Vedergällning som inte kan delegeras

(The English version can be found here)

”Hur fan kunde bilarna vara tomma? Vår snubbe i Ventspils kollade och plomberade ju hela jävla skiten alldeles innan färjan avgi–”

”Jag vet inte”, avbröt han skarpt. Han sneglade på Maks ur ögonvrån innan blicken återvände till vägen. 

Han låg i tunnelns omkörningsfil, körde så förjävligt fort att omgivningens lampsken förvandlades till långa neonstreck i periferin.  

Varför i hela jävla helvete var man fucking tvungen att köra ända ned på Kungsholmen för att ta sig från Värtahamnen till Tomteboda?

”Det här kommer gå åt helvete, rakt åt fucking helvete”, mumlade Yousef från baksätet. Han trummade nervöst med foten i golvet och paniken i rösten var omisskännlig. ”Vad kommer hända nu? Vad sade han? Varför ville han träff–”

”Men käften för i helvete, jag vet inte säger jag ju.” Han stirrade vasst på Yousef genom backspegeln. 

Blicken rörde sig sedan mot mobilen i knäet, till meddelandet på skärmen: Möt mig på det vanliga stället. Nu.Numret var förstås nytt, men det fanns inga oklarheter kring avsändarens identitet. 

”Lambert vill säkert bara snacka med oss”, hörde han sig själv säga samtidigt som bilen lämnade Norra länkens tunnel och passerade ut under den ljusförorenade natthimlen. ”Vi löser det här. Vi får dra i en del trådar bara, casha in lite gentjänster. Kompensera honom för skiten som är borta. Vi fixar det.” 

Hans röst var som vanligt förrädiskt samlad och lugn, men på insidan ville han bara skrika och slå i ratten tills händerna domnade. Det här var så helvetes fucking jävla dåligt.

Varor för hundratusentals kronor var spårlöst försvunna, och oavsett hur det hade kunnat hända var det hans fel, och hela skulden skulle falla på honom. Hela. Jävla. Skulden. Klumpen i magen och halsen växte sig allt större medan han navigerade bilen genom Stadshagen, över Ekelundsbron och upp mot Solna. 

”Han vill bara snacka”, upprepade han mumlande, så tyst att de andra kanske inte ens kunde höra honom. Men orden lät tomma till och med i hans egna öron, och efter det var det ingen som sade något över huvud taget förrän han rattade in bilen på det ödsliga industriområdet.

Det stod redan två bilar parkerade utanför det nedsläckta magasinet. Han undrade vem eller vilka – förmodligen det senare – som Lambert tagit med sig till mötet. I vanliga fall skulle det ha varit han, Maks och Yousef själva, men det här var inte i vanliga fall. Inte alls.

”Ska vi… gå in alla tre?”, frågade Yousef tveksamt när bilen svängde in på en av de dussintals tomma parkeringsrutorna och stannade. 

”Självklart”, bet Maks tillbaka. ”Vi är fan tre om det här, ingen ska behöva stå själv och ta ansvar för skiten.” Sedan öppnade han tvärt och demonstrativt dörren och klev ut i mörkret, och missade därmed den trött tacksamma blicken han fick från förarsätet.

Yousef nickade bara tyst, kanske skamset, från baksätet och klev ut även han. Han kom runt och öppnade förardörren.

”Förlåt”, sade han. ”Jag menade inte… som det lät. Klart jag inte lämnar dig i sticket här.”

”Det är lugnt”, sade han och klappade vännen på axeln medan han klev ut ur bilen. ”Vi ska bara in och snacka lite. Ut på tio, sedan drar vi och köper pizza.”

Han böjde sig in i bilen igen för att plocka med sig pistolen från mittkonsolen, men ändrade sig mitt i rörelsen. Att komma beväpnad till det här mötet skulle bara sända konstiga signaler. Moraknivens skida lät han dock sitta kvar i bältet under huvtröjan. Present från pappa. Gammal vana. Fuck knivlagen to hell and all that jazz. 

Maks hade satt sig på motorhuven och tänt en cigg, men knäppte genast iväg den när de kom fram till honom.

”Jahapp”, sade han spänt. ”Låt oss få det här överstökat då.”

Utan att säga något mer – det fanns liksom inte så mycket kvar att säga – började de sedan röra sig över parkeringen, mot det tornande magasinet och den smala ljusstrimman som skvallrade om en gläntande dörr i fasaden. 

Han såg hur Maks sträckte sig mot dörrhandtaget, och lade en hejdande hand på hans arm.

”Nej”, sade han och skakade på huvudet. ”Det här är min fuckup. Jag går in först.”

Sedan öppnade han dörren och klev in innan Maks hunnit protestera.

Ljuset i det stora magasinet var dunkelt, men det hindrade honom inte från att genast känna igen gestalten som stod och väntade på dem mitt i gången mellan övertäckta lådor och tunnor. Lambert Ferek mötte kallt hans blick och skakade sakta på huvudet.

”Jacob, Jacob, Jacob… Jag måste säga att jag är väldigt besviken på dig.”

Det knöt sig i magen på honom, och han hade inte ens hunnit slås av det underliga i att Lambert var ensam förrän han hörde Yousef skrika till bakom sig. Han vände sig snabbt om – och stelnade till. 

Maks och Yousef, som klivit in bakom honom, stod fasthållna av två andra gestalter – med vapen riktade mot sina huvuden. När han insåg vilka angriparna var slog ett brinnande raseri som en glödgad spik genom hans ryggrad.

”Christoffer, ditt jävla as”, morrade han mot mannen som höll fast Maks. ”Jag borde fan–”

”Ta det lugnt, kapten”, flinade Christoffer skadeglatt. ”Jag och Danne ska bara ta med oss herrskapet här på en liten promenad, så att du och chefen får prata ostört. Som jag har fattat det så finns det… en del att reda ut.”

”Släpp dem för i helvete, jag–”

”Det är lugnt, Jacob”, avbröt Maks sammanbitet. ”Vi håller oss chill så går det här bra.”

”Just det, lyssna på lilla underbefälet nu”, skrattade Danne, som aldrig tidigare ens vågat höja rösten mot honom. ”Vi ska bara ut och ta lite frisk luft. Du kommer inte ens hinna märka att de är borta.” Han skrattade igen, som om han just sagt något osedvanligt fyndigt. 

Till och med Christoffer skrattade åt skämtet, och Jacob tvingades sedan maktlöst se på medan hans två vänner eskorterades ut i natten igen. Han mötte deras blickar innan de försvann ut genom dörren. I Maks blick såg han mord – i Yousefs endast ren, oförställd skräck. 

Så”, sade Lambert Ferek när dörren slagit igen med en ekande smäll. ”Jag förstår det som att du har förlorat mig en hel del pengar ikväll, Jacob Hellström.”

Jacob vände sig långsamt, motvilligt tillbaka mot mannen. Märkte med en rysning att denne hade tagit några steg närmare, tills bara knappa tre meter betonggolv skiljde dem åt. 

”Jag… Jag vet inte vad som hände”, sade han och kämpade för att få rösten att hålla. ”Vi… Jag hade kollat allt, alla detaljer, kontakter, moment… Samma folk, samma metod som alltid. Det har aldrig–”

”Nej, men nu gjorde det det”, avbröt den andre. ”Och från vad jag har hört vet du nog mer om det här än du vill låta påskina, Jacob. Är det något du vill berätta för mig?”

Jacob stirrade oförstående på mannen framför sig – på hans bleka ansikte, avgrundsmörka rovdjursögon och kusligt orörliga hållning – och när orden väl sjönk in kände han hur hela hans kropp började skaka. Han tog chockat ett steg bakåt och höjde händerna framför sig. ”Nej. Nej, nej! Jag vet ingenting, jag lovar”, stammade han fram medan tankarna rusade.

Han hade vetat att Ferek skulle bli förbannad över det här, att han själv förmodligen skulle få skit för att ha botchat bort en så stor leverans. Men nu lät det plötsligt som att han stod anklagad för något…

”Jag vet inte vad du har hört”, sade han och försökte återfå den lugna tonen som räddat honom ur så många jobbiga situationer tidigare, ”men jag har ingen aning om vad som hände i natt, eller varför. Och jag kommer att göra mitt allra yttersta för att gå till bottnen med det här, och kompensera dig för det som gått förlorat. Om du bara låter mig–”

Han tystnade när Lambert Ferek började skratta. Ett pulvertorrt, glädjelöst skratt som inte riktigt kom hela vägen från lungorna. 

”Men Jacob”, sade Lambert kallt när han skrattat färdigt. Hans leende var inte mer än en oengagerad imitation som inte ens nådde halvvägs till de svarta ögonen. ”Efter den här fadäsen är ju mitt förtroende för dig förbrukat, förstod du inte det?” Han skrattade till igen.

”Eller trodde du att jag skulle låta dig vandra ut härifrån och potentiellt ställa till med ännu värre skada? Om det jag hört är ens till hälften sant… Ja du, jag är nästan imponerad över hur dumdristigt djärv du måste vara för att försöka dig på ett sådant dubbelspel. Synd att du inte valde att investera den kvaliteten bättre – du kunde förmodligen ha gått långt i vår organisation. Men som det är nu… Synd, som sagt. Riktigt, riktigt synd.”

”Men nej, jag vet inte vad du pratar om! Vem är det som har sagt det här? Tala om vad du har hört så kan jag–”

All luft klämdes plötsligt ur honom när Lambert Ferek slöt sina långa fingrar runt hans hals. Jacob hade inte ens hunnit se honom röra sig. Han kände hur fötterna lämnade marken när mannen som inte riktigt var en man klämde åt sitt grepp kring hans hals och lyfte honom från betonggolvet. Han kunde inte andas, fick inte fram ett ljud. Blodet dunkade allt hårdare i öronen och det började svartna för ögonen. 

”Det spelar ingen roll vilka källor jag har, jag kan bara säga att de är övertygande”, sade Ferek medan Jacob maktlöst kippade efter andan i hans grepp.

”De kontaktade mig redan igår natt, med information om att du och dina två vänner planerade att förskingra den här leveransen. Jag bestämde mig för att inte agera förhastat, utan istället testa er. Se om varningen verkligen stämde. Och, som det skulle visa sig, var det riktig information jag fått – lasten försvann faktiskt. Så du ser, Jacob – du är avslöjad. Ni är avslöjade. Jag tog inte hit er i natt för att få en rapport eller dela ut reprimander, jag tog hit er för att ett sådant här svek kräver den sortens vedergällning som inte kan delegeras.”

Jacobs tankar skenade okontrollerat sida vid sida med paniken i hans huvud. Han sparkade med benen, försökte lossa på Fereks grepp med sina allt mer kraftlösa händer. Han behövde tid, han behövde syre till hjärnan för att räkna ut vad allt det här betydde. Någon hade sålt ut honom, baktalat honom, fått det att se ut som att…

”En… setup”, kämpade han fram med den lilla luft som fanns kvar i lungorna. Varje ord rev som sandpapper mot hans hopklämda stämband. ”Det är en jäkla setup, ser du inte det?”

Men Lambert Ferek bara tittade på honom där han hängde – granskade honom på samma sätt som en konstkännare kan granska en särskilt svårtolkad målning. Den här gången nådde leendet ögonen, men det gjorde ingenting för att minska obehaget hos betraktaren – snarare tvärt om.

”Jag är ledsen, Jacob”, sade Ferek med en röst som faktiskt antydde någon sorts perverterat medlidande. ”Men spelet är slut nu. Dina vänner är redan döda, och nu ska du göra dem sällskap. Se det som en ynnest att jag åtminstone låter ditt blod leva kvar genom mig – den respekten kan jag i alla fall ge dig efter alla de här åren.”

Jacob hann inte ens processera allt Ferek sagt innan mannen drog honom till sig och sänkte tänderna i hans halspulsåder. Blodet började rusa ur honom med en kraft som fick det att vråla som av stormvågor i hans öron. Synfältet fylldes av svärta och alla nerver började domna bort. 

Men samtidigt som livet rusade ut ur honom var det även en annan sorts kyla som spred sig i hans ådror. Dina vänner är redan döda. Så hade Ferek sagt. Dina vänner är redan döda. 

För sin inre blick såg han Maks och Yousef som leddes iväg genom magasinets dörr, om och om igen. Vreden i Maks blick, skräcken i Yousefs. Och så Dannes ord: Du kommer inte ens hinna märka att de är borta. Han hade vetat. De hade vetat. När de ledde iväg Jacobs vänner var det för att döda dem, det var det som Dannes skämt anspelade på.

Den jäveln visste, och han skämtade fan om det. Som om det var… Och nu…  Dina vänner är redan döda. 

Och med ens visste Jacob vilka Fereks källor var. Vilka det var som ”förvarnat” honom om Jacobs fabricerade svek, och som sedan själva saboterade leveransen från Lettland. Som nu förmodligen skulle upphöjas till ledande positioner, få makten över allt det som Jacob, Maks och Yousef varit med om att bygga upp. Ta deras plats…

Den glödgade spiken av vrede från tidigare flammade plötsligt upp inom honom igen, djupt inne i den begravda, bortdomnade del som fortfarande andades, kände, kämpade. Den del av honom som fortfarande inte hade gett upp.

Och från någonstans fick han kraften att röra sig, att göra ett allra sista, desperat utfall. Han kände knappt när hans fingrar slöts kring moraknivens handtag, visste inte om armen rörde sig på riktigt eller bara i hans desperata tankar, förrän handen stumt slog i Lambert Fereks käkben och han insåg att moraknivens egg satt djupt uppborrad i mannens huvud.

I nästa sekund föll han handlöst till marken när Fereks krampande hand tappade taget om hans hals. Han både kände och hörde hur saker i honom gick sönder när han träffade det hårda underlaget och blev liggande.

Ferek stod upp i ännu några sekunder, innan även hans ben vek sig och hela hans kroppshydda kollapsade på betonggolvet alldeles framför Jacob. Blod började genast spridas i en mörk pöl under mannens huvud – en pöl som hastigt överbryggade tomrummet mellan dem och snart värmde högra sidan av Jacobs sönderslagna ansikte.

Han mötte Fereks blick där de låg invid varandra på golvet, och han kunde utläsa både chock och hat i den bläcksvarta blicken. För ett ögonblick kände hans döende hjärna en kick av seger, av hämndens tillfredställelse.

Sedan mindes han plötsligt Christoffer och Danne, och känslan forsade genast ut tillsammans med livsblodet som fortfarande pumpade ut ur hans hals för att blandas med den andres i pölen på golvet. Han kunde inte låta dem komma undan med det här. Kunde bara inte. Ville inte. Fick inte…

Hans snabbt bleknande medvetande famlade panikslaget efter strån, efter trådar, efter vad som helst som skulle kunna rädda honom. Och plötsligt fick den tag på något.

Han visste inte vad Ferek och hans sort var, men hade sett tillräckligt många dåliga filmer och tv-serier för att våga sig på en kvalificerad gissning. De var bleka. De andades inte. De drack blod. Jacob jobbade för fucking vampyrer for fuck sake, även om han alltid dragit sig för att använda just det ordet. Det var alldeles för otroligt. För sjukt. För… vansinnigt.

Men nu när han låg där och kände hur livet sakta rann ut ur honom kändes det plötsligt inte så vansinnigt längre. Kanske berodde det på att majoriteten av hans hjärna redan hade klappat ihop, eller på rent och skärt önsketänkande in the face of death, men det här kanske kunde vara hans räddning.  

Han visste inte hur mycket av filmernas mythos som faktiskt stämde, hur sådana som Ferek faktiskt blev till, men… Men tänk om…

Den andres ögon spärrades upp när Jacob mödosamt och med sina allra sista krafter krälade fram till hans kropp. Tog tag kring hans nacke. Drog honom så nära som det gick… Och satte munnen till den blödande kratern i hans haka.

Ferek försökte dra sig undan, men Jacobs fingrar hade stelnat i den döendes krampaktiga grepp och det gick inte att komma loss.

Han visste att han bara hade sekunder på sig innan det sista livet skulle rinna ur honom, och han drack desperat från det utforsande blodet. Svalde munfull efter munfull medan alla ljud sakta tonade bort och synfältet förvandlades till ett svart töcken, enda tills sväljmusklerna i hans egen hals började stänga ned i takt med att kroppen sakta dog. 

Han märkte inte när Lambert Ferek slutade att kämpa emot, när blodet i mannens hals sakta sinade till en svag ström mot hans läppar, eller när kroppen under hans händer undan för undan började lösas upp i ett finkornigt pulver.

Mot slutet låg Jacob bara där och lapade kraftlöst från den dammiga blodpölen på golvet, för svag för att varken röra sig eller dra ordentliga andetag. Han kunde inte se längre, hörde inga ljud. Allt som fanns var blodet. Blodet som kanske, kanske, kanske kunde rädda honom. Som kanske kunde ge honom någon form av hämnd för det han och hans vänner utsatts för.

Och sedan upphörde slutligen andningen, pulsen, tankarna och de sista spasmiska rörelserna, och Jacob Hellström var död.

Han slog upp ögonen, drog in ett djupt, desperat andetag. Ögon, mun och näsa fylldes genast med kall, tjock jord. Paniken grep tag i honom och han började hosta okontrollerat. Slog runt omkring sig för att ta sig loss från tyngden som höll fast hans armar och ben.

Men tyngden var överallt, och han insåg att han blivit levande begravd. De hade grävt ned honom, lämnat honom att sakta kvävas till döds under marken. 

Paniken bara växte och han visste att han inte hade många sekunder på sig att ta sig upp till ytan. Desperat började han dra armarna till sig, kämpade med allt han hade för att få dem närmare kroppen så att han kunde börja gräva sig uppåt. 

Han krafsade uppåt med ömmande fingrar, sparkade nedåt med värkande ben, gjorde sitt bästa för att hålla andan, för att få det sista syret att räcka tillräckligt länge för att– 

Hud. Hans hand slog emot kall hud – inte hans egen, någon annans. En kropp. Och han tappade kontrollen helt. Slog vilt omkring sig, kände hur ben gick av inuti kroppen när han hämningslöst pressade sig själv mot den tjocka, tätpackade jorden.

Han kippade desperat efter andan, fyllde ofrivilligt mun och lungorna med fukt, mylla, rötter. Hans händer slog emot mer och mer hud. Blött tyg. Ett ansikte. Paniken var allt nu, det fanns inget annat. Det här var en jävla grav, och han var inte ensam i den.

Han märkte först knappt när högerhanden bröt markytan, men när han väl gjorde det fylldes han av nytt hopp. Med förnyade krafter tog han sats med benen och pressade sig själv uppåt. Struntade i knakandet i huvudet, det krasande ljudet i axlarnas små ben, den outhärdliga värken i hela kroppen. I en kaskad av jordsjok exploderade hans huvud upp genom jordytan, upp i den kalla nattluften.

Likt en drunknande kastade han upp armarna på marken och höll sig fast för glatta livet, som om jorden skulle ångra sig och börja suga honom tillbaka. Så låg han länge, kände det kalla gräset mot kinden medan han drog djupa, regelbundna andetag och lyssnade på det avlägsna ljudet av trafik. Minnen pockade envist på hans fortfarande halvt nedstängda hjärna, men han ville inte kännas vid dem. Inte ännu.

Sedan mindes han plötsligt kropparna, och glömde med ens helt bort att dra nästa andetag. På darrande armar hävde han sig upp ur gropen han kommit ur, satte sig på knä och började gräva.

Han grävde med en frenesi kommen av minnen han fortfarande inte ville släppa tillbaka in, grävde tills fingrarna blödde och han nästan hunnit glömma bort varför han ens grävde. Tills hans hand slog emot något som inte var jord, och då stannade han upp.

Han ville inte det här. Ville inte veta. Visste att om han fortsatte gräva nu, skulle han hitta något som han inte kunde ta tillbaka ovetskapen om. Något som skulle tvinga honom att minnas saker. Att inse saker. Han tvekade. Mådde illa. Ville egentligen bara resa sig upp och gå därifrån.

Men det gjorde han inte. Istället böjde han sig försiktigt ned och borstade bort den sista jorden från det han hittat. Borstade bort mer och mer, tills han hade blottlagt ett ansikte. Han mötte, först oförstående, sedan allt mer panikslaget, Maks stela, matta blick. Ilskan i de blå ögonen var borta nu, och kvar fanns bara tomhet och tystnad.

Först tänkte Jacob surrealistiskt att vännen levde, att han tittade tillbaka på honom där nerifrån jorden. Men bara ett uteblivet hjärtslag senare sjönk det in hos honom att Maks var död. Död. Död. 

Christoffer och Danne dödade honom, tänkte han konstigt kallt. Och de stängde inte ens hans ögon. 

Kylan i hans sinne spred sig som gift i ådrorna medan han sakta fortsatte att gräva. Han grävde med en saklighet som han visste att han egentligen inte kände, men som han dragit över sig som en kall, blöt filt för att mäkta ta sig igenom det här. För han behövde se.

Han behövde veta. Och sedan hittade han även Yousef. Hans ögon är i alla fall stängda, tänkte han när han varsamt förde undan en blöt, jordig hårslinga ur vännens bleka ansikte. Båda två hade blivit skjutna i huvudet på nära håll, noterade han. Snett uppifrån, rena avrättningarna.

Han stirrade ned på sina två bästa vänner, tänkte att det bara var alldeles nyss som han hört deras röster, hört deras steg bakom sig på den ödsliga parkeringsplatsen…

Och så kom minnena. Han mindes bilfärden, industriområdet, magasinet, Lambert Ferek, Christoffer och Danne… Och han mindes setupen. Insikten. Ilskan. Blodet… Han insåg plötsligt att han inte hade andats på flera minuter, att luften i hans lungor var densamma som han dragit in när han först hittat Maks. Och då kom även känslorna.

Han föll ned på händer och knän, skrek rakt ut, kände hur tårar forsade från ögonen och när han tittade ned såg han att det var tårar av blod.

Han kollapsade på marken, drog upp knäna mot hakan och grät hämningslöst tills det inte fanns några tårar kvar, tills han hade skrikit sig hes, tills hjärnan inte längre orkade processera den fruktansvärda verkligheten om vad som hänt hans vänner, vad som hänt honom, vad allt det här betydde…

Han låg där i gräset länge, kände de kalla stråna mot ansiktet och bara stirrade framför sig längs marken. Månen lyste ned på honom, på skogspartiet han låg i, på jordhögarna framför honom och gropen jorden kommit från.

Han tänkte att han skulle vilja kräla tillbaka till hålet, krypa ned tillsammans med Maks och Yousef och hoppas på att aldrig behöva vakna igen. Kanske jorden skulle ta honom tillbaka, låta honom vila i sin drömlösa glömska ännu en gång…

Men det gick inte, det visste han. Det fanns ingen plats för honom där.

Han såg inte kropparna, inte från den här vinkeln, men han visste att de fanns där. Visste att de låg där, döda och orörliga, och väntade på att han skulle göra något med dem. Gräva upp dem eller gräva ned dem igen. Ringa polisen eller låta bli. Se till att deras anhöriga fick closure, eller låta dem undra för alltid.

Han visste inte vad det rätta svaret var, vad han borde göra. Vad han visste vid det här laget var dock att han inte hade någon puls. Att han kunde skita i att andas om han ville. Att de brutna benen redan höll på att läka under hans hud. Att han hade klarat sig – men inte överlevt. Att han var död.

Och han insåg att det inte spelade någon roll vad han gjorde med kropparna. Det var inte därför han var här, inte därför som han hade grävt sig tillbaka upp ur den kalla jorden där all världens rimlighet sade att han fortfarande borde ligga kvar.

Han var inte här för att hedra sina döda vänner, för att ge closure till familjerna eller ens egentligen för att skipa rättvisa. Han var här för att utmäta straff, för att utkräva hämnd. Det var som Lambert Ferek själv hade sagt: Ett sådant här svek kräver den sortens vedergällning som inte kan delegeras.

Han reste sig på ostadiga ben. Noterade vagt att hans fingrar inte längre blödde, och att de krossade och brutna benen inte längre gjorde ont. Han gick fram till hålets kant igen, tittade ned på sina vänners döda kroppar en sista gång. De låg där i månskenet, bleka och tysta som uttömda behållare.

Han tänkte på Jonathans ord i Bröderna Lejonhjärta: ”Det är bara skalen av dem som ligger där.” 

Ja, tänkte han tyst. Så är det. De är inte här längre, det där är bara tomma skal. 

Sedan böjde han sig över en av högarna och började skyffla tillbaka jorden i hålet igen. Kastade tillbaka den över de livlösa kropparna tills gropen var borta, och trampade sedan marken platt tills allt som syntes var ett aningen mer upprivet område i undervegetationen. 

Han tyckte synd om de anhöriga som skulle undra i resten av sina liv, men kropparna fick aldrig hittas – i alla fall inte förrän han var färdig.

Om de hittades skulle nämligen Christoffer och Danne undra var hans egen kropp tagit vägen, och i värsta fall räkna ut att han fortfarande var vid någon form av liv.

Att de trodde att han var undanröjd var hans största trumfkort mot dem, och han ville inte spela ut det förrän stunden då det kunde göra största möjliga skada mot dem och allt vad de stod för. 

Han hade klamrat sig fast vid livet, sparkat och klöst sig tillbaka från underjordens tysta omfamning, för att döda dem som gjort det här mot honom och hans vänner.

För att sticka hela deras värld i brand och sedan se den brinna tills inget fanns kvar förutom grå aska och förvridna, brända lik. För att sedan salta jorden de vandrat och utplåna deras minne.

Då, och inte förrän då, när allt detta var gjort, skulle han vara klar. Först då skulle han tillåta sig själv att sjunka tillbaka ned i jordens kalla, tysta djup och låta glömskan och mörkret slutgiltligen ta honom. Men den stunden var ännu inte kommen.

Med jordiga händer och tungt hjärta vände han ryggen åt den gömda skogsgraven och började gå tillbaka in mot staden.

Det ensliga lätet från en kråkfågel ekade i fjärran, och han undrade tyst hur stor del av Stockholm som skulle behöva brinna innan det här var över.

Vengeance that cannot be delegated

(The Swedish version can be found here)

”How the fuck could the cars be empty? Our guy in Ventspils checked and sealed every fucking thing before the ferry left the har–“

“I don’t know”, he snapped. He glanced at Maks from the corner of his eye before his attention returned to the road.

He was in the fast lane and speeding so goddamned fast that the surrounding lights turned into long neon lines in the periphery. Why the hell did you have to fucking drive all the way down to the Kungsholmen island to get from the Värtahamnen harbor to Tomteboda?

“This whole thing is gonna go to hell, straight to fucking hell”, he heard Yousef mumbling from the backseat. His foot was drumming nervously against the floor, and the panic in his voice could not be mistaken or anything else. “What’s gonna happen now? What did he say? Why did he want to meet–“

“Shut the fuck up, I just told you I don’t know.” He shot Yousef a sharp look through the rear-view mirror.

His eyes then moved to the cellphone in his lap, to the message on the screen: Meet me in the usual place. Now. The number was new of course, but there were no doubts about the identity of the sender.

“I’m sure Lambert just wants to talk”, he heard himself say as the car left the Northern Link tunnel and emerged in the open beneath the light polluted night sky. “We’re gonna figure this out. We’ll just pull some strings, cash in some favors. Compensate him for the shit that’s gone missing. We’ll figure this out.”

His voice, as usual, was deceptively composed and calm, but on the inside he wanted nothing more than to scream and slam the wheel until his hands were numb. This was so fucking bad.

Wares for hundreds of thousands of kronor were gone without a trace, and no matter how this could have happen, it was his fault and the entire blame would fall upon him. The. Entire. Fucking. Blame.

The knot in his stomach continued to grow as he steered the car through Stadshagen, over the Ekelunds Bridge and up towards Solna.

“He just wants to talk”, he repeated, but so quietly this time that the others might not even have heard him. The words, however, sounded empty even in his own ears, and after that no one spoke until the car turned into the desolate industrial area.

Two cars were already parked in front of the dark warehouse. He wondered who – probably more than one person – that Lambert had brought to the meeting.

Normally, it would have been himself, Maks and Yousef, but this was not normally. Not by a long stretch. 

“Are… all of us going in?”, Yousef asked hesitantly as the car came to a standstill in the empty parking lot in front of the building.

“Of course”, Maks snapped. “There’s three of us in this shit, and no one is gonna face the consequences alone.”

He then opened the passenger door and stepped out into the darkness, as if to prove a point – thus missing the tired, grateful look afforded him from the driver’s seat. 

Yousef nodded quietly, maybe ashamedly, and exited the car himself. He walked around to the driver’s seat and opened the door.

“I’m sorry”, he said. “I didn’t mean… what that sounded like. Of course I’m not gonna leave you in the lurch here.”

“It’s okay”, he said, patted his friend’s shoulder and stepped out of the car. “We’re just going in there to talk. Out within ten. Then we’re going for a pizza.”

He leant back into the car to retrieve his gun from the center console, but then changed his mind mid-motion. Bringing a gun to this meeting would just send the wrong kind of signals.

The knife sheath, however, he let remain on his belt beneath the hoodie. A gift from dad. Old habits. Fuck the knife legislation and all that jazz.

Maks was sitting on the hood, smoking a cigarette that he instantly flicked away when the other two approached.

“Well then”, he said tensely. “Let’s get this thing over with.”

Without another word – there really wasn’t all that much left to say – they then started walking across the parking lot, towards the towering warehouse and the thin strip of light that hinted at a backlit door in the façade.

He saw Maks reaching for the door handle, and grabbed his arm to stop him. 

“No”, he said and shook his head. “This is my fuckup. I’m going in first.”

He then opened the door and stepped inside, before Maks had a chance to argue.

The light in the large warehouse was dim, but that didn’t stop him from instantly recognizing the figure waiting for them in the central isle between the lines of covered up crates and barrels. Lambert Ferek looked at him coldly and slowly shook his head.

“Jacob, Jacob, Jacob… I must say I’m very disappointed in you.”

Jacob’s throat tightened, and before it even struck him how strange it was that Lambert was alone, he heard Yousef cry out behind him. He quickly turned around – and froze.

Maks and Yousef, who had entered behind him, had been grappled by two other figures and now stood there with guns pointed at their heads. When Jacob realized who the assailants were, a burning rage hammered through his spine like a heated nail. 

“Christoffer, you fucking asshole”, he growled at the man holding Maks. “I should–“

“Relax, captain”, the man smiled mockingly. “Me and Danne here are just taking these gentlefolk out for a little walk, so that you and the boss can talk without distractions. From what I’ve heard there seem to be some things to… straighten out.”

“Let them fucking go, I–“

“It’s okay, Jacob”, Maks said tightly. “We keep it chill. It’ll be alright.”

“That’s right, listen to your little lieutenant”, laughed Danne, who had never even dared to raise his voice to Jacob before. “We’re just going out for some fresh air. You won’t even have time to notice they’re gone.” He laughed again, as if he had just said something unusually funny. 

Even Christoffer laughed at the joke, while Jacob was forced to powerlessly watch his two friends being escorted back out into the night. He met their gazes before they disappeared through the door. In Maks’ eyes he saw murder – in Yousef’s nothing but pure, unmasked horror.

“So”, Lambert Ferek said when the door had slammed shut. “I understand that you have lost me some serious money tonight, Jacob Hellström.”

Jacob slowly, reluctantly turned to face him, and shivered at the realization that the man was now so close that all that separated them were three meager yards of concrete floor.

“I… I don’t know what happened”, he said, fighting to keep his voice from breaking. “We… I… had checked everything, all the details, contacts, stages… The same people, the same methods as always. It has never–“

“No, but now it did”, the man interrupted him. “And from what I’ve heard, I think that you know more about this than you pretend to do, Jacob. Is there really not something that you want to tell me?”

Jacob stared uncomprehendingly at the man in front of him – at his pale face, abyssal predator’s eyes and eerily motionless posture – and felt his entire body begin to shake as the words sank in. Shocked, he took a step backwards and raised his hands. 

“No. No, no! I don’t know anything, I promise”, he stammered.

He had known that Ferek would be pissed about this, that he himself would probably be in trouble for botching such a big transaction. But now it suddenly sounded like he stood accused of something…

“I don’t know what you’ve heard”, he said, struggling to regain the calm tone of voice that had saved him from so many fucked up situations in the past, “but I have no idea what happened tonight, or why. I will do everything in my power to find that out, and to compensate you for the losses. If you just let me­–“

He silenced when Lambert started laughing. A powdery dry, joyless laugh that didn’t entirely seem to come all the way down from his lungs.

“But Jacob”, he said coldly. His smile was nothing but an impassive mimicry, not even halfway reaching his pitch black eyes. “After this little faux pas, my trust in you has been entirely depleted. Didn’t you realize that?” He laughed again.

“Or did you think that I would let you walk out of here and potentially cause even more damage? If the things I have heard are even remotely true… Well, I’m almost impressed by how recklessly bold you must be to attempt such a double cross. Too bad you didn’t choose to invest that quality better – you could probably have gone far within the organization. But as things have turned out… A shame, as I said. A real goddamned shame.”

“But, no, I don’t know what you’re talking about! Who told you this? Tell me what you’ve heard so I can–“

All the air was pressed out of him when Lambert Ferek’s long fingers suddenly closed around his neck. Jacob hadn’t even seen him move. He felt his feet leave the ground as the man who wasn’t really a man tightened his grip on his throat and lifted him from the concrete floor.

He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t make a sound. The blood thundered in his ears and his vision started to black out.

“It doesn’t matter who my sources are, just that they’re convincing”, Ferek said while Jacob struggled for air in his grip.

“They contacted me last night, with information about you and your two friends planning to… misappropriate this delivery. I decided not to act prematurely, but instead to test you. To see if the warning had any truth to it. And, as it turned out, it had – the cargo actually disappeared. So as you can see, Jacob – you have been exposed. You have all been exposed. I didn’t bring you here tonight to receive a status report or to issue reprimands. I brought you here because betrayal like this demands the kind of vengeance that cannot be delegated.”

Jacob’s thoughts raced wildly side by side with the panic in his mind. He kicked with his legs, struggled to loosen Ferek’s grip with his own increasingly nerveless hands. He needed time, he needed air to his brain in order to figure out what all this meant. Someone had sold him out, backstabbed him, made it look like…

“A… setup”, he pressed forth with the little air he had left in his lungs. Every word tore like glass paper against his compressed vocal cords. “It’s a fucking setup, can’t you see that?”

But Lambert Ferek just looked at him where he hung, regarded him like an art appraiser might regard an especially difficult painting. This time the smile reached his eyes, but this did nothing to lessen the discomfort of the beholder – rather the contrary.

“I’m sorry, Jacob”, Ferek said with a voice that actually hinted at some kind of perverted sympathy. “But the game’s over. Your friends are already dead, and now you’re going to join them. Think of it as an act of goodwill that I’ll at least let your blood live on through me – that, at least, is a respect I can pay you after all these years of service.”

Jacob didn’t even have time to process everything that Ferek had said, before the man pulled him in and sank his teeth deep in his carotid artery. Blood begun gushing out of him with a force that made his ears roar like crashing waves. His vision went black, and all the nerves in his body started going numb.

But at the same time as his life flooded out of him, another kind of cold started spreading in his veins. Your friends are already dead. That’s what Ferek had said. Your friends are already dead. 

In his mind he replayed the sight of Maks and Yousef being led out of the warehouse, over and over again. The rage in Maks’ eyes, the fear in Yousef’s. And then Danne’s words: You won’t even have time to notice that they’re gone. He had known. They had known.

When they took his friends away, it was to kill them – that’s what Danne’s joke had inferred. That fucker knew, and he joked about it. As if it were… And now… Your friends are already dead.

And at once Jacob knew who Ferek’s sources were. Who had “warned” him about Jacob’s fabricated betrayal, and then themselves sabotaged the delivery from Latvia. And who would now probably be promoted to leading positions, be given power over all the things that Jacob, Maks and Yousef had been part in building. Take their places…

The heated nail of rage from before suddenly ignited inside him again, deep within the buried, sore part of him that still breathed, felt, struggled. The part of him that still hadn’t given up. And from somewhere he got the strength to move, to make one last, desperate lunge.

He barely felt it when his hand closed around the knife’s handle, didn’t know if the arm moved for real or just in his desperate thoughts, until his fist hit Lambert Ferek’s jawbone with a muted thud and he realized that the knife’s blade sat deeply buried up through the man’s head. 

Next thing he knew, he was plunging towards the ground as Ferek’s cramping hand lost its grip on his throat. He both felt and heard things break on the inside as he hit the hard floor and landed in a helpless pile.

Ferek remained standing for a few more seconds, before his legs gave way under him and his entire frame collapsed on the concrete right in front of Jacob. Blood immediately began to form a dark puddle under the man’s head – a puddle that quickly bridged the distance between them and soon warmed the right side of Jacob’s ruined face.

He met Ferek’s gaze as they lay there on the floor, and he could read both shock and hatred in those night black eyes. For a moment his dying brain experienced an emotional spike of victory, of successful revenge.

Then he suddenly remembered Christoffer and Danne, and the emotion instantly gushed out of him together with the lifeblood that still pumped from his neck to mix with Ferek’s blood on the floor. He just could not let them get away with this. Would not. Must not…

His quickly fading mind grasped desperately for straws, threads, anything that might save him. And suddenly it got hold of something. He didn’t know what Ferek and his kind was, but had seen enough bad movies and tv-series to venture a qualified guess.

They were pale. They didn’t breathe. They drank blood. Jacob was working for fucking vampires, for fuck sake – even though he had always avoided using that particular term. It was just too unbelievable. Too weird. Too… mental.

But now, as he lay there feeling his life slowly drain from his veins, it suddenly didn’t seem as mental anymore. Maybe it was due to the majority of his brain having already shut down, or to desperate wishful thinking in the face of death, but either way he thought that this just might be his chance of salvation.

He had no idea how much of the movie mythos was actually true, how creatures like Ferek were actually created, but… But what if…

The other man’s eyes widened in horror as Jacob used his very last strength to crawl closer through the blood. Grabbed his neck. Pulled him as close as possible… And put his mouth to the bleeding crater in his upper throat.

Ferek struggled to get away, but Jacob’s fingers had stiffened in the final iron grip of the dying and there was no getting away.

Jacob knew that he only had mere seconds before the last spark of life would trickle out of him, and he drank desperately from the gushing blood. Swallowed mouthful after mouthful while all sound slowly silenced and his vision faded into a black nothing, right up until the moment when even the muscles in his own throat started shutting down as his body slowly died. 

He didn’t register when Lambert Ferek finally stopped struggling, when the blood from the man’s neck slowly dwindled into a weak trickle against his lips or when the body beneath his hands little by little started dissolving into a fine-grained powder.

Towards the end Jacob just lay there and lapped weakly at the dusty puddle of blood on the floor, lacking the strength even to move or draw sufficient breaths. He couldn’t see anymore, heard no sounds. All that was left for him was the blood. The blood that maybe, maybe, maybe could save him. That maybe could give him some kind of retribution for what he and his friends had been subjected to.

And then his breathing, heartbeat and thoughts finally stopped, together with the last spasmic movements of his body. And Jacob Hellström was dead.

He opened his eyes and drew in a deep, desperate breath. His eyes, mouth and nose were instantly filled with cold, thick dirt. Panic gripped him and he started coughing uncontrollably. Flailed wildly to get away from the weight that pressed down on his arms and legs.

But the weight was everywhere, and he realized that he was beneath the ground. They had buried him alive, left him to slowly choke to death under the mud and soil.

The panic increased and he knew that he didn’t have many seconds to reach the surface. Desperately, he started pulling his arms in, struggled with all his might to get them closer to his body so that he could start digging.

He clawed upwards with sore fingers, kicked downwards with aching legs, did his best to hold his breath, to make the last oxygen last long enough to–

Skin. His hand struck against cold skin – not his own, somebody else’s. A body. Now he lost control completely, flailed wildly in all directions, felt bones breaking inside his body as he mindlessly pressed himself against the heavy, densely packed dirt.

He struggled for breath and felt his mouth and lungs fill with moisture, earth and roots. His hands struck against more and more skin. Damp fabric. A face. Panic was everything now, nothing else existed. This was a fucking grave, and he was not alone inside it. 

At first he barely noticed when his right hand broke the surface, but when he did he felt a pang of new hope. With renewed strength he braced his legs and pressed himself upwards. Ignored the cracking noises in his skull, the creaking of the small bones in his shoulders, the unbearable pain in his entire body.

His head exploded up through the surface and into the cold night air. Like a drowning man he threw his arms up onto the ground and held on for dear life, as if fearing that the ground would suddenly change its mind and start sucking him back down again.

He lay there for a long time, feeling the cold grass against the side of his face while he drew deep, even breaths and listened to the distant sounds of traffic.

Memories nudged persistently at his still slightly offline brain, but he didn’t want to acknowledge them. Not yet.

Then he suddenly remembered the bodies, and instantly forgot to draw his next breath. On shaking arms, he heaved himself out of the pit, crouched down and started digging.

He dug with a frenzy born out of memories he still didn’t want to let back in, dug until his fingers bled and he had almost managed to forget why he was even digging in the first place. He dug until his hand struck something that was not dirt, and then he stopped.

He didn’t want this. Didn’t want to know. He knew that if he continued digging now, he would find something that he would not be able to reclaim the ignorance of. Something that would force him to remember things. Realize things.

He hesitated. Felt sick. Wanted nothing more than to just get up and walk away. But he didn’t.

Instead he carefully leant down and brushed away the last layers of dirt from that which he had unearthed. Brushed away more and more, until he had uncovered a face.

First uncomprehendingly, then with increasing panic, he met Maks’ stiff, flat stare. The rage in the blue eyes was gone now, and only emptiness and silence remained.

For a surreal moment, Jacob thought that his friend was alive, that he was looking back at him from down there in the dirt. But only a defaulted heartbeat later the truth sank in: Maks was dead. Dead. Dead. 

Christoffer and Danne killed him, he thought with a strange cold. And they didn’t even bother to close his eyes.

The cold inside him spread like poison in his veins while he slowly continued digging. He dug now with a pragmatism that he knew wasn’t really his, but which he had pulled over himself like a cold, wet blanket in order to get through this at all. Because he needed to see. He needed to know.

And then he found Yousef as well. At least his eyes are closed, he thought as he carefully caressed a moist, dirty strand of hair from his friend’s pale face.

They had both been killed by gunshots to the head, he registered. Up close, slightly from above. Pure executions. He stared down at his two best friends, thought that it was only moments ago that he had heard their voices, the sound of their footsteps behind him in the desolate parking lot… 

And that’s when the memories finally returned. He remembered the drive, the industrial area, the warehouse, Lambert Ferek, Christoffer and Danne… And he remembered the setup. The realization. The anger. The blood… 

And he suddenly realized that he hadn’t breathed for several minutes, that the air in his lungs was the same as that he had drawn in when he’d first found Maks.

And then came the feelings.

He fell down on hands and knees, screamed his lungs out, felt tears start streaming down his face and when he looked down, he realized that they were tears of blood.

He collapsed on the ground, pulled his knees up to his chin and cried without restraint until there were no tears left, until he had screamed his throat raw, until his brain couldn’t process this horrid reality anymore. The reality of what had happened to his friends, what had happened to him, what all this meant…

Then he just lay in the grass, feeling the cold blades against his face and just staring straight ahead along the ground.

The moon shone down upon him, upon the copse in which he lay, upon the piles of dirt in front of him and the hole from where the dirt had come.

He thought that he wanted to crawl back into that hole, lie down next to Maks and Yousef and hope never to wake up again. Maybe the earth would take him back, let him rest in its dreamless oblivion once again…

But it was impossible, he knew that. There was no place for him there. 

He didn’t see the bodies, not from that angle, but he knew they were there. Knew that they lay there, dead and immobile, waiting for him to do something with them. To dig them up or bury them back down. To call the cops or let alone. To make sure their families were given closure, or to let them wonder forever.

He didn’t know what the right answer was, what he should do.

What he knew by then, however, was that he didn’t have any pulse. That he could cut out the breathing if he wanted to. That his broken bones were already healing beneath his skin.

That he had made it through – but not survived. That he was dead. 

And he realized that it didn’t matter what he did with the bodies. That wasn’t the reason for him being here, for him having clawed himself back up from the cold earth, where all sound reason dictated that he should still remain.

He wasn’t here to honor his dead friends, to give closure to their families or really even to administer justice.

He was here to mete out punishment, to exact revenge. It was as Lambert Ferek himself had said: 

Betrayal like this demands the kind of vengeance that cannot be delegated.

He rose on unsteady legs. Noted that his fingers weren’t bleeding anymore, and that the crushed and broken bones were no longer hurting.

He approached the edge of the hole again, looked down at the dead bodies of his friends one last time. They lay there in the moonlight, pale and silent like emptied containers.

He thought about a line from the children’s novel The Brothers Lionheart. “That’s only their husks laying there”. 

Yes, he thought silently. That’s how it is. They’re not here anymore, those are just empty husks. 

Then he knelt down and started scooping the dirt back into the hole. Shoveled it back over the lifeless bodies until they were gone, stomped the ground until all that could be seen was a slightly more agitated area in the underbrush. 

He felt sorry for the families who would suffer in a state of unknowing limbo for the rest of their lives, but the bodies could never be found – at least not until he was done.

If they were unearthed, Christoffer and Danne would start wondering where his own body had gone – and in the worst-case scenario that would cause them to realize that he was still in possession of some semblance of life.

The fact that they thought him obviated was his strongest trump card against them, and he wanted to save it for the moment when it would do the uttermost damage to them and everything they stood for.

He had clung on to life with tooth and nail, had kicked and clawed his way back from the silent embrace of the underworld, to kill those who had done this to him and his friends.

To put fire to their world and watch it burn until nothing remained but grey ashes and twisted, scorched corpses. To then salt the earth where they had trod and obliterate their memory.

Then, and only then, when all this was accomplished, he would be done. Only then would he allow himself to sink back down into the cold, quiet depths of the earth and let darkness and oblivion finally take him.

But that time was not now.

With dirt smeared hands and a heavy heart, he turned his back to the hidden forest grave and started walking towards the city.

The harsh, lone call of a solitary crow echoed in the distance, and he silently wondered how much of Stockholm would have to burn before this was over.

Somebody’s Nightmare

The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in. However, there are also places that thrive in the shadows and on the edges of reason, and that you can only ever find in the darkest corners of night. The Bazaar is one of those places.

“Nightmare Outlet”, the sign read. Its rusty relief letters provided less information than they raised questions, and he wasn’t really sure what had even lead him to this lonely storage building in the middle of the night. He only knew that he was here now, and that he had come to the right place. This was the night when his life-long nocturnal torments would finally end.

The guard at the entrance eyed the newcomer suspiciously before letting him through, and once he was inside he understood the precaution. The vast space between the tall walls was cluttered with tables, stands and small tents. It looked like one of those places where people came together to sell old stuff they’d dug forth from the darkest corner of their garages, and this impression was not entirely wrong. Only this garage sale had a more sinister alignment.

This was a dark market, but not your everyday such. No, this was the darkest market, because the currency of the Bazaar was fears and night terrors.

It was hard to see very far into the hall, both because of the dense crowd but also because it was very dark. Still, many of the traders had decorated their stands with small lanterns in a wide variety of colours, lighting the darkness afire with dim sparks of eerie red, spectral blue and ghostly purple. The murmuring backdrop of the mysterious scene suggested that the newcomer was far from the only visitor tonight, but the gloom prevented him from seeing more than three or four yards in front of him.

The stand closest to the entrance was occupied by a small, grey man who eyed him up and down before shooting him a sinister smile.

“Are yah sellin’ or buyin’?”, he croaked.

“I’m… just looking around”, he replied nervously.

The little relic of a man nodded and raised his wrinkled hand to wave the newcomer along, but then seemed to change his mind.

“Say, lad, are ye havin’ nightmares ye can’t get rid of?” His mouth stretched into a grin that did not make him look any more friendly at all.

“Well… Yeah, I guess”, he answered after a moment of hesitation. “I guess I have”.

The man nodded knowingly. “A pain they are, those little buggers. Indeed…”

He chewed his worn pipe and seemed to consult with himself for a moment. Then he continued, in the manner of the experienced haggler: “Would ye be interested in ridding yourself of those, for a small price?” His smile widened and seemed suddenly to cover more space than his face should possibly be able to allow for.

The newcomer didn’t like the look of this smile, and excused himself as politely but hastily as he could. As he fled deeper into the building the little man shrank back into his shadows, shaking his head sullenly.

Having left the salesman by the entrance behind, unsettled by him in ways he could not explain, the newcomer strolled along one of the paths between the stands and witnessed wonders he had never imagined in his waking state. Salesmen whispered or yelled from the darkness beyond the light of their colorful lanterns, trying to draw attention to their unusual wares. The things up for sale were contained in jars, bottles or other transparent containers, and varied in color as much as the various lanterns that illuminated them.

He stopped at a stand where many people seemed to have gathered. He could not see what had drawn everyone’s attention; to him these particular flasks and cans looked no more or less mysterious than all the others had done that he had seen so far. Nevertheless, the path that led past this particular stand was clogged almost completely – to the obvious irritation of the salesmen on either side, who vainly tried to catch the attention of the curious congregation.

A radio played a steady but quiet rhythm of drums and sleepy flutes. As the newcomer stretched to see what was so special about this stand, he saw its serious looking owner holding forth a large, corked bottle containing dark, rippling smoke.

“…and this is a night spook springing directly from the mind of the man who brought us the tales about the sleeping Old God himself”, the salesman exclaimed gravely as he held the bottle up for all to see. “You will not get this one cheaply, but it is well worth every single one of the cars you’d have to sell. And better yet, it is one of the inexhaustible ones. You can dream it every night for years, and still it will not dry out. Of course you’d have to be incredibly lucky not to walk gibberingly mad away from such a repeated use of it, but” – the last word was a loud cry that made the first row of people jump – “you should not let that deter you from the deal of your lifetime, ladies and gentlemen! Do I have an offer on this fabulous nightmare? The bidding starts at…”

The newcomer was no longer listening, but had begun pushing through the crowd to reach the less cluttered space beyond this seemingly very popular stand. Once he had broken free he jogged a couple of steps to avoid getting sucked or pushed back into the assembly again.

“Not interested in archaic, eldritch horrors, are we?”, a voice laughed right next to him.

He jumped and turned. To his right, not two steps away, there loomed a narrow but tall stand, occupied by a hunched, robed figure whose face could only be glimpsed beneath the hem of a deep hood. The stranger had a low, rasping voice that managed to be ominous and humorous at the same time. On the table in front of him stood several empty decanters and a few curved bottles filled with a pale pink liquid that bubbled like soda.

The newcomer eyed the figure and decided that he was harmless. “No, sir. I’m tired of such things. Quite to the opposite, I’m actually looking for a way to rid myself of a few.” He put his hands in his pockets and regarded the man tryingly, anxiously waiting for the answer.

The figure chuckled and raised his head so that two piercing, white eyes met the ones of his customer. “First timer, eh?” He showed off some too-sharp teeth in a wide smile and rubbed his hands together. “Very well then. Let’s cut to the chase then, shall we?”

He then produced several bottles from beneath his table, all of them filled with dark liquids moving around like smoke inside their containers. His customer regarded the collection nervously, secretly preparing to run away at the very first sign of this being some kind of sinister trick.

The salesman noted this. “Be not afraid, lad. The corks are in and the contents are sleeping safely right now.” His customer flinched slightly as a bottle of swirling dark liquid was pressed into his hands. “Now look at it closely!”

And the newcomer did. The darkness inside was swimming around sluggishly, forming and reforming in cloudy shapes that sometimes seemed to resemble terrible things just outside the reach of his imagination. Suddenly a small, red eye blinked sleepily open and regarded him menacingly from the other side of the glass, only to then slowly close again and disappear into the smoke. He hastily returned the bottle to the salesman, deep horror stirring at the back of his mind. “Very… very nice”, he stammered unconvincingly.

The salesman regarded him with an amused expression. “Do you know what it is?”, he asked as he put the bottle back on the table. The customer shook his head and the salesman nodded knowingly. “I didn’t think so. These, lad”, he said and made a gesture comprising both the dark bottles and the pink ones, “are dreams. The darker they are, the more horrible.” He grabbed one of the light bottles and held it up so that the glow from his yellow lantern shone through it, revealing the soft shapes moving around inside. No evil eyes in this one.

“The light ones are good, nice dreams. The kind that your average sane person would want to have at night. The best ones are white, or even silver. I once heard of a one that was golden, but that kind is very rare.”

As he spoke he grabbed one of the empty bottles and shook it, revealing it not to be empty at all but filled with what seemed to be plain water. “This is not water, you know”, he continued in a low voice, as if having just read his customer’s mind.

“No?”, the other managed to squeeze out. “What is it then?” But he suspected he already knew the answer.

“It is a no-dream, that’s what it is. Ever had one of those nights when you don’t seem to have had any dream at all? Well, this is one of those nights, all bottled up and ready. Of course, the no-dreams are one use only, since there is nothing to save about them. They just are. Some dreams are more durable, and others still are inexhaustible – even though that is a very rare quality in a dream. People and minds change, you know.”

The newcomer nodded, even though he was far from sure he had understood half of what had been said. “So… Are you saying I could get one of those good-dreamy-thingies, and not have to have nightmares anymore?” He stopped, suddenly realising how childish he had just sounded. “I mean, not that nightmares bother me, you know. I am not afraid of the dark or anything… It’s just that–”

He was interrupted by a burst of amused laughter that stopped as abruptly as it had sprung up. The salesman eyed him smilingly. “Son, there are nightmares, and then there are nightmares. Anyone with their sanity in the right place would go jumping and screaming from one night with yonder cosmic vistas of uttermost horror.” He laughed and nodded towards the crowded stand a few paces away, where the other salesman was still yelling his lungs out about his dark and inexhaustible dream. “I don’t judge anyone, I just trade.”

The other did not answer, but only looked longingly at the lighter bottles on the table. The salesman saw this, and continued without waiting for an answer.

“I see that you are in need of a change of environment, as far as dreaming goes. Very well. I do not buy and I do not sell, money and earthly favours interest me little. So you’ll have to trade with me, son. What do you have to offer? The darker the dream, the higher the value of it. The black ones are the best, of course”, he added with a sarcastic laugh.

The newcomer answered with nothing but a confused look.

“Ah, you really are a first-timer”, the salesman mused. “See, this is how it is done: you describe your dreams to me, and I try to evaluate them as far as trade value goes. Then I make an offer based on that evaluation, and you chose whether to accept or to continue bargaining. It’s as simple as that. How the… transaction is done, well, that part is simple, which you’ll see for yourself when or if it comes to that.”

He eyed the customer curiously and made a beckoning gesture. “Well, what’re you waiting for? Describe your dreams to me!”

The newcomer hesitated. Then he said, with nothing but pure defeated honesty in his voice: “I don’t think I can… When I wake up the dreams are always clear in my memory, but then they fade. The only thing I know is that they scare me out of my wits and that I wake up screaming more often than not.” He looked again at the light bottles on the table, but his hope of ever owning any of them was fading by the second. “I’m sorry, but this kind of trade is probably not for me”, he said and prepared to leave.

But the salesman just chuckled. “Boy, you don’t have to leave empty-handed. Some people just can’t remember dreams, that’s natural. We have certain other methods for tackling that. Come here!”

He produced a thin tube from somewhere beneath the table, and held it out toward his customer. The latter, in turn, eyed it wonderingly. It was attached to a hand-held mirror with small levers and regulators fitted all along its metallic handle and frame.

“This is a hypno-gauge – an instrument that measures dreams. It works best when the subject is asleep, of course, but will do the trick in situations such as these as well.”

The customer accepted the end of the tube and looked at it in confusion. “So how does it work? What do I do?”

“You just breathe into your end of it, and my end will show me what I need to know. And don’t worry, I change mouth pieces between every use so it’s perfectly hygienic.”

The newcomer hesitated only for a moment before following the salesman’s instructions. Then, as soon as he started blowing air into the tube, the entire instrument started hissing and buzzing mechanically.

“Just keep it up, son, I’m getting a picture here”, the salesman muttered. Then his eyes grew wide. “What the… No, no don’t stop!” He waved his free hand frantically as he stared at the mirror’s surface.

His customer was starting to become really freaked out, however, and let go of the tube. “What is it? What did you see?”

The salesman kept staring at the now dark glass pane for a couple of seconds before putting the instrument down on the table. When he looked up again there was something new in his eyes. Fear? Reverence?

“Boy”, he said slowly, “it’s been a long time since I saw something that dark in the mind of someone alive and breathing. Bottled up, sure, but never directly from the mind that dreamt it up. If I were a lesser man, I would probably scam you for those dreams, but I’m not. I’ll tell it as it is, son. You’re sitting on a treasure trove with those nightmares of yours.”

“A… treasure trove?” He eyed the little man sceptically. “I’m sorry, but I’m finding it really difficult to believe that anyone would be prepared to pay anything for the terrors I endure every night. I for myself would give anything to get rid of them.”

But the salesman only shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. You see, ordinary nightmares are cheap, anyone can have those. But real darkness such as this, well, that’s a poison reserved for truly open, sharp and poetic minds. Many of them go mad, of course, but on the road to that fate they more often than not produce wonderful art, thoughts and poetry. Incredibly dark such, of course, but wonderful nonetheless. That’s why some people would pay dearly to acquire such nightmares; to make themselves better artists.”

“So you’re saying…?”

“I’m saying that many of the people in this building, customers and traders alike, would definitely be prepared to sacrifice their left and right hands both to secure the dream you have just shown me. Hell, I would sacrifice my hands for it, and my left ear. Selling it forward would make me rich beyond compare.”

“So… Why don’t you just take it? I don’t want it, so I guess you’d be doing us both a favour by relieving me of it.”

The salesman looked tempted, but still only shook his head again. “No, that would not be fair. Not to anyone. You see, taking on someone else’s nightmare, especially one as potently dark as yours, is a dangerous thing to do. The mind that originally dreamt it up has often developed an immunity of sorts to its more maddening effects, but another mind has never had a chance to do that. So selling it on to someone else would do them more harm than good. And I’m not that kind of vendor that puts my customers in danger for my own gain”, he said and continued:

“Besides, I also suspect that it would not help you overly much even if I took this one dream from you. A mind capable of summoning up something like this once would most likely not have the least bit of a problem doing it again. The dark dreams would probably only grow right back. On the other hand, I’d like to think that you’d be able to make great use of your dreams yourself, if you so wished.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is this: That stand you passed earlier, where the dreams of that famous author were up for sale? Well, this nightmare you have here is definitely in league with his. And though that man went crazy in the end, he created fabulous worlds and stories that inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers even today. If you just let them, your dreams could well lead you to create art just as great as his – art that would in turn inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers during your own lifetime, and long after you yourself are dead and gone. You could become immortal, in a way. You have a gift in these dreams, and I would hate to see you throw it away due to something as childish as a fear of the dark. I will not be accessory to that, in any case.”

“So you will not help me?”

The salesman sighed. “I will not take the nightmare from you, but I can offer you a good night’s sleep free from it. One night.”

He grabbed one of the lighter bottles and held it forth. “This is a good dream, a happy and positive one. Just as so many of its kind, however, it is also nondescript and weak – and as such, it will deplete after one use. Take it, dream it, and get some rest from your darkness. But then I would advise you to dare that same darkness and let it guide you. Write. Paint. Make music. Do whatever it tells you to do, but for gods’ sake don’t remain silent – you have a rare gift, son, but it will kill you from inside if you don’t find a vent for it.”

The customer accepted the light bottle and turned it in his grip. “But I’m not a writer, a painter or a musician”, he said. “I’m just a guy with bad dreams. I don’t know how to do any of those things.”

“Then learn”, the salesman said. “It’s either that, or you’ll go mad well before your time. Your choice. But now, I’m afraid, the morrow approaches. If you want to have any calm rest tonight, I suggest you drink that light dream right away.”

“Drink it, just like that?”

“Yes, open the bottle and drink. Don’t spill any of it, or you will have very confused and incoherent dreams.”

“But, shouldn’t I pay you?”

“As I said, I don’t buy or sell. I’m a trader, and what I want from you in this trade is remembrance. If you actually decide to create something, weave a piece of me into it. A mention or a quote. Creatures such as I cannot die unless forgotten, and being remembered in great art could well grant us immortality. Do this small thing for me, and we’re even.”

The darkness of the room, the sweet incense on the air and the salesman’s low, melodic voice created a surreal atmosphere that made it hard to think straight. The newcomer was confused. I came here to get rid of my nightmares, and now this man is telling me to use them. Is it possible that he is right – could I really create great art? He found himself nodding slowly to the other man’s words, and before he knew it he had made a decision.

“I will”, he said, and uncorked the bottle with the light liquid inside. He made sure not to spill the smallest drop as he downed its contents in a single, long draught.

The salesman nodded approvingly and rubbed his hands together. “Good”, he said. “And if you’re ever in lack of inspiration, don’t hesitate to come back here. I’ll gladly provide you with whatever kind of dreams you could possibly find yourself in need of.”

He might have said something more, but in that case his customer didn’t hear him. Because the edges of the scene had begun to blur, its colours to fade and its noises to warp into a single drone without any sense or rhyme. And then the bazaar and all its traders and customers were suddenly gone, replaced instead by good, happy and very, very nondescript dreams.

***

He didn’t wake up screaming the next morning. In fact, he awoke feeling more rested and awake than he had done for longer than he could remember. The memories from his happy, light dream faded as soon as he opened his eyes, but the feeling from it lingered with him the entire morning.

Still he knew deep down that what he was feeling was only a loan; this was somebody else’s happy dream, and however calm and restful, dreams such as this were not for him. He did not know how he knew this, or why he associated the knowledge with some half-forgotten memory of a bazaar he was sure he’d never actually visited. Maybe this was a memory from another dream.

This one peaceful night, however, had given him a respite from his prevailing sleep deprived despair, and suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do.

He made himself a cup of tea and booted up his computer. He was not a writer, a painter or a musician, just a guy with bad dreams that were slowly driving him insane. He hadn’t created a meaningful thing in his life, but somehow he now felt that this was a good day to start. It was almost as if someone had told him so in a dream, but that was of course impossible.

“The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in”, he wrote.

It just felt like a good beginning.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-17

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elevated Remains

Janice leaned across the desk and called after him as he got out of the elevator.

“Tom, your wife called earlier. And a man who said he would rather call back than to leave a message. It sounded important.”

Ex-wife, he wanted to correct her, but didn’t. “What was his name?”, he asked instead as he continued towards his office. When she didn’t answer him immediately he stopped with his hand on the door handle and turned around to shoot her a questioning look.

Janice was biting her lip and seemed genuinely embarrassed. “I… Well, I’m sure he told me, and I was just about to write it down. But as soon as I had hung up the phone… Well, it just slipped my mind. I’m sorry, Tom. But he said that he would call again later.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Let’s hope he does then”, he muttered and disappeared into his office.

Thomas Smith was a very practical man, and as such he also had very practical dreams. He put all his waking time – and all his money – into building his business and making it grow. And it did. In a relatively short time he had managed to secure himself quite a prestigious office in a central part of the city, and a handful of equally prestigious clients.

Now he just waited for the business press and the secret fraternal organizations to discover him as well. To this end, missing out on important calls was definitely not one of his favourite pastimes.

He was sitting behind his desk inside the spacious and expensively furnished office when his phone started ringing. He had developed a routine for how he handled such events, so as not to come on as too eager or too available. He waited until right before the fourth signal was about to sound, then cleared his throat and answered the phone in a sober voice devoid of all emotion or expectation.

“Smith and Smithson, you’re talking to Thomas Smith”, he said. There actually was no Smithson involved in the firm. There was just him, but a double cognomen company name sounded more serious and memorable.

“Ah, finally I get ahold of you. I had the privilege of talking to your lovely assistant earlier, but you were not yet in by then.” The man’s voice was dry but jovial, with a slight British accent.

“Ah, yes. Janice mentioned your previous call.” Thomas straightened up in his chair. This was the guy who had called before. Had he said his name now? Thomas wasn’t sure, and didn’t dare to ask in case he’d come across as inattentive. “How can I help you?”

“Janice, yes that was her name. Remember now. Lovely voice, that one. A delight to talk to. Well, anyways. I’m calling on behalf of an organization that I represent, to invite you to a dinner party later this evening.”

Thomas’ heart skipped a beat. An organization. A dinner party. This sounded like just the kind of attention he’d been eagerly waiting for. He swallowed and fought hard to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Oh, is that so? And what kind of organization is that?”

The voice on the other end chuckled. “Oh, I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not an organization, Mr. Smith. The Organization. Not anyone attracts their attention, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked. Our by-laws prevent me from giving out any additional information about us before you are dedicated, but I can assure you that this dinner will be a real game changer for your state of life.”

Thomas had gotten up from his chair now and was pacing back and forth in front of the large windows. His composure was slipping between his fingers like sand. “This… This definitely sounds interesting, Mr…?”

“Ah, excellent. Then I’ll arrange for a car to pick you up at your office by eight. Formal dress code is observed.”

“Oh, eh, thank you. I’m… Looking forward to it. And I’m hoping to speak more to you later as well.”

“Yeah, there’ll probably be some time for that too. Well, I’ll see you tonight th–”

“Wait! Ehrm, what did you say your name was again?”

Now there was a smile in the entire voice. “Ah, I am Vincent. See you tonight, Thomas.”

And then the call was ended.

***

Thomas didn’t get any more work done that afternoon. As soon as he had put down the phone he picked it up again, called Janice and asked her to get him a really nice tuxedo. Then he booted up his computer and started researching Freemason etiquette, intellectual conversation subjects and a thousand other important things he suddenly realized that he didn’t have the slightest clue about. Mildly put, he panicked there for a while.

Then Janice knocked on his door and entered with his evening attire in a fancy package.

“What did the man say? Where is it you’re going?”, she asked as she put the clothes down on his desk.

Thomas shook his head without looking up from his computer. “I can’t tell you, Janice. It’s part of a secret rite of initiation.”

Janice pressed her lips together and stifled an irritated sigh. “Well then”, she said and crossed her arms across her chest. “I guess I’ll leave you to your secrets then, Mr. Smith. And you’re welcome.” Then she marched out of the office and slammed the door shut behind her.

He didn’t even notice that she had left until thirty minutes later.

He got dressed and ready well before time, and when the clock neared eight he was already pacing nervously on the sidewalk outside the office building. This was his chance to really become something, to prove himself and to make the right kind of connections. He had to pull this off and make a good impression.

Then a black Mercedes pulled up in front of him, and he instantly stopped pacing. He hoped that the driver hadn’t seen him doing it, but knew that such an instance of luck was highly unlikely. Before he had decided whether he should jump into the car on his own accord or not, the driver’s door opened and a man stepped out.

His leather coat and pompadour hairstyle went entirely in black, and stood in stark contrast to the pallor of his skin. He tilted his head to the side and regarded Thomas over the top of the car.

“You’re shorter than I imagined, but I guess that’s okay”, he said. Thomas recognized the voice. “Jump in, mate. I’m your driver tonight.”

“But you’re… You’re the one I spoke to on the phone, right?” Thomas was really confused now, and not just by the casual insult.

“Very observant of you. Yeah, I’m Vincent. But I’m also your driver.”

“I thought you said–”

“Come on now, we can talk on the way. Nice tux, by the way.”

Then Vincent returned to the driver’s seat. After a moment’s hesitation, Thomas seated himself in the back. This was not what he had expected, but then again, this was also the first time he was ever in contact with an esoteric secret society. Maybe this was just their eccentric way of things. I’ll hopefully be given the opportunity to get used to it, he thought.

“So, how come I was hand-picked?”, he said as the car started moving.

Vincent met his gaze through the rear view mirror. “Ah, yeah that’s a good question. Well. You see, I was tasked with scouting for a dinner guest, based on a list of very strict criteria. The aspirant would, amongst other things, have to be raised in the city, be between twenty eight and thirty three years old, an up and coming businessman, and of average height.

You turned out to be a promising candidate – except for the height, it turns out. But I’ll blame your misleading profile pictures for that. Anyways, mate, don’t fret. They’re going to love you.”

***

The house was old and classic, with tall windows overlooking the busy street from half a dozen expensive floors. When they arrived, Vincent actually got out of the car and hurried around it to open Thomas’ door for him. The latter was positively surprised by this, the former having shown very little of this kind of courteousness during the drive. This might actually turn out to be something fancy after all, Tom mused.

Vincent kept up the gallantry by holding up the entrance door for him as well, and then proceeded to calling down the elevator for them. The stairwell was classy and impressive, with real art on the walls and such shine in its marble floor slabs that it was almost possible to use them as an enormous rose mirror. As they got into the elevator, the impression of unblushing wealth was only strengthened; there was a small chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and on the small floor was a Persian carpet.

“Wow, this place is… really something”, Tom said as he admired the intricate patterns on the brass key set panel.

“Yeah, I guess”, Vincent replied, but didn’t sound all too excited himself. He pressed one of the shiny elevator buttons, and they rose smoothly upwards to the soft notes of Cello Suite no. 1 in G major playing from cleverly hidden speakers.

They arrived on the sixth floor, and as the elevator doors opened before him Thomas suddenly wished that he had put much more effort into his clothing. The music from the elevator, he realized, was the same as was playing in the grand parlour that the doors opened upon. There was a party going on here, alright. Catering personnel moved skilfully amongst the smartly dressed attendants who were mingling, drinking and eating canapés from silver plates all across the room.

As Tom stepped out of the elevator, trying to adopt as confident and stately an air as possible despite almost panicking on the inside, many of the eyes in the room were turned towards him. Vincent hurried across the room to say something to a plump man in a ceremonial uniform, consequently leaving Thomas all to his own, terrified self. He thus gratefully accepted the drink offered to him by one of the well-dressed servers, and took a deep sip as a quick fix to his revolting nerves.

“Are you the dinner guest?”

He almost choked on the champagne. The woman was beautiful, dressed in green silk and suddenly standing next to him. Her eyes seemed to be boring into his, and he could not for the life of him have looked away – even if he had wanted to.

“Ehm, yes”, he managed to reply as he fought desperately against the impulse to cough up the liquid he had just accidentally inhaled.

“I expected you to be taller”, she said and smiled dangerously. “But I’m sure you have other delicious qualities that I can’t wait to explore.”

He didn’t know what to say, but immediately decided that he really, really wanted this new acquaintance to explore him. Thoroughly.

“Ah, there you are”, Vincent said. “The dinner’s about to begin any minute, they were just waiting for you. Come.” He ushered Tom across the room, away from the woman in green.

“See you at the table then”, she called after him with a sly smile. He really, really hoped so.

“Oh, and don’t drink that shit”, Vincent said and snatched the champagne glass from his hand. He snapped his fingers and a waiter left his post by the nearby wall and hurried over with a silver plate with a single glass on it. “Here. This is the real deal”, Vincent said and unceremoniously handed Tom the glass from the plate.

Tom accepted the glass and sipped from it as they walked across the large room. “Who are all these people?”, he whispered to Vincent. “Is this the Organization?”

Vincent shrugged. “Parts of it. Some of them. The ones attending the separate dinner are. The rest of them are just… people, I guess. They don’t know anything.”

“Oh”, Thomas said, unsure what that even meant. “What should I do? I mean, what’s expected of me?”

Vincent smiled and patted his shoulder. “Don’t you worry about that, mate. You’ve done your part just by coming here. Just relax and drink your wine, and the rest will take care of itself, sort of.”

They entered a separate dining hall where a long table had already been arranged with beautiful china, iron candlesticks and several sets of gleaming silver cutlery. One end of the room was taken up by a low stage, and Thomas realized that this was where the music was coming from; it was not a recording at all, but a live performance being delivered by a sextet of highly skilled musicians.

The room and the table was already filling up with beautiful people in beautiful dresses and uniforms. Waiters moved around the table, offering up different kinds of wine and other types of alcohol. Thomas just stood there beside Vincent and admired the almost surreal wealth and class on display before him. Oddly enough, he didn’t feel the panic anymore. In fact, he felt strangely relaxed despite being so obviously misplaced amidst this distinguished company. He took another sip of his wine.

Before long, everyone was seated except for the two of them. Tom’s eyes wandered in search for an empty chair, but to his bemusement there didn’t seem to be one. Then the music silenced.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters”, a deep voice spoke up. Tom realized that it belonged to the same man that Vincent had been talking to previously. “I am tremendously pleased that you could all join us here tonight, and I am also very pleased to introduce you to this evening’s special guest – Mr. Thomas Frederick Smith.”

At this, the entire table exploded in a thundering round of applause. Tom nodded, smiled awkwardly and again didn’t know what to say. He suddenly locked eyes with the woman from before and could have sworn she was licking her lips as she looked at him.

“Thank you, Vincent, for bringing him in – though I would like a word with you later about your definition of the words ‘average height’.” Large portions of the table burst out laughing at this, but were quickly silenced again by a gesture from the man in the uniform.

Vincent muttered something that Thomas couldn’t quite make out, despite standing right next to him. In fact, he was suddenly having trouble making words out at all. Or faces. Or thoughts. Oh my god, did I drink too much already? Am I really that drunk? Will people notice? Have I fucked everything up now?

People were looking at him. Had someone asked him something? He wasn’t sure. He grabbed the backrest of a chair and hoped that nobody would notice how difficult he was finding it suddenly to remain standing on his own two feet. “Vincent”, he whispered, “I think that I…”

“Relax, mate”, Vincent said and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all as it should.”

Somewhere people were laughing. A woman in green was staring hungrily at him. A waiter entered the room with a gleaming slicer on a plate. The entire room was spinning.

“No, I… I blew it. The party. The dinner. I was invited to eat dinner with…”

His limbs wouldn’t obey him anymore. The glass slipped from his hand and shattered against the marble. He didn’t even hear the sound. His legs gave way beneath him and he sank to the floor.

Vincent, his hand still on Tom’s shoulder, appeared within his shrinking field of vision. “Oh, darn. I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not to eat dinner, Mr. Smith. To be the dinner.” He smiled widely. “Not anyone attracts the attention of the Organization, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked based on a list of very strict criteria. These people have very particular tastes, you see.”

Tom shook his head, or at least he tried to. Everything was spinning colours now, and he realized that he had slumped over on the floor. He was lying on the cold rose marble, watching helplessly as the man in the uniform approached him with the gleaming slicer.

“Let’s dig in then, shall we?”, the man in said. Thomas tried to scream, to fight, to crawl away, but could do none of these things. The thought struck him that he had been poisoned, that nobody – not even Janice – knew where he was, and that these people were going to kill and eat him.

And then the very last shred of consciousness left him, and he never thought anything ever again.

***

Vincent shook his head as he re-entered the dining hall in the grey hours of morning. The party was over, the guests gone since long. While the lonely, bold and beautiful people had grandiosely and ravenously satisfied their hunger for vitalem with the flesh and blood of poor Thomas Smith, Vincent himself had prowled the streets and back alleys of the city for much less glamorous contentment of his undead thirst.

There were times when he didn’t mind this degradation, or the less moral, pleasant and decent parts of his job. But then again, there were also times when he did. But such was his lot in life – and lonely unlife, for that matter – and there was nothing to be done about it.

He was the fixer of needs, the dealer of goods and the solver of problems – and as such he was only welcome in the grand parlours to deliver wares before the feasts, and to take out the glorified, elevated remains when they were over.

After this particular feast, those said remains had certainly been elevated indeed. All over the place.

Vincent sighed. “You’re welcome”, he said to the empty room as he started unwinding a roll of black garbage disposal bags. Then he got about his grizzly task with the routine of someone who has done the same thing many times before, humming Eleanor Rigby all the while. It seemed only fitting.

Where did they all come from, after all?

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-05

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written three other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence, The Forest and Substitution.

 

 

Substitution

[23:47] <J0hnDo3> ”We're all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> That was the last thing she said to me before she died. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she meant, but none of that matters anymore. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> Nothing does.

Her electric eyes in the dark. Four feet dangling from the familiar bridge.
Two bottles glittering in the synthetic lights of the city below.
”I can’t do this anymore.”

[23:48] <J0hnDo3> This room is dark and silent. The darkness is not something new, but the silence is. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> She was the talker, the player of music and games. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> Now there's just me, and I was always the quiet one. The thinker, the brooder. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> And nothing of that has changed, although everything else has.
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> I'm not sure if I'm drinking to honor her memory or to forget.

Give me your hand.”
A knife suddenly, without a smile, without a joke.
Something real, something since long weighing heavy
on solitary shoulders.
My confused hand in hers.
”Remember how we mixed blood as children?”

[23:49] <J0hnDo3> My computer is my only window to the outside world now, the only thing that grants importance to my days. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> She was always the outgoing one, the force that sometimes made me leave the virtual world for the physical. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> That force is gone now, and I have none of my own. Even less so now than before, actually.

Pain. The neon reflections in the blade, in the crimson liquid emerging from the paleness of my hand.
”See, your blood’s still red.”
Another scar, another wound. Glittering darkness like velvet quicksilver.
Little stars twinkling from the midnight oil in her cupped hand.
”Mine is not anymore.”

[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She always told me that we were going to change the world, one circuit at a time. We were going to salvage what was worth saving and tear down that which was not. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> Then we were going to stand by the crater and watch it all burn. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She was on a crusade to steal it all back from the world's rightless powers and to uncover all their lies. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> I always followed, because as far as crusades go, she was mine.

I found something, Jonathan, and I went too deep. Now it is changing me.”
Eyes usually brave, defiant, now filled with fear – and something else not readily apparent without looking dangerously closely;
twinkling, twinkling little stars draped in mercury midnight oil.

[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I don't know where she got the gun, or why I still have it. It is a sick thing to have, right, and an even sicker thing to keep. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I made a half-hearted attempt to clean it, but it still has specks of her burnt, dark blood all around the muzzle. It just won't come off. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> Well, it doesn't matter to me. It will do it's job again just as well anyway.

I can’t explain it. I’ve tried to understand what is happening, but I can’t.
I think I’m going mad.”
Three deep breaths, barely held back tears and panic.
”I can’t feel things like I used to, and I know things I shouldn’t know.
Like it’s someone else’s knowledge that I don’t know how I have.
And I have stopped sleeping, Jonathan.
I just lie there in the darkness, like in standby mode.
And the itching… I think there is something under my skin.
Something… not organic.”

[23:54] <J0hnDo3> When she met me on the bridge that night it was the first I saw of her in several days. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> I want to remember her as she was, not for the fear and panic and absence of her last three weeks. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> After she found that shit on the Tor dark web, that is. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> She never told me what it was, if it was tools or drugs or information. Perhaps all three of them. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> But whatever it was, it drove her mad and killed her. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> And one could say that indirectly it's now killing me too.

The knife is gone, and now there’s a gun.
Chrome surface reflecting the cityscape just as well as
eyes and bottles and blood ever did.
Panic in my mind suddenly.
”What are you doing with that? Put it away!”
I grab her hand tightly, feel pulsing red and black blood
intermingling between our palms.

[23:56] <J0hnDo3> I cannot stand this silence and darkness anymore. I cannot stand being on a crusade that means nothing to me now that she is gone. 
[23:56] <J0hnDo3> The world is so empty and pointless without her, not even worth burning or tearing down. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> I've realized that even if I didn't understand it at the time, this is why I kept the gun. Why I picked it up and hid it when the sirens approached. Why I lied about it when the police came by. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> Why I'm typing this with its chrome surface reflecting the blinking prompt on my screen.

I’m sorry, Jonathan. I can’t do this anymore. There’s a voice in my head, and it’s telling me things I don’t understand.
Things about me, about the world, about… About everything.
It’s never quiet, Johanthan – it’s never quiet!”
Words from my mouth, gestures of my hands, but they do not reach her.
I do not reach her.
Panic. Pleading. Tears. All mine now.
”Amanda, don’t do this. Please.”

She looks at me, stars twinkling clearly now in mercury midnight oil.
Some kind of calm suddenly.
”It’s all a lie, Jonathan. We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”

And then the world explodes.

[23:58] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she wanted to tell me, and I don't know why those last words plagued my dreams every night after that until I stopped sleeping and feeling altogether. 
[23:58] <J0hnDo3> My hand hasn't healed well either – did she infect me with something? I keep hearing her voice inside my head and I think I'm going mad as well. 
[23:59] <J0hnDo3> But none of that matters anymore. Nothing does. I feel like a mangled hard drive that's slowly being written over, and I actually don't care.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> I'm not even sure why I'm writing this. I guess I just wanted to leave a piece of me somewhere out there, before there are pieces of me everywhere so to speak. Perhaps someone will hear the shot and find me before things get too nasty. Or perhaps not. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> And perhaps nobody will ever even enter this old channel and read this crap anyway. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> But if you do, well, consider this my letter of resignation. To the crusade, to life, to everything. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> Goodbye, World.
[00:00] <Am&_A> Don't.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:01] <J0hnDo3> Wtf who is this? This is not funny.
[00:02] <Am&_A> Just don't, Jonathan. You'll regret it. I know.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda? Is that really you?
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> How? You died. I saw you die.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:04] <Am&_A> There's still so much that you don't understand, and it will get worse. I'm sorry.
[00:04] <J0hnDo3> What? For what? Amanda, where are you??
[00:05] <J0hnDo3> ????
[00:06] <Am&_A> Here. Or, I don't know. I'm not sure. Everywhere.
[00:06] <J0hnDo3> What the hell's that supposed to mean???
[00:07] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:09] <Am&_A> I hear it has started for you too. It's my fault. I didn't know.
[00:09] <J0hnDo3> KNOW WHAT?? Amanda, please!
[00:10] <Am&_A> There's a place downtown called Cellar Door. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> It's a bar. Don't ask me how I know this. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> Go there. Ask for Vincent. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> He will explain everything.
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> What is this, the fucking Matrix??
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> Hello?
[00:11] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:13] <J0hnDo3> Amanda, please don't leave me again.
[00:14] <J0hnDo3> Please
[00:21] <J0hnDo3> Amanda?
[00:33] <J0hnDo3> Ok then. Fine. Fuck it. I'll go there.

[04:47] == J0hnDo3 has quit [Ping timeout: 264 seconds]

We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.

That was the last thing she said to me before she was gone.
Gone, not dead. Because that’s not how the world works anymore.
Perhaps it never really worked that way, but I was too blind to see it.
Well, I don’t want to be blind anymore.

And if we’re all the sum of our own lies,
I want to know what those lies are.
Because my blood’s not red anymore either, and the voices…
the voices are never quiet.

Twinkle, twinkle, more and more
let’s go down that Cellar Door.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-16

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written two other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence and The Forest.


 

The Forest

”Have you ever been to the Forest before?”

She struggled through the underbrush as she tried to fight off the dizziness and the haze that prevented her from seeing anything but dark, blurry shapes in the murk around her.

”Which one?” She didn’t know who she was talking to, or even where she was.

The voice in front of her – something not quite human – laughed quietly. ”Oh, but there only ever was one”, it said.

”What? No, I’ve been to several–”

”They are all connected, child”, the voice interrupted her. ”All the forests of the world, connected. There’s only one Forest, and you’re in it now.”

”How did… I don’t remember getting here. Who are you? Did you bring me here?”

”You don’t even have the sense to be afraid, do you?” That soft, purring laughter again. ”Well, good. Then you might be ready for what I’m going to tell you.”

She tried to walk faster, to catch up with whoever was walking before her, but her whole body felt strange and slow.

”Something’s wrong with me”, she said. ”It hurts.”

”Yes, I know it hurts”, the voice said. ”That’s part of the beauty of it.”

”The beauty of wha–”

”Don’t speak now, just listen. What you think you know about the world, yourself and reality is a lie. A carefully constructed lie, composed long ago by creatures far wittier than you and I, but a lie nonetheless. It is a lie that tells little children what they need to hear in order to remain sane and alive. A lie that holds human society together, and a lie that protects that which needs to dwell in darkness from the merciless light of day. It is a lie that I myself dread see exposed. But tonight I shall still dare whisper secret truths to you, truths that you shall then help me protect.”

”Me? Help you? I’m sorry, but should I know you?” The trees around her glowed silver and the air smelled of darkness and glass.

”No, but you will. In fact, let me begin by telling you my story”, the voice said – and begun.

”There was a time when I, too, believed in the lie that had been fed to me. This was a long time ago, however, and I have learned my lessons well since then. I was always alone, but I preferred it that way. I never understood other humans, and they did not understand me. I would have been happy to leave it at that, but they were not. For reasons that are more relevant to my own sentimental memory than to this story, they turned on me and I was broken.”

”They… attacked you?” She felt a sudden anger rising up, seemingly from nowhere. The surprising surge of emotion scared her.

”Yes. But as I said, that was long ago and none of them are alive anymore. I have seen to that.”

”You’re not saying–”

”Yes I am. But be quiet now and listen. I was broken and hurting and they left me in the forest for the animals to do their part. But as I lay there, half adream and half awake, I could feel something changing. Slowly, slowly, my mind and body melded with something dark that might have been part of me all along – and suddenly I was not broken anymore. I was not hurting.”

”And what did you–”

”No, this is my story. No more questions. But yes, I killed them. All of them. Grown ups and children just the same. Oh, it was glorious.”

There was such mirth in the voice at this that she didn’t dare inquire further.

”Silence, good”, the voice chuckled. ”But as I said, that’s not part of the story I’m trying to tell you. What is, however, is that I have been living in the Forest ever since, observing, protecting and sometimes hunting. ‘Hunting what?’, I sense you want to ask. Well, sometimes I hunt animals and sometimes I hunt other things. There are other things out here, and the deeper you get into the Forest, the darker and sharper grows the prey. But enough about that.”

The creature cleared its throat with a deep, growling sound, but never slowed down the pace.

”A big part of the lie that humans tell themselves is that the world is simple and logical. There is logic to it, sure, but the logic is not theirs. They limit themselves to seeing only part of reality; build themselves into a confining box, if you will. That box is what the Night Children call Zenith –the world under the sun.”

”Night Children? Zenith? Wait, I don’t–”

The creature growled, and she silenced. ”You have to stop doing that. Asking… Questions. I don’t like it. Zenith is what you perceive as the real world, but it’s not. Reality consists of many worlds, and Zenith is just one of them. But humans cannot handle the thought of this, and they cannot handle the thought of there being truths and creatures and realities outside their own limited perception. And that’s why most often they refuse to see them – and us. Especially those of us who do not blend in well with their narrow scope of the world. We simply become invisible to them.”

”And who are ‘we’?”

”Oh, that’s a good question finally. Maybe the only one that truly matters. We, my dear cub, are the Night Children I mentioned. Those who once were, or at least thought we were, humans – but who fate has proven wrong. We are cursed to live outside the lie and to protect it, thereby protecting ourselves. There are many types of curses that can befall those unlucky enough, but they all end us up outside the box. And outside the box, outside Zenith, is only the darkness of Midnight where few dare tread.

Or that’s not entirely true. Between the two realms is the crossroads twilight of Dusk, and that’s where we are now. It’s the shadow of reality’s hidden nooks and crannies, including forgotten parts of cities and the true parts of the Forest. These places tie all the sunlit woods, towns and corners together. There are doorways here, and pathways and thresholds, that tie secret parts of Zenith together with Midnight. From here you can go anywhere in the sunlit world, but you can also end up terribly, irrevocably lost.”

”And… Am I lost?” There was some kind of fear inside her, but not one that she could easily place and recognize as her own.

The creature laughed again. ”No, dear, you are not lost. I would not have that. It was I who brought you here, and I know these parts inside and out.”

”But… Why? Why did you bring me here? Why are you telling me all of this? I know your story, sure, but I don’t know you.”

”No, that is true. But I, on the other hand, know you rather well. I have been watching you for many moons now, sensed the change in you as soon as it started. You have felt it too, have you not?”

”No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She knew this was a lie, but could not clearly remember why.

”You sure? So the increased growing of your nails and teeth, the sudden surges of emotion and the inescapable hunger for raw meat did not strike you as anything outside of the ordinary?”

She remembered something like that, but it felt like it had happened to somebody else, sometime very long ago. ”Well, I guess it did, but I just thought…”

”That you were going mad? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But you don’t have to hide the change anymore now, it is done. Finished. You are what you are now, and your little stunt there couldn’t stop it.”

”Stunt?” The memories were starting to come back, but very, very slowly.

”You tried to do something really stupid to yourself, but I stopped you. I told you I have been watching you, didn’t I? Well, I was waiting for something conclusive to happen to you, like it once did to me. And then I stepped in. Lifted you out of that bathtub and carried you here.”

She stopped walking. ”Wait, what? You were in my apartment? You… lifted me out of the bathtub? No. No, this is too much. Sorry, but I have to go. I’ll just, I have to go home now.”

She started turning around, but stopped and jumped as the voice spoke up again – right beside her this time.

”You could do that”, it said. ”But I would not recommend it.”

”Why not?”

”Because we are here now.”

And just in that instant the moon far above them left its nest in the clouds and cast its cold, merciless light down upon the forest. Suddenly she could see the world around herself clearly – including the still surface of the lake right in front of her feet. The water was so dark and quiet that it flawlessly mirrored the forest, the moonlit sky – and the two creatures standing by the water’s edge.

Creatures, not people, because their skin was clad in grizzly fur, their eyes glowing and their pupils little more than horizontal slits. Their hands and feet were adorned with big, monstrous claws and gleaming fangs protruded from their too-wide mouths.

She just stared, too shocked to scream or run or even say anything. The creature to her right, the one who had been walking in front of her this whole time, calmly met her eyes through the reflection in the water.

”You could go back”, it said in a low voice. ”But it would not be the same. I do not know why you have been blessed or cursed with Night, but life as you knew it is over, gone.”

She looked at her own reflection, at the face that she did not recognize but which still reminded her of something she might deep down have known for a long, long time. She shook her head. ”So this is what I am now? A… a monster?”

”Not a monster, dear. You have been blessed with the Wilder heart, cursed with the beast’s mark. This is your true form, yes, but you can still blend in, regain your past form for a while.”

Relief surged through her strange body. ”I can?”

”For a limited time, yes. But it comes with a sacrifice.”

”How?” She turned to face the creature for the first time, grabbed its ragged shoulders and stared into its terrible eyes. ”Just tell me, I’ll do anything!”

The creature met her gaze in silence for several heartbeats. ”The price is beyond ‘anything’ to many whose humanity is still intact”, it said. ”And that is also part of the curse’s irony. To retain the appearance of humanity, you have to commit monstrous acts and ingest what we call vitalem – human flesh and blood.”

She started to say something, but stopped as the meaning of the words suddenly sank in.

The creature nodded solemnly. ”Yes, that is the sacrifice. To give up your inner humanity in order to keep up the semblance of your outer such.”

”But you, you…”

”Yes, I stooped to it initially. I killed those who had wronged and hurt me, and that act kept me human – for a time. But then the realization of what I had done drove me back into the Forest, and for shame and guilt I have seldom left it since. I have been so very alone, but now I am not alone anymore.”

She let go of the creature’s shoulders and backed away a few steps. ”What, so you mean that this is it now? That I am to stay here with you, looking like this, feeling like this, for the rest of my life? Until I die?”

”You will not die. Not in the sense that you appreciate the word, anyhow.”

She let out a frustrated scream that resounded off the surface of the lake and far beyond the slowly dancing treetops. ”No”, she then said as she continued backing away. ”No, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t be like this, I can’t live here and I definitely can’t stay here with you.”

”You’re not thinking clearly”, the creature said. ”You haven’t thought this through. I told you about the alternative, and I’m sure–”

She laughed manically and shook her head, still slowly walking backwards. ”You don’t know me”, she said. ”You don’t know what I’m capable of. This isn’t fair, this shouldn’t be happening to me. None of it. I’ll have my life back, even if it means drinking blood or whatever. I–”

”You don’t know what you’re saying”, the creature growled. ”I have suffered through the consequences of that road, and I can tell you that it changes you. It makes you into something that–”

”So let it!”, she screamed with a wide gesture of her arms. ”Let it change me. As long as it also changes me back. This isn’t me! Fuck this thing, fuck Dusk and fuck you. I’m going home and you can’t stop me.” She backed a few more steps, then turned around and disappeared between the trees.

The creature remained by the water’s edge, a melancholy glint in its glowing eyes. As the sound of running steps abated and finally silenced altogether, a black bird landed on its right shoulder.

”You’re not very good at this, are you now, Ira? You’ve just lost us another one”, it croaked.

”Virdis, please don’t”, the creature said lowly. ”I did what I could, but she just wouldn’t listen.”

”Well”, the bird called Virdis cawed mockingly, ”Let’s just hope that she’ll at least calm down and listen to her own reason before she kills anyone in Zenith, or worse.”

”Hopefully the Organization will get to her before that. But they will not be happy about it”, Ira sighed, staring into the woods where the other had disappeared.

”I’m sure they won’t mind”, Virdis mused, but the bird’s sly eyes said otherwise. ”Well, I’d better be off then. Gotta let Vincent know that there’s another one coming. Can’t wait to see his reaction. Seeyah.”

And with that the black bird left Ira’s shoulder with a strong beat of its huge wings. It quickly soared into the air and was soon gone into the night, off to whatever strange places crows and ravens use to cross between worlds.

Ira remained alone by the lake, staring at the reflection in the water and wishing, not for the first time, that the world were indeed as simple as the lies from a far away childhood had once made it out to be.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-15

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written another short story set in the same universe. It is called The Sound of Silence, and you can find it here.

Fallen Heroes

It was dark, still and silent when they woke up, one after another. The narrow space was damp and cold and the air was close and sultry. They could not see one another at all, just feel the surrounding shapes and hear the other voices in the impenetrable darkness. None of them could remember how they had gotten there.

“Where are we?”, one of them said. There was fear in the voice.

“I don’t know”, another replied – an angry one. “But when I get my fingers around the throat of whoever did this to us, I will–”

“Relax, handyman”, a similar voice interrupted. “I don’t think such a pointy attitude is going to help us right now.”

An older voice spoke up. It was obviously struggling to sound calm, but the strain in it could be clearly heard. “Don’t lose your heads”, it said. “What is the last thing you can remember? Perhaps if you put your stories together, you can deduce something about our situation.”

“I was at a party”, the first voice sobbed. “It was an after-party to a big gala, very fancy. I remember that someone spilled a glass of wine all over me, and then… And then I cannot remember a thing.”

Another voice sighed. “I was walking in the countryside”, it rasped, clearly worn with rough use. “I don’t know who did this, but I have my guesses. I was once in a war, you see, and I brought home both scars and the grudges of potential enemies. It might be one of them who–”

“What happened on your walk?”, the older voice interrupted.

The rough one, clearly annoyed, let out an irritated grunt. “So much for the praise of heroes”, it said. “But okay, let’s play this your way. I was walking, and suddenly I heard my partner screaming out in pain. I stopped, and then I saw the wound. Oh, it was a terrible sight. Nobody could survive that. And I felt hands grab me and pull me towards the ground and… Then it’s all dark for me too.”

“And you two?”, the old voice resumed. “What about you?”

“We were protecting our ward of course”, the angry one snapped.

“Your ward?”

“Yes, exactly”, the angry one’s companion replied before the other could continue speaking. “We were handed the task of guarding the young master from getting his hands into trouble.”

“Yeah, the little bugger is always poking around where he’s not supposed to. Ask me, I should know. In fact, getting between him and a roaring bonfire is the last thing I remember before waking up here”, the angry voice said.

“The same goes for me”, the less aggressive companion said. “I was there too, the fire was so hot – and then everything became dark suddenly. I really hope that the young master is alright.” A moment of silence. “And you yourself, old stranger? What happened to you?”

“Me? Oh, I have been here a long time. The quiet ones that share the darkness with us used to talk too at one point, but time has made them silent. I was here in the darkness before them all, before every single one of you. But I can still remember the golden time, long ago, when I was at the head of a major actor in the intelligence sector. Me and my partner blended in everywhere and no one suspected that my sophisticated looks were just a cover for our secret operation.”

“So… you were a spy?”, the sobbing voice whispered.

“In a way, yes.” The huffed up pride in the old voice was apparent. “But we were shot, you see. The bullet went straight through me and out on the other side, but my partner died instantly. Then everything is black until I woke up here, in even more darkness.”

They all fell into a heavy silence. The elder’s story had had them all moved in different ways – if not for any other reason, then because it had suddenly became very clear to them all that they might never escape this place, or even get to know what this place really was.

All around them in the darkness silent, unmoving shapes lay in terrible passivity, and they all realized yet another thing: that they would probably in time become silent and unmoving too.

Someone cried, another sighed. Two voiced plotted their escape, but their plans soon turned out to be futile and never resulted in anything. The old voice told some more stories from his exciting past life, but soon he, too, became silent again. In the end they all gave up and became silent and unmoving.

And they would never know why.

***

Some time later, in a much lighter, freer and airier place not far from there, a man swore as the zipper of his jacket got stuck halfway down. He tore at it for a couple of minutes before resolutely marching into the kitchen and grabbing a pair of scissors to get the jacket off.

He was just about to irritatedly squeeze the cut up jacket into the trash when he was interrupted by a voice from the doorway.

“Daniel, don’t throw that away”, Susan said. “It’s just a zipper, I can fix it when I have a minute over.”

“You always say that”, Daniel retorted. “And we both know that’s never going to happen.”

“Nonsense”, she replied and walked back into the living room. “Put it in the basement. I’ll get to it as soon as I can, I promise.”

Daniel just shook his head and walked down into the basement with the jacket, knowing that he would probably never retrieve it from down there ever again. And he stowed it away inside a large cardboard box marked “Susan’s projects”. It already contained, amongst other things, his old burnt children’s gloves, an odd military boot, Susan’s mother’s ruined party blouse and his own grandfather’s old, shot through fedora.

The box was damp and smelled faintly of mold, and Daniel though – not for the first time – that he should throw it all way. But as always he let the thought stay as such, put the lid back on and left the basement.

And as he turned the lights off and closed the door everything became dark, still and silent once more. 

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-05

 


This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

When They Came No More

I have seen generations come and go. They have all had their own, individual stories. From afar I have waited and watched and loved them all. This story is hers.

She looked at the family surrounding her bed, all those faces and worried eyes, and drew a shallow, raspy breath.

I am going to tell you about a time and place of my youth”, she said. “The times are gone since long, but the place still exists.

If you drive along the winding roads of the Valasian side of the Swiss Furka Pass you will find, three kilometers below the mountain’s ridge, a hotel. It just sits there quietly, four storeys of grey brick walls lovingly supporting a crown-like silver roof, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive.

The tall windows of the Hotel Belvédère opened their green blinds for the first time in 1882, and when they did it was to the sight of sparkling ice and heavy sheets of snow as far as the eye could see. Placed right above the then majestic Rhône glacier, in those days the hotel was flooded by beautiful people wanting to experience the fabulous view from its balconies.

I had already heard many stories about it when as a young woman I was taken in as staff. It was the late fifties, but I remember the breath-taking drive through the mountains as if it was yesterday. Mr. Paul Schroder, the pleasant but quiet hotel cook, had picked me up at the train station in his red little car and then not spoken much throughout the winding drive.

When I close my eyes I can still dream vividly of that first spring evening when, after Mr. Schroder had parked the car, I stood there in front of the hotel doors with all my worldly belongings in a small suitcase and my mind filled with thrilled expectations. I was to work in the kitchen and as a waitress. It was my first real employment and I was far from home. Then Mr. Schroder opened the doors, and I was let into a brand new world.

I was given a small room to call my own and a short tour of the premises. I was then introduced to my new colleagues – a wonderful group of people who had all left everything behind to become the life-blood of the hotel. I fell in love with all of it – and with all of them – right away. With the silent cook, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, Mrs. Lisa Maur – the enigmatic head of staff and self-proclaimed psychic, and the many young people who, like me, had come there with high hopes and stars in their eyes.

The days, weeks and months flew by. Spring turned into early summer, and when the snow melted from the roads the visitors started to arrive. The work was hard, the mornings early and the evenings late, but I learned many things and grew into my role as a part of the hotel’s blood stream.

The visitors came in the hundreds during summer. They ate, drank, mingled and went for spiritual walks in the breath-taking surroundings. One of the most popular attractions was the ice-cave cut into the bottom of the glacier, far below the ancient, glistening ice. And when they were done for the day, they returned to the hotel to eat and drink some more and enjoy their evening on the balcony, in the bar or in their rustic private chambers.

When the guests had retreated for the night and there were no more late sandwiches or beers to be served, I used to walk out onto one of the balconies alone to enjoy the view and the night air myself. It was during one of those silent, solitary moments that Jean Mahler found me.

She was new at the hotel, had started working there only the week before. We had not exchanged more than a few polite words during that week, but I for my part had secretly admired her from a distance ever since she stepped out of Mr. Schroder’s car on the evening of her arrival. Now she suddenly stood right next to me at the railing, her short dark hair dancing in the mountain wind, and I had no idea what to say.

I remember how I laughed nervously and said something about one of the new guests, a tall gentleman who had insisted on being allowed to wash his own dishes earlier that day. She laughed as well, and told me a story of her own. It was as if her voice broke a spell, and I suddenly found myself talking freely to her in a way that I had talked to no one before in my life. Then we stood there, watching the deep mountain pass in silence, and the starlit night and the stillness around us made me feel like this was our own secret world where we were alone and free.

The night turned into day and I was deadly tired when my shift began again. I struggled through that day in a confused haze, and every time I passed Jean in the corridor we both smiled shyly. But I lived through that day, and the shyness did not last for long. The balcony became out nightly meeting place, our secret starlit world where we could talk about anything. I remember those nights fondly even now.

Nights and days turned into months, and with autumn the guests became fewer and fewer. When the snow came the hotel closed down for the winter, and most of the staff went away to work elsewhere for the off-season. Some of us stayed, however, to keep the hotel warm and clean and take care of the few special bookings that were still being made despite the roads being mostly closed off during winter.

That first winter Jean stayed as well, and during those isolated months we grew even closer to one another. When spring finally came, it would have taken a large amount of ignorance to avoid seeing that we had grown into much more than friends.

Summer returned, and with it the guests. I started feeling like the hotel really was my home, and I would even say that I was happy. More new faces arrived to replace colleagues who hadn’t returned after winter, and together with the rest of the old staff I and Jean taught them what they needed to know.

Seasons turned into years and the hotel saw many prominent guests come and go. I remember the spectacle when Pope John XXIII once came to call, and the fuss every time we were graced by a visit from a certain Mr. Sean Connery. In 1964 the excitement was at its highest when – perhaps prompted by that very frequenter – the hotel was featured in the new James Bond movie Goldfinger.

The year I was to turn thirty two, Mr. Schroder tragically passed away. I was appointed the new cook and head of kitchen, and life in the hotel slowly moved on. When winter came that year Jean told me that she would not be coming back the next spring. She was done with the hotel and wanted to do something else. She asked me to come away with her, to make a life together somewhere else. After many sleepless nights, however, I decided to stay. My new position and responsibilities simply were not things that I could easily cast aside.

Oh, how I have regretted that decision many times since.

Life at the hotel did not become bad without her, but it became lonely. The young people came and went, and although I still viewed the older members of the staff as my closest friends, I lacked someone to talk to the way I had been able to talk with Jean.

Then came a guest who changed all that; Patrick, your father and grandfather. I remember the day as clearly as yesterday. It had been snowing the night before, even though it was in the middle of summer. He arrived together with a bachelor party of maybe ten or thirteen other young men, and at first I was not in the least interested. Later that night, however, I heard him quoting Jane Austen during dinner and was irrevocably lost.

I found myself on the balcony after the end of my shift, talking literature with him well into the morning hours. The next night was not any different, and when the party was preparing to leave on the third afternoon he promised to write me. And he did.

Life was at once exciting again, with letters to wait for and replies to write. He remembered that I lacked easy access to new reading, and thus he started sending me books as well. I eagerly read them all and sent him my reviews and analyses in the returning mail.

Winter came and went, and when spring returned, so did he. He was alone this time, and carried a ring and a proposal. This time I was older and wiser and did not repeat my previous mistake. We were married by a visiting German priest at the very entrance of the ice-cave below the hotel, before the eyes and to the cheers of all my beloved colleagues.

And so I left the hotel finally, after many years of loving service. Not a year thereafter my daughter was born. Life went on, and sometimes I was happy and sometimes I was sad. I have loved Patrick dearly, and I have loved you, my children and grandchildren.

I do have one regret, however, and that is the loss of Jean Mahler. I used to write her a letter every Christmas eve for years – but never had the courage to actually send them. They all ended up in a cardboard box beneath my bed. After my husband passed away eight years ago, though, I finally mustered up my courage and actually sent a letter to Jean. The late reply came from her sister, telling me that my old friend had already been dead for six years.

I am old now, and the times have changed. I told you that the hotel still exists, and that is true. The famous Rhône glacier, however, has melted and receded since its glory days. Today the sides of the pass glow like a vast, creased sheet of soft emerald, and only in the far distance would you be able to divine anything even resembling a cover of snow.

When the famed ice-cave finally melted away as well, the guests stopped coming altogether. My beloved hotel was closed indefinitely three years ago, and now it just stands there as a silent monument of greater times, before mankind’s brand on the world was as fierce as it is today.”

She cleared her throat and in turn met all of their gazes. There were tears there, and worry and fear. They could not fathom a world without this old woman, who had been such an important and fundamental part of all their lives for as long as they could remember. She knew this, and wished that there was something that she could say to make the pain of loss less terrible for them – but she also knew that thus is not the way of grief.

And now my days, too, have finally come to an end”, she said instead. “Even though I know that all my beloved friends have long since gone before me, I want to picture them as still being there, busying around inside the boarded up hotel as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. Good bye, my loves”, she breathed. “I think I am going to sleep and dream of them now.”

And with this she finally closed her eyes for the very last time, leaving her children and grandchildren to the tears and fears and grief that are all inevitable parts of life.

She herself saw and heard nothing of this, however. Because when she opened her eyes again it was other eyes that looked down on her. Smiling eyes, the well known eyes of old friends. They were all there: the pleasant but quiet hotel cook Mr. Paul Schroder, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, the enigmatic and psychic head of staff Mrs. Lisa Maur and many, many others. Jean Mahler, her short dark hair just as unruly and her brown eyes just as bright as all those years ago, smiled wider than all the rest. “Welcome home”, she whispered.

And with that they were all gathered, finally; all the souls and faces and voices who once lived and loved here. Now they can live and love here again, irrespective of the workings of the world outside. I have called the final drop of my life-blood back.

I am the Hotel Belvédère, and I will always stand here as a silent monument of greater times, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. I have seen generations and eras come and go within my grey brick walls, and I have known and loved them all. I have closed my green shutters to the world, but behind them life goes on.

Please come and visit us. You are most warmly welcome.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-29

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

The Missing Limb

When John put his mother’s ring on my finger we both knew it was not a promise of a future together. I harbored no illusions of that kind – I knew he only dared do it because we were both aware, deep down, that we were never going home. We were going to die out there in the cold trenches, together or separated, and did not have to worry about conventions, laws and consequences.

I wish I still had that ring.

The war had been going on for ages, or so it felt. When I was first sent to the front I was young and stupid with my head full of star-spangled dreams and lies. When I met John what felt like a lifetime later, we had both seen, felt and heard enough to have learned that this was not our war – that it was no-one’s. And still we fought in it; I because I was afraid of the alternative, John because he had nothing to go back to.

I wish I could say that we gave each other hope, that us being together made the terror we lived more bearable, but that would be a lie. We suffered and we wept and despaired, and when there was pain that pain was not to be dulled by anything except sleep or death or the poisons we drank to attain one or both of them.

But John sang to me when I was drowning in panic, and I told him stories from my childhood when he hurt too badly. And we grew to love each other in a way reserved for the mad, the desperate and the dying.

I have never loved anyone since like I loved him.

It had been raining heavily that night, and when dawn came the world was drenched in mud and blood. This was the morning of long dreaded advance, of finally pushing desperately forward. The secret solace from the night before seemed like a long ago dream, and not even the ring hidden by my left glove could fully convince me that I had not in fact imagined it all.

It did not matter, however, because everything was to end very soon. I just did not know it at the time.

We left the relative but treacherous safety of the dug trenches and moved forth. I tried to keep close to John in the stealthy turmoil, but repeatedly kept losing sight of him. The sun rose behind the clouds and suddenly there was fire and explosions everywhere. We had been sighted. Our numbers scattered without any real semblance of order, and despite my best attempts to keep calm and sharp I found myself lost and terrified. I panicked.

That is how John found me. He screamed through the clamour that our unit was falling back and regrouping, that we had been ordered to take shelter in the ruins of a nearby church. He grabbed my left hand and started running, leading me towards safety.

It was then that the ground around us detonated, and everything turned into panic, pain and blackness.

I awoke to blindness in a world of horror and agony. There was not a part of me that did not hurt, and I could not see at all. Half convinced that I was in fact dead I lay there on my back, listening to the moaning, hurting voices of my compatriots all around me. Part of my mind realized that it must have been a bombshell or a hidden mine – the rest of me did not think at all.

Until I felt John’s firm grip on my hand again, that is. The pain in my entire body was excruciating when he helped me to my feet, but his warmth was so relieving that I almost did not acknowledge it.

“I can’t see”, I said. “Please don’t let go.”

“I will never let go”, he replied.

And then he led me slowly, carefully through the nightmare that I could not see, but the sounds of which will haunt me to the end of days. People were dying everywhere around us, screaming for help or relief or for people long gone. If someone had told me at that time that we were in fact walking through the fires of Purgatory, I would have readily believed it. Sound becomes a merciless paintbrush when employed on the canvas of the unseeing.

At long last we must have left the battlefield behind us, as the voices of the dying slowly faded into the distance. I was growing weaker with every step, and the steady flow of warmth down the side of my torso told me that I was bleeding badly from the explosion. Without John’s hand I mine I would have been terrified of fainting, falling or getting lost, but he never let go. Instead he firmly and calmly guided me across the uneven landscape on the other side of my personal darkness, stopping when I needed to but never for too long.

Then, suddenly, I began hearing voices again – but not those of the dying. I recognized those voices, and the relief I felt at hearing them is not to be described in words. I realized that we must have found the church that John had talked about in those final moments before the world ended. Someone called my name, another called for assistance and now, finally, my legs would not carry me any longer. I collapsed there in the mud and felt consciousness drifting away, even as running steps approached along with voices shouting medical commands.

I did not die that day, but was later told that it had been very close. I remained unconscious for a very long time, floating in an endless blackness only occasionally interrupted by brief spells of blurry, partial wakefulness. The only thing that kept me sane and calm during those short, confused moments was John’s reassuring and safe grip on my hand as he kept faithful vigil beside my sickbed.

Then, finally, I awoke one day and the darkness was gone. I blinked in confusion, and everything was made of sharp, searing light. At least almost everything; however intensely I tried to open my left eye, it simply would not obey me. A silhouette was standing in front of me, and at first I thought that it was John. But then the man spoke, and I realized that he was a doctor.

He told me that I had been lucky, that the shrapnel had only punctuated one of my eyes and that they had thankfully been able to save the right one. He then told me about several surgical operations and a long, long time of insecurity as to whether I would have the strength to wake up again. He told me that us even having this very conversation was a miracle in its own right. It was a riddle to all how I had managed, bleeding, blind and dying, to find and trudge my way back to safety.

“It was John”, I said in a voice rough from disuse. “He led me by the hand the entire way.”

I tried to squeeze John’s hand in mine, but I could not move my fingers. I wanted so badly to look at him, to see that he was alright, but my left eye was blind and my neck hurt too much to move.

“John Curtis?”, the doctor said, and even though I could only see him diffusely the tone of his voice betrayed his concern.

“Yes”, I said and even managed a defiant smile. Then and there I did not care what he knew or thought about us. In that moment I could have bravely and foolishly made John all those promises we had been too afraid to make before, and more. I hoped that he could hear this in my voice – that they both could.

The doctor was silent for a long time, and when again he spoke his voice was grave and worried.

“You must be mistaken”, he said. “You came alone. I saw it myself.”

At this I laughed and shook my head, actions both of which sent pain shooting through my body once more. But I did not care, this was all too absurd. Still smiling broadly, I turned finally to my left to meet John’s gaze. But he was gone. I stared in confusion, knowing that he had been there, holding my hand, just a moment ago.

The doctor, mistaking my sudden silence for something else, hurried to my side and put his hand on my right shoulder. “I am sorry, son, I should have told you sooner. You must have lost it in the explosion, and when we found it the day after it was too late to do anything. But everything has healed beautifully, and with some training you should be able to–”

But I was not listening to him anymore. I had let my gaze wander downwards to where my left arm should have been, and was now staring in shocked disbelief at the bandaged stump that had now taken its place.

“But… But John, he was… Right now, I…” I realized that I was rambling, but my thoughts simply would not come together. He had been sitting there, right beside me, holding my left hand. And now they were both gone.

“I am terribly sorry, but John Curtis is dead”, the doctor interrupted me. “He was killed in the explosion that took your arm. In fact, that was how we found it. Even in death he was holding on to your left hand.”

***

They sent me home after that. I do not think that they would have reinstated me into service even if my body had been intact, since it must have been so painfully apparent that my mind was not. I do not know what happened to the ring, and have only presumed that someone must have stolen it. It was never returned to me, at the very least.

I went to John’s funeral and met his estranged parents and siblings. I told them that I was a friend, and saying those words hurt more than I had thought it would. I exchanged a few polite stories with the grieving family, but left soon after when it became painfully clear to me that we were not even talking about the same person.

This was all a long time ago now. I eventually learned to live with one arm and one eye, and nowadays I barely reflect upon the loss at all. The only reason, however, that I am able to live with a heart irrevocably split by sorrow, is that I know that the other half of it is never far away – just as despite all I still know that John Curtis saved my life on that cursed day.

Because every day and every night since then, however far I walk and wherever I may go, as soon as I close my eye I feel it; John’s strong fingers lacing together with those of my missing, left hand, as he walks beside me to the end of days.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-18

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

Always Keep it Locked

Now I am going to tell you about something that happened to me a couple of years back. I won’t tell you what to make of it, because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself. But here goes.

Back when I was a journalism student in Stockholm, finding a place to live was a real pain in the ass. I think I only ever knew one person who actually owned their own apartment. Most of my other friends and classmates rented their homes as sublets (or illegal sublets of sublets), or lived in the spare rooms of strangers as bizarrely overpaying lodgers.

Need I tell you that the rents were always ridiculously high? Well, they were. Absurdly so. Everyone were looking for a place to live, and all apartment adds on Facebook or in the papers were flooded with replies as soon as they came out. Getting first in line for any of them was, to say the least, entirely fucking impossible.

Therefore, when I found the add about a relatively cheap attic room for rent only ten minutes away from my school I didn’t think much of it. Someone else must have taken it already, was what I thought. But I still called, and was both surprised and incredibly happy when the old lady who answered said that I could move in the very next day.

Said and done. I packed my stuff in my car and drove the two hundred kilometers or so to Saltsjö-Boo, which is located in Nacka – a suburb of Stockholm. Everything felt new and a little bit crazy. I was to leave my old life behind (for a time at least), and do something entirely new, all on my own.

It was August, and although I arrived late it was still light out. The old lady lived in a big, red two storey house down by the water of an inlet called Skurusundet. The neighboring houses were just as big, and I could only imagine what buying a home here must cost.

The old lady – I’ll leave out her surname, but her first name was Harriet – greeted me on the porch when I stepped out of the car. She was a frail figure in her late eighties, and I remember catching myself wondering how she was able to manage that big house on her own. She had told me on the phone that her husband had passed away five years back, and that it was only this summer that she had cleaned out his old stuff from the attic room that I was now to rent.

She showed me where to park and then walked ahead of me to the back of the house, where a seemingly rather new built wooden staircase led up to a separate entrance on the attic level of the building. I kind of wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to climb up there to show me the room, that I could manage on my own. But she seemed so stubborn about making it up there that I kept my mouth shut and walked a couple of steps behind her as she slowly struggled upwards.

She unlocked the door and let me into a quite large room that took up at least half of the attic area. It was neatly fitted with a bed, a table, a portable kitchenette and some empty bookshelves. There were no windows, but I didn’t mind. Finding a place like this for a price like that in this part of town more than enough compensated for that.

Apart from the entrance, three doors led away from the room. One of them led to a small, simple bathroom with toilet and shower. She told me that this had been put in only four weeks ago, in order for tenants to live up here. The second door led to a big, cluttered storage space, that she unlocked briefly just to show me what it was. I’m guessing that this was where she had tucked away all her late husband’s belongings. She told me that I could put stuff in there if I needed to, but that she didn’t recommend it since the storage room lacked proper insulation.

After she had showed me all this – a process that didn’t take very long – we stopped in front of the third door.

“This door leads down to the rest of the house”, she said. “Always keep it locked. If you need to talk to me, you go out around the house and use the front door. And remember to knock first.”

I told her that of course I would respect this, and promised her that I wouldn’t come barging down the attic stairs and disturb her privacy. To be honest, if she had asked me to always leave my shoes outside and never to bring friends over I would have been fine with that as well. As long as I had somewhere to live in this city I’d be prepared to cope with just about anything. At least that’s how I felt at the time.

We signed a contract and she gave me the keys. She was really sweet actually, and told me about stores, bus connections and things to see nearby. Before she left me to mind my own business, however, she stopped one last time in the doorway and turned back to face me. “Keep it locked”, she said flatly. Then she closed the door behind her and started struggling her way back down the stairs outside.

I remember staring at the closed door in confusion, wondering what the hell that was – and why Harriet herself hadn’t used the interior stairs to get back down to the house. Then I just shrugged it off and went down to the car to start carrying all my stuff inside.

I settled in quite nicely. My courses started and the initial couple of months went by in a flurry of seminars, new acquaintances and study visits to the editorial staffs of different newspapers. I was rarely at home except for when I was sleeping or studying for tests.

I saw very little of Harriet, except for the occasional chance encounter in the garden. She kept mostly to herself, and since I had no windows I had no idea how often she even left the house. The only reason that I even knew she was living there in the house below me was two weird habits of hers that I discovered rather early on.

Every time she got home, namely, she knocked on her own front door before unlocking it. The first few times she did it, I always thought that she was having visitors over. It was only when I came home early one day and caught her after grocery shopping that I realized that she was doing it herself. I didn’t ask her about it. It was too odd, and I was afraid that it would embarrass her if she knew that I’d seen her. But after that day I started thinking that maybe she wasn’t as clear in the head as I had initially thought.

That was Harriet’s first strange habit. I told my friends about it and they thought it was hilarious. Every time we were studying at my place we always silenced and laughed when we heard her come knocking downstairs.

Her second habit, however, was one that quickly started irritating me more and more. The old lady turned out to be a real night owl, who didn’t go to bed until well after midnight. This in itself wouldn’t have bothered me the slightest, were it not for the way I was involuntarily made aware of her sleep routines. Because before Harriet went to bed, she always checked the attic door to see that it was really locked. Every single night.

I could lie in bed sleeping, and then suddenly jump in terror at the sudden squeak as old door handle was slowly pressed down a couple of times. Or, on nights when I was awake late studying for an exam, I could hear the soft creaking of the interior attic steps as she slowly made her way upstairs. Then the door handle would invariably be pressed down two or three times, before the creaking steps retreated downstairs again. And I repeat: this happened every fucking night.

Not only did the old woman apparently not trust me to keep to her rules, which was frustrating in itself, but she also had to scare me half out of my senses every night, at that? But as I said before, I was happy just to have a place to live, and didn’t want to antagonize the old, paranoid woman. So I settled for telling my friends and just having a laugh about it instead. On days when I seemed more tired than usual in school, they always teased me about it being because my weird landlady had kept me awake that night.

For some reason it actually never crossed my mind to be afraid of her, no matter her crazy demeanor. I just thought of her as an old person who was extremely particular about her privacy, and never fell for my classmates’ attempts to frighten me with stupid stories of her one night standing above my bed with a knife in her hand.

Until one particular night in late December, that is. I had been living in the attic room for almost four months, and had made myself quite well at home there. School was about to end for the holidays the following week, and my entire class were studying like crazy for the end-of-year exams. It had been snowing like crazy for the last couple of days, and I stayed inside with my reading to the extent that I could.

Anyways, there I was, sitting at my small table in the middle of the night, preparing for tomorrow’s test, when I could suddenly hear the first creak at the bottom of the staircase. I tried to ignore it like I always did, and continued reading. The steps drew closer, like always, and then stopped outside the door. The door handle was slowly being pressed down with its, by now, familiar creak, and then everything went silent again.

I stopped reading and glanced behind me when the sound of the handle being let up again never came. When I turned around I realized that the door handle still pointed downwards; it was still being pressed down. I just stared at it for several seconds. Was it broken? Or was the old woman still standing outside the door, holding it down?

After a while I began feeling creeped out at not knowing, and at thinking that maybe she was standing on the stairs, staring at the other side of the door.

“It is locked, Harriet”, I said loud enough for her to hear me.

Another couple of seconds passed, and I had almost convinced myself that the handle actually was broken, when it suddenly slowly started rising again. Then I heard the slow, creaking steps descending the stairs, before everything became quiet once more. I realized that I had been holding my breath, and that my heart was racing. I remember thinking “what the fuck is wrong with her?” I mean, I already knew that she was odd, but what was this about now suddenly?

I didn’t manage to get back to studying that night, and when I flunked the test the following day I laughingly blamed Harriet’s strange nightly visit. It became that day’s most-told story, and I didn’t think about how creepy the experience had actually been until I got home again that evening.

I went to bed, but the thought of the night before wouldn’t leave my head. In the end I had to get out of bed again and place a chair below the door handle before I could relax enough to actually go to sleep.

I awoke some time around midnight. It was pitch black in the room – of course, since I didn’t have any windows – and I wasn’t sure what it was that had woken me up. Then I heard the sound again, and was wide awake in an instant. It was the door-handle, the one I had propped up with a leaning chair earlier that night. It was creaking at even intervals, as if someone was struggling to press it down despite the resistance. I stared into the darkness, not daring to make a sound. The intervals quickly became shorter and shorter, until the door handle was drumming intensely against the back of the chair.

I almost panicked there in the dark. Then the chair suddenly fell over with a loud crash, and I screamed. The door handle was pressed down with a decisive creak, and by the sound of it was not let back up for several seconds. Then, slowly, it creaked back into place, and the steps outside retreated down the stairs again. By that time I was almost mad with fear, and just sat there in the dark, huddling with the blankets against the corner of my bed and listening for the slightest hint of a sound. I didn’t sleep at all for the rest of the night, but I guess I don’t need to tell you that.

I called in sick the next day. I just had to sleep. Or, what I actually wanted was to call my mum and tell her to come and take me home. But there were just a couple of days left in school for the semester, and I felt I had to finish. I had to pull thorough somehow.

After sleeping for a couple of hours, I decided to go down and talk to Harriet about the whole thing. Tell her that she had to stop doing this. I thought that if she got mad at me, I would just move out. I’d live on someone’s couch for a while until I found something else. I could put up with much, but this had even crossed my line.

I thought about using the interior stairs, but decided against it. I would be the bigger person here, and just because she disrespected my integrity didn’t mean I would stoop to doing the same to her. So I used my own front door, walked around the house and up to hers. The tracks in the snow outside were almost invisible, and I understood that she had not been out for a while. Maybe something had happened? Maybe she was ill, and this was why she had needed so desperately to get a hold of me last night?

I don’t know if I even considered this as a real possibility, or if I was just grasping for manageable explanations, but these were the thoughts that went through my head as I plodded through the snow and up to her door.

I knocked, waited and knocked again, but got no reply. I picked up my phone and tried calling. I could hear the signals from inside the house, but she didn’t pick up. I knew she had to be in there, but either she didn’t want to talk to me, or she was too sick to do so. And I realized that I had to find out.

If the old woman was so ill that she hadn’t been out for days, I had to find out and help her. I tried the door-handle, but the door was locked. I understood what I must do. Sure, if all was well with her she might get angry with me for taking liberties with her rules, but so be it. It was still better than risking it being the other way around, and doing nothing.

I walked back through the snow and back up to my attic room. As I approached the door leading to downstairs I could not help but feeling like I was about to do something very wrong. But the thought of the old woman lying helpless down in the house drove me on. The key was still in the lock where it had been when I first got here, and I reached out to turn it. Before I could, however, my phone rang and the sudden noise made me jump.

I picked the phone up and looked at it, expecting Harriet’s number to be on the display. But it wasn’t – it was a number I’d never seen before. Hesitantly I turned away from the door and answered.

It was a woman on the other end. It was not Harriet however, but a younger one. And what she told me… Well, let’s say it made me start packing my bags as soon as the call was ended.

She told me that she was Harriet’s daughter, and that she was sorry that she hadn’t called earlier, but the last couple of days had been a real mess. There had been so many relatives to call and things to fix, but now she just wanted to tell me that I could of course continue renting the attic room until the contract ended, even though things had sadly taken this turn.

At first I didn’t understand anything of what she was saying, and after a while I had to interrupt her and ask her to clarify. And it was then that she apologized again, and said that she had just assumed that her sister had called me already to tell me that Harriet had died in the hospital three days ago.

I went cold all over, and to be honest I don’t remember much of the call after that. Only that I monotonously thanked her for the kindness of letting me stay, said my condolences and then hung up. While doing so, I had slowly, slowly backed away from the door that I had been seconds away from unlocking. It was like in a movie. I just shook my head, said “fuck this”, and then started packing.

The rough half hour it took me to get everything into the car and scrape the snow and ice off its windows was thirty minutes of panicked terror. I even remember leaving some of my final things behind, for the simple reason that I could not bring myself to walk into that house one more time to get them. And then I drove away.

I didn’t drive all the way home to Gävle, of course. By the time I got onto the road I had calmed down enough to think somewhat rationally again, and instead drove to one of my friends who lived at the school’s boarding house. I don’t know how coherent I was when I got there, but she kindly let me stay at her place until end of term the week after.

I went home over the holidays, and when they were over I managed to get a room at the boarding house myself, as someone else had recently moved out. The room was small as hell and expensive as shit, but I didn’t mind. As long as I didn’t have to go back to that place I was happy.

I finished my studies and moved back to my home town, where I now work as a reporter for the local newspaper. But even now, several years later, I don’t know what to think. Perhaps I dreamed those things, or maybe I was just completely stressed out about the upcoming exams. I honestly don’t know. I just felt that I had to write it all down to maybe get it off my chest.

But I do know one thing: I’ve never really been able to shake the feeling that there was something living in that house together with Harriet, and that when she told me to “always keep it locket”, it was not in a paranoid attempt to protect her own integrity – it was to protect me.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-11

This story was written in response to a writing prompt,