Stockholm, western suburbs
First John hears the scream.
He is standing next to his car, plastic shopping bags in one hand, car keys in the other. Snowflakes melt on his cheeks while he frowns at Molly’s window, three storeys up in the block of flats. He knows it was Molly who screamed; her voice was muted and distant, but it touched him on a level no other sound could.
Then he hears the bang. A small crack of thunder from inside her flat.
Her two windows flash white, shudder, and grow still.
John runs towards the front door. The air is already cold enough to freeze spit in minutes, but a worse chill reaches inside his clothes and in under his skin. People around him stop and stare as he skids on the ice-coated pavement. He ignores them. All that matters is reaching the flat to make sure he is wrong.
A shout, a bang, and a burst of light. It could be an accident, a TV, maybe fireworks.
Never a gun. That was impossible. Not here, at this time.
Friday, afternoon, almost dark: The mundane tail end of a routine week. Snow on the windowsills, cars crawling along white roads, purple-blue sky. Trees covered in frost and icicles waiting to drop. Everything in order. Until now.
He is less than twenty metres from the door when it bangs open. A man stumbles out and runs in the other direction. Dark hair, dark shoes, blue track pants, a backpack in faded red. The man’s rapid footsteps creak in the snow as he disappears around a corner. The door swings shut. John is still moving. Five metres left.
Panting hard, he reaches the door and struggles to control his shaking hands while he fumbles with his keys. He should let go of the shopping bags, but he holds on, as if their triviality is a lifeline, a ward against this brutal intrusion.
He gets the key in, turns it and shoves the door open. Stumbling, he runs up the stairs, past thick doormats and wet orange plastic sleds, past rows of boots and pots of wilted flowers. By the time he reaches the third floor, he is wheezing. A cramp stabs at his left side.
Molly’s front door is wide open. Two more steps and he is inside, shouting her name. He turns to the bedroom and stops.
Molly lies on her back across the bed. Her head hangs off the mattress, but while she is facing him, she is not looking at him or something behind him; her eyes are flat like porcelain and perfectly still. Blood runs freely from Molly’s ruined neck; visions of creatures mauled by lions on hot savannahs come to John’s mind quicker than he can push the images away. Red stains cover the far wall: part of Molly ripped away and stored as a grotesque snapshot of the moment of her death.
Minutes pass while John stands still and watches the blood spread out from the bedroom and into the hall. Silence fills him, muting cars and distant voices. His pulse is a remote drum in his head. With rapid and shallow breaths, he pulls the reek of gunpowder into his lungs.
Lying around him are the contents of his dropped shopping bags, bloodied and inert. A bottle of red wine (same as last weekend and a bit expensive but she loves it), a box of organic milk chocolate (breaking off uneven pieces and watching them disappear between her lips), his toothbrush (hoping he will be able to leave it at her place again).
His eyes sweep around the apartment, drifting from detail to detail. A dress flung over a wardrobe door. Mismatched china on the table. Two wine glasses backlit by a candle and waiting to be filled. A slow drip from the tap in the kitchen. Her blue slippers outside the bathroom. Neon-lit dust swirling in the living room. The mahogany clock in the hall, ticking away seconds as blank as his thoughts.
He knows he should look at the body on the bed; the bedroom is an open coffin lid, and he must inscribe the sight on his mind.
And still, he cannot move. Denial ties him to the linoleum floor while the blood pools around his feet. His attention keeps sliding off the bed in search of a crack, an opening back to normality, an escape to life ten minutes earlier.
Then he hears a new chorus of screams rising and falling, growing in strength. Sirens, coming closer. The sound cements the reality of the horror before him, and finally, he opens himself to the pain and recognition.
But it is too much.
The hurt is a wave, vast and smothering, and it overwhelms him, making him first buckle, then yield. The anguish that follows thins to a sliver and slices through him, guillotining denial from acceptance.
“Molly,” he whispers, and is torn apart.
Part of John stays behind, rooted to the floor.
A cold shoots through his mind as his pulse slows down. The throbbing in his ears gives way to a soft, subdued calm. When his focus is back under his control, he turns to the bed and meets Molly’s unmoving eyes. This time he does not blink. A single ambition rises from the core of his being and lodges itself in his mind. Alternatives and possibilities fall into place, cementing his route.
Careful not to touch the blood, John leans down and unties his shoes. The sirens outside grow sharper, more eager, but he does not rush. One action needs to follow another. One mistake will break his planned chain of events that stretches into the future all the way to the conclusion.
Once his shoelaces are untied, he steps out of his shoes, away from the blood, and into the small, white-tiled bathroom. He takes a green plastic bag from under the sink, opens one of the bathroom cabinets, and rakes the contents on the shelves into the bag: Molly’s razors and lotions, toothpaste, two old toothbrushes, deodorant, tweezers, nail cutters, perfumed tissue.
He goes to the bedroom and switches on the light. Again stepping over the blood, he opens the narrow, built-in wardrobe and takes out a black canvas bag. Inside are a towel and a thick yoga mat covered with stiff rubber spikes.
John shoves the half-filled green plastic bag into the larger black bag, followed by a woollen blanket, a scarf and a compact sleeping bag. He unclips from his belt two rings, each the diameter of a finger and holding dozens of keys. He tucks the key rings deep into the bag.
The sirens are close when he walks into the kitchen. There is just enough space left in the bag for a two-litre plastic bottle that he fills from the tap. He turns to the fridge and opens it. A box of milk, a jar of green olives, salad, carrots and mustard, three jars of hummus, a large bowl of nuts. A steel bowl with soy steaks soaked in marinade. A near-empty bottle of vinegar. Enough food to last him a few days, but too cumbersome to carry.
He closes the fridge and looks out through the kitchen window. The sun has almost set. Past the curtain of snow are sidewalks lined with cars, most parked so close their bumpers almost touch each other. Most of the windows in the three-storey block of flats across the street are dark. Two children are building a snowman while their mother waits nearby, rocking her pram and stamping her feet to keep warm. Below the window, a man in a wheelchair negotiates the entrance of the corner shop. He looks at the shop’s entrance and registers details that never before have mattered.
The sirens fill the air. Children turn and point down the street; the police are almost here. John sees blue flashing lights reflected in the windows. He hefts the bag and walks out of the kitchen, pausing in the doorway to take a set of knives from a rack next to the stove. He slips the knives into the bag, zips the bag shut, steps over the blood, and looks out through the open door into the stairwell.
From below come faint echoes of dropped cutlery and the mumble of news shows pierced by a loud coughing. A power box in the ceiling hums and clicks. The stairwell is dark; no one has pressed the timed light switch in the last five minutes.
He waits for his eyes to adapt to the gloom and then walks down the stairs. Wearing only socks on his feet, his footsteps are almost soundless as he pads down the cool steps, past voices in foreign languages whispering from behind closed doors. He reaches the front door, a thick pane of glass framed in pale wood, and peers out.
The police car accelerates down the street as fast as it can through the snow, its horn blasting as other cars struggle to swerve out of the way. Blue lights flood the street and brush the façades of the buildings. People stop and stare, mesmerised by the spectacle. No one is looking at John.
John opens the door, steps out into the whirling snow, and runs south.
But not all of John leaves through the door.
As his grief scythes through him, a shard of him escapes and falls away, back from the terror, while the world fades like a postcard sinking in tar.
John’s loss wraps itself around him like a web and drags him down faster, pulling him ever deeper, until the fall breaks all his thoughts apart.
Only one sensation remains: an unspeakable, bitter coldness.
Before long, he is only an ember floating down a chasm, the last light of the world lost far above. Oblivion winds itself tighter around him until, at last, he is entirely gone from this world, his soul swallowed by a horror he could not endure.
Or so he would have thought.