see most of it, either. Even so, such comments felt as if he were trying to undercut her. He removed his coat and put it around her shoulders, then reached for her hand.
“Maybe your dad just needs some time to cool off. Bringing up the missionaries and their book is probably not the best way to stay on his good side, you know. Just give him some space.”
“It’s not just the missionaries that we’re fighting over.” Annela lowered her head.
His eyebrows came together, and he pulled back. “Then what is it?”
She licked her lips and paused before answering, hanging onto the smallest thread of courage to say the words. “I’m getting baptized.”
Tommi let out the breath he’d been holding. “Is that all? I thought maybe you really were going to dump me for one of the American elders.” He chuckled with a nervous edge to his voice.
How can I explain without hurting him? She looked away.
“Annela?” Tommi reached for her shoulders and turned her to face him. “What aren’t you telling me?”
This is it.
“I have to move out.”
There. I said it.
Tommi’s eyebrows furrowed. “But . . . I thought things are going so well between us.” He withdrew slightly, tilting his head in confusion. And a little anger? “I know we haven’t been living together that long, but I thought we were adjusting. What happened?”
He didn’t get it.
“I decided to get baptized—that’s what happened.” Annela pulled her hands away, though gently. This was harder to say when she was touching him—she needed some distance. “And to do that, I can’t live with you anymore. I can’t . . . sleep with you anymore. So, either I move out, or we get married.” Tommi’s jaw hardened, so she rushed on. “I know you’re not ready for marriage. I understand. So I’m not asking that.”
“Of course you are.” He looked across the water, eyes narrowing. “I didn’t see this coming. Of course you’re asking me to do that. It’s either that or lose you, right? Not much of a choice. Let me guess, you’re pregnant, too?” His tone was cool and distant. It made goose bumps break out on Annela’s arms.
“You don’t get it, do you? This has nothing to do with us. It’s about—”
“It’s about the missionaries. You do have it for one of them, don’t you?”
She hated this side of him, the unpredictable, moody one. “Just listen to me, please—”
He cut her off. “I can’t believe you’d let something so trivial like this come between us. I thought we had something really special, that there was a reason we found each other again after all those years. I was convinced it couldn’t be a coincidence that my best friend from grade school just happened to come into the restaurant that day. I’m such a fool.”
He made a move to stand up, but Annela grabbed his arm and pulled him back down, frantic to calm him down, make him understand. “Please, just listen for a minute. This whole thing is just as hard for me, but I feel like this step is something I have to do.” His face still looked blank, but she pressed on in hopes of finding some way to give him a glimmer of understanding. “It’s as if—as if God let me see into His mind for just a moment, and now He expects me to act on that knowledge. If I don’t, I’m running from Him. He has given me a gift, and I can’t throw it back in His face.” She searched Tommi’s eyes for a sign of understanding, but found only hurt.
He did relax enough to turn back to face the ocean and clasp his hands around his knees. They sat in awkward silence for a moment until Tommi finally said, “So . . . when are you leaving?”
“As soon as I can. My father won’t let me stay with them. That’s what we fought about.”
“So . . . we aren’t over?”
Annela smiled at him, grateful that he was coming around. “We don’t have to be. Just that one part has to be. For now.”
“Good.” Tommi’s arm slipped around her shoulders. He was only a few centimeters taller than Annela, so she had to slouch down to rest her head on his shoulder, but the closeness was reassuring. She closed her eyes. Tears came in earnest now, and she let them come. Tommi’s embrace eased her loneliness.
I’m glad he came.
He held her close for some time without saying a word. She was grateful he didn’t try to soothe her right now. He wouldn’t have known the right thing to say and wouldn’t have been able to say it with his heart if he did, but his quiet acceptance meant the world to her—so much better than his anger.
Annela’s breath evened, and her eyes gradually dried. Tommi turned his head to look at her, sympathy on his face. She forced a smile. He wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb.
“Your nose is red again.”
She choked on a chuckle and covered her nose with both hands. Whenever she cried, her nose deepened to a dark red bordering on purple. Then it swelled three sizes and stayed that way, often overnight. Tommi brushed a stray piece of hair from her face.
“I hate to see my girl hurting. It makes me miserable too.”
She looked into his pale blue eyes and wished his words eased the ache. He was trying so hard. Tommi leaned closer, and his lips parted ever so slightly. But instead of leaning in, Annela found herself pulling away, avoiding his kiss. She couldn’t be romantic—not at a time like this. She felt too vulnerable. It would be too easy to take the comfort too far.
He pulled back, holding her at arm’s length. “What?”
“I’m sorry,” she said helplessly, searching for an explanation which he wouldn’t understand, because she didn’t even know why she’d shied away. She groped for an answer. “It’s just that I am feeling so many emotions right now, and there is no space left to feel anything more.” Lame explanation, but it would have to suffice.
Tommi released her suddenly, as if her shoulders were hot coals. “I didn’t think kissing was against your new religion,” he said with a bite in his voice. He stood and brushed off his jeans. Pulling away couldn’t be blamed on her decision. Her heart was just so tangled up.
“Tommi, don’t go,” she said, reaching out. “I’m sorry.”
He avoided looking at her by checking text messages on his phone. “I’ll be at the apartment.”
Annela nodded and watched him walk away across the Elephant Rock, wishing she could call to bring him back. Wishing things didn’t have to change.