Lunch arrived, set down with much anticipation on the brand-new table. A large bowl of steamed rice sat at the centre of the assortment, surrounded by numerous colourful side dishes. A plate of cellophane noodles, fried with tofu and vegetables, sat beside a fragrant curry the colour of saffron. A small mountain of dumplings, each as large as a child’s palm and shaped like peonies, was the star of the show, filling the small dining room with a tantalising scent.
Agnete wasn’t immune to the sight and smell of her stepmother’s cooking but she had the strength of will to turn her nose up at it regardless, taking only the most miserly portion of rice and a single dumpling for her plate.
“You’re not hungry?” Marisa, the stepmother in question, asked concernedly, nodding her head at Agnete’s tiny portion size.
“No thanks. I’m not hungry,” Agnete said with a sullen shrug, pushing a forkful of rice over to one side of her plate.
“You should eat more,” Marisa insisted, the words draped in her heavy foreign accent. “Too skinny!”
“Have some manners. Try some. Humor me,” Gerhard, Agnete’s father, said with an exasperation borne from months and months of family conflict. He was currently occupied heaping dumplings onto her little brother’s plate.
Unlike Agnete, Mads looked only too happy to chow down on the food his mother had offered up. At only seven years old he had the appetite of a teenage boy and the energy of a ferret on coffee. Agnete found both qualities annoying but her father and stepmother seemed inclined to disagree, for they ceaselessly indulged his every whim.
“Why? I don’t like eating this kind of…This kind of food,” Agnete argued back, gesturing with a dismissive hand at the dishes she knew very well to be delicious. But to eat the food would have been a kind of betrayal, and Agnete was loyal if nothing else.
“Don’t start,” Gerhard barked at her with a sharp look. He stared her down until Agnete sneered and reluctantly picked up her fork. Marisa looked between father and daughter, clearly bothered by the exchange but unwilling to pursue further conflict.
The uncomfortable family lunch began, with Gerhard and Marisa talking in stilted English to each other and to the greedy Mads, who eschewed knife and fork and was eating his chicken with bare hands. His parents smiled at him and pinched his fat cheeks. Marisa spoke in her own stupid-sounding language to her son and they both laughed. Agnete, not understanding a word of the language, only sniffed in annoyance at the secret exchange.
All three of them, Gerhard, Marisa and Mads, were clustered at one end of the table, symbolically cut off from the teen girl at the other end who sat, resolutely, with arms crossed. At length, Gerhard took notice of his first-born’s disdainful expression and the steady tapping of her sneakers on the tiled floor.
“Agnete,” He said to her, smile fading as their identical blue eyes met. “If you want to go, then go. I won’t force you to stay.”
Agnete frowned deeper at the double-edged words and, silently, pushed away from the table and sauntered out of the room and up the stairs to her bedroom. In true teen fashion, she made sure to slam the door extra hard as she entered, kicking off her sneakers and flopping angrily onto her bed. Her laptop sat nearby, charging on the desk beside her bed, and she pulled it closer towards her, opening a chat program and furiously typing out her woes to the only friend she had online.
At the end of her spirited rant, Agnete took one last look over the words she had vomited out. The nasty phrases jumped out at her as if they were peeling themselves away from the screen.
Illicit words, so much more scandalous for being directed towards relations. Being so angry all the time was exciting, in its own way, but it also had a way of making Agnete feel worse about herself – even when she felt so strongly that she was right. So, even though her father was indeed a cheating pervert and Marisa was a silly little mail-order, Agnete’s anger burned itself out as soon as it had been ignited, leaving her feeling tired and tearful. She selected the entire three paragraphs of hateful text and hit the delete key, feeling both relieved and cowardly.
For some time she lay on her bed and stared out the window and the cool blue sky. The incessant wind blew restlessly around the house. Her mother’s apartment in town was familiar, lived-in and comfortingly close to the residences of Agnete’s friends. Her father’s house, built for his new bride and their child, was far from the main road and surrounded by stark, rocky hills often dusted with frost. Agente wondered how Marisa felt at her new situation: a foreign-born bride, plucked from the bustling and sweltering city of her birth and brought to a new land of silence.
At length the sounds of activity downstairs faded as lunch was finished, leftovers packed up and dishes washed. Mads had brought out one of his toy trucks and was zooming it around downstairs with bleating laughter.
On the steps outside came the heavy footfalls of her father ascending to the second storey. They came to a halt just outside of her door. Agnete sat up expectantly and waited for her Dad to knock tentatively on the door, mollified temporarily by Agnete’s continued reticence at the new situation. They would have one of their signature heart-to-hearts and Agnete would get a small crumb of attention for once. But this time there was no knock on the door, only a long and uncomfortable silence and accompanying anticipation. Her father’s presence receded from Agnete’s domain.
She blinked in surprise at this new and unwelcome development and sat there, shellshocked. This was worse than being yelled out and more patronising than being cajoled. She was now being ignored. The implications of it frightened her. In time, Marisa’s lighter footsteps made their way to the master bedroom, the door softly shutting. Agnete’s ears strained to hear the murmured conversation taking place between her father and stepmother but she could not make out what they were saying.
Off-balance and suddenly feeling the impulse to make the trek to town, Agnete hurriedly pulled on her shoes, donned a simple denim jacket and grabbed her backpack, practically fleeing the house in her haste to escape. Outside the air instantly chilled her cheeks and the wind made her hair fly about. Unthinkingly she pulled a hair band from within the confines of her jeans pocket and messily braided the unruly strands until they formed one long, silver-blonde rope down her back, so pale it gleamed in the sunlight.
As she walked down the gravel path of their driveway she became aware of trotting footsteps behind her, and whirled about to see little Mads skipping behind her with his hands still clutching his bright green toy truck.
“Where are you going?” Mads asked her, bounding up beside her. His yellow shoes were untied, the laces catching in the dirt.
“To town,” Agnete replied shortly. “To see my Mum.”
“Can I come?” Mads asked her. His chubby hand reached out and successfully caught her fingers in his own. He clung to her hand as he did his best to keep up with her quickening strides.
“No,” Agnete said sternly, shaking her arm slightly. “It’s too far and Dad and Marisa won’t like it. You’re supposed to be having your nap.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Too bad,” Agnete said, coming to a stop at the bottom of the driveway and looking down at his face seriously. She tried to see something of herself, or her father, in his face, but she couldn’t. He was all Marisa, with glossy black hair and dark eyes. His little hand looked out of place clutched within her own, like it didn’t belong. He smiled up at her and only then did Agnete see herself reflected in his face – in the wideness of his mouth and his fine white teeth.
She frowned at him. “Go home!” She shook her arm again, roughly, dislodging the little boy. His smile disappeared, wobbled, turned into a tearful pout. His dark eyes instantly filled with tears.
“I want to go,” He said stubbornly. “You’re so mean; you never let me play with you.”
Agnete gave him a pinched expression, studying his face more closely. He was her brother, after all. He was also the living embodiment of her father’s preference for another woman and a new family. Many times – too many times – Agnete had fervently wished that he would simply disappear.
“If you don’t go home,” Agnete said firmly. “I’ll tell Dad that you didn’t take your nap and you can be put in jail for that, you know.”
“That’s not true,” Mads retorted but without much conviction.
“Oh, yes it is,” Agnete insisted. “The police come to collect kids who don’t do as they’re told; that’s a crime. But if you want to follow me anyway, that’s up to you. I’ll visit you in prison – maybe.”
With a strange little yelp Mads turned on his heels and ran back up the driveway, plumes of dust kicked up by his shoes as he went.
Satisfied that she would be allowed to journey on solo, Agnete walked out onto the road, settling into an easy pace under the afternoon sun. There was a shortcut that she knew of which involved cutting through the hills by the next intersection. These hills surrounded a small thatch of thick-limbed trees, their deciduous branches distinctive even from this far away.
Onwards she walked and when she came to the intersection which marked the boundary between the outer provinces and town she swerved to the left and trotted down the rocky slope. The dry earth could be a bit treacherous and she almost slipped as she skidded the last few feet down the hill and into the rippling valley below.
This part of the walk was easy and methodical, and Agnete cursed the fact she she’d neglected to bring her headphones with her. She played music directly from her phone’s speakers instead, a frothy collection of Swedish pop music which kept her company as she walked deeper and deeper into the field. The ground slowly sloped upwards again with every step until, abruptly, she was enveloped by the trees.
So methodical was her pace that she did not realise for some time how dark indeed it was underneath those looming branches, nor how cold and still the air was inside the grove. She was alerted only to the sense of something eerie when the last song on the playlist faded out and a twig snapped under her shoe.
Blinking, she paused for a moment and looked about her as if seeing the place for the first time. She had taken this shortcut at least six times before but never had the trees seemed quite so tall, nor their leaves so dark that they blocked out the sun. She turned around for a moment, only a moment, but enough to disorient her, for she no longer knew from precisely which direction she had come from or where she was intending to go.
Heart pounding, she resumed what she hoped had been her previous course, breaking into a light jog as she pushed past the outstretched branches, the sharp lengths catching onto her braid and clothes. A loud gust of wind screamed into the dark and she gave a small shriek of alarm, stumbling over a sharp rock in her haste to escape. Gasping, she pitched forward and tumbled over, cutting her forehead on a stone embedded in the dry earth and taking in a mouthful of dry grass.
She lay there for a time, feeling the tenderness in her left knee from where it had been scraped on the ground. As she slowly eased herself to her knees she saw before her a dark shape passing behind the rows of trees. It was accompanied by a wheezing sound, a low death rattle that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
Agnete could only stare as the figure drew closer, in an urgent rustling of trees. The temperature dropped by degrees as that looming darkness came closer. A deformed hand, more of a claw really, emerged from the shadows first, its pale fingers gnarled and beckoning. The nails were long and black, sharp enough to cut through flesh.
A spindly arm joined the hand, then a bony shoulder, until the entire twisted thing was revealed, a creature three times the height of a man, long-limbed and stinking of sulfur. Its face was vaguely human, yet its eyes, without eyelids, bulged in their sockets. It’s jaw dangled loosely from the skull, dislocated, and banded with rows of sharp teeth.
It made a wretched sound, akin to laughter, fierce eyes blazing. It grinned at her, hands outstretched and longing. Agnete gaped in horror at the sight, rooted to the spot. It was only when one of the long hands brushed her cheek and the fine line of her jaw that she let out a piercing scream of terror, reeled backward and ran as fast as her feet could carry her. She leapt with newfound athleticism over fallen logs and rushed past the winding trees until she found herself bursting out into the sunlight once more. Still screaming and gasping in fright she ran and ran until it felt as if her heart would burst from her chest. She thudded up the hill, back along the road and sprinted up the driveway to her house. Practically jumping up the stairs, she scrambled into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. Then, only then, did she look behind her.
Later, much later, there was wailing and crying downstairs. The low voices of the police officers downstairs as they spoke in serious, hushed tones to her parents. Agnete watched the scene from the top of the stairs, sitting on the second step from the top. Her father’s arm was around Marisa’s shoulders as the woman sobbed inconsolably.
The police were at a lost to explain what they had found in the field but the evidence seemed grimly explanatory enough. A crumpled green toy truck and a single yellow shoe, speckled with blood. They could not explain what had possessed the boy to wander so far from home, nor how such a horrible act could have been committed in their peaceful province. Agnete gave nothing away when asked if she had seen anything– only a single guileless shrug.