Mia gazed up at St Patrick’s Cathedral, her mind burning with questions. Surely, if there was a God up there, those pointed gables piercing the blue sky served as connection points. She filled her lungs with the exhaust fumes of Auckland Friday afternoon traffic and scanned the momentarily empty footpath. This was her chance.
Adjusting the soft guitar case on her back, Mia propped her handbag on top of her suitcase, spread her arms, and closed her eyes. When you rarely prayed, it was best to make a gesture. She needed guidance. So far, her Eat Pray Love trip had only included eating. The way the waistband of her shorts dug into soft flesh bore testament to New York pizza, Hawaiian ice cream and Australian pies. This morning, she’d made it to Auckland, the last stop on her round-the-world journey, the furthest away from home she’d ever been. She’d have to fast for the rest of her journey to avoid those sideways glances from Mikko, her boyfriend of three years. He’d shake his head in disappointment at her lack of self-discipline. He’d made that same face when she hadn’t jumped at the chance to join his start-up company. She’d told him she needed time to think, insisting that this trip would give her clarity. A vision. Now, five days before her returning flight, she felt even more confused than before.
A shadow flickered somewhere to her side and she heard a rustle, just loud enough to rise above the traffic noise. What was it? Mia cracked her eyelids, checking her surroundings. The footpath seemed empty. She closed her eyes again, anticipation making her skin bristle. Was this one of those God moments? Nobody had called her by name, but maybe her faith wasn’t strong enough for manifestations like that. Maybe lapsed Lutherans only heard a rustling sound, like a broken radio.
Mia squeezed her eyelids tighter, focusing all her energy on the divine connection. There it was again. The rustle. She concentrated harder, letting the sun heat her face. The guitar case felt hot and heavy against her back, a perfect contrast to the chill that travelled up her bare legs.
No, it wasn’t only a chill. Something brushed her leg, making every hair on her body stand up. Okay, this was officially spooky. With her heart thundering in her chest, Mia opened her eyes and looked down. There was nothing there. Absolutely nothing. In a fraction of a second, her brain registered what was wrong.
Her suitcase and handbag had vanished.
Mia whipped around and surveyed the street. The footpath was empty, but one car had stopped a few steps away. As her gaze landed on its silver frame, it tore off down the road, the back door slamming as it went. Mia ran after it, the guitar case flapping against her back, panic moving her feet before her brain caught up, but the car sped away, far out of her reach, running a red light in the distance.
After it finally disappeared behind a street corner, Mia thought of the licence plate. She hadn’t even glanced at it.
She had nothing.
Nothing but a cheap guitar in a soft bag and a stick of gum in its front pocket. Her handbag held her phone, laptop and wallet, and her suitcase all the rest. For no logical reason, she dug up the gum, storing it in the pocket of her micro shorts for safekeeping. In her flowery loose top, she wasn’t dressed for the weather. December – early summer in New Zealand – had greeted her with a cool breeze, a surprise after sweltering days in Australia, and she’d been contemplating changing into jeans. Well, too late now. The realisation arrived like a slowly building cascade, a slideshow of things she needed but no longer had.
Voi vittu! Mia cursed in her native tongue, Finnish, clenching her fists tight, looking for something to punch. She couldn’t even throw her handbag.
She walked in circles, the fury that had nowhere to go shaking her body, eventually fizzling out as her brain gradually accepted the new reality. There was no one around to receive her anger. Not knowing what else to do, she eventually sat in the shade of the church’s cast-iron fence, her whole body shaking. A flush of panic and shame constricted her throat, stealing her breath. How could she have been so stupid? She’d let go of her bags and closed her eyes. It must have looked like she’d been advertising her belongings to any thief out there.
She’d only been in the country for two hours. Until this moment, she’d thought the food poisoning in Hawaii had been the low point of her journey. But no. She’d happily exchange this experience for two days of throwing up. To anything, really.
Nothing around her had changed; spring leaves in the trees across the road, the geometric pattern crisscrossing the footpath, the beige apartment buildings with their windows glinting in the bright sun. The storm cloud that brewed over her life wasn’t visible to anyone else. Occasional pedestrians scuttled past her, paying no attention. Hugging her chilled knees against her chest, Mia fought to fill her lungs, waiting for the familiar pain to fill her chest – the swell of emotion that burned somewhere deep inside but never rose to the surface, never escaped. She wasn’t sure how it had started, or why. Was she controlling her body or her body controlling her? Either way, she hadn’t cried in years.
Shivering to the bone, with nothing but her knees to hold on to, she ached for tears to blur her vision and wash away the shame. She hung her head, drawing in ragged breaths until her head felt light and woozy. The emotion only built up pressure and burning in her chest, offering no release. She had to get up and do something. She needed her rational brain – the one part of her, unlike the tear ducts, that still worked. In fact, she was known for her smarts, for her uncanny ability to keep cool under any circumstances. She was tiny and blonde but fierce, with a piercing pair of big blue eyes that usually missed nothing. This shouldn’t have happened to her. Anyone but her. But arguing with her fate changed nothing.
Mia straightened her spine, picked up her guitar, and surveyed the street. There must be a police station somewhere within a walking distance. She’d walk there and make her case. Maybe they could help her contact someone back home to send money and find out her insurance details. There had to be a way out of this mess.
Izzy put down his guitar and sighed. He recognised the footsteps on the stairs, the sound of a client approaching. Henry, the 60-year-old non-profit CEO carrying a leather briefcase, ducked his head – which was never anywhere near hitting the beam – and stepped into the basement office.
“How’re you doing?” he asked, as usual, taking the extra chair and scooting closer to Izzy’s computer screens. “Get any sleep last night?”
“Yeah, all good.” Izzy nodded, running his hands through his wildly overgrown mop of dark curls. Yes, he did have a permanent bed head, but not from tossing and turning.
“Have you been outside? It’s getting warmer.”
“Yeah, I went for a walk yesterday.”
Henry gave him an examining look. “It was raining yesterday.”
“It must have been the day before, then.”
“Yes! Tuesday was nice.” Henry’s head bobbed in agreement. “I’m glad you got some sunshine. Vitamin D, mental health…” He opened his briefcase and dug out a pile of printouts. “I have the latest figures here with me so we can update the infographics.”
Izzy took a deep breath, trying to squash his frustration. Henry was a lovely guy, but he was also the one client that made him want to scream into a pillow. A true boomer, he insisted on printing everything and visiting in person to watch Izzy input numbers on the screen. An hour’s work that could have been achieved in five minutes by sending a simple email.
Izzy opened the correct video project and brought up the graphics – suicide statistics from last year. Numbers were on the rise.
“We’ll be okay,” Henry said, awkwardly patting him on the arm. “I know this is hard.”
Izzy coughed, trying to dislodge the lump that always appeared in his throat when he saw Henry. Their joint loss had brought them together and led them to suicide prevention work. ‘How fortunate that something good could come out of a tragedy,’ as Henry put it. Except he would never get over losing his daughter. His only child.
Izzy had lost a girlfriend – one he’d struggled with, not that he’d ever admit that to Henry. With the gift of hindsight, he could see how destructive their relationship had been, draining the life out of him before her tragic, abrupt death stole his future. He’d mourned, but he could never match the depth of Henry’s sorrow. Over the years, his own sadness had faded, turning into a niggling memory, like a scar that only hurt if you deliberately poked at it.
So many tears had been shed, enough for a lifetime. He’d learned his lesson and stayed away from women, away from potential heartbreak and more tears. But he no longer felt the loss, not like Henry did. Izzy had slept fine for five years, albeit in complete solitude.
“Yeah, it’s hard,” he replied dutifully, mustering a catch in his throat that was expected, and began typing numbers into the cells to update the bar graph.
He felt like an imposter. Every time Henry came around, Izzy went through the motions of pain and sorrow, sat through the heavy sighs and long silences, discussing suicide prevention. When it came to the topic, Henry was a force of nature, pulling together resources to build educational programmes and trying to craft ‘viral videos’. He’d raised funding and put together a passionate team with lived experience – partly ongoing experience – which meant he constantly worried about his staff’s mental health, along with Izzy’s. Unfortunately, the collective passion also produced strong opinions, which in turn led to much negotiating and incessant changes to the videos Izzy edited for them.
Henry cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to tell you, there’s another change. That last image of the beach has to go. Miranda pointed out that seeing a body of water can bring up suicidal ideation in those vulnerable.”
Izzy nodded, wondering what else he could use. They’d done the unfurling silver ferns from every angle. It was ironic how working on suicide prevention could make you want to die.
After the graphics were updated, Henry got up. “I’ll let you get on.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Guilt stabbed at Izzy’s chest as he angled himself away, focused on his screen. He should have offered Henry a cup of tea and asked him to stay awhile. The old man loved to drink tea and reminisce. But today, he couldn’t take it. The sooner he got the guy out, the sooner he could put on his headphones and listen to his favourite soundtrack, clear his mind of those memories and escape into his story. An imaginary world. Nothing beat an alternate reality.
Henry hovered at the foot of the stairs, a friendly smile softening his drawn face. “How’s the film coming along? Are you going to be at the Oscars next year?”
Izzy rewarded the painful joke with a forced laugh, as he stretched his arms behind his head. “The computer crapped out, and I have to order some new gear.”
“Oh, really? But, it’s working? You can still edit our videos?” Henry pointed at the screen.
Bless his cotton socks. Izzy nodded. “Yeah, the iMac is fine. It’s just that rendering 3D environments takes a lot of processing power.”
“Of course. Of course. Well, I hope you get it sorted. The world needs to see some uplifting stories right now.”
“Yeah. Sure.” He’d told Henry little about his film project, only that the story dealt with suicide in an uplifting way – a statement he felt was likely untrue. Was it even possible to achieve such an oxymoronic outcome? Probably not.
“Don’t suppose you want to join us for pizza night next Monday? Got a couple of new people starting at the helpline. Younger people.”
Izzy clicked on an email he had no interest in. “No, sorry, I have quite a bit of work to get through.” He wondered what had brought this on. Henry hadn’t asked him to join any social outings in months. After all, he’d been consistent with his vague excuses for years. Everyone else, including his family, had learned their lesson.
“Of course.” Henry lifted his hand in farewell and tackled the stairs one at a time, pausing on each step. He needed a hip replacement but refused to use health care resources ‘on frivolous things’ so he refused the surgery. Everything this man did put Izzy to shame.
When Henry finally made it to the second level, Izzy abandoned his computer and threw himself on the couch, letting air drain from his lungs. If he ever finished this film, Henry would be disappointed with it. Or shocked to his core. Possibly both. He hadn’t quite figured out the ending yet, but considering that the story took place in the afterlife and he couldn’t really raise the characters from death… no, that would never work. It wouldn’t be authentic. People who died stayed dead, without fail. Just like Erin, since she’d leapt into the dark Waikato river.
Izzy looked at the overgrown garden behind his window, wondering for the hundredth time why he’d stayed so close to the river. He could have left it all behind if he’d done it straight away. Everyone would have understood. If only he’d done it back then, when nobody had expected anything from him. But he’d always been the responsible one, and when Henry’s organisation got the funding, he felt obligated to help. It paid well enough and gave him the chance to do his own thing on the side. That’s why he did it, he reminded himself; To fund his art, the film he wanted to create. It was all worth it, as long as he figured out the ending.
Izzy snapped the cordless headphones on his ears, picked up his phone, browsed Spotify for the right playlist, and closed his eyes. As soon as he heard the first notes of the classical instruments, his mind was transported into a world, the music making the imaginary world appear behind his eyelids like a painter’s brush that swept across a canvas. How did the story end? What was beyond Limbo, the ominous transportation hub of the afterlife? Where did the doors lead?
The answers would come to him if he freed his mind and drifted into that state between conscious and unconscious. It was right there, within his grasp, eluding and teasing him like a forgotten word on the tip of one’s tongue.
“Can you give us a visual description of the thief? Tall, short, dark, fair?”
Mia stared into the pair of sharp eyes behind blue-rimmed spectacles and a wall of bulletproof glass and swallowed a sour lump. “I didn’t see them.”
“You didn’t see the person who mugged you?” The middle-aged receptionist repeated, blinking rapidly. Her blue vest matched her glasses and her ponytail seemed too tight for comfort.
“Mugging is probably not the right word…” Mia hesitated, her brain drawing blank after blank. What was it called when someone mugged you without touching or even threatening to hurt you? Or even being seen? Like a ghost. “Someone took my luggage when I wasn’t looking.”
“Did you leave your things unattended? Someone might have taken them to lost and found.” The woman pointed to her left, rattling out directions to the said lost and found.
Mia shook her head. “No! I was standing right there. I just… closed my eyes for a second.”
“At 43 Wyndham Street, in front of the Cathedral of St Patrick and St Joseph?” She read from her screen, then flicked her penetrating gaze back at Mia, who felt heat rising to her cheeks.
“I was praying,” she muttered.
The woman nodded slowly and the corner of her mouth twitched almost imperceptibly. “Next time, it might be safer to pray inside the church. Especially if you have a lot of valuables on your person.”
Mia scoffed. Like she was ever going to pray again. God obviously didn’t like her very much. In fact, God seemed to have a cruel sense of humour, much like this receptionist, who was still eyeing her with barely concealed amusement. “Is there a computer I could use? Or a phone?”
The woman gave her an odd look. “No. This is a police station. There’s an internet cafe two blocks away if you need one.”
“But I don’t have any money. I have nothing!”
“What’s on your back?”
Mia sighed, lowering the guitar case to the floor so it was fully visible. “It’s an old acoustic guitar, not worth much. I could sell it, just don’t know how or where…”
The receptionist’s mouth twisted in half-hearted sympathy. “Maybe you can get your bank to send you a new card?”
“Yes, but how do I contact them? I have no money for the internet cafe.”
“What about your accommodation? Can’t they help you?”
Mia’s forehead creased. “I haven’t checked into the hotel yet. I don’t know if they’ll let me do that without a credit card. I don’t think they’ve even charged me yet.”
The receptionist’s lips puckered reproachingly, as if this was all very poor planning on Mia’s part. “So, you have nowhere to stay? And no money on your person?”
Mia shook her head, feeling utterly worthless. She clutched her guitar case, wondering if the cruel woman would suggest she go busking outside the supermarket. The thought filled her with dread. She’d never played live for anyone and only used the old guitar to play with song ideas that seemed to drift in whenever her mind was idle. Mikko had called her songwriting ‘meditative ideation’, comparing it to his own bathroom breaks. Apparently, he got his best ideas on the can. Mia accepted the premise, trying to dismiss the fact that she’d never had a useful business idea when strumming her guitar. At least her boyfriend was kind of supportive of her musical hobby. Maybe one day, she’d have a stroke of genius when humming a new melody.
Mia hadn’t told Mikko she’d packed the guitar on this trip. She wouldn’t have been able to tell him why – it was cumbersome and problematic on flights. She’d made her own way to the airport with her soft guitar case (Mikko would have ridiculed it to no end), awkwardly bumping into doorframes and other travellers. Right now, she was grateful for the little Landola, though. It had survived the flights, mostly in overhead bins along with hand luggage because the crew took pity on her, and was still in one piece for her to hold. The idea of selling the guitar made her feel a little sick.
The receptionist turned to catch the attention of her colleague. Mia couldn’t hear every word but guessed from the tone this was about bending the rules. After a moment, the lady turned back to her, adjusting her glasses. “You can come around and use the phone or the computer.”
After a moment, the side door flung open and Mia stepped in. The receptionist gestured at the phone on her desk, then at an unoccupied PC in the corner. An easy choice. The only phone number Mia could remember by heart was her own. She sat down and propped her guitar case against the desk.
The receptionist handed her a pen and a blank notebook. “If you need to take notes.”
She’d already reported her passport stolen, but she had to get it replaced with an emergency travel document to get on her last flight in five days. A quick Google search made Mia’s stomach plummet. The Finnish Embassy of New Zealand was in Yarralumla, Australia. That couldn’t be right. After a bit of searching, she found the contact details of a local consulate. Her stomach dropped further. The Dutch embassy handling emergency passports for Finnish citizens was in Wellington. Based on her limited knowledge, that was at the other end of North Island. But at least she could travel there without a passport.
The next order of business – contacting someone back home to get money. Maybe she could find Mikko’s phone number in her email. He hated speaking on the phone, so it wouldn’t be on the website. As Mia navigated to the Gmail home page, her whole body seized in terror. What was her password? She’d changed it at some point last year, but her laptop logged in automatically, never asking her to type it in. Before leaving Finland, she’d resigned from her job and the company had promptly disabled her work email account. All she had was Gmail, but if she couldn’t get in, then what?
Steeling her nerves, Mia launched her fingers on the keyboard and punched in several possibilities. Soon enough, Gmail warned her about disabling the account. Five minutes later, she’d tried all her social media accounts. Instagram told her the password she’d typed in was an old one. Facebook wanted her to verify her sign-in by logging into her email. For crying out loud!
Mia took a deep breath, her hands falling into her lap. Was there any website she could log into? Before leaving, she’d helped Mikko set up a mailing list for his start-up. If she could get into that account, she could send an email campaign. It was a cheaper service, not one with layers of security like MailChimp. It was a long shot, but worth trying. To her surprise, the password worked.
Dread quickly replaced the relief of gaining access. Who should she try to message? Her parents’ English wasn’t great, so they wouldn’t be of any help with overseas money transfers or other complicated manoeuvres. Her sister was in her eighth month of a high-risk pregnancy, a reason she’d booked her return for less than a week, to make sure she was back home to help her through the first weeks and months. Kati didn’t need any extra stress. She’d have to message Mikko.
Mia created a new email template and typed a short message, asking Mikko to respond by creating another draft email campaign.
Please don’t change this password! This is the only account I can log into at the moment.
Mia pressed ‘send’, the hopelessness of her quest hitting her. The email wouldn’t land in Mikko’s primary inbox. It’d be lost amongst other newsletters from motivational speakers, pitch deck tutorials, and whatever else he subscribed to. Staring at the campaign confirmation on the screen, a fresh wave of hopelessness coursed through her. When had she ever seen Mikko browsing the promotional tab on Gmail? She had to get into his inbox some other way.
Mia turned back to the receptionist. “Excuse me?”
The woman swivelled her chair. “Yes? Did you get your business sorted?”
Mia bit her lip. “Not, really. I can’t remember my email password. But if you could send an email from your email account to this address…” she wrote Mikko’s email address on the notebook. “And if you could let him know what happened, and ask him to check his promotional messages for an email campaign with my name in the subject line?”
“You can’t access your email, but you sent him an email campaign?” The receptionist cast her a suspicious look.
Mia sucked in her lips. “I know it sounds weird but yes. I got into his newsletter account.” She extended her hand, desperately dangling the piece of paper with an email address at the suspicious woman.
The receptionist picked up the note with two fingers like a used napkin and turned back to her computer, shaking her head in disbelief. She opened her email, painstakingly typed in Mikko’s email, then spent a good five minutes composing a one-line message. Finally, she sent the message and turned back to Mia. “So, you really have nowhere to go?”
Mia shook her head, squeezing her eyes closed. This is where tears might have actually helped. She could tell the receptionist doubted her story. Anyone else in her situation would have been crying. Mia fought to fill her lungs against the pressure that had sat in her chest since the robbery. Why couldn’t it morph into a proper heart attack? That would at least get her a hospital bed.
The receptionist released a heavy breath. “I can call a couple of women’s shelters to see if they have room for tonight?”
“And if that doesn’t work,” she continued, “there might be a holding cell available.”
No, no, no.
“Unless you have any contacts in the country? Anyone at all? You can use the phone.”
“I don’t know anyone from…” That’s when Mia remembered the name. She’d last emailed him maybe three months ago, requesting a shorter edit of an immigration video they’d produced for the Finnish government. Isaiah McCarthy, video editor. Some of her colleagues had thought it strange she commissioned an editor located so far away, but it made sense. He’d been cheap, talented, and fluent in English. The perfect contractor. Being in an opposite time zone, McCarthy could turn around urgent jobs overnight without charging extra. He’d been friendly, expressing gratitude for her clear notes and swift decision-making, always signing with ‘If you need anything else, please don’t hesitate to ask’. His phrasing had felt over-the-top, but she’d chalked it up to cultural differences. Now those words floated back, giving her a nudge of courage.
The receptionist looked up in surprise. “And where is he located?”
Mia held her breath, trying to remember anything the editor might have mentioned. His emails had been short and to-the-point. She liked that he didn’t waste her time on idle chitchat. As an editor, he had an exceptional ability to condense time without losing the essence of the story, and decent file-naming conventions – none of that ‘final-final-final-v3’ shit. Mia rubbed her forehead, wading through useless trivia for something that could help her find the guy.
“Can you please google his name plus Maven Productions? That’s the name of his business, I think.”
The lady turned back to her computer. Over her shoulder, Mia saw a glimpse of a dark blue website that loaded on her screen. She recognised the simple logo. “That’s the one!” A ray of hope shot through her for the first time in hours.
“This company is in Hamilton,” the receptionist said as she opened another page with a map. “There’s a mobile number here for Isaiah McCarthy. You can use our phone to make a call.”
Mia’s stomach lurched. “Where’s Hamilton?”
The receptionist lifted a shoulder. “About ninety minutes South.”
That didn’t sound convenient, but it wasn’t impossible. Mia’s gaze flicked to the landline phone on the desk. Could she take the phone somewhere private to make the call? Probably not, judging by the way the receptionist’s eyes tracked her every movement. She’d just have to steel her nerves and ignore the woman.
Her breath quickening, Mia reached for the offered phone. Placing the receiver against her ear, she realised it was already ringing. The receptionist had dialled the phone number.
After a long moment, she heard a grunt.
“Hello? Is this Isaiah McCarthy?”
“Great! My name is Mia Forsman. I used to work at Lounatuuli Productions. We did some business with you I believe?”
Mia swallowed, panic tightening her throat. She couldn’t tell if the gruff voice was angry, indifferent, or belonged to someone who disliked phone calls. She forced herself to continue. “This isn’t a work phone call. I just didn’t know who else to call. I just arrived in New Zealand and got mugged… well, not mugged but robbed.” she sucked in a breath, her voice turning a bit squeaky. “Anyway, since I don’t have a passport or my credit card or anything, I’m in trouble right now. I was wondering if you could help. I’ll pay you back later, I promise!”
The line was quiet for a couple of seconds, long enough for Mia’s heartbeat to skyrocket. Then Isaiah cleared his throat. “Where are you?”
“At the police station in Auckland, in the city centre. I mean, I’m not under arrest or anything. I had to report the theft—”
“Stay there. Give me … two hours.”
“Okay.” Mia’s voice trembled. “Thank you so much,” she continued but realised Isaiah had already ended the call.
Mia handed back the phone and sunk into the office chair, feeling like she’d been punched in the stomach.
“Did you get hold of him?” The receptionist asked.
“Yeah, he’s coming here, I think.”
Mia took her guitar, thanked the receptionist, and snuck through the side door, settling into one of the seats in the waiting area. Its minimal padding and general discomfort reminded her of airports.
Okay. She’d done this before. She was an expert at hanging in airports by now. But without her phone, laptop, or even a book to read, her hands began to fidget. Mia sighed, wiggling on the seat to find a more comfortable position. Eventually, she lay across two seats, her arms wrapped around the guitar bag. Exhaustion from the interrupted night and the heightened excitement of the day flowed down her spine, making her limbs heavy. Maybe she could shut her eyes for a bit.
As her eyelids fluttered, Mia’s mind travelled to the moment of the robbery, and a shot of alarm threw her eyes open. No, she reminded herself, closing her eyes again wouldn’t bring in any new misfortunes. She was at the police station with nothing left to lose. Comforted by the almost liberating sense of emptiness, she rested her head against the crook of her arm and allowed herself to drift off.
Reversing into the visitor car park, Izzy flipped the visor and stared into the little mirror. Was he presentable? He hadn’t shown his face in public for a week, since he’d visited the gym to cancel his membership. His home gym had better equipment with no waiting times, so why pay for the inconvenience? Not leaving the house also meant he didn’t have to care about his appearance. Unsurprisingly, the face staring back in the mirror had been taken over by an unruly beard. Was it really that long? Holy shit.
Izzy shook his head, grabbed his keys and wallet, and headed for the front doors. The imposing glass building looked brand new, nothing like the old police station he remembered. Although he hadn’t visited Auckland in years.
Stepping into the reception area, Izzy scanned the room for a familiar face. On the way, when traffic drew to a standstill around Drury, he’d quickly googled the Finnish woman. A pretty blonde with one of those edgy, short haircuts. She’d been easy to work with, prompt and appreciative with clear, short briefs. Meandering, indecisive clients were the worst. He’d hoped for more work from Lounatuuli Productions, but hadn’t heard from them in months. According to LinkedIn, Mia no longer worked there, just as she’d said on the phone.
At first, his gaze landed on two excessively tattooed gentlemen by the door. He brushed past them, offering a respectful chin-lift. In the far corner of the room, he noticed the sleeping figure. She looked tiny, like a lost child, curled up across two seats, her arm draped over a soft guitar case. Her hair looked longer than in the online photograph, the shaved sides grown into wispy waves that swept over her ear. She had delicate features, like a little fairy who might sprout wings at any moment.
Izzy stopped a few steps away from the strange creature, his breath catching. He didn’t believe in love at first sight, not anymore, but something about this woman made his body seize. She hadn’t noticed him yet. Revelling in the unique opportunity, Izzy studied her face and body, imagining what kind of character lurked underneath.
When she stirred, Izzy retreated half a step and arranged his features into a smile. He hadn’t driven all the way here to freak her out. She must have been pretty freaked out already, stranded in a strange country without her belongings.
“Excuse me. Miss?”
Mia rattled awake like she’d heard a gunshot, springing to her feet. The guitar case slid off her grasp and Izzy lunged forward, catching it just before it made contact with the floor. Mia reached for it simultaneously, their skulls clanking together with a loud thud. Her yelp gave him a jolt.
“Sorry.” He handed her the instrument.
“Thank you.” She hugged the black guitar-shaped bag and blinked at him, rubbing her forehead. “Sorry about taking up so much space. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I was just waiting for someone.” She gestured apologetically at the seat she’d used as a daybed.
Izzy rubbed his own forehead, trying to catch up with the situation. Did she think he was after her seat? “Are you… Mia? Sorry, I took so long.”
Her face lit up in recognition, cheeks reddening as her mouth fell open. “Oh, right! Sorry, of course. Isaiah?”
Mia set the guitar case against the floor and offered him a delicate hand with clear nail polish. Izzy shook it, careful not to squeeze too hard. “Call me Izzy. Everyone else does.”
“You… look different from the photo.” She peered up at him, sucking on her bottom lip.
Izzy ran his hand over his beard to tame the yeti look. He felt heat pushing up his face. Any photo of him online would have been about five years old, and right now, he wasn’t at his most presentable. He hadn’t showered before leaving, not wanting to make her wait – well, any longer than she would have to because of geography. She’d sounded so distressed he’d grabbed his phone and keys and leapt into his car, only giving a moment’s thought to the absolute necessities such as having enough petrol in the tank. Hence the worn-out army-green T-shirt and grey slacks.
A dusty, soapy smell drifted into his nostrils. Finding an old stick of deodorant in his glove compartment had been a happy surprise, but he’d probably applied it too generously. There was a chance deodorant didn’t stay fresh for ten years, especially when it was cooked in a hot car every summer.
Izzy wagged his finger at the reception desk. “Are you waiting on something?”
“No. I filed the report, and there’s nothing else I can do here.” She gripped her fingers around the guitar neck, her bare legs sporting goosebumps.
Izzy glanced around, instinctively looking for a suitcase or bag, before he remembered. “So, you have nothing else? Not even a jacket?”
Mia shook her head, pink blotches appearing on her cheeks. Was she about to cry? Instead of tears, he heard a sharp intake of breath as she stared back at him, shaking her head.
“That’s okay,” Izzy said quickly, guiding her towards the doors. As they passed the reception desk, the woman behind it nodded at Mia.
Izzy led her to his car – an old, silver Toyota Corolla that looked terrible but passed its WOF with relative ease year after year. He’d never contemplated upgrading. Well, until this very moment. “The A.C. isn’t great, but it kind of works if we keep the back windows cracked. Hope that’s okay?” He opened the passenger side door. “You can put the guitar on the backseat.”
She stumbled backward, clutching the instrument. “Where are we going? I don’t mean to be rude, but I called you because I need to borrow some money. I’m good for it, I promise.”
Izzy froze, dumbfounded. “So, I give you money, and then what?”
She swallowed. “Then you can go home. I’m so sorry you had to drive all the way here. I’ll pay you back with interest, of course. Is twenty percent acceptable?”
Izzy blinked. He could barely follow the woman’s logic. “Twenty percent? What am I, a loan shark? I came to pick you up, so you’d have somewhere to stay and I can help sort you out.”
Mia’s jaw dropped as she studied his face. “But you don’t know me. I couldn’t ask you—”
“I’m offering. Take it or leave it.” He yanked open the car door, gesturing with his head. The constant traffic noise from the street behind them was giving him a headache, and this woman’s pointless resistance to his help was making it worse. “Let’s just get out of here. If you don’t like my house, we’ll book you into a hotel. How’s that?”
Mia flushed pink. “No! I didn’t mean… You have a house?”
Izzy lifted a shoulder. “Yeah. I look like I sleep under a bridge but—”
“No! I meant… a house, not an apartment? I don’t know anyone my age who lives in an actual house. Only wealthy people or families out in the countryside.”
“It’s really not that unusual around here. And it’s nothing flash either, so please adjust your expectations.” He tried to smile to lighten the mood, thinking of how badly the house needed maintenance.
“Okay.” She nodded to herself, still staring at the car. “I suppose it would solve one of my problems right now, if you really don’t mind.”
“I really don’t mind,” Izzy confirmed, still holding the door and his breath. He felt like he was trying to catch a runaway budgie, coaxing it closer until the cage came down. When she finally lowered herself into the seat and wiggled her guitar onto the backseat, he slammed the door, trapping her. A confusing mix of shame and excitement coursed through him as he circled the vehicle to the driver’s side.
Once behind the wheel, he risked another glance at the peculiar woman. Sunk into the fluffy seat cover he’d bought to extend the life of the furnishing, she looked even more like a fairy – a lightweight, magical creature he’d inadvertently captured. She tucked her hands under her bare thighs, holding herself rigid as if to avoid relaxing against the seat. Was she afraid of him? He might have been twice her size, but he hadn’t lured her into his car. She’d called him. Technically, they were work colleagues, although he had to admit, working remotely across the oceans didn’t facilitate much closeness.
They’d only exchanged a few emails discussing a job he suspected neither of them had any genuine interest in. He’d noticed the careful way she worded her feedback so it neither offended nor expressed particular excitement for his creative choices. Facing a roadblock, she’d quickly chosen the fastest way forward to make sure they met the deadline. So efficient and flawless she could have passed for a very sophisticated bot.
Looking at her now, Izzy felt ashamed for his initial assessment. Mia was definitely human. A distressed human. As he navigated through the city centre towards the motorway ramp, her body remained stiff, her unblinking eyes staring out the window, recording every landmark like she was expecting to be thrown out of the vehicle at any moment and having to find her way back.
Izzy racked his brain for the right words. He should have known how to deal with distress. How did he work on all those suicide prevention videos without absorbing any actionable knowledge? What did B.R.A.V.E. stand for? Was B for being there, or breathing? Izzy filled his lungs, hoping oxygen would somehow unlock the rest. In truth, he’d stopped really listening years ago. Besides, this woman wasn’t necessarily thinking of ending her life.
“Is it a long drive?” she asked as he accelerated down the motorway ramp.
“Ninety minutes, if we’re lucky.”
“If we don’t hit traffic. I consider that very lucky in Auckland. Especially at this time of day.”
He glanced at his wristwatch. 5:30pm. This was not a lucky time. Mia nodded, but still wouldn’t lean back against the seat. Instead, she folded her legs against her chest, locking her arms around them like an Olympic diver somersaulting through the air. Maybe she felt she was in free-fall. How long could she hold on like that before her arms cramped?
“You must be quite shaken,” Izzy said.
“Uh-huh.” It was but a whisper.
“So, what happened? How did you lose your stuff?”
Mia’s breathing turned into a shallow wheeze and she turned away from him, hiding her face from view.
Izzy scanned the view outside, not sure what to do. They were on the motorway with nowhere to stop. “Are you okay? Please, calm down. Just breathe.”
She wheezed a few more times, avoiding his eyes. Gradually, her shoulders dropped and her breath settled.
“Do you have asthma?” He asked.
“No. I can’t cry and my body does this instead.” She kept her gaze on the window, her neck flushing pink. Izzy couldn’t help his voice creeping up. “You can’t cry? You mean you’ve never…”
Mia shook her head. “No, of course I cried as a baby, and in my youth. I don’t know when I stopped. It was some time in the last five years.”
“Oh, wow.” Izzy shifted in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable. He’d teared up last night when listening to music, not even sure why, but it probably wasn’t the right thing to advertise right now.
“It’s okay.” Mia drew a shuddering breath. “At least I’m not gaining sympathy points or using my femininity to get ahead.”
Izzy braked, realising he’d crept far too close to the white Mazda ahead of them. He’d never met anyone concerned about such a thing. “Your English is amazing,” he said, hoping to find common ground.
“Are you uncomfortable with a woman who can’t cry?” Mia turned to him, her eyes burning bright and guileless.
Izzy glanced at her, then whipped his attention back to the road. Too late. The look in her eyes was already imprinted on his corneas, an open gaze that held no politeness or placation, offering him no escape. Thank goodness he was behind the wheel. Staring into those eyes for any length of time rattled him.
“I don’t know. I’m a little uncomfortable right now.” He expelled a hollow chuckle.
“That’s okay. You’re honest.” Mia’s voice softened. “I know I make men uncomfortable. I can’t help it.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes. They called me ice queen at work. I know I can be intimidating.”
Laughter bubbled up in Izzy’s chest. Did the little garden fairy really think she was intimidating? Intriguing, sure. Puzzling even. She was so small, so deeply troubled that he felt like he’d stumbled on a wounded bird. She may have flapped her wings and attempted to limp away, but she needed help. His help.
Mia stared at the big, bearded man. His soapy scent filled the car, sucking the air out of her lungs. Was she not getting enough oxygen? That could explain why she’d already spilled her guts to this stranger. Now he knew she wasn’t normal. Mia, the ice queen; always in control, with an answer to everything. Sometimes, they dressed the sentiment up as a compliment, but she knew what they meant. She was cold and creepy. After all, who else did she know who couldn’t cry?
Sunken into her dark thoughts, it took Mia a moment to notice Izzy’s amusement.
“What are you laughing about?” She demanded, her stomach winding itself into a knot. A double Windsor.
Izzy tried to straighten his face, running his huge hand through the mop of overgrown dark hair that fell onto his shoulders. Together with the untamed facial hair, it covered most of his skin from the neck up. Mia wondered what he looked like under that stranded-on-a-desert-island look. A flash of white teeth peeked through his full lips as he laughed. “Who says you’re intimidating?”
“Um… my boyfriend.”
Izzy’s smile vanished.
“We’re kind of on a break right now,” Mia added, uneasy. “Since I’m travelling around the world by myself and all.” She twined her fingers so tight they hurt. He must have injected her with some kind of truth serum. “He asked me to get involved in this start-up business he’s working on… it’s a huge deal, big investors, lots of money and so much pressure… and I said I needed time to think, so I booked this trip.”
“Wow. And how’s it going?”
She lifted a brow. “Do you have to ask?”
“I mean before getting robbed. Was it going okay?”
Mia’s chest ached. She could feel the wave of emotion welling under the surface again. She hadn’t felt this close to crying in a long time. Maybe the tears would eventually break through. Either that or her chest would explode. “Not really,” she whispered. “I wasn’t any closer to a decision. And this is my last stop.”
“Is this your first time in New Zealand?”
“I’m so sorry.” Izzy’s voice filled with regret. “Honestly. I swear we’re better than this!”
His needless apology soothed her nerves. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t rob me.”
“So, what do you need to do? Get a new passport, find your flight tickets?”
“Yes. The Dutch embassy handles the emergency passports for Finnish citizens in New Zealand.” Mia swallowed. “But it’s in Wellington.”
“Don’t worry. We can drive there.” Izzy cast her an encouraging look that tightened her stomach even further.
“No! You don’t have to drive me around! If I can borrow some money, I’ll go there and get it sorted, maybe get on an earlier flight. I can sort out everything else when I get back home.”
“Or… you could look at this as an opportunity?” Izzy’s voice sharpened, making the air between them bristle. “You’re on this trip to figure things out. Maybe this is God’s way of telling you to take a break?”
Mia’s laugh took on a sad tinge. “No, I think God, if He exists, doesn’t like me very much.”
“What do you mean?”
Mia bit her lip. After the mortifying encounter at the police station, she didn’t feel like discussing the details of her stupidity, but her mouth opened anyway. “I… I was kind of praying, with my eyes closed, when I lost my bags.” Heat engulfed her face as she thought back to the moment. “I never saw the thief. I only saw a car driving away.”
Izzy kept his gaze on the road, but his eyes widened into saucers. “Where were you?”
“Outside a church—”
“Hang on. You stood on the footpath, closed your eyes to pray and all your stuff disappeared?”
“Yes.” Mia wanted to kick herself, regret filling every cell in her body. If she could only go back in time, undo—
“Don’t you think that’s just a little… unbelievable? I mean, the timing of it. Unless you prayed for hours?”
Mia frowned. “No. Maybe thirty seconds.”
“Wow. I have chills. Literally. Goosebumps. Look.”
He peeled his T-shirt sleeve up to reveal a huge, solid bicep. Mia couldn’t detect any goosebumps, but her stomach flipped at the sight of his muscles. This guy was like a marble statue. Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you didn’t say what you prayed about, but that sounds like an answer.”
Mia huffed in disbelief. “Are you suggesting I prayed for God to beam up all my stuff? Like some sort of reverse rapture?”
His rumbling laugh resonated in her body and she longed to join in, to feel that light. She couldn’t imagine her stomach ever unwinding itself, not until she got her life sorted and made it out of this cursed, backward-ass country.
“I’m sorry,” Izzy hiccupped, wiping his eyes. “I know it sucks, but one day you might look back and see this as a really good story. It’s got drama, divine intervention, everything.”
Mia watched the glistening teardrops spilling from the corners of his eyes, jealousy tightening her chest. He laughed and cried so effortlessly. What was wrong with her that she couldn’t do the same?
Izzy sped along the motorway as it wound between the river and the blue-green Taupiri mountains, enjoying the open road after Auckland’s congestion. He wondered what Mia might have thought about the views had she been awake. She’d admitted spending the previous night at Sydney airport, and dozed off around Pokeno. He couldn’t stop glancing at the sleeping woman, holding his breath every time she sucked in a sudden inhale, shoulders fluttering.
Izzy wondered if sleeping this early in the evening would mess up her circadian rhythm, but he didn’t have the heart to keep her awake. She’d made it clear she wanted out of New Zealand on the first available flight, so it probably didn’t matter when she slept. Still, he hoped the passport and other matters would take a little longer. Maybe he could show her around and change her mind about New Zealand. He couldn’t let her leave thinking his home country was some kind of crime-infested hellhole. Her experience may have been typical in some other countries, but not here.
Gradually, the green hills levelled into flat, green fields as they approached Hamilton, the dairy central of New Zealand. Tractor dealerships and workshops flashed by as they entered the ugly side of town, dominated by a hotchpotch of small businesses with sun-faded signs. Izzy negotiated each roundabout and traffic light smoothly, hoping Mia would sleep through the unflattering introduction. To his relief, he made it past the hospital (also ugly) and into the rundown but reasonably leafy suburb of Bader.
Izzy pulled into his driveway, exhaling in despair. The golden late evening light did nothing to hide the state of his crumbling rental. Apart from one film school buddy who’d been practically homeless, he hadn’t entertained guests in years. Whenever his family brought it up, he argued that the rent was cheap. Not that it excused the chipped paint and cracked concrete steps.
As Izzy killed the engine, Mia woke with a start. “Is this where you live?”
“It’s better inside,” Izzy grumbled.
He got out and circled the vehicle, but before he reached the handle, the door flew open and Mia stepped out, crashing into his chest.
“What are you doing?” she asked, brushing her shirt, cheeks flaming bright.
“Sorry.” Izzy took a step back. His heart pounded as if in the middle of a gym workout, every fibre of his body on high alert. Nobody had invaded his personal space in years. “I was going to open the door for you.”
She stared at him, her eyes huge. “Nobody opens the door for me.”
Izzy frowned, trying to follow her logic. “You mean nobody is allowed to open a door for you?”
She blinked in confusion. “No, I mean, it doesn’t happen to me.” She paused, looking past him. “I don’t think it happens to anyone in the twenty-first century. I’m not a damsel in distress.”
A wayward smile tugged at Izzy’s mouth. “Well, actually…”
Mia folded her arms, sticking her chin out. “Come on! I know I’m in trouble, but I didn’t expect to be rescued. I only wanted to borrow some money.”
Izzy felt irritation brewing in his gut. Hadn’t they covered this already? “If you’re expecting me to throw you some cash and walk away… That’s not how we treat visitors in my country. That’s not how I was brought up. You called me asking for help, which makes you my personal responsibility. I don’t take that lightly.”
Mia opened and closed her mouth without producing a sound. To his relief, she dropped the subject, fetched her guitar from the backseat, and followed him to the door.
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