There it was, the looming shadow of the mountains. A petrol station flashed by out of the corner of his eye, followed by yet more trees. He’d needed to pee for over two hundred kilometers by then. He pulled off onto a side road and stumbled out of the car, through the wildflowers on the verge. Turned towards the forest and relieved himself.
There was something about the scents. The flowers along the edge of the ditch. The dew in the grass and the haze in the evening air, the buttercups and fireweed and cow parsley, standing a meter tall. Or maybe it was timothy grass, what did he know. He just recognized the smell.
The tarmac was bumpy with frost damage, and soon gave over to gravel. He could take a left in twenty or so kilometers and be back on the highway; it wasn’t a big detour. The landscape opened out in front of him, green hills and low valleys. There was something comforting about it, like the gentle curves of a soft, warm woman’s body.
He drove past sleepy farms and abandoned houses, a small lake so calm that the reflection of the forest looked just like the forest itself. Each tree identical to the next. He had once climbed a mountain and looked down at the endless forests of the Ådalen Valley, realized they went on forever.
There were no other cars around when he reached the fork in the road. He recognized the yellow wooden building straight ahead. These days all he could see through its dusty display window were piles of construction waste, but the sign was still there; the shop had once sold food. Olof remembered sweets on a Saturday, the taste of jelly frogs and salty licorice fish. He turned the wrong way, heading farther inland. He would still be able to reach the northern fringes of Stockholm before morning. Besides, the boss would be asleep; no one would check the mileage or the exact amount of petrol he’d used. Another five kilometers was no big deal. Olof could always blame the caravans and roadworks; everyone knew what the Swedish roads were like during the summer.
At this time of year. Late June.
The scents, the light, they made his mouth turn dry and his legs go numb. Every fiber of his being knew it was that time of year. After term had ended and the boredom took over, the longest days, when he was thrown out of sync. Olof remembered it as a grayish half-darkness, though it must have been just as bright as now, an endless summer night, pale midnight hours when the sun simply dipped below the horizon.
He drove past things he had long forgotten or simply never thought about. Yet they had been there all along. The yellow house that always had guests in the summer, their children forbidden from cycling on the main road. The old schoolhouse, closed down before he could remember; the fields where the trotter horses huddled together, staring at the road. The white plastic bales of hay, you could climb on top of those and pretend to be king of the hill; and there was the weeping birch on the left, where he slowed down and turned off. It had grown so big. Branches bowed low, clouds of vivid green leaves hiding the letter boxes.
He knew exactly which one it was: gray plastic, the third along. There was a newspaper sticking out of it. Olof hauled himself out of the car and walked over to check the name.
He swatted at the mosquitoes and pulled out the local newspaper. There were another two beneath it, hence why it didn’t quite fit. Ads for fiber broadband, a bill from Kramfors Council. Someone still lived there, received post and newspapers; someone was still paying for the water and to have the bins emptied, or whatever else the bill might be for. Olof felt a shiver pass through him as he read the name on the envelope.
He shoved everything back into the letter box and returned to the car. Grabbed a chocolate biscuit from the bag on the floor, just for something to chew on. He knocked back a can of energy drink and killed the mosquitoes that had followed him in. One had already drunk its fill, and a fleck of red spread across the leather seat. He rubbed it away with some spit and toilet paper, then continued slowly along the old tractor road. The grass in the middle brushed against the bumper, and the car bounced through one pothole after another. Past the Strinneviks’ place, their gray barn visible among the greenery. Down one hill and then up again, he reached the top, where the dark pines ended and nature seemed to open out onto the river and beyond. Olof didn’t dare look. The red house flashed by at the edge of his field of vision. He turned at the end of the road and slowly drove back.
The paint around the windows was peeling. He couldn’t see a car, but it could easily be in the garage. The grass was tall around the woodshed, dotted with small saplings that would soon turn to brush. Olof didn’t know why he had expected it to be any different: abandoned and dilapidated, or sold to strangers who had since moved in.
And yet, it wasn’t.
He pulled over behind the bin and switched off the engine. Golden dandelions studded the lawn. He remembered how hard they were to pull up. You had to get rid of them before they went to seed, otherwise they would spread in the wind. Use a hoe to dig down to the roots so they wouldn’t come back. In his memory, his hands were so small. He looked down at the broad hand that should have been turning the ignition key now.
The sun rose above the tops of the spruce trees, its rays hitting the rearview mirror and blinding him. He closed his eyes and pictured her in front of him, or inside him, he couldn’t quite tell where she was, but that was how he had seen her over and over again, night after night through all these years, whenever he didn’t doze off immediately, blind drunk or exhausted, half-dead, that was how he always saw her, walking into the forest. She wandered in and out of him. So close, not far from there, down towards the river.
That look as she turns onto the trail. Is she smiling at him? Did she
just wave? Come on then, Olof ! Come on! Was that really to him?
Then their voices are all around him, the tang of petrol from their souped-up mopeds, cigarette smoke keeping the mosquitoes at bay.
Seriously, Olof, you’re practically in already. Go after her. Lina’s no tease. Come on, man, you can see she wants it. Maybe he’s a fag? Are you a fag, Olof ? Have you ever even kissed a girl, or just your mum?
Come on, Olof ! You’ve never done it, have you? Just get your hand under her top, do it all quick, that’s what you need to do, get them horny before they have time to think too much.
Their voices are still in his head as he walks along the trail. Her skirt flutters up ahead, her yellow cardigan between the tree trunks.
Velvety smooth arms, laughing, nettle scented, burning tangles around his calves, clouds of mosquitoes and bastard horseflies, blood on her arm where he squashed a horsefly, pow, just like that, and her laughter, Thanks Olof, my hero. There are her lips, right up close. He imagines how soft they must be, like moss, damp, sinking, sucking him in. Tongue in before she has time to speak, he hears them say. Some just want to talk all night, but watch out for that, you’ ll end up in the friend zone. Nope, get your hands on her boobs, squeeze ’em and play with ’em, they like it when you suck on their tits, you do that and you’re home free, I swear, just don’t fucking hesitate, girls learn all that shit about saying no and keeping their legs together even though they’re wet and horny and dream about it too, but you can’t just pound away at them; you’ve got to do it their way. Fingers in, poke her pussy, then go full throttle, pedal to the metal, yeah?
Suddenly Olof is falling headlong into the nettles and he feels her all around him.
There was no air in the car, just humidity and heat. He had to get out.
Thin veils of mist swept over the bay down below. On the other side of the river, the eternal mountains loomed in the distance, columns of steam rising from the paper mill. It was so quiet he could hear the leaves of the aspen trees rustling in a breeze so soft he couldn’t feel it, the buzz of the bees toiling away on the lupins and mayweed. Then he heard the whimpering. Pitiful, as though it was being made by something that was injured, unhappy.
It was coming from inside the house. Olof tried to cover the short distance back to the car without making a sound, before the dog noticed him, but that was impossible with a body like his; the grass and twigs broke under his weight. He could hear his own heavy breathing over the buzzing of the insects, and the dog could too. It started barking like crazy. Howling and scratching, throwing itself against the wall or the door. The sound made him think of the wild barks of the hunting dogs, the way they leapt at the mesh in their cages when you cycled by. The police dogs. When they were brought down to the river to track Lina’s scent, their distant barks when they found her things.
He knew he should get back in the car and drive away, fast, before the old man woke up and saw someone outside. Would he grab his hunting rifle, the one Olof had been allowed to hold, the one he was never old enough to fire? Colors and furniture tumbled around in his memory. The painted green stairs, the floral pattern on the wallpaper, his old bed beneath the sloping roof.
Then he saw the water, trickling slowly down the side of the house. Had one of the pipes sprung a leak? And why was the dog shut in? Olof could hear that it wasn’t in the hall by the front door, the natural place for a hunting dog, for any dog; the sound was farther back. Possibly in the kitchen, at the far end of the hallway. Olof pictured pale blue panels, white-painted cabinets, something cooking slowly on the hob.
The dog must be home alone. Surely no one could sleep that deeply.
His thoughts turned to the rock, the round one, by the corner of the house. A couple of wood lice scuttled away as he picked it up. The key was still there.
His hand was shaking so much that pushing it into the lock proved difficult. Olof had no right to unlock the door. You should know that they have declined all contact.
The particular scent of the house hit him, a sense of being a child again. The painting of the old man with a big mustache that used to look down at him from the wall, some prime minister from a hundred years ago, was now at eye level. And there was the bench with the cushion where they took off their shoes, the rag rugs his grandmother had weaved. They were barely visible beneath the things dumped all over the place, tools and equipment leaving only a narrow passageway down the hall, bags of empty cans and bottles. His mother never would have allowed the place to get into this state. He heard claws scrabbling against wood. Olof had been right: the dog was shut in the kitchen, a broom wedged against the door. No one should be allowed to do that to a dog, he knew that much, despite the tangle of thoughts swirling through his mind.
He yanked the broom away and took cover behind the door as he turned the handle. Broom still in hand, in case he needed to ward off the dog’s jaws. But it shot straight past him, a black blur, darting outside. The stench of urine and shit followed it out, awful, the poor bastard had made a real mess in there.
That was when he noticed the water coming from the bathroom. It was seeping out beneath the door, washing over the rag rugs in the living room and forming small rivers and lakes on the brown linoleum floor.
The little indicator on the lock was white, not red, as it was when someone was in the bathroom. Olof had learned to lock himself in there with his comics. That was what you had to do when you had an annoying older sister screaming to let her in.
He opened the door and the water surged out over his shoes. There was a sponge floating inside, dirt and loose hair, dead flies.
The striped shower curtain was closed, and Olof felt the cold water seep through his socks as he stepped into the room. He could do that, if nothing else: try to turn off the water before he left, so the house wouldn’t be completely ruined. He pulled back the curtain.
There was someone sitting behind it. A crooked body slumped in an unfamiliar chair. Olof knew what he was looking at, but he couldn’t quite process it. The old man was hunched over, completely white. In the sunlight filtering through the window, his skin seemed to glisten like the scales of a fish. Tendrils of wet hair were plastered across his scalp. Olof managed to take another step forward to reach the knob, and the water finally stopped flowing.
Other than his own hoarse breathing and the flies buzzing against the windowpane, he couldn’t hear a sound. The last few drops of water. The naked body seemed to draw his gaze, holding it firmly. The man’s skin seemed loose somehow, with greenish patches across his back. Gripping the handbasin, Olof leaned in. He couldn’t see the man’s eyes, but his prominent nose had a bump in the middle, an old bandy injury from his youth. He saw the man’s penis, crooked as a worm between his legs.
Then the handbasin came loose from the wall. A deafening crash, as though the house itself were falling down, and he lost his balance. Splashed around, hitting his head on the washing machine, slipping when he tried to get up.
Crawling on all fours, he managed to leave the bathroom and struggle to his feet.
Out of there.
He slammed the door behind him and locked up. Put the key back where he had found it and walked towards the car as quickly and as normally as he could. He started the engine and put it into reverse, ramming into the bin.
Plenty of old people died like that, he thought as he pulled away, his heart still beating so hard he could hear it thundering in his ears. They had a heart attack or a stroke and then just keeled over and died. The police wouldn’t care. A lot of them live alone, some aren’t found until years later.
But why had he shut the dog in?
Olof slammed on the brakes. There it was, right in front of him, standing in the middle of the road. Another ten meters and he would have flattened the stupid thing. Mouth open, tongue lolling out, shaggy and excited and jet black. It looked like the product of some kind of wild dalliance in the woods, with the head of a Labrador and the coat of an overgrown terrier, ears standing to attention. Olof revved the engine. He had to deliver the car, a beautiful Pontiac, a real find; it needed to be parked outside the boss’s garage
by morning, the key hidden in the usual place.
But the dog wasn’t moving.
If he blasted the horn, the neighbors might have heard it and put two and two together, so instead he got out and shooed it. The dog glared at him.
“Get out of the way, you stupid bastard,” he hissed, throwing a stick at it. The dog caught it midair and bounded forward, dropping it by his feet and wagging its entire rear end as though it thought life were some kind of damn game. Olof hurled the stick as far as he could into the woods, and the dog charged after it through the bilberry bushes. He was just about to climb back into the car when he heard footsteps on the gravel behind him.
“Nice ride,” a voice called out. “Not exactly what you expect to see out here in the sticks.”
Olof saw a man approaching with fast, light steps. He was wearing a pair of long shorts and a polo shirt, white canvas shoes. He patted the black lid of the boot as though it were a horse.
“Trans Am third generation, right?”
Olof had frozen with one foot in the car, the other on the road. “Mmm, an eighty-eight,” he mumbled into the paintwork. “It’s
heading to Stockholm, Upplands Bro.” He wanted to say that he was in a hurry, that he had to get going before the summer traffic built up; it was Midsummer’s Eve, a Friday, meaning there would be queues in every direction, and on top of that there were warnings about roadworks and lane closures between Hudiksvall and Gävle. But he couldn’t get the words to come out. The dog had also returned with the stick, nudging him with its nose.
“So it’s not for sale?”
“It’s not mine. I’m just driving it.”
“And you ended up here?”
The man was smiling, but Olof could hear what lay behind his voice, behind his smile. There was always something else there.
“Just needed to take a leak.”
“And you chose this road? Sorry for asking, but we’ve had a bit of trouble in the past—gangs of thieves scoping out the cabins. The neighbor down there had his lawn mower stolen. We all try to keep an eye out. For strange cars, that kind of thing.”
The dog had sniffed out his food, and was attempting to get into the car between his legs. The dirt in the kitchen flashed through his mind, the cartons scattered across the floor. It must have fought its way into the cupboards trying to find something to eat.
Olof grabbed it by the scruff of its neck, making it growl and squirm.
“Is it yours?”
“No, I…………………. It was in the middle of the road.”
“Hang on, isn’t that Sven Hagström’s dog?” The man turned around and peered up towards the house, still visible among the trees. “Is he home?”
Olof struggled with the words. The truth. The shower running and running, the pale skin dissolving before his eyes. The key beneath the rock. He cleared his throat and gripped the car door.
“Sven’s dead.” Something inside him shifted, contracting his throat as he spoke, like tying a knot and pulling it tight. He knew he had to say something else, because the man was now backing away from him, staring at the number plate. Olof saw he had a phone in his hand.
“The key was under the rock,” he managed to blurt out. “I wanted to let the dog out I was just driving by.”
“And who are you?” The man was holding his phone out in front of him. Olof heard a click, then another. Was he taking photos of the car, of him?
“I’m calling,” he said. “I’m calling the police right now.” “He’s my dad. Sven Hagström.”
The man glanced down at the dog and then up at Olof. His eyes seemed to bore beneath the layers of the person he had become.
“Olof? You’re Olof Hagström?” “I was going to call, but . . .”
“My name’s Patrik Nydalen,” the man told him, backing away again. “You might not remember me, I’m Tryggve and Mejan’s son, from up there.” He pointed along the road, towards a house farther back among the trees. Olof couldn’t see it, but he knew it appeared in a clearing when you walked along the snowmobile trail. “I can’t say I remember you, but I was only five or six when . . .”
In the silence that followed, Olof could see the cogs turning in his blond head, the flicker in his eyes as the memories returned. Everything he had been told over the years.
“Maybe you should tell them what happened yourself,” he continued. “I’ll dial the number and pass the phone to you, OK?” The man held out the phone to him, stretching his arm as far as he could. “It’s my personal phone. But I have my work phone on me too, I always do.”
The dog was now in the car, nose deep in his bag of food, rooting around in it.
“Or I can call them myself,” said Patrik Nydalen, backing up again.
Olof slumped into the driver’s seat. He remembered a couple of little kids up at the Nydalen homestead. Didn’t they have rabbits, in a cage behind the house? Olof had snuck over and opened it one summer night, luring them out with dandelion leaves. Maybe the fox had caught them.
Or maybe they were finally free.
Tove Alsterdal burst upon the Swedish book scene in 2009 with The Forgotten Dead and won the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year Award in 2014 for The Disappeared. In the fall of 2020, she launched the High Coast Series, a classic procedural crime series featuring investigator Eira Sjödin and set in the stunning coastal region of northeast Sweden. The first book in the series, We Know You Remember, won the 2020 Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Swedish Book of the Year Award. For more on Tove Alsterdal, visit: http://ahlanderagency.