Authors: Camilla Läckberg
There was a sharp noise, and his eyes popped open. It sounded like a pebble hitting the windowpane, but the noise came and went so quickly that he thought he’d imagined it. He closed his eyes again. But then it came again: there was no doubt about it. Someone was throwing pebbles at his window. Anders sat bolt upright. It must be one of the guys from work, but if his landlady woke up, the stone-thrower would have to answer for it. Anders had lived here peacefully for the past three years, and he didn’t need any trouble.
Cautiously he unlatched the window and opened it. He lived on the ground floor, but a big lilac bush partially blocked his view. He squinted to see who was standing in the faint moonlight.
And he couldn’t believe his eyes.
She hesitated for a long time. She even put on her jacket and then took it off again, twice. But finally Erica made up her mind. There was nothing wrong with offering her support; Charlotte could just tell her if she didn’t want visitors. It felt impossible just to sit at home when she knew that her friend was suffering.
As she walked, she saw evidence of the storm everywhere. Toppled trees, branches, and other debris lay strewn about, mixed with small piles of red and yellow leaves. But the storm also seemed to have blown away a layer of autumn dirt that had settled over the town. Now the air smelled fresh, and it was as clear as a freshly washed pane of glass.
Instead of enjoying the walk, though, Maja was shrieking at the top of her lungs in the stroller. Erica walked faster. The baby had decided that she would not lie in the stroller if she was awake, and was protesting loudly. Her screams made Erica’s heart race, and the panic brought out tiny beads of sweat on her brow. Some primitive instinct was telling her to stop the stroller at once and pick up Maja to save her from the wolves, but Erica steeled herself. It was only a few blocks to Charlotte’s mother’s house, and she would be there soon.
It was odd that a single event could alter so completely the way she looked at the world. Erica had always thought that the houses along the cove below the Sälvik campground stood like a peaceful string of pearls along the road, with a view over the sea and the islands. Now everything looked gloomy, especially the Florin house. At the sight of it she hesitated again, but it seemed foolish to turn round now. They could just ask her to leave if they thought she was coming at an inopportune time. Friendships were tested in times of crisis, and she didn’t want to be one of those people who out of exaggerated caution and perhaps even cowardice avoided friends who were in trouble.
Puffing, she pushed the stroller up the hill. The Florins’ house was partway up the slope, and she paused for a second at their driveway to catch her breath. Maja’s shrieks had grown deafening, so she hurried to park the stroller and picked her up.
For several long seconds she stood at the front door with her hand raised and her heart pounding. Finally she gave the wood a sharp rap. There was a doorbell, but sending that shrill sound into the house seemed somehow too intrusive. A long moment passed in silence, and Erica was just about to turn and go when she heard footsteps inside the house. Niclas opened the door.
‘Hi,’ she said softly.
‘Hi,’ said Niclas, grief evident in his red-rimmed eyes and pale face. He looked like a dead man condemned to walk the earth.
‘Pardon me for bothering you, it’s not what I intended, I just thought …’ She sought for words but found none. A heavy silence settled between them. Niclas fixed his gaze on his feet, and for the second time since she knocked on the door Erica was about to turn on her heel and flee back home.
‘Would you like to come in?’ he asked.
‘Do you think it would be all right?’ Erica asked. ‘I mean, do you think it would be any …’ she searched for the right word, ‘help?’
‘She’s been given a sedative and isn’t really …’ He didn’t finish the sentence. ‘But she said several times that she should have called you, so it would be good if you could reassure her on that point.’
Charlotte’s concern about not phoning to cancel, after what had happened, told Erica how confused her friend must be. But that couldn’t prepare her for what she saw when she followed Niclas into the living room. She let out a startled cry and rushed over to her friend. If Niclas looked like the walking dead, Charlotte looked like someone who’d been buried long ago. Nothing of the energetic, warm, lively Charlotte she knew was left. It was as though an empty shell were lying on the sofa. Her dark hair, which usually formed a frame of curls around her face, now hung in lank wisps. The extra weight that Charlotte’s mother had criticized had always seemed beautiful in Erica’s eyes, making Charlotte look like one of Zorn’s voluptuous Dalecarlian women. Yet now, lying huddled up under the blanket, she looked merely doughy and unhealthy.
She wasn’t asleep. Rather, her eyes stared lifelessly into empty space, and under the blanket she was shivering a little. Without taking off her jacket, Erica knelt down on the floor by the sofa. When she put Maja down on the floor beside her, the baby seemed to sense the mood and lay perfectly still for a change.
‘Oh, Charlotte, I’m so sorry.’ Erica was crying and took Charlotte’s face in her hands, but there was no sign of life in her empty gaze.
‘Has she been like this the whole time?’ Erica asked, turning to Niclas. He was still standing in the middle of the room, swaying a little. Finally he nodded and wearily rubbed his hand over his eyes. ‘It’s the medication. But as soon as we stop the pills she starts screaming. She sounds like a wounded animal. I just can’t stand that sound.’
Erica turned back to Charlotte and stroked her hair tenderly. She didn’t seem to have bathed or changed her clothes in days, and her body gave off a faint odor of sweat and fear. Her mouth moved as if she wanted to say something, but at first it was impossible to make any sense of the mumbling. After trying for a moment, Charlotte said in a hoarse voice, ‘Couldn’t make it. Should have called.’
Erica shook her head vigorously and continued stroking her friend’s hair.
‘That doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it.’
‘Sara, gone,’ said Charlotte, focusing her gaze on Erica for the first time. Her eyes seemed to burn right through her, they were so full of sorrow.
‘Yes, Charlotte. Sara is gone. But Albin is here, and Niclas. You’re going to have to help each other now.’ She could hear for herself that it sounded like she was simply mouthing platitudes, but maybe the simplicity of a cliché could reach Charlotte. But the only result was that Charlotte gave a wry smile and repeated dully, ‘Help each other.’ The smile looked more like a grimace, and there seemed to be some sort of bitter underlying message in the words. But maybe Erica was imagining things. Strong sedatives could produce strange effects.
A sound behind them made her turn round. Lilian was standing in the doorway, choking with rage. She directed her flashing gaze at Niclas.
‘Didn’t we say that Charlotte wasn’t to have any visitors?’
The situation felt incredibly uncomfortable for Erica, but Niclas apparently took no notice of his mother-in-law’s tone of voice. Getting no answer from him, Lilian turned to look at Erica, who was still sitting on the floor.
‘Charlotte is feeling much too frail to have people running in and out. I should think everyone would know better!’ She made a gesture as if she could shoo Erica away from her daughter like a fly, but for the first time Charlotte’s eyes showed some sign of life. She raised her head from the pillow and looked her mother straight in the eye. ‘I want Erica here.’
Her daughter’s protest merely increased Lilian’s rage, but with an obvious show of will she swallowed what she was about to say and stormed out to the kitchen. The commotion roused Maja from her temporary silence, and her shrill cries sliced through the room. Laboriously Charlotte sat up on the sofa. Niclas snapped out of his lethargy and took a quick step forward to help her. She brusquely waved him away and instead reached out to Erica.
‘Are you sure you’re all right sitting up? Shouldn’t you lie down and rest some more?’ Erica said anxiously, but Charlotte merely shook her head. Her speech was a bit slurred, but with obvious effort she managed to say ‘… lain here long enough.’ Then her eyes filled with tears and she whispered, ‘Not a dream?’
‘No, it was not a dream,’ said Erica. Then she didn’t know what else to say. She sat down on the sofa next to Charlotte, took Maja on her lap, and put one arm around her friend’s shoulders. Charlotte’s T-shirt felt damp against her skin, and Erica wondered whether she dared suggest to Niclas that he help Charlotte take a shower and change her clothes.
‘Would you like another pill?’ said Niclas, not daring even to look at his wife after being so roundly dismissed.
‘No more pills,’ Charlotte said, again shaking her head vigorously. ‘Clear head.’
‘Would you like to take a shower?’ asked Erica. ‘I’m sure Niclas or your mother would be happy to help you.’
help me?’ said Charlotte, whose voice was now sounding stronger with each sentence she uttered.
Erica hesitated for a moment, then she said, ‘Of course.’
With Maja on one arm, she helped Charlotte up from the sofa and led her out of the living room.
‘Where’s the bathroom?’ Erica asked. Niclas pointed mutely to a door at the end of the hall.
The walk to that door felt endless. When they passed the kitchen, Lilian caught sight of them. She was just about to open her mouth and fire off a salvo when Niclas stepped in and silenced her with a look. Erica could hear an agitated muttering issuing from the kitchen, but she didn’t pay it much attention. The main thing was for Charlotte to feel better, and she was a firm believer in the restorative properties of a shower and a fresh change of clothes.
It wasn’t the first time Agnes had sneaked out of the house. It was so easy. She just opened the window and climbed out on the roof and down the tree right next to the house. It was simple. Still, after careful consideration she’d decided not to wear a dress, which could make tree-climbing difficult. Instead she chose a pair of trousers with narrow legs that hugged her thighs.
When she thought about the stonecutter, she felt driven by an enormous wave that she had no desire to resist. It was both frightening and pleasant to feel so passionately for someone, and she realized that her earlier infatuations had been nothing but child’s play. What she was feeling now were the emotions of a grown woman, more powerful than she could ever have imagined. She understood, on some level, that she only wanted him so badly because he was a kind of forbidden fruit, but nevertheless the feeling was real, and she was not in the habit of denying herself anything. Though she had no precise plan, she knew what she wanted, and she wanted it now. Consequences were not something she ever needed to take into consideration.
It never occurred to her that Anders might not want her. She had never met a man who was indifferent to her. Men were like apples on a tree, and she only needed to reach out her hand to pick them. Though it was true that this apple might present a slightly greater risk than most. She had kissed married men without her father’s knowledge, and in some instances had even gone farther than that, but even those men were safer than the one she was about to meet. At least they belonged to the same class as she did. With the others, if she had been caught, the affairs would have been regarded with a certain indulgence once the scandal died down. But a working-class man, a stonecutter. No one would even dare think such a thought. It simply would never occur to them.
But she was tired of upper-class men, spineless, pale, with limp handshakes and shrill voices. None of them was a man like the stonecutter. She shivered at the memory of his callused hand against hers.
It hadn’t been easy to find out where he lived without arousing suspicion. But a glance at the wage slips during an unguarded moment had provided his address, and then, when she arrived, she had pinpointed his room by the workboots on the windowsill.
The first pebble produced no response, and she waited a moment, afraid of waking the old lady snoring loudly in a nearby room. But no one moved inside the house. She paused to preen in the ethereal moonlight. She had chosen simple, dark clothing so as not to emphasize the difference in their social standing. She had even plaited her hair and wound it atop her head in one of the simple hairdos that were common among the working-class women. After a moment, she picked up another pebble from the gravel walkway and tossed it against the window. Now she saw a shadow moving inside, and her heart skipped a beat. Full of adrenaline and the euphoria of the chase, Agnes felt her cheeks flush. When he opened the window, puzzled, she sneaked behind the lilac bush that partly covered the window and took a deep breath. The hunt was on.