Itsy Bitsy

John Ajvide Lindqvist; Translated by Ebba Segerberg

Thomas Dunne Books

ITSY BITSY (Begin Reading)

Frank Johansson is waiting for the shot that will change his life.

He’s sitting in an elm tree, six meters above the ground. He’s wrapped two layers of foam around the branch so he won’t get rubbed raw. Since the start of his surveillance two days ago he has downed fifteen liters of water. His back is incredibly sore.

It is summer. Full-blown Swedish summer. The sun is shining through the leaves and perspiration is pouring down his body. Nothing stirs except the wings of fate. This is his last chance. The photograph or the abyss. Or the collection agency, at the very least. One million.

The Shot will give him one million, give or take. He has made the calculations, has investigated his options. The Sun alone is willing to cough up fifty thousand pounds for the rights. Then there are the trickles of royalties from other sources down the road.

One million solves all his problems.

1/250th of a second is all he needs. The shutter opens, exposes the film for the Shot, closes again, retains it in the darkness of the camera’s chamber and Frank is a rich man.

The palms of his hands are soaked. He dries them on his pants and grabs the camera with both hands, turning the lens toward the pool and focusing on the same scene he’s been staring at for two days:

The blue surface of the water. Two wooden deck chairs under a large white umbrella, a table between them. A book on the table. With his three-hundred-millimeter lens he can zoom in so close that he can read the title of the book: Lord of the Flies.

The water is like a mirror. Nothing stirs.

It’s enough to make anyone crazy.

Frank zooms out, letting the pool fill his line of vision. A cloud drifts across the sky, giving the water a darker hue. His head is boiling. If only he could slip into that water, let it envelop and cool him.

He takes a sip from his sun-warmed water bottle.

One million.

Someone has been here. Someone has been sitting in that deck chair, read Lord of the Flies and set it down. Amanda. It has to be Amanda. Roberto—can he even read?

All they have to do is come out that door—Frank follows their path with his finger--walk up to the edge of the pool and…kiss. A kiss, a simple little kiss and click: Frank is saved.

But they don’t come, they don’t want to save Frank, and he hates them. When the sweat stings his eyes and his back is aches and boredom nibbles at his soul, he occupies himself with dreaming and hating.

Wouldn’t you?

Someone can save you with a kiss, but refuses. Maybe that is all that Judas wanted: a kiss. When he didn’t get it, he answered in kind. Thirty pieces of silver—what were those to him? He had given his answer. Then he went and hanged himself.

Frank stares at a thick branch above his head and a little to the side. He imagines a rope and feels his own fall, the sound when his neck snaps—chapack—the connection between body and soul is severed and one is free as a little blue bird in a night without end.

The surface of the water is blue, blue before his feet and his thoughts get lost. Minutes go by, hours. A mosquito lands on his lower arm and he watches with interest as it sucks his blood. Paparazzi. Apparently Fellini invented the name to sound like an irritating mosquito. Paparazzi, paparazzi.

When the insect withdraws its proboscis and—stuffed—makes its preparations for launch, Frank kills it. It becomes a smeared stain on his skin. He moves his arm up to his eyes and studies its remains. Black spider-web legs are stuck in the red blood, like a calligraphic sign.

The sun drags itself across the sky, alters the reflections in the pool, dazzling him. He holds a hand in front of his eyes and moves a little. He hears a crack. A club bangs into the small of his back and pain shoots up from his tailbone, exploding in his head. He lets out a scream, is on the verge of pitching forward but manages to grab the branch overhead.

The camera glides out of his lap, jerks on the old neck strap that then breaks. Through a yellow membrane, Frank sees the camera float in slow motion toward the ground, hears the delicate crunch of the lens being crushed. He shuts his eyes and hugs the branch. Tears rise up and force themselves out through his tightly closed lids.

No, no, no, no, no…it isn’t fair.

He weeps, curled up. Tears follow the path of the camera through the air, landing in the dry grass. He is at rock bottom. He twists this knowledge around inside, again and again, and continues to cry. In the end it becomes a form of pleasure. He opens his eyes and sees the pool through his tears, a billowing rectangle.

The reflections of sunlight detach from the surface of the water and become stars that dance toward him. He waves his hand weakly to fend them off but they bore straight into his head like glowing needles.

“Aaaaaahhhhh…”

He punches the air around his head with his hand but the needles are in there, darting around as if searching for something. They puncture his brain, tearing and cutting and he feels sick to his stomach. He is being dissected alive.

The sunlight rest on the surface of the water. His back throbs with pain. Gently, one branch at a time, he climbs down out of the tree and crouches beside his camera like a boy grieving for a dead pet. He removes the lens, then shakes it. Something is irretrievably broken inside.

You have taken your last picture, my friend.

Fifteen years together. He carries the lens back to the house, places it in his bag and takes out the Sigma lens. Not the same thing at all.

The camera body appears to have survived, so he screws on the Sigma and attaches the strap from the reserve camera. Then he refills his water bottle and takes a couple of bites of cold pizza. His jaws work mechanically up and down. His head is empty. He looks around the elegantly appointed room and his gaze is caught by the Bruno Liljefors piece above the fireplace. It depicts a sea.

I thought he only painted foxes.

Frank lets himself fall back into the sofa, closes his eyes and falls asleep.

He is in a deep sea darkness, sinking. A light goes on far away. He swims toward it. When he reaches it, everything will be fine. If he doesn’t get there, he will continue to sink. He swims. His strokes are slow, thick, as if the water were syrup.

The point of light does not get larger.

And yet he reaches it. It hovers in front of his eyes. He reaches out for it, to touch it.

That’s when he sees the maw that opens behind the light. It’s one of those fish. He’s read about them. They live in the depths where the sun’s rays never reach. They lure smaller fish with the help of a little lantern. When the fish swim up to it…

A door slams shut and Frank is wide awake. Marcus is standing in front of him, grinning.

“Hi there, Frankie boy. How is it going in the bushes?”

“Well…” Frank blinks a couple of times, reemerging from the darkness. “…not so good.”

“Why not?”

“They’re not coming out.”

Marcus widens his eyes with an exaggerated expression of surprise. His eyes are red and he seems under the influence of something. Maybe large gestures are the only ones he can manage. He slumps down into an armchair and points to the pieces of pizza that remain. “Do you mind…?”

“Go ahead.”

Frank gets up and gathers his things. When he reaches the door, Marcus clears his throat.

“You know, Frankie boy, there’s been some complications.” Frank waits, does not turn around. “That is…the financial part of this rental contract doesn’t feel completely satisfactory.”

“Rental contract?”

“Yes, that’s what it’s called. The rent, for god’s sake.”

Now Frank turns around and looks at Marcus who is sitting up in the armchair, licking pizza grease from his fingers. He is dressed in turned-up linen pants, loafers, and an untucked white shirt. A rich man’s child. Parents on vacation. Not enough pocket money.

“I gave you ten thousand.”

“Yep,” Marcus says. “You did. And now it’s gone. So…I think our agreement has come to an end. If we can’t arrive at a compromise, that is.”

Like when you have banged a toe and you pause a moment knowing that now…now the pain will come, Frank waits for anger to well up inside. But it doesn’t come.

Calmly, he asks, “How much?”

“I don’t know. Five?”

“And if I refuse? If I sit there without…paying rent?”

Marcus feigns a look of shock.

“But that would be trespassing! I would have to call the police!”

Frank nods and says, “Tomorrow.”

He has no real card to use against Marcus. The father probably wouldn’t much like the fact that his son had rented a tree to a scandal photographer, but nothing could be proven.

“Fine by me,” Marcus says and gets up. “I’m going to get some sleep. Good luck.”

ITSY BITSY Copyright © 2011 by John Ajvide Lindqvist.