After shes gone a novel, p.1

After She's Gone: A Novel, page 1

 

After She's Gone: A Novel
 


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After She's Gone: A Novel


  After She’s Gone is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Translation copyright © 2019 by Penguin Random House LLC

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  BALLANTINE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Originally published in Swedish in Sweden by Wahlström & Widstrand, a division of the Bonnier Group, Stockholm, Sweden, in 2017, copyright © 2017 by Camilla Grebe.

  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

  Names: Grebe, Camilla, author. | Wessel, Elizabeth Clark, translator.

  Title: After she’s gone : a novel / Camilla Grebe ; translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel.

  Other titles: Husdjuret. English

  Description: First edition. | New York : Ballantine Books, [2018] | “Originally published in Swedish in Sweden by Wahlstrom & Widstrand, a division of the Bonnier Group, Stockholm, Sweden, in 2017.”

  Identifiers: LCCN 2018050773 | ISBN 9780425284407 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780425284414 (ebook)

  Subjects: LCSH: Criminal profilers—Fiction. | Murder—Investigation—Fiction. | Cross-dressers—Fiction. | Detective and mystery stories, Swedish—Translations into English.

  Classification: LCC PT9877.17.R43 H8713 2018 | DDC 839.73/8—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/​2018050773

  Ebook ISBN 9780425284414

  randomhousebooks.com

  Cover design: Caroline Teagle Johnson

  Cover image © Reilika Landed/plainpicture

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  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Epigraph

  Ormberg: October 2009

  Malin

  Ormberg: Eight Years Later—2017

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Jake

  Hanne

  Jake

  Malin

  Hanne

  Jake

  Hanne

  Malin

  Hanne

  Malin

  Jake

  Malin

  Malin

  Jake

  About After She’s Gone

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  By Camilla Grebe

  About the Author

  Those who sow the wind, harvest the storm.

  —BOSNIAN PROVERB

  ORMBERG

  October 2009

  Malin

  I held on tightly to Kenny’s hand as we walked through the darkness and the woods. Not because I believed in ghosts. Believing in ghosts was for idiots. For people like Kenny’s mother, who spent her days in front of the TV watching pathetic shows about so-called mediums searching through old houses looking for spirits that didn’t exist.

  Still.

  The fact remained that almost everybody I knew had heard the sound of a baby’s cry near the cairn—a sort of prolonged, mournful whimpering. They called it the Ghost Child, and even if I didn’t believe in spirits and other stupid things like that, why risk it, so I’ve never been out here alone after dark.

  I looked up at the sharp tops of the spruces. The trees were so high they almost hid the sky and the bright, round, milky moon. Kenny pulled me forward by the hand. I could hear beer bottles in the plastic bag clinking, and smell his cigarette and the moist soil and the rotting leaves. Just a few meters behind us, Anders lumbered along through the underbrush, whistling a song I recognized from the radio.

  “Come on, Malin.”

  Kenny jerked me by the hand.

  “What?”

  “You’re slower than my mom. Are you drunk already?”

  The comparison was unfair—Kenny’s mother weighed at least four hundred pounds, and I’d never seen her walk anywhere besides from the couch to the bathroom. And even that left her out of breath.

  “Shut up,” I said, hoping Kenny could tell I was joking. Hoping he’d know I meant it with love and respect.

  We’d been together for only two weeks. In addition to the unavoidable and awkward make-out session in his bed, which stank of dogs, we’d devoted our time to establishing our roles. Him: dominant, funny (sometimes at my expense), and at times overcome by a precocious, self-centered melancholy. Me: admiring, pliable (usually at my own expense), and generously supportive when he was depressed.

  The love I felt for Kenny was so intense, unreflective, and, of course, physical, that it sometimes left me completely exhausted. Still, I didn’t want to leave his side for a second, as if I were afraid he’d turn out to be a dream, a sweet figment of my imagination that my yearning teenage heart had somehow cobbled together.

  The pine trees around us seemed ancient. Soft pillows of moss spread out around their roots and a gray beard of lichens grew from the thick branches closest to the ground.

  Somewhere in the distance a twig snapped.

  “What was that?” I asked, perhaps a little bit too shrilly.

  “That’s the Ghost Child,” Anders said in a dramatic voice somewhere behind me. “It’s here to take you awaaaaay.”

  He howled the last.

  “Damn it, don’t scare her!” Kenny hissed, overcome by a sudden and an unexpected urge to protect me.

  I giggled, stumbled over a root, and came close to losing my balance, but Kenny’s warm hand was there in the darkness. The bottles in the bag made a muffled clinking sound as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other to support me.

  The gesture made me warm inside.

  At that point, the trees thinned out, as if stepping to the side. Made room for a little clearing where the stones of the cairn stood. The stones resembled an enormous, stranded whale under the moonlight—overgrown by thick mosses and small ferns that swayed gently in the breeze.

  Beyond the clearing the rest of Orm Mountain’s dark silhouette rose toward the night sky.

  “Ugh,” I said. “Why could we not just go to somebody’s house and drink beer there instead? Do we really have to sit in the woods? It’s freezing out here.”

  “I’ll keep you warm,” Kenny said with a grin.

  He drew me so close I could smell the beer and snuff on his breath. Part of me wanted to turn my face away, but I stood still and met his eyes becaus
e that’s what was expected of me.

  Anders just whistled, sat down on one of the large, round stones, and reached for a beer. Then lit a cigarette and said:

  “I thought you wanted to hear the Ghost Child.”

  “There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I said, and sat down on a smaller rock. “Only idiots believe in ghosts.”

  “Half of Ormberg believes in the Ghost Child,” Anders countered, then cracked a beer and took a swig.

  “Exactly,” I replied.

  Anders laughed at my comment, but Kenny didn’t seem to hear me. He rarely seemed to listen to what I said. Instead he sat beside me, running his hand over my butt. Stuck an ice-cold thumb inside the waistband of my pants. Then he brought his cigarette to my mouth. I obediently took a deep drag, leaned my head back, and looked up at the full moon as I exhaled. All the sounds of the forest seemed louder: the rustle of the breeze through the ferns; muffled cracking and snapping, as if thousands of unseen fingers were being dragged across the ground; and the ghostly hoot of a bird somewhere in the distance.

  Kenny handed me a beer.

  I took a drink of the cold, bitter liquid and stared into the darkness between the pines. If someone was hiding in there, squeezed behind a tree trunk, we’d never see him. It would be a breeze to sneak up on us here in the clearing, like shooting deer in a cage or catching goldfish from an aquarium.

  But why would anyone do that, in Ormberg?

  Nothing ever happened here. That’s why people made up ghost stories—to keep from dying of boredom.

  Kenny belched quietly and opened another beer. Then he turned and kissed me. His tongue was cold and tasted like beer.

  “Get a room!” Anders said, then belched. Loudly. As if the belch were a question he expected us to answer.

  The comment seemed to trigger something in Kenny, because he pushed his hand inside my jacket, groping his way under my shirt and squeezing my breast hard.

  I repositioned myself to accommodate him and ran my tongue along the sharp teeth in his upper jaw.

  Anders stood up. I pushed Kenny away gently and asked:

  “What is it?”

  “I heard something. It sounded like…like someone crying, or sort of whimpering.”

  Anders let out a mournful cry, and then laughed so hard beer sprayed out of his mouth.

  “You’re mentally disturbed,” I said. “I need to pee. You guys can stay here looking for ghosts.”

  I got up, walked around the cairn, following the stones to just a few meters away. Turned around to make sure neither Kenny nor Anders could see me, then unbuttoned my jeans and squatted close to the ground.

  Something, maybe moss or some plant, tickled my thigh as I peed. The cold snuck around my legs and under my jacket.

  I shivered.

  What a wonderful idea to come out here to drink some beer. Truly inspired! But why didn’t I say anything when Kenny suggested it?

  Why didn’t I ever say anything when Kenny suggested something?

  The darkness was compact, and I pulled a lighter out of the pocket of my jacket. Flicked the little wheel with my thumb and let the flame shine onto the ground: autumn brown leaves, velvety moss, and those big gray stones. And there, in a crevice between two nearby stones, I caught a glimpse of something white and flat that looked like a hat on a big mushroom.

  Kenny and Anders were still talking about the ghost, their voices animated and slurred. The words tumbled out quickly and on top of each other, sometimes interrupted by laughter.

  Perhaps it was curiosity, or maybe I just wasn’t that keen to go back to the boys yet, but I felt a sudden urge to examine the mushroom more closely.

  What kind of mushroom would it be, at this time of the year, in the middle of the woods?

  The only mushrooms I’d ever picked here were chanterelles.

  I held the lighter closer to the crevice between the stones so that the dim illumination slowly revealed the object. Peeled off a few leaves and pulled a small fern out by its roots.

  Yes, there was definitely something there. Something that…

  Still in a squat with my jeans around my ankles, I pushed my free hand in and poked the white smoothness. It felt hard, like stone or porcelain. Maybe an old bowl? Definitely not a mushroom.

  I stretched a little more and rolled away the stone that lay on top of the bowl. The stone was smaller than the others and not very heavy, but still landed with a thud in the moss beside me.

  And there it lay, the bowl or whatever it was. It was the size of a grapefruit, cracked on one side, with some kind of fibrous brown moss growing from it.

  I stretched out my hand and felt those thin, dark threads. Rubbed them between my thumb and forefinger for a moment before my brain finally put the pieces of this puzzle together, and I realized what it was.

  I dropped the lighter, stood up, took a few stumbling steps straight into the dark, and started screaming. A scream that came from deep inside and seemed to have no end. As if terror were pushing out every atom of oxygen in my body through my lungs.

  When Kenny and Anders came to my rescue, I still had my pants down and my lungs had given new life to my scream.

  The bowl was no bowl. The moss was no moss. It was a skull with long dark hair.

  ORMBERG

  Eight years later—2017

  Jake

  My name is Jake. I’m named after Jake Gyllenhaal—one of the best actors in the world. It’s supposed to be said in the English way, but most of my classmates say it wrong on purpose. They call me Yake or even worse, Yakuh, exaggerating the Swedish pronunciation. It makes me wish I had another name, but there’s not much I can do about that. I am who I am. And my name is my name. Mom really, really wanted me to be named Jake, and Dad did what Mom wanted, probably because he loved her more than anything else in the world.

  Even now that Mom is dead, it’s as if she’s still with us in some way. Sometimes Dad sets a place for her at the table, and when I ask him a question it takes him a really long time to reply, as if he’s trying to figure out what Mom would say. Then comes the answer: “Sure, you can borrow a hundred kronor” or “Okay, you can go to the movies, but be home by seven.”

  Dad almost never says no to anything, though he’s gotten a little stricter since TrikåKungen, the old textile factory, was turned back into housing for asylum seekers.

  I’d like to think it’s because he’s kind, but Melinda, my big sister, says it’s because he’s too tired to say no. When she says it it’s usually with a meaningful glance at the empty beer cans on the kitchen floor, then she smiles crookedly and blows a perfect smoke ring, which slowly rises toward the ceiling.

  I think Melinda’s being ungrateful. I mean, she’s even allowed to smoke at home. Mom never would have allowed that, but instead of being thankful, she says stuff like that. It’s ungrateful, unfair, and, above all, unkind.

  When Grandma was still alive, she used to say her son-in-law probably wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but that at least we lived in the prettiest house in Ormberg, which is something. I don’t think she realized I knew what a sharp knife was, but I did. In any case, it was clearly okay to be a dull knife as long as you had a nice house.

  Ormberg’s prettiest house lies five hundred meters from the highway and goes straight into the forest, next to a creek that flows all the way to Vingåker. There are two reasons the house is so nice: first, Dad’s a carpenter, and second, he rarely has any jobs. That’s lucky, because it means he can work on the house almost all the time.

  For example, Dad’s built a huge deck around the whole house. It’s so big you can play basketball on it or ride your bike. If you really got a good start, and there wasn’t a fence, you could jump straight into the creek from the short side. Not that anyone would want to do that—the water is ice cold, even in the middle of summer, and the botto
m is full of sludge and seaweed and slimy, disgusting worms. Sometimes, in the summer, Melinda and I blow up an old air mattress and float down the stream to the old sawmill. The trees lean over the creek, making a ceiling of green lace, like the tablecloths Grandma used to knit. When you’re on the creek, the only thing you hear is birds, the rubbery squeak of the air mattress, and the rushing sound of the little waterfall that flows into a pond near the old ironworks.

  When my grandfather, whom I never met, was young, he worked at the ironworks, but it closed long before Dad was born. The dilapidated building was burned down by skinheads from Katrineholm when Dad was my age—fourteen—but the blackened ruins remain. From a distance, they look like fangs sticking up between the bushes.

  Dad says that everyone had jobs in Ormberg back then: either on a farm, or in the ironworks, or at Brogrens Mechanical or at TrikåKungen. Now, only the farmers have jobs. All the factories closed, and the jobs moved to China. Brogrens Mechanical stands silent and abandoned, a skeleton of corrugated sheet metal on flat land, and the castle-like brick building of the TrikåKungen textile factory has been converted to refugee housing.

  Melinda and I aren’t supposed to go there, even though Dad normally lets us do whatever we want. He doesn’t even seem to think about what Mom would have said either, because the answer comes in a flash if we ask. He says it’s for our safety. What exactly he’s afraid of is unclear, but Melinda always rolls her eyes when he brings it up, which makes him angry, and they start talking about caliphates, burkas, and rapes.

 
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