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Holding the glass door open with her hip, she dragged the suitcase into the stairwell leading down to the underground parking lot. Sweat trickled down her chest and back beneath her
T-shirt; it was only slightly cooler here than outside in the shimmering heat of the airless streets. The strong smell of decaying fast food from a jettisoned burger bag did nothing to improve the flavor of the place.
There was no elevator. Step by step she manhandled the heavy suitcase down to the level where she was parked, then realized that she didn’t really want it in her car until she knew what was in it. She found a relatively private spot behind some dumpsters, sheltered from security cameras and the curious gazes of passersby. The case wasn’t locked,
just held closed by two clasps and a heavy-duty strap. Her hands were shaking, and one of them was numb and bloodless from carrying the ungainly weight for such a distance. But she managed to unbuckle the strap and unsnap the locks.
In the suitcase was a boy: naked, fair-haired, rather thin, about three years old. The shock rocked her back on her heels so that she fell against the rough plastic surface of the dumpster. His knees rested against his chest, as if someone had folded him up like a shirt. Otherwise he would not have fit, she supposed. His eyes were closed, and his skin shone palely in the bluish glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights. Not until she saw his lips part slightly did she realize he was alive.
The house sat on the brink of a cliff, with an unhindered view of the bay. Jan knew perfectly well what the locals called it: the Fortress. But that was not why he looked at the white walls with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. The locals could think what they liked; they weren’t the ones who mattered.
The house was of course designed by a well-known architect,
and modern, in a functional-classical way, a modern take on the
Swedish “funkis” trend. Neo-funkis. That’s what Anne called it,
and she had shown him pictures and other houses until he understood,
or understood some of it, at least. Straight lines, no decoration.
The view was meant to speak for itself, through the huge windows that drew the light and the surrounding beauty into the room. That was how the architect had put it, and Jan could see his point, everything new and pure and right. Jan had bought the grounds and had the old summer cottage torn down; he had battled the municipal committee until they realized that they most certainly did want him as a taxpayer here and gave the necessary permissions; he had even conquered the representative of the local
Nature Society with a donation that nearly made her choke on her herbal tea. But why should he not establish a wildlife preserve? He had no interest in other people’s building here, or tramping all over the place in annoying picnic herds. So there it was, his house, protected by white walls, airy and bright, and with clean uncluttered neo-funkis lines. Just the way he had wanted it.
And yet, it was not what he wanted. This was not how it was supposed to be. He still thought of the other place with a strange, unfocused longing. A big old pile, an unappealing mix of decaying 1912
nouveau-riche and appallingly ugly sixties additions, and snobbily expensive because it was on Strandvejen, the coast-hugging residences of the Copenhagen financial elite. But that was not why he had wanted it—zip codes meant nothing to him. Its attraction was its nearness to Anne’s childhood home, just on the other side of the tall unkempt whitethorn hedge. He couldn’t help but imagine it all: The large family gathered for barbecues under the apple trees,
he and Anne’s father in a cloud of Virginia tobacco, holding chunky tumblers of a very good Scotch. Anne’s siblings by the long white patio table, with their children. Anne’s mother in the swing seat, a beautiful Indian shawl around her shoulders. His and Anne’s children,
four or five, he had imagined, with the youngest asleep in
Anne’s lap. Most of all, Anne happy, relaxed, and smiling. Gathered for the Midsummer festival, perhaps, with a bonfire of their own,
and yet enough of them there so that the singing sounded right.
Or just some ordinary Thursday, because they felt like it, and there had been fresh shrimp on the pier that day.
He drew hungrily at his cigarette, looking out across the bay.
The water was a sullen dark blue, streaked with foam, and the wind tore at his hair and made his eyes water. He had even persuaded the owner to sell. The papers were there, ready for his signature.
But she had said no.
He didn’t get it. It was her family, damn it. Weren’t women supposed to care about such things? The nearness, the roots, the closeknit relations? All that stuff. And with a family like Anne’s, so . . .
right. Healthy. Loving. Strong. Keld and Inger, still obviously in love after nearly forty years. Anne’s brothers, who came to the house regularly,
sometimes with their own wives and children, other times alone, just dropping in because they both still played tennis at the old club. To become part of that, in such an easy, everyday manner,
just next door, on the other side of the hedge . . . how could she turn that down? But she did. Quietly, stubbornly, in true Annefashion,
without arguments or reasons why. Just no.
So now here they were. This was where they lived, he and she and Aleksander, on the edge of a cliff. The wind howled around the white walls whenever the direction was northwesterly, and they were alone. Much too far away to just drop in, not part of things,
with no share in that easy, warm family communion except by special arrangement now and then, four or five times a year.
He took a last drag and tossed the cigarette away, stepping on the butt to make sure the dry grass didn’t catch fire. He stood for a few minutes, letting the wind whip away the smell from his clothes and hair. Anne didn’t know that he had started smoking again.
He took the photo from his wallet. He kept it there because he knew Anne was much too well raised to go snooping through his pockets. He probably should have gotten rid of it, but he just needed to look at it sometimes, needed to feel the mixture of hope and terror it inspired.
The boy was looking straight into the camera. His bare shoulders were drawn forward, as if he hunched himself against some unseen danger. There were no real clues to where the photo had been taken; the details were lost in the darkness behind him. At the corner of his mouth, one could see traces of something he had just eaten. It might be chocolate.
Jan touched the picture with one forefinger, very gently. Then he carefully put the photo away again. They had sent him a mobile phone, an old Nokia, which he would never himself have bought.
Probably stolen, he thought. He dialed the number, and waited for the reply.
“Mr. Marquart.” The voice was polite, but accented. “Hello.
Have you decided?”
In spite of having made his decision, he hesitated. Finally the voice had to prod him on.
He cleared his throat.
“Yes. I accept.”
“Good. Here are your instructions.”
He listened to the brief, precise sentences, wrote down numbers and figures. He was polite, like the man on the phone. It was only after the conversation had ended that he could no longer contain his disgust and defiance. Furiously, he flung the phone away;
it arced over the fence to bounce and disappear on the heathered slope beneath him.
He got back into his car and drove the rest of the way up to the house.
Less than an hour later, he was crawling about on the slope,
looking for the damn thing. Anne came out onto the terrace in front of the house and leaned over the railing.
“What are you doing?” she shouted.
“I dropped something,” he called back.
“Do you want me to come down and help?”
She stayed out there for a while. The wind tore at her peach-colored linen dress, and the updraft blew her fair shoulder-length hair up around her face, so that it looked as if she were falling. In free fall without a parachute, he thought, only to check that chain of thought before it could continue. It would be all right. Anne would never need to know.
It took him nearly an hour and a half to find the stupid phone.
And then he had to call the airline. This was one trip he had no wish to let his secretary book for him.
“Where are you going?” asked Anne.
“Just a quick trip to Zurich.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No,” he said hastily. Fear had flooded into her eyes instantly,
and trying to calm it was a knee-jerk reaction. “It’s just a business thing. Some funds I need to arrange. I’ll be back by Monday.”
How had they ended up like this? He suddenly recalled with great intensity that Saturday in May more than ten years ago when he had watched Keld walk her up the aisle. She had been fairytale pretty, in a stunningly simple white dress, pink and white rosebuds in her hair. He knew at once that the bouquet he had chosen was much too big and garish, but it hadn’t mattered. He was just a few minutes away from hearing her say “I do.” For an instant, his gaze caught Keld’s, and he thought he saw a welcome and an appreciation there. Father-in-law. I’ll take care of her, he silently promised the tall, smiling man. And in his mind added two promises that weren’t in the marriage vows: he would give her anything she wanted, and he would protect her against everything that was evil in the world.
That is still what I want, he thought, tossing his passport into the Zurich case. Whatever the price.
Sometimes, Jučas had a dream about a family. There was a mother and a father and two children, a boy and a girl. Usually, they would be at the dinner table, eating a meal the mother had cooked for them. They lived in a house with a garden,
and in the garden there were apple trees and raspberries. The people were smiling, so that one could tell they were happy.
He himself was outside the house, looking in. But there was always the feeling that any minute now they would catch sight of him, and the father would open the door, smiling even wider, and say: “There you are! Come in, come in.”
Jučas had no idea who they were. Nor could he always remember what they looked like. But when he woke, it would be with a feeling of muddled nostalgia and expectation that would stay with him all day like a tightness in his chest.
Lately he had dreamed the dream a lot. He blamed it on Barbara.
She always wanted to talk about how it was going to be—him and her, and the little house just outside Krakow, close enough that her mother would need to take only one bus, and yet far enough away for them to have a bit of privacy. And there would be children. Of course. Because that was what Barbara wanted: children.
The day before it was to happen, they had celebrated. Everything was done, everything ready. The car was packed, all preparations were in place. The only thing that could stop them now was if the bitch suddenly changed her pattern. And even if she did, all they had to do was wait another week.
“Let’s go to the country,” said Barbara. “Let’s go find someplace where we can lie in the grass and be alone together.”
At first he refused on the grounds that it was best not to alter one’s own pattern. People remembered. Only as long as one did what one always did would one remain relatively invisible. But then he realized this might be his last day in Lithuania ever, if everything went according to plan. And he didn’t really feel like spending that day selling security systems to middle-range businessmen in Vilnius.
He called the client he was due to see and canceled, telling them the company would be sending someone Monday or Tuesday instead. Barbara called in sick with “the flu.” It would be Monday before anyone at Klimka’s realized they had been playing hooky at the same time, and by then it wouldn’t matter.
They drove out to Lake Didiulis. Once, this had been a holiday camp for Pioneer children. Now it was a scout camp instead, and on an ordinary school day at the end of August, the whole place was completely deserted. Jučas parked the Mitsubishi in the shade beneath some pines, hoping the car wouldn’t be an oven when they returned. Barbara got out, stretching so that her white shirt slid up to reveal a bit of tanned stomach. That was enough to make his cock twitch. He had never known a woman who could arouse him as quickly as Barbara. He had never known anyone like her, period.
He still wondered why on earth she had picked someone like him.
They stayed clear of the wooden huts, which in any case looked rather sad and dilapidated. Instead they followed the path past the flag hill and into the woods. He inhaled the smell of resin and sun-parched trees, and for a moment was back with Granny Edita on the farm near Visaginas. He had spent the first seven years of his life there. Freezing cold and lonely in the winter, but in the summer Rimantas moved in with his Gran on the neighboring farm, and then the thicket of pines between the two smallholdings became Tarzan’s African Jungle, or the endless Mohican woods of Hawkeye.
“Looks like we can swim here.” Barbara pointed at the lakeshore further ahead. An old swimming platform stuck into the waters of the lake like a slightly crooked finger.
Jučas stuffed Visaginas back into the box where it belonged, the one labeled “The Past.” He didn’t often open that box, and there was certainly no reason to mess with it now.
“There are probably leeches,” he said, to tease her.
She grimaced. “Of course there aren’t. Or they wouldn’t let the children swim here.”
Belatedly, he realized he didn’t really want to stop her from taking her clothes off.
“You’re probably right,” he said, hastily.
She flashed him a quick smile, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking. And as he watched, she slowly unbuttoned her shirt and stepped out of her sand-colored skirt and string sandals,
until she stood barefoot on the beach, wearing only white panties and a plain white bra.
“Do we have to swim first?” he asked.
“No,” she said, stepping close. “We can do that afterwards.”
He wanted her so badly it sometimes made him clumsy like a teenager. But today he forced himself to wait. Playing with her.
Kissing her. Making sure she was just as aroused as he was. He fumbled for the condom he always kept in his wallet, at her insistence.
But this time she stopped him.
“It’s such a beautiful day,” she said. “And such a beautiful place.
Surely, we can make a beautiful child, don’t you think?”
He was beyond speech. But he let go of the wallet and held her for several long minutes before he pushed her down onto the grass and tried to give her what she so badly wanted.
Afterwards, they did swim in the deep, cool waters of the lake. She was not a strong swimmer, had never really learned how,
so mostly she doggy-paddled, splashing and kicking. Finally she linked her hands behind his neck and let herself be towed along as he backstroked to keep them both afloat. She looked into his eyes.
“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Even though I’m an old, old woman?” She was nine years older than him, and it bothered her. He didn’t care.
“Insanely,” he said. “And you’re not old.”
“Take care of me,” she said, settling her head on his chest. He was surprised at the strength of the tenderness he felt.
“Always at your service,” he murmured. And he thought that perhaps the family in the dream was him and Barbara, perhaps that was the point of it all—him and Barbara, in the house just outside
Just one little thing to be done first.