The Boy at the Door

Alex Dahl

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Boy at the Door, the debut mystery from Norwegian-American writer Alex Dahl. In the following passage, we learn of a mysterious boy whose sudden appearance at a family’s door sets in motion a disastrous chain of events bring the picture-perfect town’s worst secrets to life.

Here in Sandefjord we have everything. Or, rather, we don’t—and that is my point exactly. We don’t have any of the undesirable components that make life so unpalatable in many other places: pollution, poverty, property crises, excessive crime, immigration issues—I could go on and on. This is not the kind of place where little boys turn up out of the blue, with empty eyes, no parents and nothing but a plastic bag containing a pair of Batman swimming trunks and a frayed baby-blue towel. Sandefjord isn’t that kind of place. Wasn’t.

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Sandefjord is the kind of place people want to live. Postcard-pretty, snug and sheltered at the top of its fjord, Sandefjord is the kind of place less-attractive places bad-mouth. Can’t blame them, of course—it’s not everybody’s privilege to be able to live somewhere like this. Here, everybody has a nice home that they own, a new car in the garage, a well-paid job, numerous foreign holidays a year and a mountain cabin, too. Everyone I know, at least.

Postcard-pretty, snug and sheltered at the top of its fjord, Sandefjord is the kind of place less-attractive places bad-mouth.

The call came at lunchtime. I’d only just began to relax after the events of the last twenty-four hours, and though I’d only been at the office for an hour, I decided to take an early lunch break so I could get my eyelash extensions done—Johan likes them. Walking from my office in Kilen, past the fish shop and the boats pulled up for winter, and the steel-ray water of the inner harbor, it occurred to me that the whole town resembled how I felt: cold and drained from all the rain. I checked my phone a couple of times as I walked along; I’m not sure why, really. And then, when I lay atop the table and the young girl was working painstakingly on my new, feathered lashes, I heard my phone vibrate from where it lay in my bag. Again and again. It couldn’t be work—nothing I do is urgent enough to merit repeated missed calls. The eyelash girl stopped for a moment and asked if I wanted to pick up. “Nope,” I said, trying to fight off waves of annoyance. Did I, on some level, know then what I know now?

“Cecilia Wilborg?” said a smooth, female voice when I picked up on the sixth attempt, walking back out of the salon into the bleak day.


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“Hi. This is Vera Jensrud calling from Østerøyparken School. I’m glad I’ve got hold of you. Finding your number wasn’t exactly easy. Presumably you know why I’m calling?”

“I’m afraid I don’t. I’m . . . uh, actually in the middle of something here,” I lied, picking at my cuticles. “How can I help you?”

“Is it correct that you dropped off a little boy here at the school this morning?”

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

“May I ask what your relationship to the child is, Mrs. Wilborg?”

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“None. None whatsoever. Now, I’m afraid I’ll have to . . .”

Vera Jensrud interrupted me. “But Tobias lives with you and your family, is that correct?”

I burst out laughing, an exaggerated, outraged squawk. “Excuse me?”

“Look. This boy does not attend this school.”

“So which school does he attend?”

“We don’t know. He refuses to say. You can only imagine how upsetting this is for everyone, most of all, of course, this little child. Now, we need to immediately establish who he is and where he belongs, and the only thing we have been able to get out of him is that he lives with you.”

I glanced up briefly at my office building, trying to stop myself from screaming. “He most certainly doesn’t live with me! I don’t know this child!”

“But you dropped him off here this morning?”

“Well, yes, but I met him for the first time last night.”

“Right.” Vera Jensrud sounded uncertain, as though she didn’t quite know whether to believe the half-mute eight- year-old or me. “Wait. You say you met him last night? But he stayed at your house?”

I hesitated. Fear seeped into me, ugly and cool, like poison through the pores of my skin. The wind ripped at my jacket, and I ran the short distance back to the office. “Yes. Look, it was a very strange situation. He told me he attends your school, so I figured it would just be best to drop him off there.”

“Presumably you spoke with his parents last night before taking him back to your house? That’s why I’m calling, really, to see whether you’d be aware of some way of getting in touch with them.”

“I . . . uh . . . The lady at the pool tried calling them several times and they didn’t pick up the phone.”

“What about when you tried, later, from home?”

“I . . . I didn’t. Tobias asked me explicitly not to.”

“Mrs. Wilborg, this is a boy no more than eight years old. Did it not occur to you to call the parents before taking in a small child overnight?”

“Mrs. Wilborg, this is a boy no more than eight years old. Did it not occur to you to call the parents before taking in a small child overnight?”

“I’m sorry I’m not able to help you. I’m afraid I’m going to have to go now . . .” I stuttered, and hung up the telephone. It began ringing again before the screen had even gone dark, and when I realized I was being watched by the guys in the office across from mine, I picked up. I pushed out my chest but turned my face away from them so they wouldn’t notice my intense annoyance.

“What? I’ve said I can’t help you!”

“Mrs. Wilborg, this is Police Inspector Thor Ellefsen. I’m sitting here with Vera Jensrud, the social teacher at Østerøyparken School, as well as a representative from social services. We really need you to come down here as soon as you can so that we can discuss this situation.”

“Look,” I said as pleasantly as I could manage, though by then a full panic had set in and I could feel my mind receding into a blank, numb state. “Of course I wish to help you, and I feel desperately sorry for this poor child. I just don’t think I’m able to add anything at all to your . . . your investigation.”

“He says he lives with you.”

“Well, he doesn’t.”

“This really is the strangest situation I have encountered. Will you manage to be here in fifteen minutes, do you think? We think you should bring your husband as well.”

“Johan? Oh. Oh no. That’s really not necessary.”

“In cases like this, we prefer both partners being present. We’d appreciate any help you and your husband can give us. We’re quite happy to call him to explain, if you’d rather?”

“No. No, I’ll call.” Irritation gave way to the most profound rage. After we’d hung up, I stared out at the slightly churning sea, at the rows of pretty little houses along its shore, at the white-ray, low-hanging sky, at the swathes of ochre, downtrodden leaves in the park across the road. I’ve loved this town my whole life, but in those moments I hated it and wanted to barge through it like a giant, smashing and burning everything in my way until only charred splinters remained. And now, driving slowly and distractedly back to the school where I dropped Tobias this morning, I feel no less unhinged. I can see Johan’s car a few cars ahead of mine and imagine him, serious and pensive behind the wheel, glancing around for me, anxious at having been summoned by the police. He’ll be worrying about the child, wringing his hands and stressing about how the situation will affect me. Before he spots me, and for the last few minutes before I get there, I have to run through the rest of the events of last night and this morning to make sure I get the wording exactly right. By the time Johan got home from the airport, I had managed to reestablish a semblance of normality at home. The girls had meekly gone straight to bed, jolted by the presence of the boy; a sense of strangeness lingered on the air in the house. I put Tobias into Marialuz’s old room in the cellar apartment, and momentarily felt bad for leaving him two whole floors away from us, and especially on such an unsettled night. I had to do what felt right for my own family, didn’t I?


From THE BOY AT THE DOOR. Used with the permission of the publisher, Berkley Books. Copyright © 2018 by Alex Dahl.

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