Thursday, June 23, 2011

FICTION: The Shortcut by KG Johansson

He was following somebody.

It felt like waking up. He’d been walking in his usual daydreams. Now he was already by the cemetery. Eight blocks from the centre of town. He must have walked all the way here but he didn’t remember anything.

In spite of himself, he yawned. A long and deep gasp for air. The cold autumn air cleared his head a little.

Some distance ahead of him, a shadow going into the cemetery. The shortcut.

Jonas walked a little faster when he realized.

He was following her.

No time of the year was as dark as this. Late October, right before snow came. Heavy clouds were as dark as the damp ground. No moon and no stars. The few streetlights were much too far apart. Right now, there were also globes of mist around them, closing the light in.

He’d been to a movie. A few guys from his class were going, he’d heard them talk about it during the day, of course nobody talked to him. He went anyway. Seven o’clock at the FilmCenter. New horror movie with Jessica Alba.

His mom felt better if he said he’d go to the movies with friends. Sometimes he thought that his mom understood lots and lots more than he’d ever told her. Things eased up if he went out every now and then.

Sophie was going. Of course.

Sophie would never care about Jonas. Sophie, trend girl number one. She’d get her own fashion blog in the local paper next month.

And Jonas was the Potato. Ever since that time in gym class.

He went. But unfortunately there was a price. Looks and gibes when they saw him. Maneuvers to make sure there was no place for him next to them. Mean comments when he ended up three rows in front, whispers, giggles.

He only remembered one thing about the movie. It had scared him.

Afterwards, it got worse. Victor again. “You afraid of the dark now, Potato?” Samuel chipped in. “Your mom best give you rubber sheets tonight.” Giggle.

A few of the tough guys were going to smoke. A ring was formed. Two or three moves made Jonas end up outside.

Sophie was the only one who lived close to him. On the other side of the cemetery. Jonas realized that he’d hoped they would walk home together. Not as a couple, of course not. Just for company. Maybe without meanness when they were alone.

He really didn’t want to walk alone. Scared after the movie.

Of course things didn’t turn out the way he hoped. Of course there was taunting from the gang. The circle where he wasn’t allowed. From Sophie herself. “So, you’re afraid of walking home alone? Come on then. Darling.” Harsh laughter from the circle as Sophie left it, throwing a cigarette on the ground. And walked away without looking at him.

After that, he could impossibly leave at once. Victor and Samuel became funnier than ever, trying to outdo each other with Potato jokes. Jonas stayed outside the guffawing circle. Saw Sophie disappear down the street and waited patiently.

His heart beat way too fast. It was so dark.

He left as soon as she was out of sight.

“Better run, potato legs, I’m sure she’s waiting for you!”

And more laughter.

So of course he knew he was following somebody. He was following Sophie, right? Had walked behind her for seven blocks.

But there was something strange about it. Like he had discovered that just now. Forgotten everything from when he left the circle, just like he had forgotten the movie.

He realized something else.

He wasn’t afraid of the dark any more.

The darkness was big and damp and cold. Wrapping him like a soft blanket. He liked that. No one could see him. He himself could only see a few feet in front of him, except in the fuzzy circles under the streetlights.

But he’d seen her. It was Sophie who’d gone into the cemetery. She was taking the shortcut.

Jonas came up to the rusty iron gate. It was open.

He surprised himself by going in.

He really wasn’t afraid. Usually, he’d be scared to death here. He’d never have walked into the cemetery when he was alone in the October darkness.

Almost alone, he corrected himself. He could make out Sophie further on. A black shadow. She seemed closer now. Maybe he’d quickened his steps, walked faster without thinking about it.

Or maybe she was waiting for him.

Sure. Right. He wanted her. Had always wanted her. But it was impossible.

The darkness curled around him like a cat. As if it wanted to protect him. Maybe that was why he wasn’t scared.

He saw the headstones at both sides of the path. Low and wide, high and narrow. Round and cross-shaped. The graves looked quite new. He thought about the bodies in them. Your eyes fall in and your teeth fall out, as that Irish song had it. Your brain come tumbling down your snout. Worms crawl in and worms crawl out.

Cobwebs, he thought. Hair and nails growing for months after death. Putrefaction and livor mortis and swelling. Six feet under. Unspeakable sounds when gases had to make their way out, either through the natural orifices or by organs bursting, rending loudly in the stinking darkness.

The thoughts didn’t scare him. They excited him.

He almost stopped. Hurried his steps instead. Sophie was in front of him.

Even closer now. Invisible in the dark when she wasn’t a black shadow stealing through a fuzzy cone of light.

Everything was very silent. The only sounds were his shoes scraping gravel and his breathing, which seemed unusually quick. Excited.

The thought about corpses wallowing underground did something to him.

Bodies falling apart. Floating in their own liquids. Flesh turning into new flesh as worms feasted. Then the masks themselves would starve to death, anxiously wriggling in a shapeless mass when their larder was empty. Roles reversed as naked skeletons watched worms die and rot.

It was beautiful. Exciting in some weird way.

Sophie actually seemed to walk slower now. Maybe she too was thinking about the graves. Maybe the thoughts scared her.

Maybe she was waiting for him. Wanted him to protect her.

He kept that image. Breathed a little heavier.

Some hundred feet in front of him, Sophie stopped. She turned around and looked at him. Turned again and walked on.

Jonas kept closing in. He knew that he himself was walking faster and faster. But maybe, possibly, maybe Sophie was walking slower now.

She’d turned around and looked at him.

She wanted him to catch up with her.

A small part of him protested but was immediately voted down.

That time in gym class. Third or fourth grade. That time with the vaulting horse.

He knew he could. He’d done it many times before. But this time Victor whispered something to him, right when he was standing in line. When his turn was coming up, after Tom and Alex.

Jonas could never remember what Victor had whispered. He didn’t want to know. There was a blanket of darkness over the words, just like over the cemetery now.

Jonas had run for the horse. Coming closer. And he had known, at the very moment when he kicked off, what would happen.

He didn’t make it. Arms and legs couldn’t cope.

He was stuck on the vaulting horse and had slide down. In front of everybody. Girls and boys. A shame. The giggles. His shorts got twisted somehow. It hurt.

And then Victor’s voice.

“Look! You can see the whole potato!”

Everybody laughed. Except one single voice. A girl’s voice.

He didn’t know who. Maybe it was Sophie. Wasn’t it Sophie?

“Stop it already! Let him –“

It must have been her. But the laughter had drowned her voice.

He walked even faster. No more that fifty feet between them now. He could see her silhouette even between the streetlights. Her hair. Long legs in jeans.

He was always ashamed when he thought of that memory. That time and all the others. The memories made him moan silently to himself. Sometimes he forgot himself and moaned when his mother could hear.

She’d never said anything. But a few times she’d given him strange looks.

On the other hand, she always gave him strange looks.

Normally, the vaulting horse would make him ashamed. But not now.

Excitement rose. He swallowed. Heart pounding.

The thought of Sophie. That she’d been there. In gym class. That time. That she’d seen.

Something changed in front of him. The silhouette didn’t move.

She was standing still. Waiting for him.

It had been her who called out “Stop it already!”

Must have been.

And now, she was standing with her back to him. Waiting.

Thirty feet. Maybe she’s just been playing with me, he thought, out of breath. Maybe she’s … something. Tested me. Or so.

The little voice came back.

You’re out of your mind, it whispered.

He subdued it. Sophie had said: “Stop it already!” He knew this now.

He suddenly pitied her. She’d felt that she had to play along with the others. Been afraid of being shut out. For years. Playing along although she didn’t want to.

Fifteen feet left. His thoughts had gone into some kind of overdrive. Darkness murmured and roared in his head when Sophie turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder.

Just one look. A single quick glance. But he was close enough to see the worry in it. The fear.

He had to catch up with her. Take care of her. Make her forget her fear.

He breathed even faster now. Her fear excited him, to a point where he almost couldn’t walk.

Dry mouth. Swallowed. Licked his lips. Panted.

He saw images.

He’d hug her. She’d ask him to forgive her. For everything she’d done.

Once, a couple of years ago, maybe in sixth grade, that spring when strange things started happening within him, he’d pretended to tickle her. To cop a feel.

The second time, he’d succeeded. She spit him right in the eye.

“You thought I’d give you a taste, potato freak?”

The whole class laughed. Everybody who was there.

But this was different. Everything was different now.

He saw images again. Not memories. Now. In a few seconds. When he –

That trendy top under her quilted jacket. Almost see-through. Some black stuff, he didn’t know what it was called. But you could make out the bra under it.

He’d stared at that top many times before. And she was wearing it tonight.

He knew why she was scared. Somebody could attack her.

She screams, his overheated thoughts stuttered, screams as he throws her down, naked white skin against cold earth, the crunching sound as he tears her bra in pieces, red streaks where it was on her skin, you can’t see in the dark but the streaks are red. I know.

She struggles to get away. And then –

He came up to her. Raised his arm to grab her hair and take care of her. Give her what she wanted.

Sophie turned again and he understood.

He suddenly understood. A fraction of a second too late.

It wasn’t Sophie. Of course it wasn’t Sophie.

It growled, moistly. Bubbling.

On last clear thought, a flash through his head: Something had taken her.

There were no words to describe what had been Sophie. Not even if he’d had the time. Something that was teeth or claws flew up and the brutal movement stripped his face away before he could see.

Without eyes he had only the sounds and the piercing pain. The horror tore and rooted, bit and dragged, growled and made him feel pain that was so hideous it could impossibly become worse. Not until something else that had been a part of him was ripped away with a rending sound – the very sound he himself had thought about, minutes ago! – and the pain doubled. Quadrupled.

He tried to scream but couldn’t, he couldn’t breathe, either in or out. And then he was lying on his back on the ground, cold and damp, trying to wave his arm to alleviate the pain, but one arm seemed to be stuck somehow and the other one seemed shorter and lighter than he remembered. He felt his legs, his potato legs, twitch helplessly when they couldn’t have any oxygen.

He tried to kick but couldn’t. Sophie was lying on top of him. In the middle of pain, the thought still excited him.

When the growling closed in on his head he threw himself wildly, bit and tore. He still had his teeth. They felt bigger and sharper than before as they got hold of something soft. He rooted and chewed at something that at the same time was gobbling at his shoulder, managed to tear off something that stuck in his teeth and that felt like hair and bacon rind. He still heard growls and crunching but he no longer knew who was making the sounds.

The sounds were beautiful now. They fit the flashes and thunder of pain perfectly. The pain had turned into exquisite pleasure.

The darkness took us, the last dying part of the thing that had been Jonas thought. The dark came into us somehow. It made us do this, lured me to her. It took a shortcut with us, skipping sixty years of slow decay, cheated us to one another. And now, right away, not in many years: just meat. Just meat.

He bit again. Found something else, softer, tore. Felt a warm stream across his chest without knowing what it was.

The darkness put him out, bit by bit. The chaos of pain and pleasure faded with the gobbling sounds.

His last thought was: We found each other. At last.

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