The Final Chapter

Short Story by Henriette Rostrup

The Final Chapter

Translated from Danish by Pia Møller.

Towards the end of spring, when the air is still cold and bites at your cheeks, and a thick blanket of mist covers the ground, a large black truck approaches a small Danish town. When it reaches the town limit, it stops and a man jumps out. He’s in his forties, wearing a creased, high-end suit that looks as though he has slept in it. His hair, dark and sprinkled with gray, stands up from the back of his head like on a baby heavy with sleep. He runs his hands through it as he squints at the bright morning sun, which is beginning to penetrate the clouds. Then he waves at the truck driver, shuts the door, and turns to face the town. The driver accelerates and the truck pulls from the side of the road with a screech, spewing gravel high into the air.

The town consists of a string of houses along a main street. A few narrow side streets quickly turn into dirt roads, leading to mid-sized farms, but that’s all there is to this town. A moment later the truck driver notices, as he often does, that it takes exactly sixty-four seconds to drive through the town at sixty kilometers an hour.

The man in the creased suit starts walking down the deserted main street, which hasn’t yet awoken and maybe never will. By the large gas station on the corner, a sleepy-looking guy has started replacing the numbers in the sign. The light is on the backroom, a coffee maker is brewing. Most of the storefronts facing the street are vacant. A butcher, a deli, a men’s clothing store. They’ve been closed for a long time. Their windows are grimy with dust and crusted paste from old posters, residue from a time when someone still believed that enterprising businesses might lease them. One store front is boarded up, and next to it the only graffiti in town; “Fuck you,” it says in clumsy black lettering. The man in the suit smiles wearily. He knows the feeling.

Down the street he runs into a man out walking his dog. They stop and chat briefly. The dog owner raises his arm and points. The man in the suit looks down the street, and when he sees the blade sign with the pastry kringle, he turns, thanks the man with the dog, and walks straight to the kiosk. A pretty teenage girl, maybe sixteen, stands behind the counter. Her eyes are downcast, and she doesn’t look at him even once. He gathers that she’s bothered by the acne around her nose, that it makes her doubt whether her dark hair, round cheeks, and large, brown eyes even matter when she’s got all those zits. She probably has a pretty girlfriend who wastes no time advising her to use Clearasil and cover her pimples with foundation, because if she doesn’t, the boys won’t ever notice her. He shakes his head softly, as if to chase off the image. He smiles at the girl, who doesn’t notice. When she puts his pastry in a bag, he notices her dirty fingernails with the chipped polish and the black stamps on her hands. Maybe her downward gaze is just because of a hangover.

He asks if can buy a cup of coffee, she nods and, in a hoarse, shy voice, explains that it hasn’t finished brewing, but if he’ll wait a few minutes, she’ll bring him a cup. The man exits, sits on the kiosk stoop, and enjoys the rays of the spring sun slowly working their way down the main street. They warm his cheeks and drive away the bite of the morning chill. He hears the door open behind him, turns and looks at the girl’s legs. He squints and accepts the cup of coffee.

“Have a seat,” he says, patting the stoop beside him. She shies away awkwardly and mumbles something or other.

“Come on, sit. You don’t have any customers.”

She sits down, as far from him as possible, and pulls at her light blue smock so it covers her thighs. She keeps her knees together and stares at the ground.

“Seriously, I’m not going to bother you. I’d just like some company. I’ve got two daughters your age,” the man says. It’s as though he catches himself, but the girl doesn’t notice. He smiles apologetically, and the girl glances at him briefly before staring at the ground again.

“So, what are you doing here in town?” she mumbles.

“I’m looking for a new job,” he says after a brief moment of hesitation. The girl doesn’t notice it at the time but later remembers when she is asked whether she recalls anything unusual about the man. “Yeah, I’m looking for a new job. And an apartment.”

The girl looks up, suddenly aware that he is waiting for her to say something.

“What?” she says, blushing.

“I’m looking for a place to live. Is there a real estate agent in this town?”

She giggles.

“I thought as much.” He stares straight ahead, looking lost.

“Does it matter where?” she says. At first he doesn’t quite hear her.

“Pardon?”

“Does it matter where in town it is? Because my cousin just moved out of the apartment above the garage. I think my mom would like to rent it out again, if you’re interested.” She eyes him eagerly, pleased with her own idea.

“Oh, I don’t want to impose.”

He’s actually quite handsome, the girl thinks. Nice-looking for an older guy. She wonders how old. Forty? Forty-five maybe. She can tell he hasn’t bought his clothes around here. Not in the mall out by the freeway either. You’d have to go all the way to Aarhus to get a good suit like that.

“No, really. It’s fine. My mom will be down later. I open the shop in the mornings, and she relieves me when I go to school.” She looks at her watch. “She’ll be here in a few minutes and you can talk to her.”

Later that day, the man in the suit moves into the apartment above the garage. The house is on the edge of town, close to the town limit. It’s a small, one-story cinderblock house and the second story above the garage was added later. The place is a broom closet, but it’s got a private entrance. A long narrow aluminum staircase leads to a door on the end wall. The door opens directly into the main living space, a kitchen along one wall, a sleeper sofa on another. In one corner, there’s a small dining table with two chairs and across from it a shelf with a CD player and a tiny television. By the window, leaves from a withered potted plant form a circle on the wall-to-wall carpeting.

The man closes the door quietly and moves over to the window. He can see the small backyard with its hoisted flag. Bordering the yard on either side are other backyards, also with flagpoles and koi ponds. A few lonely patio chairs are scattered in the yard as though someone has moved them to follow the sunlight. Then he turns and quickly takes in the room. He sits on the sofa, his head in his hands.

The man in the suit says his name is Poul, and the girl’s mother, who is now his landlady, is Eva. The girl’s name is Vanessa, named after Vanessa Paradis, whom Eva once saw in concert when she was on an Interrail trip.

Eva knocks on his door. A cautious, somewhat reluctant knock. She is bringing him linens and towels, as he arrived without luggage. He said something about his belongings being in storage and that he’d pick them up tomorrow, but he needs clean sheets for the night at least. She has raised her hand to knock again when Poul opens the door. He looks tired, his eyes are red as though he’s been crying. Eva feels awkward.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude…”

“No, it’s fine. Would you like to come in?”

“Oh, no, no…” She offers the linens and the towels and waits for him to grab them. He hesitates before taking them from her.

“Thank you,” he says without looking her in the eyes. He turns to shut the door.

“Vanessa would like you to join us for dinner tonight. Not that we’re having anything special…” Eva nudges the door open just as it is about to close. Her voice is inflected with an odd, shy mixture of anxiety and determination.

“Vanessa?” he says and stares at her blankly.

“Well, yes, my daughter… from the shop?” Eva says, perplexed.

“Oh, right. Eh...” He stands there indecisively, watching her as though he’d like her to answer for him. Make up his mind as to whether he should have dinner with them.

Then she shoots him a quick smile. “Okay then, we’ll see you at seven. Right down in the kitchen,” she says, pointing to a window with crocheted valances. She bounds down the stairs as though she can’t get out of there fast enough.

It’s six thirty when Poul wakes. He has fallen asleep on the sofa, with the stack of sheets under his head. The faded seersucker pattern has left an imprint on his cheek. Soft, red folds. He sits, rubs his eyes, which sting from exhaustion. Though he has slept for hours, he doesn’t feel rested.

He gets up reluctantly. His knees creak, and his back is stiff from the hours in the truck the previous night. He glances around the small room, then clutches the door frame and stretches his body as best he can. He undresses, leaves his clothes in a pile on the floor, and takes a shower. Scalding hot water that makes his skin prickle and his breathing grows heavy in the steamy room. He scrutinizes his body, his relatively muscular chest, where gray hairs have sprouted where once there were only black. His belly which is not as limber as it used to be back when he first met Irene. He closes his eyes for a second when he feels the surge of tears. He feels a tightness in his chest and sits down on the floor of the shower as the water gushes against his slumped body. A wail fills his throat, it wants out, but he represses it. It would do no good. The pain is lodged in his bones and his skin, in the roots of his hair, in all his internal organs, in every joint, every cell. He will never be free of it.

In a little while he has to go eat dinner with a teenager with an American name he doesn’t remember and a young woman with a glazed look on her face, in a home that looks like a sales flyer from a discount warehouse. He shakes his head; he needs to pull himself together. It’s the trust of other people that carries you through. And he has to build that trust now.

The dinner is uncomfortable and awkward. The two adults sit and stare emptily through most of the meal while Vanessa alternates between trying to get a conversation going, rousing her mother’s interest in the dark stranger and trying out her own skills as a seductress. She blinks and speaks in a coquettish manner, laughs flirtatiously, and when Poul speaks in monosyllables, she listens with her chin resting on her hand. Once in a while, Eva peers over her shoulder at the television in the living room which for once isn’t turned on during dinner. She’d clearly prefer that this stranger wasn’t sitting in her kitchen. Vanessa is exasperated that her mother shows no interest in the stranger, and sighs loudly, annoyed. The adults revive a little. Eva gets up and starts clearing the table. Poul stands and asks if she wants a hand.

“Oh, no, stay there. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, thank you,” he nods, and then he sits again.

Vanessa gives it another go. She leans across the table, like she has practiced, and looks at Poul from under her lashes.

“Why did you move here anyway? This town is dead.”

Eva turns and shoots Vanessa a glance. “Vanessa, help me clear the table.”

“I’ll do it later.”

“No. Now.”

Vanessa’s chair scuffs the floor loudly when she gets up and demonstratively walks to the kitchen sink. Then she turns. “Come on, tell us. This town sucks.”

“I needed a change of scenery,” Poul says, shrugging.

* * *

It’s late at night and the leaves rustle in the wind at the edge of the bluff. Modest little trees with scrawny, wind-swept branches that reach toward the sea. The moonlight penetrates the thin cloud cover and lights up the scene. A car is parked on the otherwise empty lot. It’s one of those lots with tourist maps and information boards describing the local fauna. Three trailheads start at the lot, one from each corner: they look like narrow cattle paths, and the one closest to the car winds down the bluff. Every year, fall storms eat up another piece of the bluff, and the ochre-red soil reveals its veins to the sea.

The car is a large dark-blue station wagon, a real family car, and sure enough, stuffed animals, blankets, and old comic books are crammed in the rear-view window. It’s as though the family just returned from vacation but forgot the car here. Maybe they’ve simply walked the path to the rocky beach and are having a bonfire by the boulders as they have so often before. Maybe they are down there now, warming themselves by the fire’s last embers before mustering the energy for the rugged and windy trek back up to the car. A cloud covers the moon, and for a brief moment, before your eyes adapt to the darkness, it is pitch dark. But then there’s movement inside the car.

A man is sitting inside the car. He’s been sitting there, petrified, staring at the moonlit sky, but now he suddenly springs into action. He straightens his back, wipes his eyes, and runs a hand through his hair. He opens the door, rather hesitantly, and gets out. The car door closes behind him with the soft, reassuring click of a high-end family car. All of a sudden, the pale gray and lustrous moon engulfs him in light, and he looks at it, startled. He quickly looks around. Is anyone there? Behind the parking lot, the moonlight barely penetrates the first row of trees; the light is quickly swallowed by the velvety darkness, and it’s impossible to tell whether there’s anyone among the trees. Was that the sound of someone moving about? A twig breaking? The man stalls, squints, tries to make out what’s there. But it’s just the wind in the trees. A soft, sluggish raindrop hits his nose. He gazes at the dark cloud that hangs like a vestige under the other, lighter clouds. He closes his eyes and lets the drops wash over his face, wash away the tears, the snot, and the misery. Then, as suddenly as it started, the rain stops, and the man returns to the car.

He pats the pockets of his suit, making sure he has his wallet. He opens the car door, climbs half in behind the wheel. A foot on the clutch, shifts into neutral. Then he gets out, looks around one more time, and starts pushing. The leather soles of his expensive dress shoes slip on the wet gravel as he pushes to get the car over the bluff, and he falls to the ground, unable to brace himself. The car starts to roll back slowly, but he quickly clambers to his feet and grabs hold of it. Then he thrusts it forward again and this time he succeeds in getting it over the edge.

He stands there, his face streaked with dirt and snot, staring at the car tumbling down the steep bluff until it crashes against the large boulders on the beach with a metallic boom. There is only a resounding silence. Then the man remembers the photo of the girls in the glove compartment, and he doubles over, a squeezing pain in his guts, and roars out his horror and agony across the deserted landscape where no one hears him.

The man has no idea how long he’s been standing on the parking lot staring over the precipice, but he starts to feel cold and the rain seeps through his clothes. He looks around for shelter. He shakes himself at the thought of entering the woods, but there’s no other way to get to the main road. The dirt road winds through the dark trees, and the man turns up his collar, puts his hands in his pockets, and walks resolutely through the woods before darkness dissolves him. He stares straight ahead and only when he reaches the main road does he raise his gaze. The dense woods are behind him, he finds a large, gnarled trunk and sits, leaning against it. It provides some shelter from the rain and the wind. For several frightful minutes he tries to compose himself, refusing to succumb to the terror of the night’s deeds, and then he falls asleep, exhausted, his head on his knees.

A couple of hours later, a truck passes through the woods. The driver has been on the road for twelve hours straight. He’s tired and almost home. He’s been lost in his own thoughts. He’s driven this road too many times to count. Even before he got his license, he was out here, racing back and forth on this road in his dad’s old Ford Escort.

He almost drives past the sleeping figure leaning against the tree by the dirt road that leads to the scenic viewpoint. The driver only stops because the man’s presence is so unusual. He stays inside the cab for a while, looking at the man. He doesn’t move. Is he dead? His suit appears to be new and classy, if also creased and mud-spattered. He’s not from around here.

The driver jumps out of the cab and when his car door slams, the sleeping man twitches, but doesn’t wake. The driver approaches him and nudges him with the tip of his shoe. The man starts and opens his eyes. At first he looks around frantically as though he cannot recall where he is. Then he sees the truck driver and quickly lowers his gaze.

“What are you doing here?” the driver asks. “Do you need help?”

The man shakes his head.

“Are you having car trouble?”

The man shakes his head again and clears his throat as though he’s about to say something, but he remains silent.

The driver considers what to do. He could just get out of here, go home to his kids, and leave the man to his own devices. Maybe he’s got amnesia? Maybe he’s the victim of a crime? He decides to give it another go.

“Were you assaulted?”

Now the main tries to rise. He holds on to the tree and leans forward but almost loses his balance, stumbles. He would have fallen had the driver not caught him.

“Hey! What’s going on? Are you drunk?’

The man shakes his head. “No. I’m sorry…” He says nothing else.

“What the fuck!”

The driver lets go of him and starts walking back to the warmth in the truck. It’s still early in the morning and because of the rain and the wind it’s brutally cold. He’s only wearing a T-shirt, and the cold gives him the shivers.

“Get in if you want a ride. I’m off now. I’m not sticking around.”

The man stands there, staring vacantly, but just as the truck driver is about to slam his door and put his foot to the pedal, the man comes to. He hurries over and opens the passenger door.

“Thanks,” he says. His voice sounds rusty as though he has cried a lot or hasn’t talked to anyone for years. He clears his throat again, rubs his hands, and blows on them. “It’s really cold,” he says and looks at the driver. From the look on the man’s face, the driver knows that he will learn nothing more.

He sighs. What the hell has he gotten himself into now?

“Not feelin’ chatty, huh? That’s all right by me.” With his thumb, he points behind the seat. “Back there’s a thermos with coffee. Help yourself.”

A little while later, the driver hears a slight snoring from the stranger. He reaches over and grabs the mug before the coffee spills on the expensive suit.

As the truck approaches the town, the driver slows down and gently tugs at the man’s shoulder. When the man opens his eyes and turns to him, his eyes are filled with such terror that the driver immediately recoils. The driver fixes his gaze on the road, afraid to look at the man whose secrets all of a sudden take up way too much room in the vehicle. He tightens his grip on the steering wheel and tries to think about his children to push the man’s expression out of his mind. He doesn’t succeed.

“This is where you get off,” the driver says. The stranger doesn’t notice the slight tremble in his voice. He rubs his eyes, and when he looks up again, his vision has adjusted to the outside world, rather than what is going on in his head. He clears his throat. “Thanks for the ride. I think you just saved my life.” The driver hears a lightheartedness in the man’s voice but he doesn’t dare look at him.

“Yeah. I’m afraid I just did,” he says and pulls over.

The stranger climbs down, and he has barely shut the door before the driver speeds off. He smooths out his suit and tucks his shirt into his pants, and that’s the last thing the driver sees in his rear-view mirror.

* * *

Poul has grown pale and hasn’t touched his coffee. Vanessa and her mother turn around when they suddenly hear the shrill scrape of the chair against the tile floor. He smiles apologetically. “I’d better go.”

“Are you all right?” Eva asks.

“Just a headache. Thanks for inviting me. I have to get some rest now,” he says. He is already heading toward the door.

Later, he wakes with a jolt. He’s sweating and the sheets cling to his body. He scans the room, then reaches out his arm to feel whether someone is there next to him. His face falls as he realizes where he is.

He sits up and puts his feet on the cold high pile of the rug, which squeezes up between his toes. It’s as though he senses everything, as though his skin has become hypersensitive, and as he gets up it feels as though the air is a compressed mass that reluctantly gives way when he squeezes himself through it. It weighs on his shoulders. He moves as if through hot tar, there’s pressure on his chest, and his throat constricts.

It’s morning, and the light pierces through the windows. He rubs his eyes and looks down into the yard. The girl stands there—what’s her name?—and she waves at him. He has barely lifted his hand before she sprints to the staircase. He hears her bounding up the aluminum steps two at a time. Then she knocks. He trudges over to the door and opens for her.

“Are you okay?” is the first thing she says.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine.”

“But we haven’t seen you for several days.”

He is stunned. It feels like he had dinner with them only yesterday.

“Several days?” he asks, unable to mask the disquiet in his voice.

Vanessa looks at him. He can’t decipher her look, but she is no longer the insecure teenager he met for the first time a few days ago. There’s something perceptive about the way she takes him in, as though she understands and is able to contain him, and he steps back, letting her enter the small apartment.

She sits on the edge of the sleeper sofa. His damp sheets are still bunched up beside her. He tries to push them to the side, but she puts her hand on his and says, “It’s all right.”

He sinks down beside her. He doesn’t have the strength to conceal his despondency, and puts his head in his hands. She puts her small hand on the nape of his neck in the gap between his T-shirt and his hairline. Her fingers have yet to warm up after the morning chill in the yard. She caresses him gently and softly whispers that everything will be all right. Poul almost can’t bear it. Her brittle voice, the tips of her bitten nails that scratch him lightly, her tender touch. He turns to her and hugs her tightly. He buries his face on her chest, and she strokes his hair gently. He closes his eyes and envisions his girls.

* * *

The scene is a subdivision built in the early 1970s. White cinderblock houses with black slate roofs sit side by side red brick houses with striped awnings. The yards are well-kept, featuring boxwood and patio tables, barbecues and white umbrellas. Cars parked in the carports, two in each since it’s Saturday, and people are at home relaxing with their families. In several houses, people have yet to rise. The kids are in their pajamas watching cartoons in the living room, dad scratches his head and reads the paper, mom makes coffee and gets breakfast ready. But the Algaard-Andersen household is abuzz. Marie-Louise will be confirmed today.

The mother, Irene, knocks on the door of the bathroom with the brown tile and floor heating, the one she’d really love to remodel once the confirmation party has been paid for. She envisions a large white bathroom with a soaking tub and a wicker chair, with candles, double vanities, and a separate space for the toilet. She shakes her head, her curlers bopping, as if to shake the fantasy from her mind. It’s not going to happen any time soon, with two teenage girls living at home. She knocks once more, this time a little harder. She hears giggling from the other side of the door.

“We’ll be right out.” Her daughters’ voices are thin as though they haven’t quite kept up with their age. Her youngest daughter’s voice especially is very high-pitched, like a five-year-old’s. They open the door, and Irene instinctively retreats as she tries to hide the shock of seeing her girls wearing make-up. Marie-Louise clearly put it on both of them: sharp black lines around the light blue eyes, black mascara, and pink lip gloss. It seems almost obscene, but Irene holds her tongue. She promised them that they could wear make-up today even though their father is against it.

At that very moment, he descends the stairs and sees the girls. But thankfully he’s in a good mood today. He puts an arm around each girl’s waist and hugs them. Although Irene notices how Marie-Louise shies away from her father’s embrace, she doesn’t make anything of it. It’s just teenage awkwardness.

The father, Poul, tells them to hurry.

“We have to be at the church in twenty minutes,” he says, staring demonstrably at his bare wrist. Irene hurries into the bathroom, removes the curlers, and shakes out her hair with her fingers. She quickly applies her usual make-up, the way she has done it ever since high school when she first met Poul. Dark-blue eyeliner and blue mascara. Sometimes she catches herself and the image of her mother flashes before her; she was practically blind without her glasses, yet every morning she ran the black Kohl pencil over her eyelids, just as she’d done since the mid-fifties.

Irene then pulls the crème-colored appliqué silk dress over her hips and steps into her brown snake-skin shoes. When she leaves the bathroom, loud music pumps from one of the girls’ rooms and she hears their nervous giggle. And Marie-Louise scolding Mette-Marie: “Careful, you’ll rumple my dress.”

Downstairs, Poul is pouring a cup of coffee for himself. He’s wearing a good dress shirt and has hung his expensive suit jacket over the back of a chair. Irene enters the kitchen and gives him a hug.

“I can’t believe how big they’re getting,” she says as she nestles her face into his warm neck. Beneath his cologne she smells the particular odors of his skin. The smell that stays in his shirts and pillowcase. She closes her eyes and breathes it in. He gives her ass a squeeze.

“I love you, honey,” she says.

“Likewise, sweetie,” he says. She wants to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him, the way they kissed back in the day. A long, passionate kiss, tongue and all. But her arms strikes the coffee mug in his hand, and coffee spills on his shirt and suit pants.

“Goddam it, Irene,” he says angrily, shoving her away.

She checks her own clothes for coffee stains, but her dress is unstained.

“Hurry, take it off. I’ll give it a quick rinse and iron it dry,” she says, eager to keep him in a good mood. He dabs at his pants with one hand as she unbuttons his shirt. Her fingers playfully fondle the graying hair on his chest, but he swats at her hand.

“Stop it, Irene, for fuck’s sake. If you hadn’t been acting like a bitch in heat, I wouldn’t have had to change my shirt in the first place.”

Disappointed, Irene lowers her gaze. His verbal attack burns inside her as so often before. She takes the shirt he passes her and listlessly heads to the bathroom at the end of the hall.

Poul is still stripped to the waist, waiting for Irene to finish ironing, when the car arrives and honks.

“Let’s go! Grandma and Grandpa are here!” Marie-Louise announces excitedly.

Irene tosses him the shirt. It’s still damp in the armpits and on the back, but he puts it on. It won’t show under the suit jacket. He buttons the shirt and ties his tie loosely, while the rest of the family is in the hallway, putting on their jackets.

“Ugh,” Irene says, startled, as she opens the front door. Poul freezes for a second.

“What is it, honey?” he calls out.

“Gosh, you made me jump,” he hears her say. He can tell from her voice that it’s nothing important, and he resumes dressing. He grabs the suit jacket on the chair, and heads towards the front door. It’s just the mail carrier standing there, a little forlorn, waving their mail, as the family, dressed for a party, runs out the door.

“I’ll take that off your hands,” Poul says, clutching the usual stack of bills. He’s about to toss them on the dresser in the hallway when one of them catches his attention. It’s a brown envelope, the handwriting is childish, and there is no return address. He pulls it from the stack and tears it open. Maybe it’s a card from one of Marie-Louise’s classmates and he could bring it. She’d like that.

When the photos fall from the envelope he stands there, not comprehending. Then he glances over his shoulder to see whether any of them noticed. He squats and picks up the pictures, stuffs them back in the envelope, and seals it. He stands there, at a loss. Where can he hide it?

The car honks again. He rushes into the living room and tucks the envelope behind the large bookcase.

* * *

The yard is completely quiet, the moonlight shines on the empty party tents. The gas heaters sit, dark and unlit monoliths, in the corners. The wind tugs at the damask tablecloths, wine glasses knock over, red stains spread like flowers in bloom on the white fabric. Leftovers from the feast have attracted a flock of magpies to the buffet. There’s a faint echo of laughter, of long speeches from old uncles and music from the jukebox in the corner.

If you turn toward the house, it looks like any ordinary house anywhere in Denmark. The windows are dark, it’s the middle of the night, and everyone is asleep. Through the large panorama window, you can see into the living room. The curtains are not drawn. Suddenly it’s as though someone is moving about in there. There! A shadow moves past the window. Is it a burglar or did someone get up to use the bathroom? You take a step back and take cover behind the big beech tree so you can’t be seen from the house. You scan the house, watching for movement, trying to spot the shadow again. Breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps they went back to bed, but no, there it is again, this time in another room.

You look over your shoulder. Should you call for help or just run away because really, you’re the prowler. Instead you stay put, indecisive, watching, straining to hear, but there is no sound other than the rustling of the wind and the content cackle of the magpies.

Inside the house, Poul is awake. He’s been up several times, pacing back and forth, been into the living room, pulled the envelope from behind the bookshelves to look at the pictures again. He’s been sitting with his head in his hands, at a complete loss. He’s the one you’d see if you were in the yard looking in.

Now he’s lying next to Irene again. She’s snoring lightly and hoarsely the way she always does when she’s had too much to drink. He looks at her. She didn’t remove the make-up last night, and there are remnants of lipstick at the corners of her mouth and some of her mascara has smeared on the pillowcase.

Carefully he leans in and presses his mouth to hers. She groans a little, then turns away. She sleeps so heavily, she doesn’t feel his caresses.

There is no resistance when he presses the pillow down over her face. Only at the end does her body begin to convulse, and she swings her arms to push him off. He has to press his whole upper body on top of her. His arms hurt and there’s a rushing sound in his ears. Tears drip onto the yellow pillow cover. Then her body finally resigns, and everything grows quiet once more.

He sits there a while, then stands resolutely, and walks out the door and into the hallway. He looks to one side, then the other. There are no signs of life, no sounds. He tiptoes down the hall, nudges the door to Mette-Marie’s room. The light shines in a cone toward the bunkbed where she is sleeping. He sits on the edge of her bed and stares at her, his youngest daughter. He takes a deep breath and does what he must do. She puts up less of a struggle than her mother.

Then he walks back out into the hallway. This time, he moves with indecisive and heavy limbs. He walks to his beloved eldest daughter’s room. He smiles when he sees the sign on her door: “Knock three times or else…” He raps ever so softly with the tips of his knuckles before he slowly opens the door. His heart feels like one big undigested mass squeezing against his lungs, and he has difficulty breathing. He has to steady himself against the dresser when everything goes black for a second. His knees are weak and it feels as though he will never rise again, if he sits on her bed as he has done so many times before.

“Sweet little darling,” he whispers soundlessly to her as he gently tosses the duvet off to the side and admires her slight woman’s body. The outline of her small breasts under the T-shirt, the hips that have grown fuller over the past months.

When he slides his hand tenderly up her thigh, feeling her with the tips of his fingers, she gets goosebumps and her body stiffens, unwilling, in her sleep. She fumbles for the blanket, and he lets her pull it over her body.

He scans the room for a suitable object. All her pillows are under her head and he’s afraid he’ll wake her if he pulls one of them out. Then he sees the big stuffed Tigger he won for her at Disneyland in Paris one summer. He presses the giant stuffed animal over her face and stays there, splayed across her body, long after she has stopped jerking.

Before the man by the name of Poul climbs into his dark-blue station wagon, he has turned on every single electrical appliance in the house. He has put a stuffed animal in the microwave oven and tossed a lit cigarette into the paper basket that contains the photographs. He carefully backs out the carport as he keeps an eye on the neighbors’ houses, making sure no one is up yet. Then he turns the car around and looks at his home one final time in the rear-view mirror before popping the clutch and driving down Bygvænget toward the highway.

About the Author

Henriette Rostrup

Website

Henriette Rostrup is a Danish writer of both adult and children’s fiction. The novel - A YEAR OF FUNERALS (2015) was longlisted for the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016 and chosen as Aller Favorite in 2016. The graphic novel The Lake was nominated for best debut at the Ping-prize in 2018. The short story Brood appeared in Coal Hill Review Winter 2020 Issue, and the short story Children’s Stories was just published in Parhelion Literary Magazines Summer 2020 issue.

Pia Møller grew up in Salling, Denmark and graduated from Aarhus University. She came to the U.S. as a graduate student, earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from George Mason University, Virginia, and spent a decade as an interdisciplinary college instructor. She now works as a program manager and grant writer for a refugee-serving organization in Rochester, New York and translates on the side. Her translation of Kenneth B. Andersen’s grade/teen novel The Die of Death appeared in 2019. She is currently at work translating the first volume of Rostrup’s The Dead City trilogy. Her translation of Rostrup’s short story “Brood” appeared in Coal Hill Review winter 2020 issue.