Part 1

Nelson swung his legs around and off the bed, his warm feet landing on the cold tile floor. “Time to get a rug,” he said out loud to himself. It was the first week of December, and his furnace was having a rough go of the eager Minnesotan winter. It was early — just before six in the morning. Nelson always managed to wake up on his own without an alarm clock at the desired time; a skill his body developed since before he could remember. He sat, elbows on knees and hands over face, contemplating what to do next: more sleep, immediate caffeine, or a quick and painless suicide. Today he chose caffeine.

In Nelson’s estimation, the greatest invention by man since the sharpened stick was the Keurig machine. Pods of coffee on demand? The thought of it all warmed his body and soul in equal proportion. Reason enough to get out of bed. As the trickle of life filled his giant ceramic cup, he fired up his seven-year-old desktop computer with the eagerness of a kid on Christmas. Nelson read his email and browsed Facebook on this computer and this computer alone. He never liked phone apps, fervent in the belief that life is too short to spend it all in a panic. As technology improved, he continually refused to purchase a much-needed smartphone in favor of his clunky Sidekick flip-phone. He believed that the vast majority of humans have driven themselves to a heightened state of awareness akin to a soldier in a foxhole while they await the next blinking alert, their faces glued to the brightly-lit screens of soul-sucking personal electronic devices.

This Monday morning, however, Nelson was in a good mood. He was eagerly awaiting an email — a message for which he checked first thing every morning and last thing every night for weeks. Nelson is a very deliberate and regimented man. He only opens his email twice a day, and he checks it at the abovementioned times to give himself ample daylight with which to respond to the morning messages and enough time for the evening messages to arrive.

Three months earlier, Nelson responded to an ad. It was one of those personal ads on a site similar to Craigslist, but this site was all about connecting people — pen pals, to be exact. He had heard that some men had even met their wives on the site, and as a divorcée twice over (and a widower once), he thought it was time to enter the game again.

He had no interest in the Tinders, Bumbles, or any other of the dating apps. Living life in an app held no appeal for Nelson. He craved connection and real human interaction, and despite being a high school dropout he had quite a way with words. At 55 years old, Nelson was in decent physical shape. His job at the cattle feed lots north of town kept him reasonably active, and his steady regimen of cheese-with-mayo sandwiches and caffeine-free diet sodas ensured he didn’t get overly slovenly. Women liked Nelson, and he found that they especially liked him while corresponding at a distance.

Penpals-direct.ru, a Russia-based website for people-seeking-people had become a small obsession in Nelson’s life just three months previous to this cold Monday morning in December. Penpals-direct is a now-defunct network of websites that specialized in connecting people from all over the world. Each country had its own dedicated site featuring ads of men and (mostly) women looking for communication partners. Sorting through the different “dots” was an entertaining exercise in attraction.

His first landing site, Penpals-direct.kr (kr for Korea, of course) was full of exotic women that had never been on Nelson’s radar beforehand. All of Nelson’s wives were similar in shape and size and race — pale skin, strawberry blonde (big) hair, and at least one missing tooth. They rarely saw the inside of a book and fancied bar fights as an acceptable pastime to be enjoyed well into their sixties. After thorough read-throughs of about three dozen personal bios on Penpals-direct.kr, Nelson began a three-day long email chat with Gigi, a Cheongju resident, 22 years old, and an aspiring model. Gigi had never been outside her city of nearly a million people, but hoped one day to make it to Hollywood or San Francisco and become a beer model like the girls on those American calendars her dad kept proudly displayed in his garage. After a short time, Nelson became bored of his and Gigi’s conversation (and her perfect smile), and he broke the fake news to her that he had met someone else. After dumping Gigi, Nelson rocketed through the French, Mexican, and Mongolian Penpals-direct sites, eventually finding himself eager for connection yet very much alone. It was mid-fall, arguably the most beautiful time of year in central Minnesota, but Nelson had no use for apple orchards, falling leaves, or hay rides. He was on a hunt.

Then he found Inga.