He saw the pickup coming from at least a mile away. The night was still thick with dark with the moon set and the stars slowly wheeling around in their late-night arcs. The truck rattled and clanked on the gravel and kicked loose stones on the road. He stood in the shadows by the house, watching as it rose and fell along the wrinkles in the land, slowing as it came nearer. When it was almost to the drive the lights switched off, as he had expected they would. Slowly, quietly it turned up the drive.
He stepped out of the shadows. The truck slowed and halted abreast of him. The face in the window was dark but he saw that he nodded. The door clanked open. The dome light inside the truck did not come on, and the figure was a shadow walking to the back of the truck. He opened the tailgate. Finn threw in his bag.
“You want to drive?” Mr. Nilsson said.
“I can,” Finn said. “If you want.”
“OK,” he said. “I want.” He walked around to the passenger side.
Finn climbed into the driver’s seat and quietly pulled the door shut with a soft click of the latch. New trucks could be quiet. He shifted the truck into reverse and slowly backed out the driveway. He leaned up against the side window and looked up toward the top floor of the house. It was dark.
“You didn’t tell them?” Nilsson said.
Finn shook his head. He was on the county road now. He turned the truck and headed east.
“No,” he said.
Nilsson sighed. “You always knew how to turn an unimportant thing into drama,” he said.
Finn switched on the lights. “That was your daughter,” he said. Then he added, “I left a note.”
They came over a small rise and there was a patch of snow lingering on the lee side. He came to a stop sign and turned without stopping. There was no light on the road for miles. Then another. Then they were passing through town.
Finn slowed as they passed the flashing yellow light at Main Street. He looked up the street toward the cafe. Up the block, the cafe threw light out into the street through its open front windows. The rest of the street was dark, sleepy. It occurred to him that someone passing through for the first time might assume the town was dead.
“Who’s covering for you while we’re gone?” Nilsson said.
“Sarah,” he said. “Like she did before I came.”
They were already past the last street in town. The prairie rolled out dark beneath the stars, a deeper black than the sky. Mile markers lit up ahead as the headlights caught them, a long straight twinkling line along the smooth highway, miles ahead until it disappeared over the lip of the world.
They came to the big windmill farm near Innsbruck, huge black silhouettes looming up like stick figures, their arms slowly spinning. The sky was washing into a deep indigo, blue. He turned onto a road heading south, the pavement rougher than the state highway they had been following.
Finn said, “Just a little detour.” Nilsson said nothing.
He turned east again on an unpaved road. To the south he could see the lights of little Innsbruck, never quite a town and certainly not now. The road curved into a line of spruce, the first trees in miles. It seemed to come to the edge of something and then they started angling down. Finn stopped the truck. He sat idling for a moment, and then put it into park, switched off the motor and got out.
They were at the edge of a bluff that rose a few hundred feet above the flat valley below. The road headed straight down the hill. At the base of the hill he could see a few lights of a village there, and beyond that lights twinkled faintly orange in every direction in the broad river valley. His boots shuffled on gravel in the road. An owl hooted from the shade of a tree.
Nilsson pushed open his door and got out. He walked over to Finn. A faint glow was starting to appear on the horizon, far beyond the lights spread out all in front of them.
“I always liked to stop here,” Finn said.
Nilsson was quiet. Then he said, “You come here with her, ever?”
“Yeah,” Finn said. “Always.”
There was a flutter of wings in the dark above them. Finn saw nothing.
“This was a lake once, you know that?” Nilsson said.
“Agassiz,” Finn said.
“Biggest lake in the world, then,” Nilsson said. “Went all the way up to the top of Manitoba. Something like that.”
“I can almost picture it,” Finn said. It was getting cold.
Nilsson said, “Back when they were building the first city at Jericho, the first Jericho, the first city … This was all underwater. There was nothing here.”
“Mammoths,” Finn said. “Woolly mammoths.”
“No towns, though,” Nilsson said. “No cities.”
“No,” Finn said.
“And there is still a city there now,” Nilsson said. “There has been all these centuries since then. And in all that time, the biggest lake in the world has disappeared, the biggest thing there was, gone.”
“Good farm country, though,” Finn said.
He was starting to shiver. He said, “You ready?”
Nilsson said, “Ready.”
They got back in the truck. After the engine turned over, Finn turned up the fan on the heater, way up. Slowly he felt it soak through his jeans, his socks. “Cold,” he said.
“We’d better get going,” Nilsson said. “We have a long way to go.”
Finn shifted the truck into gear and they began to roll their way down the hill.