Scandinavian noir goes south to the Young Adult market in Christoffer Carlsson’s October is the Coldest Month published in Australia by Scribe. In the extract below the 16 year old protagonist, Vega Gillberg, is hunting for clues after her brother Jakob has disappeared.
On the way back I called Jakob twice, but there was no answer. I needed to talk to him, didn’t know who else to turn to, and I could no longer handle keeping all of it to myself, in my own head.
What if the police had found Jakob by now? What if they’d arrested him, made him confess everything? What would happen then?
Fear had taken root in me, and it refused to leave.
It was starting to get dark by the time I got close to our house. Everything — my clothes, my hair, my skin — smelled like mash, and my thoughts were whirling in my head, round and round. I’d forgotten to ask Dan about his business with Diana and Tom, about the envelope I’d dropped off for them the day before.
The conversation with my uncle had just made me mad and confused, which was probably why I did what I did.
I passed our house and continued on towards Summer Lake and down to Krakasa. An oncoming autumn rain slowly closed around me and I shuddered.
Krakasa lay as if in uneasy sleep, maybe because of Hellman’s disappearance but more likely because the police had been there, knocking on doors. No one liked a visit from them, and afterwards everyone was always nervous or in a bad mood. Often both. There were a hundred metres or so between the houses, and I was careful to stay away from them so as not to be seen.
Hellman’s house waited in the distance, quiet and still, like a large animal that had just been put out of its misery. It looked smaller than I remembered, but it was just as creepy. Most of the lot was covered in gravel that had been laid so long ago that the sand and earth beneath peeked out in countless spots. Traces of the police’s tyre-casting were still visible in one spot — hard white chunks of plaster.
I went on, towards the house, riding around to the back before getting off my bike and leaning it against the wall. It wouldn’t be visible from the road here, or even if someone turned up the driveway.
I ran my fingertips along the rough outer walls of the house. The windows were small and square, like paintings. I cautiously approached the front door and put on my old gloves, then tried the doorhandle and found that it was locked. The windows were closed, too. I wished I had a crowbar or a hammer with me. A yellow-and-red sign in front of the door said the area was off limits.
It was only when I’d gone back to my bike and was about to ride off that I realised that the bike was leaning against a back door. I felt stupid and wondered if I was more rattled than I thought. I moved the bike and inspected the door: thin, wooden, covered in white paint that had been worn away by weather and time.
I pushed the doorhandle.
There was an old urn beside the door. It contained a few smashed cigarette butts and spent shotgun shells. I lifted the urn, and underneath it lay a key. It was cold, and my hand was shaking a little too hard to get it into the lock. I had to use both hands.
When the door opened with a dull creak, something fluttered in my chest. I put my hand into my bag and squeezed the little knife.
With faltering steps, I walked into a dead man’s house just as night fell over Krakasa.
It was smaller than you would have thought. The ground floor consisted of a hallway, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom. Upstairs there was a bedroom, a wardrobe, and another bathroom. All the rooms could have used a cleaning ages ago, and it smelled musty and stale, like when you stick your nose into an old barrel.
I stopped at each door, listening and adjusting my grip on the knife before I moved on. Soon, I felt safe using the torch app on my phone. I’d dropped it in a puddle on the way home from school a few weeks before and most of its functions had still worked once it dried out, but this was the first time I had tried the light. It was usually bright as a flash of lightning, but now all that came out was a faint, yellowish glow.
There was a framed photograph of the woman who must have once been Hellman’s wife on a chest of drawers in the bedroom. She was looking into the lens of the camera with serious eyes, and she seemed strangely beautiful, even though her posture showed that life hadn’t turned out the way she’d wanted. It filled me with hopelessness. It didn’t take much effort to imagine what had happened to her in here throughout the years.
Here and there I could see traces of the police investigation, but they didn’t seem to have taken anything from the house. Of course, I had never been there before, but it didn’t feel like anything was missing.
The sheets on the bed were a mess, and Hellman’s dirty clothes were on the floor. The wardrobe was large, full of lots of stuff besides clothing, like old lamps and rugs, and even pots and pans. There was a jerry can I recognised as Uncle Dan’s in one corner.
Down in the kitchen there were some dirty plates and glasses in the sink. He had a square table with four wooden chairs. Three of them were neatly pushed in, their seats under the tabletop. The fourth one was pulled out, askew, as if Hellman had been sitting there and had suddenly remembered some urgent task and just got up and left. He’d had a stack of papers from Social Insurance, bills, and newspapers on the table in front of him. Next to them was a pen with the lid off.
It felt like I’d missed something, I just couldn’t gure out what. I slowly went back to the stairs and walked up, stopping at the top step, breathing in the silence.
Soon, I was standing in the bedroom again. The unmade bed, the little window, the two nightstands with their identical lamps. The clothes on the floor. I sank to my knees and aimed my phone’s flashlight under the bed.
There, I spotted something that didn’t seem to belong among Hellman’s heavy pants, flannel shirts, and dirty socks. I reached in and grabbed the piece of fabric and pulled it out.
It was a thin polyester blouse, shiny and slippery, with a deep neckline. It was pale as white skin and slightly transparent. It smelled like detergent and perfume, and had once had five buttons. Now, it only had four; two tiny threads stuck out, uneven and ragged, where the top button should have been.
I aimed the light on the floor and crawled alongside the bed, along the walls, peered under the chest of drawers — and there it was, surrounded by dust. I held the button up, turning it over and over. Then I stuck it in my pocket and shoved the blouse into my bag before cautiously leaving the house again.
I locked the door, put the key back under the urn, and took my bike, walking it back around the house and down the driveway. I barely had time to notice the outline of a car sitting there before its two white headlights came on and blinded me.