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.


 

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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,

Two Takes

I know that there are hundreds of stories about the life of Ferdinand Baresi, and while most of them consist of idolizing exaggerations I also know some of them to be true. I also know, however, that there are in circulation just as many stories about his death, and this is the reason behind me at long last sitting myself down to write. Because whichever one of all these stories you yourself have chosen to give credit – be it the one about drugs or one of the more fanciful ones about clever, premeditated murder – I want you to know that you are wrong. Ferdinand was my closest friend, and I think that his memory deserves truth. This account is written in honor of that conviction.

Here follows thus the one true story of Ferdinand’s life and death, as far as I know it. I shall endeavor only to relate the hard facts, and refrain from speculations. There are enough of those already, even though the circumstances of my friend’s demise have confounded me as well. Let us begin.

There was no actor, dead or alive, who could compare to Ferdinand Baresi. He was simply a legend, an uncrowned king of the silver screen. His agreeable appearance, of course, did him some favors, but that was not nearly half of it. For where this trait obviously gave him an edge towards his audience, he also sported another characteristic that made directors and cameramen love him to pieces. Ferdinand, namely, had one fantastical ability: no matter how difficult the setting, he was always able to masterfully complete every scene in no more than two takes.

Ferdinand was not always this mythical movie star hero, however. When I first started knowing him, he was struggling with his beginning career. We were both in our early twenties and found ourselves enrolled to the same college literature class. By that time I was just yet developing the manners and characteristics of the dry scholar I was later to become, while Ferdinand was already the full blown, hopeless romantic that the world would soon come to know and love. Irrespective of our severe differences, however, we found one another in our common love for Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and the three typical Williams: Wordsworth, Blake and Shakespeare.

Our daily talks about literature and poetry soon morphed into drunken late-night discussions about the mysteries of life, love and the future. I told him about my dream to become a teacher, and he told me about his passion for acting. As I nagged him about sociolinguistics and advanced grammar he shared with me the rules of the acting-trade, like how you should never look directly into the camera.

I was never one to entertain many loose acquaintances. Instead I have always preferred to keep a smaller selection of close, trusted friends – and before long I began counting Ferdinand among those. There was simply something about him and his open, honest ways that made me like and trust him.

For the sake of credibility, I feel obliged to here mention that while I am positive that Ferdinand himself never saw me as more than a dear friend, I grew to think and dream of him as something more. I strainedly endured the awkward situations when he helpfully tried to introduce me to girls he knew, and suffered secretly as he dreamily told me about the different women in his own life. This has no impact on the story, however, and I mention it only as a show of scholarly transparency. This account is not about me, after all, and there is still much to be related.

I told you that Ferdinand was struggling, but that choice of words was a staggering understatement. When he first told me about his aspirations as a Hollywood actor, of course, he sounded so sure of himself. His reports of recurring successes in the local field made me think that his breakthrough surely must not be far off into the future. But months turned into years and his participation in some smaller independent productions, that initially had brought him such pride and hope, began to appear sarcastically in his daily speech as proof of tragic failure.

I know that many of these cynic thoughts were pure internalization of his stoical father’s harsh words to him. The old man did not approve of his son’s career choice, and I even came to understand from Ferdinand’s frustrated descriptions of their meetings that his father strongly wished for him to be more like me. It is my deepest hope that this never caused any hatred towards me in my friend’s heart, but I was never able to find out. If this was the case, however, he never let it show.

Ferdinand idolized his father, and although he never expressed any will to follow in his footsteps he often vented a desperate wish to make him proud. He was convinced that were he only able to really succeed as an actor, his disappointed father would change his mind about him. And so he struggled on, worked part time jobs and never gave up hope about that elusive next, defining casting.

During all this time Ferdinand and I had continued studying literature and poetry in different setups. Some semesters we took spontaneous campus classes together, whilst during others we settled for reading and analyzing texts together in cafés, libraries, in my spacious flat or in his rustic attic apartment. I had managed to get an advantageous position as a history teacher at a local school and was getting along rather well in life.

On the particular night of which I am now going to tell you, I was sitting alone in my home, reading. My work was taking up much of my time, and I had to plan my days well in order to keep up with the reading for the class me and Ferdinand were taking together that year. We were reading and analyzing Faust, and I remember this so clearly only because of what happened next.

Suddenly there was a hard knock on the door, and when I opened it I found my friend standing outside in the stairway. He was soaking wet from the rain, but I could clearly see that he had also been crying. Perhaps he still was. I had never seen him in such a rueful state. I quickly ushered him inside and made sure to get him into new, warm clothes. I gave him tea and wine to drink, but he only touched the wine. It did not take me long to realize that this was not the first glass of spirits he had taken that night. After some solacing suasion on my part he finally managed to calm himself enough to tell me about the terrible thing that had happened.

Ferdinand’s father had died earlier that evening. It had not come completely unexpectedly, and Ferdinand had managed to get to the hospital in time to be there with him during his final minutes. But instead of sorrowful comfort, this final visit had only brought Ferdinand excruciating pain. Because what his father had said to him with his dying breaths was almost more than what Ferdinand could bear to recount.

In short, the dying man had accursed the cruel fate that ever endowed him with such a failure for a son. He had told Ferdinand of all the high hopes he had ever had for him, and how it pained him eternally that he had not even tried to live up to them. He had called him names and finally disowned him; Ferdinand had been written out of his father’s will, lest all the old man’s hard-earned fortune be misappropriated by a son too shiftless to use it wisely.

I tried helplessly to comfort my friend as best as I could, but it was futile. His father’s words had broken him completely. He drank more wine and fell asleep on my couch that night, and when the morning came he was gone without a word. Over the next few weeks I tried to get a hold of him in any way that I could, but it was as if the earth had swallowed him entirely – he was gone.

Of course I feared the worst. Given my friend’s emotional and impetuous nature, I was frightened that in his desperation he might have done something to hurt himself. For several weeks I lived in a constant state of rising panic that distracted me from everything else. In the end I was almost completely convinced that my friend was dead; that he had ended his own life in a desperate response to his father’s harsh, final words. My surprise and relief all the greater, then, when Ferdinand one day showed up on my doorstep again. But my surprise did not end there.

The Ferdinand that now stood outside my door was nothing like the sad creature that had last come knocking. He greeted me with a wide smile and a bottle of champagne. He told me that it had finally happened – he had been cast for a big role in an upcoming Hollywood production. As he strode past me into my living room to pour us both a glass of sparkling drink I just stood there, unable to take the whole situation in. During the course of the evening I was given all the more reason to be perplexed.

Ferdinand did not want to tell me what had happened since he left my apartment last, and masterfully avoided all my questions pertaining to the subject. Instead he told me a story about a chance bar encounter with the friend of a famous director, a successful meeting and a splendid audition leading to a fantastic contract.

“There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance”, he said as he raised and downed his third or maybe fourth glass. The words rang an ominous bell within me, but it was not until much later that I was able to place their origin and realize what horrors they might actually have signified.

I was of course incredibly happy for my friend, especially since I knew that this was everything he had always been dreaming of. A part of me could not help but remain suspicious of his incredible story, however. Did he make all this up, or was it maybe symptoms of a stress induced neurosis? The healing, patterned scars across the palms of his hands would certainly support this theory, but when I hesitantly brought them up he hastily changed the subject and hid his hands under the table. I tried my best to likewise hide my own worries and disbelief, and we spent the remainder of the night celebrating. After four bottles of wine he even happened to kiss me, but I am doubtful he meant anything by it or even remembered it the next day.

So Ferdinand went to Hollywood, and even though we promised to keep in touch and visit one another often, things naturally did not happen that way. That first movie became an instant success, and suddenly Ferdinand’s face was on the cover of ever magazine and his name on everyone’s lips. He was given another contract, and then another one. From my place back at home I followed his blossoming career with a smile and a deep longing. Months became years and out letters and calls grew increasingly far apart. I never forgot him, however, and never gave up hope that he might one day return to me. But with the years that hope turned into dreams, and finally I began viewing it as little more than the silly wishes of the young man I once was.

Apart from all his skillful appearances on the silver screen, it was not until the night of my second wedding that I finally saw him again. Many years had passed by that time, and I was not a young man anymore. I had become a literature professor at the same collage as where Ferdinand and I once studied together, and already had one failed marriage behind me. My bride this time was a colleague and dear friend, and although we were both aware that this might not be love in that traditional sense, we were both happily taking this measure to preempt the loneliness that might otherwise come with old age.

He showed up at the wedding reception. It was late by then and many of the guests had already withdrawn for the night. I was standing on the porch of the house smoking that evening’s eleventh cigar when someone suddenly joined me by the banister.

“Congratulations”, he said – and I recognized his voice immediately. In shock I turned towards him, and it was as if all those twenty years spilled off me. He was just as I remembered him, and when I looked into his eyes my heart almost stopped as I realized how much I actually still loved him. I could not help but embrace him, and the relief as he returned the embrace was not of this world. I do not know which one of us suggested it, but we walked off into the night as Ferdinand told me about his life and I told him about mine. Of my new bride I entertained by the time not a singled thought.

I told Ferdinand about my work, my books and my travels, and he told me about his movies and his extravagant life. I do not know if I am to deduce something from it, but for some reason he did not tell me anything about any relationships during our entire walk. When everything else had been discoursed, we went on to talk about our shared youth and all our mutual, happy memories. We went on for hours, and I, for my own part, was in heaven. I never wanted this night to end, and had he asked me at that time to come away with him I would gladly have done so without a thought.

Ferdinand seemed happy as well, but as the hours passed I grew to increasingly scent a hidden, deep sorrow in him – something he hid masterly with his acting skills, but which as an old friend I could not help but to notice. Finally, I could not refrain from asking him about it. At this, he became silent for a long time, as if lost in mournful thought or memory.

“We have led good lives”, he said finally – and now something in his voice – in the entire atmosphere – had changed. I did not know what to say to that, so I remained silent and waited for him to continue.

He sighed, and said: “We have done fabulous things, things we only talked and dreamed of when we were young together. Now that I’m finally nearing fifty, I sometimes find myself wishing that I would have let it all stay at that; as harmless talk and dreams.” He looked absentmindedly down at his palms, and I could briefly glimpse the faded scars that still adorned them.

I asked him what he meant, but I could feel as soon as I opened my mouth that my voice broke some kind of spell. He looked up at me, smiled and dismissively shook his head.

“Never mind the ramblings of an old, drunken fool”, he said. “Let us find a place to go that is still open, and forget about all sorrow. This is a night for celebration, after all, and not for the self-induced melancholy of an old, foolish friend.”

He refused all my attempts to approach the subject again after that, and we ended up drinking our wits away in some bar that I for the life of me cannot remember the name of today. I did not go home that night – a fact that I do not regret but which I will neither ever be able to forgive myself for.

When I woke up late the next day it was in a wide, disorderly hotel bed with no clear recollection of what had happened during those drunken, diffuse hours between night and morning. Ferdinand was gone, and on the pillow next to me was an envelope with my name on it in beautiful, careful letters. With shaking hands I opened it. Neither the envelope nor the piece of paper inside were from the hotel, and I realized that he must have prepared them in advance.

The message inside was short, but I remember it by heart to this very day – especially because it was the last I ever heard from him, and because of what I later realized that it might mean.

“While Man’s desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err.
I hope you will be able to forgive me for my choices,
and that you will never forget me.
Eternally yours,
Ferdinand.”

I never saw Ferdinand Baresi again. I tried to call him on his fiftieth birthday one week later, but his agent told me that he was working. He never called me back. Reading the newspaper the next day, I understood why: Ferdinand had died the night before, in the middle of shooting a scene for his next movie.

I was devastated at learning this, of course. My wife must have realized that my feelings for Ferdinand were more than just those of long-ago friendship, but she was supportive throughout and never said anything to question my grief.

I went alone to see the movie on its eventual release, more to honor my late friend than due to any personal love for the genre. The director, as you might be aware, is well known for his intricate and unconventional takes on the psychologically bizarre, and Ferdinand’s last movie was no exception. In countless interviews reporters had inquired the director about his unusual choice to include in the movie the take that shows Ferdinand dying. The man always defended himself with the claim that the decision was made in honor of Ferdinand’s memory, and that even in dying he had managed to deliver his act perfectly – in the second of two, final takes.

Before seeing the movie I was afraid of what feelings might engulf me at seeing my friend dying on the screen in front of me, but this fear was nothing compared to what reality had in store.

I cannot say that the horror movie itself instilled in me any notable dread, but that might be due to me at the time being preoccupied with thinking about Ferdinand and my grief for him. My friend, as always, had made a masterful job with his character throughout the entire movie, and I found myself smiling amidst the tears at some of his more characteristic intonations and facial expressions. But then came the ending, where both Ferdinand and his character die, and the smile drained from my face.

In the plot of the movie, Ferdinand’s character is chased by a murderer from his past. In that final scene the past finally catches up to him, and the audience can see the character staring in terror and falling to his knees as the killer approaches somewhere outside the camera angle. Then everything dramatically fades to black, and the end credits start to roll.

I have seen the movie many times since then, have tortured myself with watching those terrible, final moments of my friend’s life time and again in an effort to realize what it is that I am actually seeing. But that first time I saw it I froze and could only stare in terror, even as the audience around me burst out applauding and cheering in honor of their fallen hero’s last achievement. And here, for the first time, I will deviate from my promise to refrain from speculations.

Because in those final moments before the cut, Ferdinand looks straight into the camera, and the bottomless horror in his eyes is real. I can feel it in my body every time I see it, and I know it in my heart. My friend saw something in his dying moments that no one else on the set could see, and which frightened him beyond compare.

Make of it what you will, but I for one think often of my friend’s dear wish that suddenly came true, the scars on his hands, his ominous mention of his fiftieth birthday and the two strange things he once said and wrote to me:

“There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance”, and “While Man’s desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err”.

It took me a long time, and my friend’s tragic death, to recognize those lines as the quotes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that they actually are. But when I finally did, I felt horror engulf me once more.

I am old now, and despite all my efforts to combat loneliness, lonely is exactly what I have become. Lonely with the memory of Ferdinand Baresi, and with the insight that there are things out there that defy sane logic and explanation. Things that might listen to the desperate wishes of a young man distraught with grief after an abusive father, and grant those same wishes – at a terrible price.

And I do not know what about these insane thoughts that frightens me more; that I might be going mad, or that I failed to save my friend from exchanging his soul for the ability to, no matter how difficult the setting, always being able to masterfully complete every scene in no more than two takes.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-07

This story was written as a response to a writing prompt,