Grass tickled on the soles of his feet as he ran in the meadow, flowers brushing his ankles and staining his skin yellow. A distant shout, a rumble of thunder, and Reynir blinked.
The feel of wood under his palm.
The scratch of bark on his finger tips.
Cool water rushing over his toes.
Reynir closed his eyes.
Crickets, thousands of crickets, all singing in unison. His fingers clutched his duvet, pulling it close as he grinned with his eyes tightly closed in his mask of sleep.
A creaky floorboard.
Reynir's eyes opened.
Fresh cream, ripe strawberries.
Hands tugging on his.
The creak of bending metal.
Bruised fingers, and a raised voice.
Faded memories. A sense of not quite right.
Misty blue eyes and the reflections of stars.
Turns to one.
The sting of metal.
One turns to two.
A shattered mirror.
Two turns to three.
A red sun staining the sky pink.
Three turns to four.
Wet earth between fingertips.
Four turns to five.
The feel of their head breaking the surface of the water, their lungs screaming for air.
Five turns to six.
Emil sat down on the Hotakainen family’s living room floor with a bowl of popcorn and a blanket draped over his shoulders, the quiet hum of the DVD player in the background. Lalli was already flopped down on the floor next to him, almost starfished out with his chin resting on a small mountain of pillows. His hand snaked out to steal some popcorn, quickly popping it into his mouth before Emil could catch him.
Tuuri came in a moment later with an armful of even more blankets, Reynir a step behind her with a few bottles of lemonade and coke. He carefully put them down by the door before claiming his own blanket and spot on the sofa.
Onni was out of town for the weekend, which left the four of them to their own devices. When Tuuri had suggested that they come over and stay for the weekend during their math class at The Academy, they were hard pressed to say no. A weekend alone with friends with zero adult supervision? Perfect. That meant netflix marathons with absolutely no one to stop them or disturb them; it meant no bedtime, and living off junk food only to regret it the next day. But that didn’t matter when you were doing it as a group; it simply gave you people to bitch to it about who would understand.
“Everyone ready?” Tuuri asked, xbox controller in hand. At the chorus of agreeing sounds, she pressed play and made herself comfortable on the other side of the sofa, just behind Emil. She pulled a blanket up over herself and nestled in to the corner, feet tucked under her to keep them warm. As the opening number of Bobs Burger’s played, she adjusted her glasses and wriggled her toes.
Lalli remained sprawled out on his belly, every so often stealing some of Emil’s popcorn. Eventually the Swede had stopped swatting his thieving hands away and had even pushed the bowl closer so he didn’t have to stretch so far, the sweetheart. But as the end of the episode drew closer, Lalli decided that pillow mountain wasn’t near as comfortable as he had thought, and he required something else. Emil was still sat next to him, back leaning against the arm of the sofa behind him, and his shoulder appeared to be the perfect spot for him.
Lalli stretched out like a cat basking in the sun, hands splayed out before briefly going limp. He pushed himself up and shimmied backwards, carefully placing some of his pillows behind him on the sofa before leaning against Emil.
“Eeh- careful, Lalli!” Emil quietly said, grabbing the bowl of popcorn and pulling it out of the way before the Finn knocked it over. Lalli rolled his eyes and held his hand out for the bowl, taking it away and placing it down by his knees before continuing to make himself comfortable. Once satisfied, he pulled his blanket closer and threw it over the two of them before turning his attention back to the TV.
Their new position meant that Emil couldn’t reach the popcorn. This became apparent when Emil leaned forwards to grab a handful but found his fingers a few inches short of the bowl.
“Wait.” Lalli said, pushing his hand back and scooping some out himself. Emil made to accept the handful into his own hand, but Lalli had other ideas. He placed his hand just under Emil’s mouth, so if he wished he could eat the popcorn from his hand in a way that was akin to a child feeding a horse.
Emil snorted with laughter as he attempted to eat as gracefully as possible, which scattered popcorn everywhere. That only served to make him laugh even harder, now catching the attention of Tuuri and Reynir.
‘… What are you guys doing?” Tuuri asked incredulously. “Are you feeding him from your hand, Lalli?”
Lalli shrugged. Emil meekly leaned back and chewed on his mouthful of popcorn. Ugh, he thought as his cheeks burned. Tuuri would never let him hear the end of this.
Before they knew it, the sun was beginning to rise again and they hadn’t slept a single wink. Lalli, on the other hand, had, but he managed to sleep no matter where he was. Tuuri had caught him fast asleep while standing up more than once, and Emil had found him curled up in the airing cupboard among the freshly laundered sheets earlier that day.
Reynir remained curled up in his corner of the settee, Tuuri sprawling out over the remaining space as she quickly fell asleep.
Emil did not find sleep so easily.
The floor was hard and unforgiving, yet he could not move to a comfier spot, or even shift positions in an attempt to return feeling to his legs without disturbing Lalli. The other boy had taken to his shoulder, leaning heavily against him in sleep. One of his hands had found itself tucked into his elbow, holding on tight to the fabric of his shirt, and Emil was loath to disturb his boyfriend when he was like that despite the problem it had caused him.
His body was going to despise him when he woke up.
[09:38] I hope the house is in one piece.
Tuuri threw her arm over her eyes and groaned, slowly rolling over with her other hand flailing about to find her phone. She found it on the side table with the pineapple shaped lamp and groggily unlocked it, sleepily reading the text.
[09:40] Everything’s fine, Onni.
[09:40] How’s the work thing?
[09:43] Dull. Have anything planned for today?
[09:44] Lalli wanted some more skulls so we were going to walk in the woods to look for some.
[09:49] Are you sure that’s a good idea? The police got called last time; I’m not here to help you.
[09:50] We have Reynir. He can talk us out of anything.
[09:56] … I see. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. Please don’t let Lalli bury the carcasses in my flowerbeds again.
[09:58] I’ll try my best. See you then!
Tuuri dropped her phone back onto the table and rubbed the meat of her palms into her eyes. Ugh! They felt like they’d been rolled in batter. Well, she was awake now and her mouth felt like she’d been eating sand. Water was a good option.
She carefully navigated the mass of bodies on the floor and the sprawl of Reynir, being extra careful to not step on his braid, and made her way into the kitchen. The tap squeaked as she turned it, and she grimaced hard while straining her ears. Nothing. Maybe they were in a deeper sleep than she thought?
Tuuri filled a jug up with water and grabbed a handful of plastic cups, slowly walking back to the living room so as to not spill any. She placed them down on the table as quietly as she could before pouring herself a cup.
“Who were you texting?”
If Tuuri were a lesser woman, she would have screamed in fright. She had definitely not been expecting anyone to be awake, nor speaking – yet here she was, stood in her pyjamas in the living room with her cousin staring up at her with bright, bright eyes as he pushed himself up from where he’d previously been sprawled over Emil.
“Onni.” Tuuri replied once her heart had calmed down. “He says that you’re not allowed to bury anything we find today in his flowerbeds.”
“Hmph.” Lalli stretched, joints audibly clicking. “Spoil sport.”
“I think he just doesn’t like finding half-rotted birds under his petunias.”
“It was one time…” Lalli grumbled. “And they fertilize the soil.”
“Please don’t do it again.” Tuuri groaned. “He’ll cry.”
“He always cries.”
“Only because you make him.”
Tuuri’s phone vibrated again. Lalli lazily leaned over and picked it up, regarding the preview on the screen.
“It’s Onni.” He said, handing it over to her.
“Again?” She muttered, quickly unlocking her phone.
[10:15] I hope you have a good day.
“What does he want?” Lalli asked as he slowly lay back down again, finding Emil’s shoulder as his pillow.
“He hopes we have a good day.” Tuuri replied as she tapped out her response.
[10:16] We will!
“Come on, we’d best get up. You know what Onni would say if he found out we’d slept in.”
“’m tired.” He mumbled.
“How could you possibly be tired? You fell asleep during the third episode of Bobs Burgers.”
Lalli’s response was to throw the blanket back over his head.
A few hours later found them all showered, dressed, and standing in front of the wooden gate that separated them from the woods and their quaint little neighbourhood.
“Do you think we’ll find anything?” Emil asked as he climbed the gate. “We didn’t really last time.”
“Don’t be such a pessimist.” Tuuri replied as she clambered after him. “I’m sure we’ll find something!”
Lalli was already ahead of them, having jumped the gate while they were busy negotiating how to actually get over it. He walked bucket in hand, thick rubber gloves hung over the side, with a headband clasped in their other hand.
“I hope I don’t see anything,” Reynir replied, own bucket in hand as he hopped down from the gate. “dead things are gross.”
“Of course they will be.” Emil quipped. “They’re dead.”
While Reynir busied himself with collecting flowers, herbs, and scraps of bark, Lalli set about rummaging in the underbrush to find any kind of carcass he could get his hands on. He had his thick gloves on, seemingly unencumbered by the gloves that extended passed his elbow. Emil had often wondered just where he had acquired such gloves, but quickly found himself dropping the topic. Perhaps some things were best left unasked.
“What does he even want this time?” Emil asked Tuuri as they sat in a clearing they had found, plucking daisies from the grass and stringing them together into chains. “Didn’t he find a hawk last week?”
“A kite, yes.” Tuuri replied, expertly threading the flowers together into a neat crown. “But he wants something with a bigger skull this time. Preferably with teeth.”
“I hope he doesn’t ask me to help him clean it this time.” Emil winced. The last time Lalli had presented him with the bucket and asked him to help disembowel it and wrap it in window screen, he had promptly vomited and passed out. He remembered Onni making a remark to Lalli that sounded vaguely insulting, but he didn’t know enough Finnish to understand. Lalli had simply laughed and shaken his head when Emil asked about it later, after his boyfriend had already done the deed and buried the corpse.
Now that Emil thought about it, as he strung some more daisies together with green-stained fingers, it was odd that Lalli had buried the bird in Onni’s flowerbeds instead of the barrel he usually used in the corner of the garden. Revenge, perhaps?
Emil smirked to himself as he tied off his chain in a crown.
“After last time? I hope not. You do know you’re saved in Onni’s phone as ‘weak one’ now, right?”
“What!?” Emil shrieked. “H-how rude!”
“Count yourself lucky he has no idea he’s saved as ‘stern bastard’ on your phone.”
Emil gulped. Yes, it was definitely best that Onni did not become privy to that particular piece of information.
Lalli wasn’t having much luck. He hadn’t even found any victims of traffic on the dirt tracks, and he had just about given up when Reynir jogged over to him, his basket full of flora, the lucky bastard.
“I think it’s going to storm.” He said, nervously picking at the handle. “We should head back.”
Lalli glanced up at the sky. Overcast, but not worryingly so. He could still see the sunshine peering in through gaps in the cloud, and the wind was but a gentle nudge.
Only he couldn’t hear anything.
There were no birds, no familiar buzz of insects or whispers of the spirits within the trees and the ground beneath his feet. All he could hear was his own heartbeat in his ears, and Reynir’s insistent ramble.
Lalli simply nodded and stripped his gloves, dumping them into his empty bucket as he walked back towards the clearing he’d left Emil sat in. Hopefully, the Swede would still be there and hadn’t been coerced by Tuuri into an adventure.
“Oh! Lalli! I was just coming to get you!” Tuuri said as she jumped up to her feet, daisy chain forgotten on the ground. She was already wearing one, as was Emil. “It’s such a nice day, should we go for a walk? Not looking for gross stuff,” She gestured to Lalli’s bucket, “but just… walk?”
“But it’s going to storm.” Reynir cut in. “I’m not sure if it’s a good idea-“
“What do you mean? It’s a fine day out.”
“Well, yes, it’s fine now, but I just have a really bad feeling-“
Tuuri didn’t appear to have heard. “Come on, I heard there’s a really cool bridge along this path.”
Reynir sighed and resigned himself to his fate, giving the sky a wary glance. He hoped that the storm, when it did arrive, didn’t catch them when they were still outside and soak them down to the bone.
Despite his best wishes, the storm arrived while they were outside and woefully unprepared.
Emil had taken off his jacket and was holding it above himself and Lalli’s heads, keeping the worst of the torrential downpour off them. Reynir was doing the same for himself and Tuuri – unfortunately for him, he was mostly soaked leg, but fortunately for Tuuri, the lankier and taller man seemed to be a magnet and she stayed remarkably dry.
“Can you see anywhere we can hide?” Tuuri called out over the roar of thunder. “Even if it’s just a fallen log! It’ll do!”
“Nothing over here!” Emil shouted back, peering through the rain with squinted eyes. Lalli tugged on his sleeve, eyes glowing, and pointing out into the storm. Emil frowned, straining his eyes and-
“There! Yes, there! There’s a cabin!” Emil called out, pointing it out to the others. “Good spot.” Emil quietly murmured to Lalli, letting the other take the lead.
The four of them hurried over, hastily knocking on the door. “Hello?” Reynir called out. “Is anyone home?”
Lalli tried the handle, ignoring the sharp “Lalli!” from Tuuri, and the door swung open. He glanced from side to side, eyes wide and curious, and carefully stepped inside.
“It’s empty.” He said after a moment.
The other three looked at each other. Emil shrugged and stepped inside, shaking off his jacket in the entry hall and following after Lalli.
“Well, I’d rather get out of the rain, creepy cabin or not.” Reynir said as he stepped inside. Tuuri nervously glanced behind them, swallowing hard and nodding before following him.
“If the police get called because of this…” Tuuri said as she squeezed water out of her dress, “Onni will kill me.”
Reynir swiped a surface with his finger and brought it up for Tuuri to see. It was thick with dust. “I think if anyone does live here, they haven’t been around in a long time. They wont notice us here for a little while.”
“I sure hope not.” Tuuri replied. “We’re not that inconspicuous.” She pointed at the very obvious trail of water that they’d left behind.
Emil and Lalli had already adventured ahead using their phones as torches. Emil reached out for a light switch and flicked it.
“Powers out.” Emil said. “Maybe they just forgot to lock the front door?”
“Why would they do that?” Tuuri asked as she pushed ahead of him, opening up the first door she came across.
It was a large and spacious room that had no right fitting into the tiny little cabin they had found. And yet here it was, fitting in rather splendidly. There was a circle of moth-eaten sofas that were covered in an offensive mustard yellow around a low coffee table covered in scattered playing cards. Reynir knelt down next to the table, peering at the cards.
“These look so old fashioned.” He remarked, hesitant to poke at them. “It’s like we’re in a time capsule.
Emil swung his torch around the room, finding a TV in the corner. “You’re right, this thing’s ancient.” Emil leaned in closer to get a better look. “This screen’s the size of my ipad. I think my great-grandparents are younger than this thing.”
Lalli still hadn’t moved from the doorway. His eyes were trained on the table, and if Emil didn’t know any better he’d have said that they were glowing.
Reynir peered over at him, starting when he realised that Lalli was staring right at him. “Uh, Lalli?” He nervously glanced behind him and looked over at the table again. Nothing. Maybe there was something underneath it?
He peered under the table and saw a cassette tape. It was marked only by a single sticker with the number one hastily scrawled on, as though someone was in a hurry. “Oh, that’s weird. There’s a tape under the table.” Reynir went down on all fours and reached out, fingers dancing along the carpet-
“Do not touch it.” Lalli sharply warned as he stalked forwards, swiftly reaching under and whisking it away from Reynir before he could reach it.
Emil jumped a good few feet in the air as the TV suddenly crackled into life, static exploding onto the screen and the tape player popping open.
“I… I think we need to put the tape in.” Tuuri said, nervously glancing between Lalli and the TV.
“This isn’t one of your murder mystery novels, Tuuri-“
“No, I know, I’m glad it isn’t, but... please? Can we at least try?”
Lalli padded over to the TV and glanced between the tape and the slot. He glanced up at Emil, who gave a small nod.
May as well give it a go.
They slid the tape into the player and sat back with anticipation, eyes glued to the screen.
Static cracked in black and white, a distorted voice greeting them. Finally, a picture flickered into being featuring a well-dressed man with a well-kept moustache standing to attention.
“Ah! Yes, excellent, hello! Good afternoon dear children!” He straightened his bow-tie and curled his moustache around his finger. “Now, let’s do a head count shall we? One, two, three, four- oh, oh dear, that’s not nearly quite enough to play now, is it?” He rocked on his feet, folding his arms behind his back as he squinted at them. “Ah, yes, they’ll do, they’ll do.
"My name is Mr E! And I'd like to play a very fun game with you. Today's awful weather is no fluke, my dear friends, it was simply my will. Just like this thunder! In three, two, one..."
The cabin shook with a thunderous boom, the windows rattling in their frame. Emil grabbed onto Lalli's arm.
Mr E grinned at them. "Ah, yes, such a beautiful sound, isn’t it? Now don't you worry a bit about our game being about the weather. I'm simply showing that I am no mere figure on a screen trapped in a cassette tape!" He smoothed out his shirt and slicked back his hair. "My game is a fun one involving all things magical! I see you, blondie, I know you're frowning at me as if I'm just some crazy old man." He twisted his index fingers in a circle by his ears, tilting his head and going cross-eyed with a huge grin splitting his face. "But you're wrong. I speak nothing but the truth. My game is very fun indeed, and today's lucky player is... you! Right there!" He pointed towards them, out to the right. Emil looked to see who he could possibly be pointing to, and felt his blood run cold and heart seize when he realised it was Lalli he was pointing to.
Lalli linked his fingers with Emil and squeezed tightly.
"Aww, young love, so sweet." Mr E cooed. "Such a shame it's about to come to an end. See, round one has this awful habit of changing people. For the better or for the worse, it really depends who you ask," he chuckled, "you could say that it's as though they've become someone else!" He snapped his fingers, and a curtain began to close before him.
"Now kids, this will sting a little, but the pain will go just as quickly. Think of it as though you pinched yourself, yes? That is the best way, I have heard. Thank you for watching, and I shall be with you again soon!"
The curtains fell and the screen turned black. A second later, the tape was launched from the TV.
It smacked Emil square in the face.
"Augh!" He yelled, hands clamping down over his nose. "Ouch! Why?!"
"This," Tuuri shakily said, excitement bubbling just below the surface, "is going to be great!! A mystery! Clues! A mysterious man on a TV!"
"This is not great!" Lalli hissed back. "This is magic. It's dangerous."
"So... should we tell Onni?" Reynir nervously asked. "I mean, he'll know what to do, right?"
"We are absolutely not telling my brother." Tuuri replied, standing up and brushing herself off. Outside, the rain was letting up a little. "Someone mark this spot on their phones, we'll probably have to come back here at some point. And Reynir, seriously, do not tell my brother. He’ll make us destroy this tape and demand that we never go back into the woods. We can’t tell him.”
“But Tuuri!” Reynir hissed, scrambling to his feet, “T-this- this isn’t something we can just poke at with sticks! A creepy man on a TV just told us we’re playing a game!”
Lalli was sat taught like a loaded spring, where the slightest breeze would set him off and he would explode.
“What,” Emil asked once he’d found his voice, “was that?!”
“I don’t know.” Lalli quietly whispered, his fingers digging into his calves.
It felt like he’d been stabbed in the wrist. He sucked in a harsh breath, only half aware of Emil making a strangled sound next to him, and grabbed at himself. What?! What was that about?! Shakily breathing in, he peeled back his damp sleeve.
A bright red timer stared back at him.
“It’s a timer.” Lalli breathed. “It… it’s a timer.”
Sigrun Eide loudly cursed as she dropped her knife, damn near spearing her foot with it as she jumped back and clamped her hand over her wrist.
Ow! What the fuck!?
She cautiously peeled back her sleeve, wincing at the intense burn and odd feeling of coarse fabric against sensitive flesh. Bright red numbers stared back at her, ominously counting down to… something.
“Mikkeeeelll!” She shouted, eyes glued to her wrist.
Mikkel loudly swore from the other room, followed by a loud thump as he hit something, before he nearly fell in through the doorway. He too was clutching at his wrist, and the two shared a look before carefully exposing them to each other.
“A timer.” Mikkel said, holding her forearm to get a closer look. “And yours is lower than mine.”
“So, whatever this is counting down to, it’s going to be soon?” She asked. “Eighty two hours… that’s sometime Wednesday. What’s happening on Wednesday?”
“Not that I am aware of.”
Sigrun extracted the knife from the kitchen floor. “This should be good.”