Disclaimer: I don't know any of the people that appears in this story.
It is all fiction. (Well, except the second hand shirt but let us so not get into that.)
Warning: All vanilla and no ice cream.
Feedback: Yes. Please! There's so much free space in my mail box that it echoes. It's quite scary - I swear. Lots of thanks to those of you who has mailed me so far. It does make the ghostly sounds bearable.And thanks to Christopher and Joan - I was so in doubt about this chapter-
Anyway, hope you enjoy.
The Tail of the Tiger, chapter 9
It was another warm day and it was more humid than the day before. Clouds had started collecting and I hoped they would deliver. A spell of rain would be nice. I dried the sweat of my forehead with my arm.
The big van was almost empty of Tom's things now.
In the street a car drove slowly past. The same car had passed going in the opposite direction not a minute before. There was a young man sitting behind the wheel. He nodded to me when he drove past, like he had done when he drove the other way.
Jason, one of the moving men, came out of the house. "What's this, you tired already?" he asked with a grin, his teeth glittering white in his sweat-glistening black face.
I grinned back. "Caught loitering again. How do you do it?"
Behind him the other two movers came out of the house. They stopped to banter with Rita and Nina who were on the porch in the front, painting the ramp for the living room.
I thought of harassing them, telling them that, hey, they were getting paid to work, but Bernie likely wouldn't understand the humor. Bernie went to the truck to pick up his next load.
"What about this?" he asked in his lumbering drawl.
I went over to see what was in the box. "Did you take this from my cousin's room or from the basement?"
"Then it goes into the basement here too."
He nodded decisively. "Thought so," he said and picked up the box.
Jason sent me a small grin and I smiled back.
Behind me I heard a car stop. I turned to look. What a surprise - it was the drive-by driver.
He rolled down his window. "Excuse me?"
"Yes?" I went over to him.
"I'm looking for Ms. Werner's dog kennel. Do you know where it is?"
"Here? Your house?" He opened the door and got out of the car. His shirt was a swirling pattern of pink, orange and red. I felt slightly envious - here was clearly a guy who didn't have anybody messing with his wardrobe. It was a classic second hand piece. His short dark hair reminded me of old statues of Romans and I found myself checking the shape of his slightly large nose, thinking that there should have been more of an arch, like Caesar's. "Hi, I'm JC. Is Chris here?"
"No. Should he be?"
"Oh." His face fell. "No, I'd hoped he was here so that he could introduce me to Busta."
"I can do that." I reached out to shake hands. "I'm Mikkel, Ms. Werner's grandson."
"Pleased to meet you?" He looked at my hand for a moment, as if curious and unsure what to do with it. Then he smiled and shook.
Perhaps he had the same thing about 'pleased to meet you' that I did. "I wouldn't know either. Welcome. It's this way."
Jason sent us a nod when we passed him.
"You can come in," I told JC when he stopped by the wall to watch the dogs that came running to jump around me and to invite him inside the wall, tales wagging in anticipation when he climbed over the wall.
"Oh," was all he said and hunkered down, staring at the dogs with wonder in his wide eyes. He reached out a hesitant hand to greet them. I thought this was what he would look like if he met friendly aliens on a walk in the park.
"I'll go do a few things and be back in a couple of minutes. Is that okay with you?"
"Sure. Which one is Busta?"
"The most obnoxious one - the bitch trying to shred you trouser leg."
"The obnoxious one. And a bitch." He smiled. "Hi, Busta."
He was sitting cross-legged in the grass when I came back from seeing the movers off. Apparently, the pups had given up on getting him to play. They were going about it on their own. He had Violet in his lap and was examining her paws. She lay there quietly,, obviously not minding having her feet stared at by curious blue eyes.
He heard me and looked up, smiling distractedly before returning hs attention to Violet. Figuring he didn't really have the need of other company, I emptied the clothesline and carried the clothes inside. The clouds were still building and one could hear a faint rumble. Rita and Nina were moving their paint project into the living room.
I checked that the windows were closed and made us all 'thunder coffee', something that I had never thought was other than a global tradition before Rita asked. Strong coffee goes really well with thunder.
When I came outside, JC had forgotten the dog in his lap and was looking up at the dark clouds. The sun was still shining and the light was an odd ominous yellow one, the blackish blue sky a startling backdrop for the sunbathed colors of houses and gardens.
Then the sunlight went out and it got really dark. A sudden wind sent dust flying and shook the branches of the trees.
"Huh?" He turned his head to look at me, smiling hazily.
"Want to come up here on the porch? You're likely to get wet if you stay out there."
He turned his gaze back on the sky for a moment before getting to his feet.
"I'm going to stay out here to watch it. You want a mug of coffee too?"
He nodded, leaning against one of the wooden pillars supporting the overhang, watching the sky that just kept on darkening. I went to get us coffee.
"You like thunder too?" he asked when I got back.
"Yes. I do." I dropped a couple of blankets over the armrest and put the tray down on the table. "You want sugar and milk?"
He was another five-spoon man. I brought the coffee over.
"It's gonna be a good one," he promised and took the mug.
Another gust of wind tore through the garden. I couldn't remember ever having seen clouds quite that dark before and shivered with anticipation. There was a flash and rumble. Frida and Violet yelped and ran inside, Aunt Green whined and followed as quickly as she could. A moment later, I could hear the faint bump of Aunt Green using a wall for a brake. The other dogs looked confused. Then the first heavy drops fell and the rest of the dogs hurried into their den. Another flash was immediately followed by an incredibly loud clap. I jumped, spilling hot coffee on my hand.
"Mmm." JC was smiling. "Listen..."
A faint spatter grew rapidly to a drum roll. Then the rain came gushing down and hell broke loose over our heads.
I stayed next to JC for a while, enjoying the intense show that nature put forward, getting my arm wet when I reached out to touch the cool water that wasn't letting up and kept coming. It was like a wall; I couldn't see the end of the garden. The air was tangy with the smell of dust.
Violet came to stand in the door. She was looking at me and whining so I went to sit in the couch on the porch. Two seconds later Violet did her best to push herself under me and I lifted her to my lap. Next came Frida shooting unto the sofa like a missile. The pups tried the same trick but the sofa was too high for them, and they ended up in a pile of whining casualties. I helped them up and became the center of a warm and shaking pile of dogs. Covering them with a blanket seemed to help a little; they were still more or less in a state of panic.
"Man, they are really scared..." JC came over and sat down, stroking a dog-shaped piece of blanket. He shivered and I thought I knew why because the air had suddenly become cool.
"Yes." I passed JC a blanket. The lump he had been stroking peeked out from under the blanket and whined. Samba was doing his best to communicate.
"What does it want?"
"I think he wants to add you to the pile. He usually is the most comfortable when everyone is gathered in the same place."
"Oh." JC put his mug on the table and moved over to sit close enough for our shoulders to touch. Parts of dogs spilled onto him and he covered them with his blanket before picking up his coffee.
"You feel like an oversized mother hen, too?"
He laughed quietly. "Yeah. Like I am ready to fluff my wings and stuff. Is there anything else we can do?"
"Not really. They may be a little better off we all went inside, but I want to be out here. I don't want to miss this." A sharp flashing light and a crack emphasized my words.
JC nodded and we sat in quiet for a while. "It's really fabulous, all the sounds... I like the way the roof here sounds. It's really, I don't know, like, dramatic."
"Yes. It is. You mostly note the soundtrack?"
"Yeah. The light too."
"The light, the light just before the sun went away was amazing."
"Like the whole planet was inside, somehow..."
"Under a dome of glass."
"Yeah." He smiled and looked out at the rain, his head cocked a little, listening.
It was a trap, this pile of dogs. I petted them trying to ooze calm through my skin. I hadn't really sat down after getting out of bed and a numb tiredness was sneaking up on me.
Last night I had gone to sleep thinking of Chris, willing sweet dreams and stained sheets on both of us. One should think there was quite powerful dream material in Chris. No, I knew there was. But it had slipped and I had woken up bathed in sweat, not the sexy kind but the uncomfortable, sticky kind, smelling sharply of fear. After that I hadn't slept.
Just a dream, really. No need for worry.
Goes to teach me too look at... things in the evening. Stupid me.
The statute of limitations was ten years on the amount we had smuggled... I had no idea where I had acquired that gut feeling for law.
Highly active, bad conscience, perhaps.
JC was too quiet for my liking; I wanted him to talk, to give my thoughts something else to gnaw on, but he was distractedly petting the dogs and looking out at the rain with something close to bliss and beaming each time the lightning flashed and the thunder cracked. I just couldn't take that away from him.
It's what - less than two weeks away.
Frigging odd, that's what it is.
It wasn't the faint giddiness that surprised me. It was that it was so weak that I really had to listen to myself to feel it.
A couple of memories popped to the surface, things that I had had to face the night before, their shape had changed now, perhaps with the daylight.
Flotsam. Stay down, will you. Buggers.
There had been the ordinary Mikkel, the one I tried to convince myself had grown into me, the kid with the ambition of becoming a joiner and a damned good one. The model student - well, except for the minor detail of occasional drug abuse, of course. It had interfered with the model a couple of times... The other Mikkel had interfered-
Are you kidding yourself again? As if you can take some parts and leave out the rest. Humans aren't modularized. Idiot.
It was all me. It had been me standing guard in the dark when Palle and Martin went in, had been me in front when we needed to climb the facade of a house, had been me playing billiards while waiting for a potential customer, had been me taking stolen cars across the borders to Germany and Poland, had been me...
Standing guard alone in the dark was the worst...
I'd been some tough juvenile delinquent, shaking because he was afraid of the dark.
...so madly in love that I really didn't need acid to see rainbows. And the world was wild and beautiful. Most of the time-
"Are you okay?" a voice asked in a strange language. Something touched my shoulder. I blinked and realized it was JC. That we were sitting in the couch on the porch and he was leaning against me.
"Yes. Just - thinking."
"Oh. Okay. Sorry I disturbed you."
"Mm. Not, no, it's fine. I'm glad you did, really." I leaned a little against him, soaking up comfort. He smiled to me and didn't seem to mind.
"I think it's calming down."
The sound of the rain had changed, was less intense. "It sounds like it. You were right, it's a good one."
"We could go jump around in the puddle on the lawn. Make a splash contest."
"What? You never run naked in the rain?"
"Right now I'd freeze my balls off."
"Oh. Can't have that."
"No. I'm rather fond of them."
It had calmed enough for most of the garden to be visible again; the neighbors' houses were still hidden behind the wet gray curtain. The time between the flashes and the thunder were growing.
"Say, what do you think about Chris getting a dog?" JC asked.
"Chris?" Such a nice and aching little sound. My dick stirred. I want him here, now! "I wouldn't let him have one if I didn't trust that he would be able to take proper care of it. Frankly, I think he has more doubts than I do. This is putting a strain on the group isn't it?"
JC nodded, stroking Samba who was pressed between us.
"What do you think about Chris getting a dog?"
"He'll be good. He'll bend himself backwards to make things right for that pup. Not that odd things aren't gonna happen but - the pup will be fine. I think maybe he really needs Busta, you know? Like, karma or something."
"Uhu." Chris bending forwards! Nice, so nice.
So, it wasn't Joey and it wasn't JC that was the hurdle. That left the other two, Justin and Lance. Justin whose teddy was very much on Joey's mind. "Will you tell me what is going on?"
"Well. Lance is really upset - he doesn't believe that Chris will take proper care of the dog. Like, he'll forget to feed it regularly and that kind of thing. Justin - I don't know, I can't make sense of him. Of them." JC shrugged. "Joey and I are trying..."
"If there is anything I can do, will you let me know?"
"I tried to make them come. Joey said that you would be okay with that."
"I would. Perhaps-"
"Miguel?" It was Nina coming to stand in the doorway. "Phone call for you."
I unloaded the dogs to JC's lap and went to answer the phone, thinking it was Sonja.
"Ja, det er Mikkel."
"Hi, Mikkel, it's Dani. I'm looking for Chris. Do you know where he is?"
"No. JC came asking the same thing. Is anything wrong?"
"No. He just turned his phone off and went underground. Since he wasn't at home I thought he was with you like the last time. If he pops up will you tell him to call?"
"Of course. I doubt that I'll see him before they get back from Texas, though."
"Okay... How's Busta?"
"Scared. We are having a bit of thunder right now. JC's on the porch like a huge mother hen under a pile of whining dogs. They'll be all right, it's almost over and the world still stands."
Dani laughed. "I can just see it. He's lucky, I wish it were me. It sounds much more cozy than real estate."
"You're looking at real estate? For the company?"
"Yes, just, researching, you know. I found this really nice place... Say, if you see him, tell Chris that I just bought a fifty million dollar complex in his name from some Italian guy, will you?"
"Sure. First installment in small unmarked notes?"
She laughed. "Yep."
"Does it have an outside elevator with a view?"
"I just like those. If it's fifty million there ought to be one included."
"Yeah. Actually, I like them too. I suppose we could have one installed."
"Perhaps they come with glass floors too."
"Now, wouldn't Chris just love that."
I would, so I was pretty certain he would too. "I'm sure."
Dani laughed and we said our good byes.
JC was fitfully asleep when I came back on the porch. The rain just a drizzle and the dogs looked more comfortable than scared. He had to be very tired and really in the need of sleep to conk out like that on strangers porch. I folded up my blanket and gently put it under his head so that he wouldn't wake up with a crick in his neck. He hardly stirred.
I told Rita and Nina to wake him before they left and then I bagged Leika and left for the hospital.
Leika was getting restless when I walked the last meters and I slipped into Mormor's room without knocking.
She was not alone. A dark-haired man rose from the chair next to the bed. He looked sharply at me. For a moment, I was afraid it was a doctor. Leika had begun squirming around in the bag and it looked like our moment of discovery was coming up fast.
"Hello, Mikkel." Mormor didn't sound like we were in trouble. Didn't sound quite like herself, either. "Mr. Barrut, this is my grandson, Mikkel."
"Hi." I went over to shake hands. By then, the bag was whining and snorting.
"Pleased to meet you." He had a murky official air, it was a bit off and it took me moment to place... My internal alarms went off and I had to squash an impulse to turn around and run out the door. A small terrified voice yelled 'copcopcop' inside my head.
So not pleased to meet you.
He had an edge I couldn't place, perhaps an American edge. Or perhaps he was not quite a cop.
I had the feeling that he could read my mind, see what I had been researching the night before and why.
Taking evasive action, I let Leika out into Mormor's arms.
The man excused himself, said his good byes and left. Smoothly. And I breathed a lot easier.
Mormor talked the usual baby-dog talk with Leika but it was... forced. I was suddenly very sure that I had come 'too early'. I thought of the men's stuff I had found in her bathroom but discarded the idea. Mr. Barrut's cologne was too different and there just hadn't been any hint of present or former lovers between them.
"So how are things at my house?"
"Under control. Who was that guy?"
"Oh, just an acquaintance." She freed a hand from Leika and picked up the mug of coffee I had poured her. "Did you bring the pictures?"
"Sure, I brought pictures." I pulled them out the knapsack. "Is he a cop?"
Mormor blinked. "Mr. Barrut? No, no. He's an accountant."
Accountant? "Did he tell you he's an accountant?" Was Mormor in some kind of trouble?
"Mikkel, he's not important. He's left, gone home, end of story. Now, show me the pictures." She pulled the stack out of my hand.
"He didn't, huh." I sipped my soda, collecting my courage. "Are you double-crossing Tom and Paul?"
"What?? Mikkel!" She glared daggers at me. "Of course not, you impertinent brat! Stop sticking your nose in my business. Now, shut up and let me look at the pictures." She jammed her glasses onto her nose and rustled with the papers. "How preposterous!"
I shut up and sat watching her.
"Christopher was here," she said when she was almost through the stack.
She studied me for a moment, looking over the top of her glasses. "Yes. We talked about pugs. A very engaging young man."
"Absolutely. We can agree on that."
"Hmm." She looked back at the picture and pushed her glasses up on her nose. "I think you agree a little more than I do."
She chuckled and flipped to the last picture. "What's this?"
I leaned over to see. "Oh, Chris made those. It's stick-pugs; he drew them in the concrete."
"Christopher? Really? They're good... It's a pity to put a wall on top of them." Mormor looked at the picture for a moment more before she put the stack of pictures away and took her glasses off. "Have you begun the wall, yet?"
"No. I'll start when I get back. By then the plumber is out of the way."
"How is he?"
"Good at what he does." I shrugged. "We get along when I stay away from his work area. Talking about getting along. About Frank. I've been wondering... Do you think he'll keep away from Paul?"
"He better - if he knows what's good for him. I called them yesterday and told Jenny just where they stand."
"Told her what?"
"That if they hurt either of those boys one more time, and I don't care if it's just with a tiny little word, then I'll come down on her idiot self and her idiot husband with everything I have and not stop until I have them behind bars for good. Shut her up, it did. I'm sure she understood." She was glowing black anger and something akin to satisfaction.
I wondered how mother and daughter could end up like that. "Does Frank listen to Jenny?"
Mormor snorted. "That's the question, isn't it."
"Frank worries me." I frowned. Mormor worried me too. "Did you mean that threat?"
"Of course. They deserve it," she snapped. "If not for Tom I would be at it right now."
"There's more to it than what they did to Tom and to Paul, isn't there? I mean, you're wishing destruction upon your own daughter. That's pretty extreme to wish for anyone. I can't see what good would come of it."
"Justice! And it's none of your business."
"Aren't you confusing justice somewhat with vengeance?"
She snorted. "So what if I am? Did Tom's things arrive?"
"Sure. The movers did a good job. You know, people that hunt monsters often turn into monsters themselves." I couldn't remember where I had heard that one but that didn't make it less true.
Mormor didn't like to hear it.
Tom's description of the Glare was quite correct; I really wanted to go hide in a corner and preferably one in a room far away, like Sidney or Beijing. I knew that if I opened my mouth then I was going to babble about thinking positive thoughts... I kept quiet, hoping that she might think about my words at some point during the uncomfortable silence between us.
"Did you bring the spreadsheets?" she finally asked, teeth clenched.
"Of course." I got them out and she jammed her glasses on again. Nothing calmed her like columns of numbers and a pug on her lap. She didn't comment on the salary that Rita and Nina were getting. Chris had counseled me on that one. The aunts had appeared well satisfied and Mormor wasn't complaining so his counsel had been a good one. Not that I had doubted; he had the kind of understanding of money that comes from the gut.
She put the spreadsheets away when she had finished looking through them. "Johanne called."
"She isn't satisfied with your reports."
I nodded, not surprised at all. "She could start answering the emails for one thing. Is she okay?"
"Overworked, but yes."
There was a hint of humor in the clear, grey eyes. "You don't think she's overworked?"
"Oh, she is, I'm sure. With the weddings, conferences and all, she's probably stretched thin."
I shrugged. "How to run a shop is one of the topics we try to avoid. Did you tell her about Jenny's and Frank's visit?"
So there would be a call from Denmark, around midnight, I guessed, when it was morning in Copenhagen and she was working in her office.
"She asked if I thought she could do any good calling Jenny, as one mother of a gay son to the other."
I suddenly had an urge to call my dad and hear his patient voice talking common sense. I looked at Mormor's clock. He would have gone to bed. "You said no."
"Of course. They have never met."
"What about Annie?" Might as well bring all her daughters onto the field.
"What do you mean, 'what about Annie?'"
"Does she know what is going on?"
"Annie?" Mormor snorted. "I hope not. She would just confuse things even more if she poked her nose into this." She eyed me speculatively. "And don't you try and drag her into it."
"But - she has a right to know."
Mormor snorted. "A right? No. Definitely not. Nobody has the right to spread confusion the way she does."
"Who is that Mr. Beiruth?"
"Barrut." She pronounced it clearly and irritatedly. "And he's none of your business."
"B-a-r-r-u-t? Isn't that an unusual name around here? There can't be that many in the phone book."
Her mouth snapped into a thin line and she stared at me for a moment. I wished for the ability to teleport. She let the air out of her nose. "Private investigator. I hired him to keep an eye on Frank."
I tried not to let relief cloud my brains. "Are Paul's parents in on this?"
"You..." She glared. Maybe if I wished hard enough for Novo Sibirsk... "They will be. I'm going to call them tonight."
"Okay. Why didn't you just tell me?"
"I didn't want to worry you and the boys."
Now, now... Think. Novo Sibirsk, here I come... "You know, having things out in the open is so much less confusing. Generally speaking - playing hide and seek with your allies in the middle of a Situation is a fucking-"
"-bad idea. I don't believe for a minute that you intended to keep it secret just to spare my sensibilities."
"You, you are the most persistent, impertinent runt," she sputtered.
I nodded. Perhaps there was a haunted tinge to her glare, that and something... frail?
"You're worse than... than Hans Aage." As if her first husband and my granddad was the worst example she could think of.
"That's bad." Frankly, he could be obnoxious.
"He used to try to drag me off on his hunting trips. To make a man out of me. Translate that to make me prefer bedding women. As if running around in the rain in mud clogged boots and shooting at animals could change that."
"That sounds just like him. I hope he came to his senses."
I shrugged. "He stopped when I told him that a real man is a man that can take a dick up his dry ass without flinching."
"Mikkel!" She tried to look stern but then she grinned.
"Well, I got desperate. He can be so..."
"Persistently deaf. I know. I was married to him for six years." She sighed ruefully. "Don't know what got into me."
Sometimes there are questions that one carries around in the back of the mind for years. It took my by surprise when the chance to find out was suddenly there and it seemed almost unreal. "I always wondered perhaps you only married him because you were pregnant. I mean, you were only sixteen."
She shook her head. "No, no. That is, I would have liked to have waited. I wanted to become a vet - did you know?"
I shook my head.
"Well, I did. But, really, I wouldn't have married him if he wasn't handsome, fun, popular and..., well, you know. We were just kids, really. And your mother cured us of that."
"She never slept. Never. I really owe you thanks for getting her back for that." A grin tugged at her mouth. "You were worse."
I had had to listen to that and other embarrassing baby stories. "Every time my sisters complain about their kids my mother will come up with a trump with me somewhere in it. Like it's some kind of competition."
"Oh, it is." She eyed me for a moment. "Do you ever see your dad?"
"Bio-dad? No, not really. He's not... Not after he got married. Actually, it's somewhat of a relief. Did you know he went into politics?"
Mormor shook her head.
"Well, he did and it's really embarrassing..."
So we talked about the growing racism in Denmark and politicians digging trenches instead of building bridges and about stupidity in general.
There came a pause. Mormor was musing over something. "You know, it's really odd hearing about this..."
"When I left with Julian - I had this feeling that I was moving into the real world. You read Tolkien?"
"It was like I left the Shire, this sleepy little place where nothing never happens. Now you tell me the evil of world has come to Denmark and infected the people there..."
"I don't know about evil. Perhaps you romanticize your memories a little. But yes, of course it has changed. You didn't expect it to freeze just because you left, did you?"
"Maybe I did."
"You got hairy feet?"
There was a knock on the door. Mormor threw the sheet over Leika and I thought I heard her mutter 'fuck' under her breath but likely my ears were playing tricks on me. I grabbed the pictures and scattered them on top of the sheet.
Mormor barked, "Yes?"
Marian stuck her head inside, smiling. "Supper."
"Oh." I got up and walked over to her. "Let me take it, we have to clear the table..." I took the tray from her.
"I can get an extra tray. Do you want some too?"
"No, thank you. I'll leave in a minute. I have to go home."
She nodded and left.
The door whooshed a relieved sigh and I found myself aping it. "Phew. That was close."
Mormor chuckled and dug Leika out. Leika blinked sleepily at us. "Took some doing but now they all wait after they knock."
I imagined doctors and nurses scolded down to baseboard height.
Shortly after I was in the car, feeding Leika stumps of carrots and telling her what a good girl she was for staying silent.
"I wonder what she wasn't telling me." Leika snorted and chewed, barely sparing me a glance. She apparently didn't have any comments. "Want another carrot?" She did.
I was waiting for a red light to turn green, thinking about the rumors that had reached Denmark. Rumors about crazy Americans dragging each other into court for the weirdest things, spying on one another, feeding on their own paranoia. Realization dawned on me. "Mr. Beiruth is her dirt digger, don't you think?"
Leika snorted and I took it for a yes.
I had the vision of a dragon moving slowly out of is cave, bones and scales creaking from long sleep, taking flight... Seen from a deer's point of view. "Fuck. She doesn't listen, does she? She's worse than morfar."
Leika's comment was a yawn.
I wanted somebody else in the passenger seat, somebody that would punch my shoulder, would lay writhing enticingly while getting swallowed by a cobra, would remind me that there had to be angels too...
When I got back JC's car was gone. The light was on in the kitchen so I knew Tom had gotten home. I let Leika and myself out of the car. From across the street came the sound of a door slamming. I thought nothing of it until a woman's voice said my name.
"Mr. Svendsen!" I turned to see Ms. Connigan marching across the street. Her angry expression was quite at odds with the cheerful bouquet of flowers she was carrying. Suddenly it wasn't all that odd being Mr. and Ms. with somebody close to my own age. She stopped by the driveway and I walked up to her.
"Eh, yes? Can I help you, Ms. Connigan?"
"This is preposterous!" she sputtered and I stopped just outside her immediate range when it looked like she might hit me with the flowers.
"What is preposterous?" I thought I knew. The bouquet really was huge and very orange and blue. Maybe Chris had ordered a couple of everything orange and blue in the flower shop. Or made it a joint venture involving all flower shops in the local phonebook.
"This." She thrust the flowers at me and I jumped a step backwards. "Take it back."
"Yes you can. Now take it!" She would have made a formidable officer.
I hid my hands on my back. "No. I can't, you see it wasn't Tom or me that ordered them."
"Don't you dare play games with me, Mr. Svendsen!"
She was so right - I wouldn't dare. "Believe me, I'm not playing games with you. I really have nothing to do with the ordering of those flowers."
She spoke through clenched teeth. "Then perhaps you care to explain where they come from."
Me a tell tale? "Isn't there a card?"
"A card? Yes. There is a card - 'To Ms. Connigan and Lisa with love. Busta.' Now, explain yourself."
Yes, me a tell tale, I was definitely a babbler. "Chris ordered them." Why isn't the little punk here to take his own firewood when it falls?
"Then bring me Chris." She waited a split second for my reaction and lost patience. "Now!"
Chris certainly shone by his absence.
"He's not here." Unfortunately. I had a feeling he would have enjoyed this. Watching from behind something solid.
"So tell me how to find him," she didn't need to add 'idiot', it was quite obviously attached at the end of the sentence. In capital letters.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know how to find him."
She eyed me and seethed. I thought this was the moment when I would have a humongous bouquet of flowers thrust down my throat. Luckily for me she settled for "It's your pup!"
"My grandmother's, really. Until Chris signs the contract."
"Well, you are the one responsible."
"I am?" Behind Ms. Connigan I could see Lisa crossing the street.
"Yes!" She thrust the flowers at me again. I took another step back.
"Don't you like them?"
"Like them? It doesn't matter whether I like them. It's the principle. I said I didn't want anything and I get this!" she waved the offending bouquet. "It's too much, Mr. Svendsen."
"Right. Okay. I can understand that."
"That you are offended."
"Where does that bring me? What do I do with them?"
"I don't know. Give them away - not to me, to somebody else. Throw them out."
"No, ma. Don't throw them out. I like them."
I thought that kid should have a medal, daring to speak up like that.
"Lisa! What have I told you about listening?"
"Ma, please! The window was open and you're yelling."
"I am not! Go home."
"But I like the flowers. They're from Busta. To me too!"
"Go home, I said."
"Can I come see the puppies, Mr. Svendsen?"
Lisa left, muttering about parents and grown-ups under her breath.
My gaze followed Lisa. Ms. Connigan took my by surprise when she slammed the flowers into my face and chest. It was pure instinct to catch them before they fell to the ground. "Have a nice day?" I stammered when Ms. Connigan swung around, marching off.
I turned to find Tom watching from the corner by the kitchen door.
"Do I get an applause?" I snapped.
He grinned and mimed clapping his hands in slow motion. The coward didn't have the guts to do it properly.
The screen door banged and Tom yelled, "Hi Mikkel".
"Hi. I'm in the bedroom."
There was a rattle of bags and then Tom came up the short flight of stairs. "Plastering already? You finished removing the doorsteps?"
"Yes. The Aunts can lacquer them tomorrow. Please don't step on the raw wood, it gets marked easily."
He tiptoed past me to look into the bathroom. "The whole house reeks like a Mexican restaurant."
I smiled and got up from the floor. "What do you expect? Rita and Nina are from Mexico. They made us dinner."
"Good. Let's take a drink on the back porch. I'm parched."
"Out in a minute. I'm almost finished with this."
"Right. Orange juice for you?"
He walked back to the kitchen. I could hear him put away his purchases. More industrial waste in the fridge, no doubt, and saw-dust crackers in the cupboard.
Once we got seated on the back porch Tom sighed and stretched his legs in front of him hugging the furry friend that had insisted on occupying his lap.
"Yeah." He smiled contentedly. "Coach was a bit rough on us. You coming to see the game on Saturday? Paul's coming, he said you could go with him."
"I'd like to."
His smiled widened. "Good."
"You talked with Jim?"
"Not really. There wasn't time. William was waiting to bring me home." He stroked Violet. "We stopped at their house so that I could say hi to Ian. Man, he's a wild kid. Maria has a better friend than she knows. He's really supportive. William too..."
"You told them your parents' reason for throwing you out?"
Tom shook his head. "Paul would have my ass if I did. I think William guessed, though."
We sat in quiet for a moment before Tom picked up the conversation again. "I talked with Maria." His smile had disappeared.
"Yeah. She called me during my lunch break. I was right, she doesn't know shit." He grimaced. "She was glad to hear from me though. She bawled."
"So did you." I stroked the pup in my lap.
"Of course. Man, it was so good to hear her voice." He put his legs on the table and slid further down in the seat. "We didn't talk much, there wasn't time, really." He didn't look at me. "My parents are being fucking assholes. She isn't allowed outside at all other than to school. Mother searched her room the other day, every fucking trace of me was removed, like stuff she'd borrowed from me, photographs, gifts... They check her school bag every day, both going out and going in... Maria isn't sure but she thinks that her locker at school got searched too. It's really bad. They haven't explained anything."
A cold, cold hand squeezed my heart. It sounded like she was living in a nightmare. "Haven't they said anything about you?"
"Maria is not allowed to talk about me. She's so scared and confused..."
"Did you tell her what happened between you and your parents?"
"Just that Dad kicked me out and that I'm living with Mormor. I didn't tell her why he did it, there wasn't time." He shivered. "I'd like to have more than ten minutes on a phone. Man, I'd like to see her and to talk, face to face."
"You'll get the chance to set up something when things have calmed a bit." I reached out, rubbing his shoulder. "Man, you just made initial contact. So far everything is working according to plan."
He sighed the he gave a little chuckle. "Yeah." He put his hand on top of mine and left it there. "Man, my parents have gone fucking crazy."
"Did you set up any kind of schedule with Maria?"
"Sort of. Lunch break tomorrow. You know, if I could make her just a little happier... I wish I could think of something but it's like I'm all blank."
"You have brain cramps right now?"
He grinned wryly and nodded. "A little."
"Well, try and let go for a while. Return to it later."
Now, listen to yourself.
"Next you're going to tell me I need to do some physical work."
"Well, you do. You're going to paint the bathroom door."
"Right. What are you going to do?"
"I am going to paint what Nina and Rita didn't finish out front. Nina and Rita don't like heights and ladders so that's my job."
"You can't finish that before dark." He eyed me. "Maybe you should go to bed early. I mean, painting the front porch isn't on the must-list; it can wait. Stick to the list and get some sleep instead. You look like shit."
"I'll be alright. I'd really like things to look good when she enters the driveway."
"Still. When did you get to bed last night?"
I shrugged. Didn't want to remember.
Maybe if I pour beer over his head he'll stop talking about this.
Tom grunted. "You know, I really hope Granny appreciates the results. Otherwise I'll have to kick her ass."
"She called. She found a physiotherapist she likes."
"Good." Tom's clear gray eyes were digging into my head. "Something's bugging you." He sipped his orange juice. "Does it have to do with Chris?"
Now, there is an easy explanation that he would believe...
I shook my head.
"Does that mean no or does it mean you don't want to talk about it?"
He didn't look like he believed me.
Too restless to sit still, I got up. My body ached but that would pass once I got going.
"In any case, tonight you're going to bed early. I'll sit on you if I have to." He got out of the chair. "At ten at the latest so you might as well adjust the amount of chores accordingly."
At ten?? Nightmares don't start until one.
"I cannot sleep that early. Stop bossing."
He grunted. "Eleven then. And I'll keep on bossing. You look like hell. Come here." He pulled me into a hug, ignoring my half-hearted struggle. "I wish you'd tell me what is bugging you."
I tried to sink into the hug. "Need some more time to think."
He rubbed my back, the soothing touch conflicting with my restlessness. "You aren't thinking, Mikkel. You're fucking running."
If I hadn't emptied that beer...
"Mm. Can I get started now?"
He let me go. "Dude." He disabled my shoulder with a slap and followed me into the house.
The doorbell rang before we got started. It was Ms. Connigan looking acutely embarrassed.
"Look, Mr. Svendsen. I am sorry, I was out of bounds yesterday. I..."
"It's okay. You want the flowers back?"
She reddened. "It's Lisa, she..."
"You can come in."
"No, no, no. This is embarrassing enough as it is."
"I'll get the flowers," Tom said and disappeared.
"I hope you haven't talked with your friend, Mr.... uh?"
"Kirkpatrick. No, I haven't. Is there anything you want me to tell him?"
"Please, tell him nothing. God, this is so embarrassing. No, tell him I'd like to talk with him. Just that... please?"
"Sure." I would promise anything to somebody looking at me like that. Especially when I got that kind of relieved smile back.
"Here." Tom came back with the flowers. He had wrapped the wet stems with kitchen roll.
"Thank you so much. I'm really sorry."
"Just forget it. Look, if Lisa wants to see the pups then she is welcome. After Wednesday next week, the owners will begin to pick their pups up, though. Just so you know."
"I... Thank you. Ah, good bye."
"Shit," Tom grinned after the door was closed.
"I promised her not to tell Chris."
"Fuck. I wanted to."
"Yeah. I wanted to kick his ass." And lick it, too. Nice ass.
"You think Lisa is coming over?"
"Well, she got her mum to pick up the flowers, didn't she?"
Around eleven I was tugged in. Tom hadn't lied when he threatened to sit on me - he got into my bed and held me. The weird thing was that it actually worked and eventually I fell asleep with his beefy arm around me.
Ironically I was woken by his nightmare not long after I fell asleep and it was my turn to hold him.
There was laughter and Spanish talk in the kitchen. The Aunts were finishing what would be the dinner for Tom, Paul and me this evening. Their bubbly presence filled the house and was a pleasant antidote to the dour aura of the plumber.
There were small noises from the bathroom. The plumber hadn't shared lunch with the rest of us, preferring to keep to himself. Maybe it wasn't specifically me he didn't like but people in general.
I lifted the door and let it slide into its place and swung it back and forth. It was a smooth, snug fit. I had added a shim to make up for the gap from the now missing doorstep. The fit was a little too snug, it was likely that the door would get stuck against the floor during damp weather. The floor wasn't entirely level so I wasn't particularly surprised. I got down on my knees to see.
I got back up and saw the plumber standing there, watching me. Again, I marveled at his build. If I had been a cartoonist, I would have been ecstatic meeting someone like him. Everything about him was low slung - his hair, his nose and facial expression, his feet and his protruding belly that looked weird on his slight frame but matched the 'lowslungness' of the rest of him just fine.
He didn't say anything when we made eye contact so he wanted me to come with him. I followed him to the bathroom. Still saying nothing, he stepped aside to let me in.
I thought I knew why he had brought me and I took my time going over everything, running the faucets and looking. He might be an oddball but from what I could see then he knew his craft very well, his work had that kind of solidity and finish.
I nodded to him. "It looks very good to me. It is finished now?"
He nodded and gave a small grunt, the greasy thin gray hair didn't move but stayed plastered to his scull. There was an expression in his usually expressionless face, it could be satisfaction. I smiled and an answering smile almost made it too the surface of his face. Well, if he was satisfied with it all then I probably could be too.
"You want a drink?" I asked and he shook his head, not surprisingly. He had refused everything I had offered so far.
He turned away and began picking up his things so I went back to door to lift it of its hinges. The door just needed to be raised a few millimeters.
The phone rang. I heard Nina answer it. "Si?", a pause and then "Miguel?" which was me since her Miguel wasn't nearby.
"Coming." I put the door down and went into the kitchen. I got one of her smiles as she passed me the phone.
"This is Mikkel Svendsen."
I was answered in Danish. "Hi Mikkel. It's me." Me? Peter. I got a cold feeling in my belly, anticipating news about deaths, accidents and heartbreaks. Peter continued. "I just had a visitor - one of your friends. What the heck have you gotten yourself into?" He was talking in the high register which meant he was either angry or scared, probably both.
"One of my friends?" Relief flooded me. Just one of my friends. "Did he say what this name was?" I drew a deep breath. When Peter got like this one had to pull out the information carefully, bit by bit.
"Niller. Who is he? He scared the shit out of Niels and me, I almost set the dogs on him. What is this?"
"... Niller?" My belly tightened and my head spun. Surely this was some kind of joke? "Big guy, thin hair, broken nose?" Niller? But he was here just a few days ago, riding a ghost-bike...
I'm going crazy.
"Yes! A fucking moronic biker-gorilla. Why did you give him my address?" I had no problem imagining Peter emphasizing with his free arm, punching holes in the air while jumping from one foot to the other. "What the hell do you think you are doing? He wants money!"
He what?? "Niller wanting money from me... He must be in trouble, then." Deep breath, this had to be serious. Think, think, forget about being dizzy... "Did he say how much he needed?" Niller, in trouble, coming to me for money? Christ. Which probably meant he or some of the others were in danger of their lives.
Did they get involved with the Russian mob? Shit. Shit.
"No. He didn't say anything. Look what is this, tell me what is going on, damn it!"
"I don't know what is going on." Shit. "Are you listening?"
I could hear him take a couple of deep breaths. "Yes. Yes, I am."
"I didn't know he was looking for me. I haven't seen him for years. He might be in serious trouble. Do you mind telling me what happened, what he said. If he came asking for money-"
"He didn't ask for money. He gave me this card. It says... where did I put it?"
Sure that that was not what it said, I waited impatiently for Peter to find the card. Or worse, the drug gangs... Moronic bikers indeed, fuck. Shooting holes in one another. Fuck. The idiots...
"Here. Niels had it. Ah. N. B. Christiansen, security and debt-collecting! Just what did you get yourself into??"
"Calm down. Look at the card and tell me if there is a phone number and an address."
Something's seriously wrong. Has to be.
If it isn't the mob or the biker gangs then - then somebody likely died.
I managed to drag the contact information out of him, scribbling it on the back of one of Tom's muscle magazines, all the while wishing for my head to stay quiet, having to ask him to repeat the numbers more than once.
He's back in the country. Niller came back.
"Who is he? You are not going to contact him are you?"
"He is Martins older brother. What did he say, Peter?"
"Martin's.... Christ. You never told me he had a brother."
"Peter, what did he say?"
"He asked for you. Said he was a friend of yours and he wanted to talk with you. I said you didn't live here anymore and I didn't know where you were. I lied to him. He gave me the card so he probably guessed that I lied. Do you think he'll come back?"
"Well, did you invite him back for dinner?"
"No! Mikkel this isn't funny! That guy is dangerous! How did he get my address?"
"I have no idea where he got your address. I haven't seen him since..." I wasn't about to say that, wasn't getting into explanations. "Since I was, what, nineteen."
"... What could he possibly want with you?"
"I have no idea. Did he sound or look upset?"
"I don't know. I couldn't read him. He was real scary. He didn't seem too bright either."
"He just looks stupid but he isn't. And back then he was not one to beat up people; he may have looked like a bully but he really is a lamb." Well, almost. "You have nothing to be scared of."
"Lambs don't do debt-collecting! You sure you don't owe him money?"
"Peter... Really, he is, used to be, a very good friend, alright? He is not coming back to you; you can tell that to Niels. Go give him a good hug and calm down, both of you. You are upsetting the dogs." I checked the clock on the stove. It would be around six o'clock where Peter was. They would be making their dinner. What had happened?
"That's my line."
"Ah. Right. I forgot. How are they, anyway?"
"Fine. They are fine. The last pup was picked up Friday. Now there are just the bitches." He paused. There was a faint scratching sound and a soft thud. He was petting one of the dogs, which meant he was calming down. "Will you be alright?" He was into the lower register now.
"Yes. I will."
Not until one; tonight - four horror shows for the price of one.
Peter always asks for stupid promises.
"No nightmares. I'll snuggle with my cousin Tom." Which I just might. Preferably like right now; if he had been at home.
He'd want an explanation.
"How kinky! Are you...?"
"No, we are not. I'll be fine, really. Now, go to your boyfriend, calm him and enjoy dinner."
"Yes... I miss you."
Problems between the two of them? Likely it was just Niels being pissed that the life of Peter's ex was interfering with their life. He did have a jealous streak. "I miss the dogs."
He made a sound that was halfway between a bark and a chuckle. "See you Mikkel. Take care."
"See you. Say hi to Niels."
I hung up the phone without looking.
E-mail, he had an e-mail address. I blinked and focused on my scribble on the back of the magazine. For some reason the thought of Niller sitting by a computer was...odd. Very odd. Niller should be smeared with oil, wielding a wrench with those huge hands of his; motor parts should surround him... There wasn't room for his fingers on a keyboard. Debt-collecting? What had happened? Fuck all of you. You too, Peter, thanks for calling.
Call now? Get it over with. Or wait until Tom was home so I had somebody to hold me if this was bad. Which it very likely was.
I steeled myself and dialed. The phone was picked up by an answering machine. For some reason I had not been prepared for that and I hung up without saying anything. Then I stood there looking at the phone, feeling utterly stupid for not saying anything. Talking with machines is my trade, yet I always freeze when faced with an answering machine.
"Miguel?" It was Nina, wanting to ask me if they were supposed to do something about the boxes with Tom's things.
I put the magazine with the notes away in my room and fought my way back into house fixing mode. It was a good thing that there were things to be done.
When the plumber and the aunts had left I took the phone to the library. And a beer, a can of courage.
If Niller had found Peter then he might have found Kurt too. I checked my mail but he had sent me only business things. So I called him.
His opening line was a scowling "So, what did I forget this time?"
"Nothing that I know of. Kurt, has a guy by the name Niller been in contact with you?"
"Niller? He's here now. He came asking for you. Want to talk with him?"
"Is he within listening distance?"
"Yes. He's sitting right here, drinking my last beer."
"Put him on and leave the room." Kurt's sense of privacy was not well developed. One had to tell him when there was a line.
"Niller here." That rumbling voice set me swirling into a time loop. Suddenly I remembered how it had felt to sit in Karlo's sofa, calling Martin. The smells, Krabat's furry head on my thigh, the dust dancing in the slanting stripes of sunlight, the anticipation....
I blinked, cleared my head. "Hi Niller. This is Mikkel." Was that how I had said it back then?
"Mikkel... How are you?" He was deviating from the script. He was supposed to say something funny or just yell for Martin to fucking answer his own phone calls.
"Alright. Fine, really... How are you?"
There was a pause. "Fine. Really. Palle is in hospital." He hesitated. "AIDS."
The bottom fell out of my belly. "Oh." Palle?
"Yeah. That's why I wanted to talk with you..."
"... How bad is it?"
"Bad. Better... They say he might make it, the fever has gone down a little. Flu and pneumonia. He asked about you." He drew a deep breath. "Mikkel, did you ever have a test?"
"... Yes. A couple of years ago." Peter had insisted we did it together. It wasn't the most romantic engagement ceremony I could think of. "It was negative." Niller released the air from his lungs. "The rest of you guys? Are you alright?"
"Karlo and I are. We don't know about Martin."
"He'll not take the test, huh?"
"No. I don't think we can convince him to do it..."
"The Martin, that I knew, wouldn't."
"Yeah. Guess he hasn't changed that much."
Did I want to know? The question was out before I made my decision. "How is he?"
"Alright. He's been clean for a while now. Three years or so. He's kept the same job for that time too. He is fine, really."
Relief flooded through me, made my eyes water. And I didn't even know how much I had worried, feared... "I'm glad to hear that."
"What about you?"
"... I got kids. And a wife. Settled, you know."
"Yes? Kids - what kind?"
"Lene and Louise, one and three years old. There is a third one in the oven. I told Inga that I want a handball team...." He sounded almost shy. He was smiling.
"He's back for a couple of weeks. He's working as a long-distance truck-driver. He's babysitting Lene and Louise tonight. It's Inga's bingo night." Bingo night? Somehow it was just so like Niller settling down with a wife that had bingo nights.
And it was just like Palle getting...
"You stuck together, all of you?"
"On and off. Palle has mostly been running his own course... You know. In between it's been him and Martin..." The vagueness used to mean 'not to be talked about over the phone'. Some things had not changed. "How about you?"
"Me? Well, you talked with Peter and Kurt... Things are fine."
"Yeah. Kurt said you go to the university now. Computers." There was a smile in his voice. "I told you, you were too smart for the likes of us. How about your family? Are things better with them now?"
"Oh, yes. I still fight with my mother, but we can talk now, most of the time. Karla - that's still a bit so-so."
He sounded genuinely glad. "Good. Families should stick together." He didn't say anything about his mother so I gathered that that had not changed. "That Peter - everything got off on the wrong foot. I think I scared him. I'm sorry about that." He took a swallow of beer. I had no trouble picturing him - knew just how small the bottle seemed in his big hand, the way he held it at an angle.
"You did. He's afraid you'll come visiting again and beat him up for lying about not knowing where I was."
He laughed. "Tell him I won't come around again. Not without an invitation."
"I already told him that. He'll calm down."
"Are you... angry?"
"I... I'm kind of stunned talking with you. But - yes. Yes, I am. If we continue much further along this line I am likely to begin yelling at you."
Punch your face in too.
"Yeah. Sorry - I shouldn't have asked. If you want to talk, then we can meet when you come back. You have my number?"
"Yes. I'll see you when I get back. If you haven't run away."
"... This time I'll be here. Promise."
Well, he had broken that promise once already. "Let me know how Palle is doing. You can get my contact information from Kurt."
"Yes, I'll let you know. See you."
I broke the connection.
I went to Mormor's bedroom and began putting up the wallpaper.
Was the wall really straight? It seemed to move but when I touched it, it was quite solid and unmoving.
Maybe there is magic in stick pugs.
We were done. Ready for Mormor's homecoming tomorrow. There was just one problem - the wall was dissolving into the fifth dimension or something. And colored spots came and went so I couldn't decide whether the paint covered it properly or not.
Fireworks in slow motion. Neat. Just - watch the lights.
Most likely I was going mad.
Mormor's friends Beth, Sara and Karen had been around the house all morning and part of the afternoon. It had been odd to see how Karen's influence changed Sara into a wicked gossip. The three of them hadn't ceased to chatter for a minute, except when I was in view - as if my ears only worked then. Bitter old age at its worst.
Nina and Rita were a couple of teasers and the witches just didn't catch their humor. I had done what I could to keep the two groups of women separated. They were not readily mixable.
I had declared the kitchen woman free and made lunch when it had looked like it might become a battleground between Mexican and American lunch tradition. Nina and Rita had been amused. Karen had been offended when I put my foot down, though she had tried to hide it.
A spell of madness seemed appropriate. I probably didn't have to work for it.
Just look at the lights.
Tom and Paul had arrived shortly before the witches left, missing the brunt of the poison. Which was good. The last thing I had wanted was to be on my toes to keep the women off Tom's and Paul's backs.
There was still a trace of poison in the air. Maybe I should go burn some chili con carne. A chili con carne offering would be constructive. Only problem was I didn't really know the proper ritual to go with it.
And I couldn't call Chris to ask. Not that I really wanted to. Or maybe I did.
Little bugger didn't leave me a phone number. Why not?
There was an ugly laughter in the back of my head and I tried to think of something else. Like the wall. It was moving again. My thoughts were picking up speed, spinning out of control now, there was no energy left to do anything about it.
He's clean now. Has been for two-three years. Clean, clean... Didn't want to take the test. Too smart for the likes of us. Clean!...
"Are you finished?" Tom's voice broke the uncomfortable spinning.
"Yeah. Say, does the wall look crooked to you?" I tried to sound normal as if there weren't voices in my head.
"No. You're probably tired... Did you check it with the level?"
"Paul and I are having a drink in the library. You coming too? I'll make us some fresh orange juice."
For a moment I was relieved getting off so easily. I thought he had left. He hadn't. "Mikkel, you cheated."
"Huh?" I knew perfectly well what he was talking about.
"Yeah. Somebody did a lot of paperwork in the library last night. Somebody threw four used coffee filters in the trashcan last night. Mikkel, stop looking at that stupid wall! It's straight, solid and it ain't moving nowhere. Look at me, I'm talking to you."
I turned, didn't really want to but if I didn't he would come to stand in front of me, so I might as well.
"Oh..." He came forward and pulled me into a hug. I felt stupid. Should have gone to him for a hug earlier. Like yesterday. He stroked my hair, held me until I pulled back.
"What is it, Mikkel?" He dried my cheeks with his thumbs. I felt like a little boy.
"Just tired. Mormor's 'friends' drove me insane. Where did she pick them up?"
"Hey, don't try to sidetrack me. Did you sleep at all last night?"
"Why not, man? I tucked you in and everything."
"I got up again. I just couldn't sleep."
"Dude! Let me rephrase. What kept your head so busy you couldn't sleep?"
"Just let it be, alright."
"Is it Chris?"
Bugger didn't leave his phone number.
"No. Just leave it." That laughter again. I probably shouldn't tell Tom about it, it would certainly scare him.
"Alright. For now that is. Come." He took my arm and pulled me into motion. "Go take a shower. You think you can do that?"
"Of course. Dude!"
"I'm not sure I trust that. Here. In you go." He pushed me into the bathroom. "I'll fetch your towel from the line."
He left me alone in the damp room. He and Paul had already showered. I began removing my clothes, leaving them in a heap on the floor. My body seemed to have reached a limit, the exhaustion caught up with it fast. Before I had stripped myself of my clothes I had become a sluggish and clumsy lump of boneless meat. Except my legs, there was a weird tense tremor in them. Of course it could just be that the gravity had suddenly doubled.
Maybe I could sleep tonight, ghosts and all. Again I heard someone laugh. It sounded like Martin.
Get the fuck out of my head!
"You aren't gonna get wet if you don't move into the stall." Tom was back and he nudged my shoulder. Martin's laughter disappeared when Tom began talking. "Come on Mikkel. You'll feel good. Or better. What ever."
"You don't have to wash me." Really, it would feel good to have somebody touch me. To keep my mind from swallowing me up.
Ask him, you idiot. He'd do it.
"I know. I won't. You're too naked for my pleasure."
He waited until I had turned on the water before he picked my clothes up.
"You know, that night I got the nightmare." He went over and pulled the curtain to the stall shut.
"Yes?" The water prickled against my skin, distantly, as if the skin was no longer a humanely thin membrane but a thick leather. I really wanted him to stay, to talk, to keep Martin's mocking laughter at bay.
"I slept real well afterwards. You think you could sleep if we slept together?"
I thought about snuggling with Tom, a heavy arm around me, the smell of him that was pleasant and comforting. "Perhaps. Thanks, Tom."
"Hey, you're my brother."
I hadn't realized just how worn all my defenses had become. At Tom's words everything inside me came to an abrupt halt, locks and chains turned to dust at his words, wards were... just gone. Then the fall began, a dizzyingly spinning spiral.
You're my brother. Little kid brother. You're my brother. Kid brother. Brother...
It went on and on, Karlo's face mixing with Tom's, their lips thick and moving machine like. Spinning. My brother...
There was no shutting Karlo away.
The spinning finally slowed and I became dimly aware of the reality around me. Somebody, smelling suspiciously like Tom, held me. A towel was rubbing me with small quick movements, leaving my skin burning. The sensation wouldn't let me disappear into my head again, and I wanted it to just go on and on.
"I think he's having a nervous breakdown." It was the one with the towel that spoke, it sounded like Paul.
"You tell me. Christ..." That was Tom and he sounded scared, very scared.
He shouldn't be scared. My little kid brother shouldn't be scared like that. My fault... I tried to speak and found no words. But I had to tell him, tell him he didn't need to be scared, because I was right there. I put my arms around him, lumpy weak things they were, but they served their purpose.
"Mikkel? You back in your stupid head?"
I nodded, my forehead resting against his neck. There was a towel around my shoulders. He used it for drying my hair.
"Say something, Mikkel." He was still scared but the hand that moved the towel was steady.
I shook my head, had no words. Just a mind suddenly empty of thoughts, an eerie quiet. He continued drying me.
Maybe... Yes. I could stand on my own. Paul pulled back, Tom left the towel around my shoulders and let me go. It was a lonely thing, standing there. Then Tom put a hand on my shoulder and made everything better. Paul took my hand. I suddenly I knew I would live, which is a very good thing to know.
They were talking again. I didn't catch much of it. "... put him to bed." Tom said and they pulled me with them. Somewhere we came across a bed and Tom made me sit.
"Here, put some clothes on." Tom pushed a t-shirt over my head and I stuck my lumpy arms through the appropriate holes. Paul handed me a pair of underwear. I managed getting them on; getting up to pull them into place was a bit tricky. Of course there were hands supporting me, I wasn't allowed to fall. I wasn't even allowed to be alone after Tom tugged me in.
Tom's voice was soft, not so scared. "You think you can sleep? Don't worry, Paul and I will be here."
"We'll be here. Okay?"
I snuggled and let myself be held. Paul was back. They talked and I tried to hold on, to understand what they were saying but I was slipping, couldn't hold on any longer, couldn't even hold on to the fear of the dreams.
Another body in the bed, holding me from behind.
Sleep swallowed me up.
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