“And what do you think this might be?”
Gunnar Holmberg, police commissioner from Vällingby, held up a little plastic bag of white powder.
Maybe heroin, but no one dared say anything. Didn’t want to be suspected of knowing anything about stuff like that. Especially if you had a brother or a friend of your brother who did it. Shoot horse. Even the girls didn’t say anything. The policeman shook the bag.
“Baking powder, do you think? Flour?”
A mumble of answers in the negative. They didn’t want him to think class 6B was a bunch of idiots. Even though it was impossible to determine what was really in the bag, this lesson was about drugs, so you could draw certain conclusions. The policeman turned to the teacher.
“What do you teach them in Home Economics these days?”
The teacher smiled and shrugged her shoulders. The class laughed; the cop was OK. Some of the guys had even been allowed to touch his gun before class. It wasn’t loaded, but still.
Oskar’s chest felt like it was about to burst. He knew the answer to the question. It hurt him not to say anything when he knew. He wanted the policeman to look at him. Look at him and tell him he was right. He knew it was a dumb thing to do, but he still put his hand up.
“It’s heroin, isn’t it?”
“In fact it is.” The policeman looked kindly at him. “How did you know?”
Heads turned in his direction, curious as to what he was going to say.
“Naw . . . I mean, I’ve read a lot and stuff.”
The policeman nodded.
“Now there’s a good thing. Reading.” He shook the little bag. “You won’t have much time for it if you get into this, though. How much do you think this little bag is worth?”
Oskar didn’t feel the need to say anything else. He had been looked at and spoken to. Had even been able to tell the cop he read a lot. That was more than he had hoped for.
He let himself sink into a daydream. How the policeman came up to him after class and was interested in him, sat down next to him. Then he would tell him everything. And the policeman would understand. He would stroke his hair and tell him he was alright; would hold him and say . . .
Jonny Forsberg drove a hard finger into his side. Jonny’s brother ran with the drug crowd and Jonny knew a lot of words that the other guys in the class quickly picked up. Jonny probably knew exactly how much that bag was worth but he didn’t snitch. Didn’t talk to the cop.
It was recess and Oskar lingered by the coat rack, indecisive. Jonny wanted to hurt him—what was the best way to avoid it? By staying here in the hallway or going outside? Jonny and the other class members stormed out the doors into the schoolyard.
That’s right; the policeman had his car parked in the schoolyard and anyone who was interested could come take a look. Jonny wouldn’t dare beat him up when the policeman was there.
Oskar walked down to the double front doors and looked out the glass window. Just as he thought, everyone in the class had gathered around the patrol car. Oskar would also have wanted to be there but there was no point. Someone would knee him, another pull his underpants up in a wedgie, policeman or no policeman.
But at least he was off the hook this recess. He went out into the schoolyard and snuck around the back of the building, to the bathrooms.
Once he was in the bathroom he listened, cleared his throat. The sound echoed through the stalls. He reached his hand into his underpants and quickly pulled out the Pissball, a piece of foam about the size of a clementine that he had cut out of an old mattress and put a hole in for his penis. He smelled it.
Yup, he had pissed in his pants again. He rinsed it under the tap, squeezing out as much water as possible.
Incontinence. That was what it was called. He had read about it in a pamphlet that he had sneaked from the drugstore. Mostly something old women suffered from.
There were prescription medicines you could get, it said in the pamphlet, but he did not intend to use his allowance so he could humiliate himself at the prescription counter. And he would definitely not tell his mother; she would feel so sorry for him it would make him sick.
He had the Pissball and it worked for now.
Footsteps outside, voices. Pissball in hand, he fled into the nearest stall and locked the door at the same time as the outer door opened. He soundlessly climbed up onto the toilet seat, curling into a ball so his feet wouldn’t show if anyone looked under the door. Tried not to breathe.
Jonny, of course.
“Hey Piggy, are you here?”
Micke was with him. The worst two of the lot. No, Tomas was worse but he was almost never in on stuff that involved physical blows and scratches. Too smart for that. Was probably sucking up to the policeman right now. If the Pissball were discovered, Tomas was the one who would really be able to use it to hurt and humiliate him for a long time. Jonny and Micke, on the other hand, would just beat him up and that was fine with him. So in a way he was actually lucky. . . .
“Piggy? We know you’re in here.”
They checked his stall. Shook the door. Banged on it. Oskar wrapped his arms tightly around his legs and clenched his teeth so he wouldn’t scream.
Go away! Leave me alone! Why can’t you leave me alone?
Now Jonny was talking in a mild voice.
“Little Pig, if you don’t come out now we have to get you after school. Is that what you want?”
It was quiet for a while. Oskar exhaled carefully.
They attacked the door with kicks and blows. The whole bathroom thundered and the lock on the stall door started to bend inward. He should open it, go out to them before they got too mad, but he just couldn’t.
He had put his hand up in class, a declaration of existence, a claim that he knew something. And that was forbidden to him. They could give a number of reasons for why they had to torment him; he was too fat, too ugly, too disgusting. But the real problem was simply that he existed, and every reminder of his existence was a crime.
They were probably just going to “baptize” him. Shove his head into the toilet bowl and flush. Regardless of what they invented, it was always such a relief when it was over. So why couldn’t he just pull back the lock, that was in any case going to tear off at the hinges at any moment, and let them have their fun?
He stared at the bolt that was forced out of the lock with a crack, at the door that flung open and banged into the wall, at Micke Siskov’s triumphantly smiling face, and then he knew.
That wasn’t the way the game was played.
He couldn’t have pulled back the lock, they couldn’t simply have climbed over the sides of the stall in all of three seconds, because those weren’t the rules of the game.
Theirs was the intoxication of the hunter, his the terror of the prey. Once they had actually captured him the fun was over and the punishment more of a duty that had to be carried out. If he gave up too early there was a chance they would put more of their energy into the punishment instead of the hunt. That would be worse.
Jonny Forsberg stuck his head in.
“You’ll have to open the lid if you’re going to shit, you know. Go on, squeal like a pig.”
And Oskar squealed like a pig. That was a part of it. If he squealed they would sometimes leave it at that. He put extra effort into it this time, afraid they would otherwise force his hand out of his pants in the process of punishing him and uncover his disgusting secret.
He wrinkled up his nose like a pig’s and squealed; grunted and squealed. Jonny and Micke laughed.
“Fucking pig, go on, squeal some more.”
Oskar carried on. Shut his eyes tight and kept going. Balled his hands up into fists so hard that his nails went into his palms, and kept going. Grunted and squealed until he felt a funny taste in his mouth. Then he stopped and opened his eyes.
They were gone.
He stayed put, curled up on the toilet seat, and stared down at the floor. There was a red spot on the tile below. While he was watching, another drop fell from his nose. He tore off a piece of toilet paper and held it against his nostril.
This sometimes happened when he was scared. His nose started to bleed, just like that. It had helped him a few times when they were thinking about hitting him, and decided against it since he was already bleeding.
Oskar Eriksson sat there curled up with a wad of paper in one hand and his Pissball in the other. Got nosebleeds, wet his pants, talked too much. Leaked from every orifice. Soon he would probably start to shit his pants as well. Piggy.
He got up and left the bathroom. Didn’t wipe up the drop of blood. Let someone see it, let them wonder. Let them think someone had been killed here, because someone had been killed here. And for the hundreth time.
Håkan Bengtsson, a forty-five-year-old man with an incipient beer belly, a receding hairline, and an address unknown to the authorities, was sitting on the subway, staring out of the window at what was to be his new home.
It was a little ugly, actually. Norrköping would have been nicer. But having said that, these western suburbs didn’t look anything like the Stockholm ghetto-suburbs he had seen on TV: Kista and Rinkeby and Hallonbergen. This was different.
“NEXT STATION: RÅCKSTA.”
It was a little softer and rounder than those places. Although, here was a real skyscraper.
He arched his neck in order to see the top floors of the Waterworks’ administrative building. He couldn’t recall there being any buildings this tall in Norrköping. But of course he had never been to the downtown area.
He was supposed to get off at the next station, wasn’t he? He looked at the subway map over the doors. Yes, the next stop.
“PLEASE STAND BACK FROM THE DOORS. THE DOORS ARE CLOSING.”
Was anyone looking at him?
No, there were only a few people in this car, all of them absorbed in their evening newspapers. Tomorrow there would be something about him in there.
His gaze stopped at an ad for women’s underwear. A woman was posing seductively in black lace panties and a bra. It was crazy. Naked skin wherever you looked. Why was it tolerated? What effect did it have on people’s heads, on love?
His hands were shaking and he rested them on his knees. He was terribly nervous.
“Is there really no other way?”
“Do you think I would expose you to this if there was another way?”
“No, but . . .”
“There is no other way.”
No other way. He just had to do it. And not mess up. He had studied the map in the phone book and chosen a forested area that looked appropriate, then packed his bag and left.
He had cut away the Adidas logo with the knife that was lying in the bag between his feet. That was one of the things that had gone wrong in Norrköping. Someone had remembered the brand name on the bag, and then the police had found it in the garbage container where he had tossed it, not far from their apartment.
Today he would bring the bag home with him. Maybe cut it into small pieces and flush it down the toilet. Is that what you did?
How is this supposed to work anyway?
“THIS IS THE FINAL STATION. ALL PASSENGERS MUST DISEMBARK.”
The subway car disgorged its contents and Håkan followed the stream of people, the bag in his hand. It felt heavy, although the only thing in it that weighed anything was the gas canister. He had to exercise a great deal of self-restraint in order to walk normally, rather than as a man on the way to his own execution. He couldn’t afford to give people any reason to notice him.
But his legs were leaden; they wanted to weld themselves onto the platform. What would happen if he simply stayed here? If he stood absolutely still, without moving a muscle, and simply didn’t leave. Waited for nightfall, for someone to notice him, call for . . . someone to come and get him. To take him somewhere.
He continued to walk at a normal pace. Right leg, left leg. He couldn’t falter now. Terrible things would happen if he failed. The worst imaginable.
Once he was past the checkpoint he looked around. His sense of direction wasn’t very good. Which way was the forested area? Naturally he couldn’t ask anyone. He had to take a chance. Keep going, get this over with. Right leg, left leg.
There has to be another way.
But he couldn’t think of any other way. There were certain conditions, certain criteria. This was the only way to satisfy them.
He had done it twice before, and had messed up both times. Hadn’t bungled it quite as much that time in Växjö but enough that they had been forced to move. Today he would do a good job, receive praise.
Perhaps a caress.
Two times. He was already lost. What difference did a third time make? None whatsoever. Society’s judgement would probably be the same. Lifetime imprisonment.
And morally? How many lashes of the tail, King Minos?
The park path he was on turned a corner further up, where the forest started. It had to be the forest he had seen on the map. The gas container and the knife rattled in the bag. He tried to carry the bag without jostling the contents.
A child turned onto the path in front of him. A girl, maybe eight years old, walking home from school with her school bag bouncing against her hip.
That was the limit. Not a child so young. Better him, then, until he fell dead to the ground. The girl was singing something. He increased his pace in order to get closer to her, to hear.
“Little ray of sunshine peeking in
Through the window of my cottage . . .”
Did kids still sing that one? Maybe the girl’s teacher was older. How nice that the song was still around. He would have wanted to get even closer in order to hear better, so close in fact that he would be able to smell the scent of her hair.
He slowed down. Don’t create a scene. The girl turned off from the park path, taking a small trail that led into the forest. Probably lived in a house on the other side. To think her parents let her walk here all alone. And so young.
He stopped, let the girl increase the distance between them, disappear into the forest.
Keep going, little one. Don’t stop to play in the forest.
He waited for maybe a minute, listened to a chaffinch singing in a nearby tree. Then he went in after her.
Oskar was on his way home from school, his head heavy. He always felt worse when he managed to avoid punishment in that way, by playing the pig, or something else. Worse than if he had been punished. He knew this, but couldn’t handle the thought of the physical punishment when it approached. He would rather sink to any level. No pride.
Robin Hood and Spider-Man had pride. If Sir John or Doctor Octopus cornered them they simply spit danger in the face, come what may.
But what did Spider-Man know, anyway? He always managed to get away, even if it was impossible. He was a comic book action figure and had to survive for the next issue. He had his spider powers, Oskar had his pig squeal. Whatever it took to survive.
Oskar needed to comfort himself. He had had a shitty day and now he needed some compensation. Despite the risk of running into Jonny and Micke he walked up toward downtown Blackeberg, to Sabis, the local grocery store. He shuffled up along the zigzaging ramp instead of taking the stairs, using the time to gather himself. He needed to be calm for this, not sweaty.
He had been caught shoplifting once at a Konsum, another grocery chain, about a year ago now. The guard had wanted to call his mother but she had been at work and Oskar didn’t know her number, no, really he didn’t. For a week Oskar had agonized every time the phone rang, but then a letter arrived, addressed to his mother.
Idiotic. It was even labeled “Police Authorities, District of Stockholm” and of course Oskar had ripped it open, read about his crime, faked his mother’s signature, and returned the letter in order to confirm that she had read it. He was a coward, maybe, but he wasn’t stupid.
What was cowardly, anyway? Was this, what he was about to do, cowardly? He stuffed his down coat full of Dajm, Japp, Coco, and Bounty chocolate bars. Finally he slipped a bag of chewy Swedish Cars between his stomach and pants, went to the checkout, and paid for a lollipop.
On the way home he walked with his head high and a bounce to his step. He wasn’t just Piggy, whom everyone could kick around; he was the Master Thief who took on dangers and survived. He could outwit them all.
Once he walked through the front gate to the courtyard of his apartment complex he was safe. None of his enemies lived in this complex, an irregular circle of buildings positioned inside the larger circle formed by his street, Ibsengatan. A double ring of protection. Here he was safe. In this courtyard nothing shitty had ever happened to him. Basically.
He had grown up here and it was here he had had friends before he started school. It was only in fifth grade that he started being picked on seriously. At the end of that year he had become a full-fledged target and even friends outside his class had sensed it. They called more and more seldom to ask him to play.
It was during that time he started with his scrapbook. He was on his way home to enjoy that scrapbook right now.
He heard a whirring sound and something bumped into his feet. A dark red radio-controlled car was backing away from him. It turned and drove up the hill toward the front doors of his building at high speed. Behind the prickly bushes to the right of the front door was Tommy, a long antenna sticking out from his stomach. He was laughing softly.
“Surprised you, didn’t I?”
“Goes pretty fast, that thing.”
“Yeah, I know. Do you want to buy it?”
“. . . how much?”
“Naw, I don’t have that much.”
Tommy beckoned Oskar closer, turned the car on the slope and drove it down at breakneck speed, stopping it with a huge skid in front of his feet, picked it up, patted it, and said in a low voice:
“Costs nine hundred in the store.”
Tommy looked at the car, then scrutinized Oskar from top to bottom.
“Let’s say two hundred. It’s brand new.”
“Yes, it’s great, but . . .”
Tommy nodded, put the car down again, and steered it in between the bushes so the large bumpy wheels shook, let it come around the large drying rack and drive out on the path, going further down the slope.
“Can I try?”
Tommy looked at Oskar as if to evaluate his worthiness, then handed over the remote, pointing at his upper lip.
“You been hit? You’ve got blood. There.”
Oskar wiped his lip. A few brown crusts came off on his index finger.
“No, I just . . .”
Don’t tell. There was no point. Tommy was three years older, a tough guy. He would only say something about fighting back and Oskar would say “sure” and the end result would be that he lost even more respect in Tommy’s eyes.
Oskar played with the car for a while, then watched Tommy steer it. He wished he had the money so they could have made a deal. Have that between them. He pushed his hands into his pockets and felt the candy.
“Do you want a Dajm?”
“No, I don’t like those.”
Tommy looked up from the remote. Smiled.
“You have both kinds?”
“. . . yeah.”
Tommy put his hand out and Oskar gave him a Japp that Tommy slipped into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Thanks. See you.”
Once Oskar made it into the apartment he laid out all the candy on his bed. He was going to start with the Dajm, then work his way through the double bits and end with the Bounty, his favorite. Then the fruit-flavored gummy cars that kind of rinsed out his mouth.
He sorted the candy in a long line next to the bed in the order it would be eaten. In the refrigerator he found an opened bottle of Coca-Cola that his mom had put a piece of aluminum foil over. Perfect. He liked Coke even more when it was a little flat, especially with candy.
He removed the foil and put the bottle next to the candy, flopped belly down on his bed, and studied the contents of his bookcase. An almost complete collection of the series Goosebumps, here and there augmented by a Goosebumps anthology.
The bulk of his collection was made up of the two bags of books he had bought for two hundred kronor through an ad in the paper. He had taken the subway out to Midsommarkransen and followed the directions until he found the apartment. The man who opened the door was fat, pale, and spoke in a low, hoarse voice. Luckily he had not invited Oskar to come in, just carried out the two bags, taken the two hundred, nodded, said “Enjoy,” and closed the door.
That was when Oskar had become nervous. He had spent months searching for older publications in the series in the used comics stores along Götgatan in South Stockholm. On the phone the man had said he had precisely those older volumes. It had all been too easy.
As soon as Oskar was out of sight he put the bags down and went through them. But he had not been cheated. There were forty-five in all, from issue number two to forty-six.
You could no longer get these books anywhere. And all for a paltry two hundred!
No wonder he had been afraid of that man. What he had done was no less than rob him of a treasure.
Even so, they were nothing compared to his scrapbook.
He pulled it out from its hiding place under a stack of comics. The scrapbook itself was simply a large sketchbook he had swiped from the discount department store Åhléns in Vällingby; simply walked out with it under his arm—who said he was a coward?—but the contents . . .
He unwrapped the Dajm bar, took a large bite, savoring the familiar crunch between his teeth, and opened the cover. The first clipping was from The Home Journal: a story about a murderess in the US in the forties. She had managed to poison fourteen old people with arsenic before she was caught, tried, and sentenced to death by electric chair. Understandably, she had requested to be executed by lethal injection instead, but the state she was in used the chair and the chair it was.
That was one of Oskar’s dreams: to see someone executed in the electric chair. He had read that the blood started to boil, the body contorted itself in impossible angles. He also imagined that the person’s hair caught on fire but he had no official source for this belief.
Still, pretty amazing.
He turned the page. The next entry was from the newspaper Aftonbladet and concerned a Swedish murderer who had mutilated his victims’ bodies. Lame passport photo. Looked like any old person. But he had murdered two male prostitutes in his home sauna, butchered them with an electric chain saw, and buried them out back behind the sauna. Oskar ate the last piece of Dajm and studied the man’s face closely. Could have been anybody.
Could be me in twenty years.
Copyright © 2004 by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Translation © 2007 by Ebba Segerberg. All rights reserved.