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Strays

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“We’re moving next week.  Start packing what you want to keep.”

That was all the warning I got.  I was sort of used to it though; we’d been moving every couple years or so for as long as I could remember.  I didn’t even bother asking where we were moving to.  I didn’t really have any friends to bother keeping in touch with.

I never asked why we moved either.  The answer was obvious: we moved to where the money was.  What she did to get this money, I’m not sure – don’t care – don’t want to know.  We stayed out of each other’s business.  For the most part, we stayed out of each other’s lives.

I was fourteen years old, stuffed into the passenger seat of the junky old van, clothes and junk piled around me.  She had her window rolled down, letting the frigid wind whip inside and her cigarette smoke dissipate out.  I figured this move would be like all the others; just a couple hours on the road, enough to make my long legs ache from the awkward position they were trapped in, but bearable.  But after the fifth hour, as we stopped to fill the gas tank, my curiosity got the better of me.  The scenery was no longer at all familiar.

“Where are we going?”

“Lillehammer.”

Norway??”

She grunted in response.  I eyed the cigarette dangling from her mouth as she fussed with the gas cap.

“They don’t… they speak a different language there!”

“You’ll be going to school there.  You’ll pick it up.”

I could feel my face getting hot.  She’d never cared about my education, and I’d stopped caring myself long ago.  I hadn’t been to school in years.  When I had attended classes, I’d always done poorly.  I wasn’t an idiot; I just never saw a reason to try, and certainly no one had ever forced me to.  And now I was supposed to start attending school in a foreign country whose language I didn’t speak?  I would’ve been lost even without the language barrier!

“What are you gonna do?  You can’t speak Norwegian either!”  I couldn’t hide the emotion in my voice.

Our eyes made contact ever so briefly.  She never, ever looked me in the eye.

“None of your business.  I’ll be fine.  Now get back in; we still have a few more hours to go.”

Seething with anger, I had to force myself to squeeze back into the van among the piles of shit.  Suddenly, I didn’t care about anything I’d brought along with me.  I just wanted to lock myself in a room with my guitar and let the frustration out through my fingers.  I was not willing to accept a new life of constant embarrassment.

She’d never been a great mother.  But this just seemed cruel.

* * *

I quickly discovered her solution to the language problem: a handsome young man – younger than herself, from the looks of it – who spoke both Norwegian and Swedish.  I had no idea who he was – her employer or sponsor or I didn’t care to think what – but when he wasn’t at our crappy little apartment, she was undoubtedly off with him.  I, on the other hand, was on my own.  Three days after our move, I was dropped off in front of a stone building and instructed to be back outside promptly at 3 to be picked up.  Kids of all ages rushed up the steps around me, babbling words that sounded like I should have understood them, but nevertheless held no meaning as far as I was concerned.  Unenthusiastically, I dragged myself through the entrance.

This is the stupidest thing ever, I thought to myself.  I had no direction other than a scrap of paper that supposedly explained my situation in Norwegian, to be given to… someone.  I spotted a plump old woman monitoring the morning rush and handed it to her.  Squinting both at the note and at my face, she eventually motioned for me to follow her down the hall to the headmaster’s office.  We entered, I sat, they exchanged words, and then I was left facing a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a somewhat stern expression.  He looked me in the eye and spoke.

I didn’t understand.

And I told him so, the only way I knew how.  I folded my arms and leaned back in my seat.

He repeated his question.

I wasn’t in the mood to deal with this.

“I don’t fucking understand!”

He picked up his phone and spoke into it briefly.  Then we waited in silence for a few minutes before there was a timid knock at the door.  A young woman with shoulder-length brown hair and a tasteful dress entered, exchanged a few more words with the headmaster, and then turned to face me.

“You must be the new student from Sweden?” she asked, and I was taken aback.  She had a bit of a strange accent, but I had no trouble understanding her.

“Yes…”  It was a pleasant surprise, but I wasn’t about to open up to this woman.

“I am the Swedish language instructor at this school.  Perhaps I can help you get settled.  Please call me Fru Pedersen.  And you are…?”

“Skwisgaar.”

And so began my initiation to normal life in Norway.  Fru Pedersen was to be my main instructor, teaching me Norwegian when she wasn’t leading her Swedish classes.  The intent was to “continue” my regular education as well, giving me instruction in math and science and all that other bullshit, but I made it immediately clear that I was only interested in learning language.  As far as I was concerned, it was all I needed, and as I was a burden enough as it was, they put up little fight about it.

It was strange, being back in school.  But for once I didn’t really mind.  It was actually kind of fun learning a new language, and I found it wasn’t quite as difficult as I’d thought it would be.  However, I did draw the line when they tried to get me to assist the Norwegian students in their Swedish practice.  It was one thing for me to mangle their language, but having to hear 30 kids fuck up my native tongue on a daily basis was more than cringe-worthy.

* * *

The following Saturday brought about a rare occasion: my mother and I (and Kristian, Mom’s personal “guide,” of course) were in town shopping together.  The weather here was terrible already and I needed a new coat.  So after having pestered her enough to give in, she announced that we would go out together.  She never trusted me enough to just give me money and the instruction to buy what I needed.

At this age, I wasn’t picky; whatever was long and warm enough and colored black was satisfactory, and soon enough I was able to rid my neck of the hideous striped scarf I’d been wearing all this time.  Unfortunately, Mom and Kristian weren’t done shopping as quickly as I was, so I was stuck hanging around town for the next couple hours while I waited.

For the first time, as I walked down the main street, looking into store windows, I noticed people watching me.  I couldn’t really figure out why; but I’d always turned heads wherever I went.  I didn’t think I looked particularly different from everyone else, and certainly they wouldn’t have been able to tell I was foreign just by looking at me.  I did look a bit young for my age, and I was very pale from head to toe – hair, eyes, skin.  My cheeks were still full, and I had some impressive curls in my slightly-shaggy hair.  In the past I’d been teased by other boys – the nickname I’d earned for my appearance was “cherub.”  Sure, it pissed me off, but I was pretty good at making myself oblivious to the world around me.

But here it was again – people just couldn’t pass me by without staring.  I frowned and tried to put a tough expression on my face, but soon I realized I’d walked a couple blocks and completely forgotten to check out my surroundings.  After all, I was kind of curious to see what downtown Lillehammer had to offer.

I stopped and sat down on a little metal bench in front of an old-timey grocer.  It really looked like an anachronism compared to the trendier shops further down the road, with its hanging wooden sign and jars of hard candy on display in the front window.  As I sat contemplating the display, I noticed a figure on the inside of the store doing the same.  A little kid with shaggy hair and eager eyes was leaning over the window shelf to get a closer look at the brightly-colored candies.  Noticing, the friendly store owner walked over and appeared to offer him a piece, but the scene was quickly dispersed when an old crow of a woman dressed in a habit unceremoniously yanked at the boy’s arm and gave the proprietor a fearsome glare.  A moment later, the brown-haired boy came tumbling out the door, apparently banished to wait outside until the adults were done with their shopping.

He halfheartedly brushed himself off and pretended like nothing was wrong.  I couldn’t help but stare at the kid; he looked about half my age, rather scrawny and wearing only a light jacket and shorts.  I felt a little awkward, sitting there in my new fur-lined coat as snow stuck to the boy’s bare legs.  Nevertheless, he seemed to take his situation in stride, and he sat down on the bench next to me without hesitation.  He swung his legs, sending chunks of snow flying off of his dirty sneakers.  I kept my head down, trying to look distant, but my eyes kept darting sideways to look at him.  To my surprise, he turned towards me and flashed me a big grin.

What could I do but smile back?  There was something infectious about his resilience.  But then we sat in silence for a few minutes.  I guess he was a bit more timid about speaking, and I’d only had a week of Norwegian language instruction at that point.  Out of nervous habit, my fingers needed to be doing something, so I pulled the old scarf out of my pocket and fondled it.  I then found myself holding it out to the boy.

He looked at it inquisitively, but didn’t wait long before accepting the gift.

“Takk!” he exclaimed as he wrapped it around his neck.  I grinned in response, and, without thinking, dismissed his thanks in the language I was used to.  He giggled a little.

[n] “What’s your name?” [/n]

That was something I at least understood already.

“Skwisgaar,” I responded.  “Ah… Svenske.”  I hoped this would be a sufficient explanation for my situation.

He giggled again.  “Toki,” he said, pointing to his chest.  “Norsk.”

Yes, of course.  He was certainly a funny kid.

Toki then unleashed a flow of Norwegian babble that I couldn’t dream of keeping up with, but I did a lot of nodding and grinning intermittently to be polite.  I wasn’t normally this friendly; I guess it was the combination of his enthusiasm mixed with the feeling of displacement I’d had since coming to Norway.

Our one-sided conversation was cut short when the woman in the habit, accompanied by a wrinkled man in similar religious dress, exited the grocer.  Toki immediately shut up and jumped to the ground, now wearing a solemn expression.  The old woman’s eyes dropped to the striped scarf adorning the boy’s shoulders, and Toki began to explain, pointing back at me to show where the accessory came from.  Unsure of what to do, I simply smiled as sweetly as I could and nodded once more.  At that moment I could almost feel a heat emanating from the glares both adults gave me, but they did nothing except pull Toki away and herd him off in the direction of their next destination.

Little Toki braved one last glance back in my direction and flashed me another grin before receiving a rough shove on the back to keep him moving forward.

* * *

Mom couldn’t have cared less about the weird little boy or his even stranger parents.  Hell, she hadn’t even asked me how school had been going, so I’m not sure why I even bothered to tell her about him.  “That’s nice,” she said absent-mindedly as she flipped through a magazine at the kitchen table.  I gave up and went back to my room to play with my guitar.

On the way I stopped in the bathroom to look in the mirror.  I was tall, but that was the only feature that really gave a clue to my age.  My voice hadn’t changed yet, and I still had those stupid cherub cheeks.  Fourteen years old with such a baby face; I couldn’t stand it.  I didn’t feel like I fit in with the rest of the world.  I at once felt older and younger than my age.  I hadn’t grown up like “normal” kids did; my mother wanted as little to do with me as possible (I’d never so much as heard mention of a father), I’d dropped out of school early on and I was fine spending all my time alone so long as I had the one possession I really cared about – my electric guitar.  It was kind of a no-name brand, and I only had a crappy little amp, but I was fine with that for the time being.  I spent hours in my room listening to records and tapes of hard rock and heavy metal bands, and imitating what I heard on my guitar.  My favorites were the power solos, fast and precise.  Someday I would get the money for better equipment, so I could really do it right.

The days passed rather quickly now that I had somewhere to be during the day.  Fru Pedersen seemed impressed with my progress in Norwegian, and I was pleased with myself as well.  Outwardly, I had no idea why I was so eager to learn this new language (it’s not like I ever needed to speak that much back in Sweden either), but in the back of my mind I think I was hoping to run into the kid from town again, and actually be able to understand him this time.

It’s a weird feeling, that excitement over seeing a particular person.  But I’d never really had any good friends before, and I had this feeling that he could possibly be one.

If I ever saw him again, that is.

Chapter Text

Weeks went by, and thoughts of the little kid from the grocery store began to fade.  I fell into my old anti-social habits, but I did keep up my language studies.  A number of times, the school administration tried to get me to begin studying other subjects as well, but I stubbornly refused.  The closest they got to getting their way was by giving me books of Norwegian mythology to read to help with the written language.  I guess that counted as some sort of history study.

Most weekdays I went straight home to play my guitar.  On weekends I liked to go into town and check out the record shops.  By now I could hold simple conversations in Norwegian, but when I tried to ask the gothic-looking guy running the store for some recommendations, he just laughed me off.

“I want new music.  Is it funny?” I asked, trying to sound tough.  I hoped my Norwegian wasn’t too terribly awkward.

“You wouldn’t like my music, kid,” the young man said smugly.

So I listed off all the bands I listened to, some of them rather obscure, I thought.

“And I play guitar,” I finished, folding my arms.

“Everyone plays guitar.”  The man rolled his eyes and walked over to one of the shelves, picking out a CD for me.  “Here, stop listening to power metal and get in on this.”

The album was Mayhem’s Deathcrush.

“I can’t use CDs.  Give me…” and I pointed at the vinyl section.  I had a tape player too, but records always sounded so much better.

So I bought the album, picked up a few concert fliers and left.  Now more than ever I wished I had a better guitar, a better amp and pedals.  For some reason I left the store feeling competitive.  Everyone plays guitar, he said.  I knew he was being sarcastic, but it made me mad.  Not everyone could play guitar like me.  I was good – I just hadn’t shown anyone yet.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t even hear the footsteps of someone running up behind me.

“Skwisgaar!” came a shrill voice and I finally turned around.

There was the little shaggy-haired kid, still with that huge grin and still wearing shorts in the middle of winter.  Still wearing my scarf, as though that made up for the bare legs.

“Hello Toki,” I said, embarrassed at how widely I was grinning in return.  The kid was barely eye level with my chest, and I briefly thought it stupid that I was this excited to see someone so much younger than me.  But in my experience, those my age just made fun of me and those older didn’t take me seriously, so why not?

“Are you cold?”  I couldn’t help myself; it was making me cold just looking at his knees turning purple.

“No, I have your scarf!” he said proudly, waving the end of it around.  “So, you can talk now!”

“Ah, I learn Norwegian in school.”

“Why did you come here from Sweden?”

I shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Mom wanted.”

“What did you buy?”

Toki was sure full of questions.

“Music.”  I pulled out the record from the paper bag.  Toki frowned at it and pushed it away.

“Oh, that looks bad.”

“You know this?”  It seemed unlikely that a kid as young as him would know anything about, what had that guy called it?  Black metal.  As I wasn’t particularly social in the music scene, I wasn’t familiar with all these names of subgenres.

“No… But it looks kind of… evil.”

I laughed.  “Evil?  Music isn’t evil!”

Toki shrugged his shoulders and avoided looking at the album cover.  “It looks like… Devil-music.”

I suddenly remembered the way his parents had been dressed when I saw them the first time.  Oh, the kid must be really religious.  I knew nothing about religion, except that religious people found evil in a lot of silly places.

“There is no Devil-music,” I said, putting the record away.  “Someday you can listen and you will know.  I play guitar.  It is fun, not evil!”

Toki seemed satisfied by this answer, but it was time to change the subject anyhow.

“What do you like?” I asked.  The boy’s signature grin returned to his face.

“I like to play!”

Typical childish conversation; between an actual child and one who could only speak like a child.

“I have a little toy airplane.  I found it, but I have to keep it hidden.  I play with it at night, but I have to be quiet so my parents don’t find out.”  He hushed his voice a little as he admitted this to me.  “I also have a teddy bear.”

I don’t think I could pin his quirks on his age anymore; Toki was definitely a strange kid.

“You live… where?”  I was finding it harder to speak than to understand what was being said to me in Norwegian.

Toki waved a finger vaguely behind him.  “In a little village out of town.  We walk here every few weeks to get groceries, but it’s a special thing.”

I searched my pockets for a pen and fished out the receipt from the record store.  “Write your… home name?”  I was mentally hitting myself for forgetting all the words I’d learned.  It could have been one of those words that was similar in both Norwegian and Swedish, but I couldn’t remember.  I just ended up saying “address” in Swedish anyway.

Toki scrawled a couple words onto the back of the receipt and beamed up at me as he handed it back.  “Will you come to play with me?”

“Yeah,” if I can ever figure out what the hell this says.  I smiled back.

Suddenly I noticed two dark-clad figures looming in the distance.  I swear they never called him, but Toki somehow knew they were there, and he whipped around to confirm that his parents had indeed come to find him.  He looked up at me with those wide eyes, and I then noticed that they were the same icy blue as mine.  Then he caught me off guard by wrapping his little arms around my waist and giving me a surprisingly powerful squeeze before running off, calling, “Bye, Skwisgaar!” as powdery snow kicked up all around him.  I watched them go, and then I turned and headed home myself.

* * *

That night, I listened to my new record.  It was pretty different from what I normally listened to, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It lacked the guitar solos that I loved so much, but it got me thinking about trying new things – maybe combining different styles to make a completely new sound.  Something original; something that would make me stand out.  After all, there were already people who could play exactly what I heard on records.  Maybe it was time to stop being so technical and start getting creative.

* * *

On Monday, I showed what Toki had written on the receipt to Fru Pedersen to see if she could make sense of it.

“{s} Oh, I think that’s the name of a tiny village some distance outside of Lillehammer, {/s}” she said, frowning.  “{s} I don’t know much about it, but I hear it’s kind of a backward place.  Very cut off from the rest of society. {/s}”

“{s} Is it far? {/s}”

She looked contemplative.  “{s} Well, I’d have to look up a map to be sure, but you’d definitely have to get a ride there. {/s}”

But Toki had said his family would walk to downtown Lillehammer!

Before the day was over, Fru Pedersen helped me find a local map, which I took home and showed to my mother that evening.

“{s} Can you drive me here on Saturday? {/s}” I asked, pointing to the village on the map.

My mom looked at me like I’d just asked for my own car.

“{s} Where the fuck is that? {/s}”

“{s} Just about 12 kilometers northeast of here. {/s}”

She sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes.  “{s} We’ll see.  Only if Kristian can find it. {/s}”

I knew if I bugged her enough throughout the week she would give in.  And come Saturday morning, the three of us were indeed piling into Kristian’s car (it was much nicer than Mom’s crappy van) to head off to the strange little village.

The car eventually slowed to a halt just outside the village’s entrance.  We were in the middle of nowhere.

“{s} What the hell are you going here for anyway? {/s}” Mom asked, a note of disgust in her voice.

“{s} ’See a friend, {/s}” I mumbled.  I opened the door and exited quickly.

“{s} Be back out here at 4 o’clock or you’re staying till next week. {/s}”

And with that, Mom and Kristian drove off and I was left facing the last remains of the Dark Ages.  I was suddenly very, very self-conscious.

Walking down the main street of this village for the first time was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.  I would’ve thought the place was deserted were it not for faint streams of smoke rising from the chimneys on the decrepit wooden houses.  The silence was so overwhelming I swore I could hear the snow falling.

I had no idea which house was Toki’s.  Were I not so intimidated by the air this place gave off, I would’ve just knocked on the first door and asked – it was such a small community that everyone had to know everyone else.  But my nerves got the better of me, and I just quickly walked to the end of the street and sat on the steps of the small church, waiting for someone to notice me.

I saw a pair of eyes peeking through the window curtains of the closest house, but they disappeared as soon as I looked over.  Ten minutes later, still nothing but silence.  I was beginning to think coming here was a bad idea.

The church door behind me creaked open and a black-clad figure shuffled past me without a word.  I watched as the person hurried down the road and eventually turned into one of the houses on the right.

I sighed loudly, the chill of the air as I sat stagnant starting to get to me.  Now my boredom was beginning to take over my nerves and I was just reconsidering knocking on someone’s door when I noticed a movement not far away.  The door to one of the nearby houses was opening.  Out peeked little Toki.

I expected him to come running, but instead he quietly shut the door behind him and made his way towards me at a respectful pace.  I got up to meet him halfway.

He could barely contain his smiles, but I could tell he was trying so desperately to suppress himself.  He made a slight gesture for me to follow, and we both walked in silence until we reached the edge of a forest just outside of the village.

“We have to play in here,” he finally whispered.  “We can’t be rowdy around God’s house.”

I briefly wondered if there were wild animals in the forest, but I figured it would be preferable to the creepiness of the village.

Once inside, Toki was practically bouncing off the trees.

“Wow, Skwisgaar!  I can’t believe you came!  I’ve never had a visitor before!  We’re gonna have so much fun!!”

It took me a moment to realize why I was grinning ear-to-ear as well.  No one had ever before been this excited to see me.

I put my hand on his head, and, messing up his hair, said, “We can have fun… when you catch me!”  And I broke into a sprint.  Toki squealed and gave chase, catching up to me only when I tripped over a root and landed in the snow.  Toki dove at me and the two of us wrestled until we couldn’t move from laughing so hard.  He had the cutest laugh I’ve ever heard – quick and giggly and it just made me laugh harder.

Time never passed so quickly as it did that day.  I introduced him to snowball fights and he taught me how to make snow angels.  We climbed trees (he the much better climber) and acted out some of the Norse myths I’d been reading.  I had to run back around to the front of the village so as not to miss my 4 o’clock deadline, though I secretly wished I could’ve stayed all week.  I promised him I’d return the following Saturday, since Sunday, I’d learned, was off-limits.

And so for the next several months my life was pretty orderly.  Monday through Friday I studied Norwegian at the public school, and Saturday I visited Toki.

Aside from all that, I also began attending local metal shows and writing my own music.  I was itching to join a band, and I subconsciously treated every show like a scouting mission.  Did I like their style enough to be a part of it?  Did they look like they could use a new (a better) guitarist?  I was getting pretty high off my own skill, which I still had not debuted to the world.  But there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I could floor anyone with my talent when the time came to audition.

At some point, I also realized I was finally growing up.  My voice sounded much less childish, and the cherub cheeks had given way to the same defined cheekbones that my mother had.

I was no longer just the foreign kid at school.  And girls at least were now turning their heads for a different reason.

Chapter Text

“Delusions of grandeur” was a phrase I would come to be familiar with as I got older.  As far as I was concerned, there was nothing delusional (or unjustified, for that matter) about my pride in my guitar-playing skill.  However, I’d be lying if I said my first attempt at joining a band was just as glorious as I’d always imagined.  No, I quickly discovered that most groups aren’t generally receptive to being solicited by a fifteen-year-old right after their shows, nor do they appreciate being told that their guitarist sucks.  The latter tended to result in physical fights, though I rather perfected this tactic in later years, winning myself a spot in at least four different bands this way.

I felt like I was going at this all wrong, but it didn’t stop me from trying.  The real problem, I believed, was the fact that I would never be given the chance to even play.  My break came when I began chatting up one band at a bar who had long since gotten shitfaced.  In their inebriation, of course it sounded like a hilarious idea to hand over a guitar to the “kid who talked funny.”

I was never nervous about performing.  I may as well have been born holding a guitar, it just felt so natural to me.  Needless to say, I blew their minds, and their resident guitarist was immediately demoted to rhythm while I took lead.  He quit for good only about a week later, so pissed that he had been so readily replaced.

They told me their name meant Corpsefucker Lucifer in Latin, but I had my doubts.  Regardless, I was too high off the excitement of being in my first band to care much about the details.  At our first practice, I eagerly showed them some of the things I’d written, and they were indeed impressed.

“That’s cool, yeah.  Awesome man; and you’ve never been in a band before?  Shit.”  Snorre, the frontman, sat with his arms folded and nodded his head.  “Yeah… I mean, we’re not really writing any new shit at the moment, but you know, totally keep that around.”

“Right, uhh… so what are we playing then?”

He tossed me a tape.  “We’re on tour right now, so we’re sticking to our current setlist.”

I raised an eyebrow.  On tour to them apparently meant playing random gigs at small bars around town.  But I didn’t put up much of a fuss at first as this was all new to me, so I obediently learned their eleven songs and played onstage for the first time the following Friday night.  It was exciting only because it was my debut, but otherwise it wasn’t hard to see that Corpsefucker Lucifer was never going to become a huge deal no matter how good their guitarist was.  As the weeks went on, I noted that we held coherent practice sessions even less often than we got gigs.  Beer and girls were generally blamed for the lack of progress, as both were always a prominent part of our gatherings.  For once in my life, I found myself caring a little less about the music itself and reveling in the lifestyle that apparently came with it.  Even for nobodies such as us, there never seemed to be a shortage of parties to be attending.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I quickly started to slack on my weekly visits with Toki.  Well, he was just a little kid, and for once I had friends closer to my own age.  And there were girls in my life now, too.  I almost couldn’t believe how readily girls would grind up against me or let me touch them at parties and bars.  The guitar was like an aphrodisiac – even simply mentioning that I played would get them to give me that look.  I fucking loved it.

Okay, I’ll admit that my first experience in bed wasn’t the greatest, and neither was the second.  But I think it’s worth noting that I’ve been highly praised (and rewarded) for my skilled fingers since I was sixteen years old.

* * *

After the first time I went to Toki’s village, the two of us would just meet in the forest.  He went there to play on his own anyway, so if I couldn’t make it one week, it wasn’t like he would’ve just been sitting there with nothing to do.  I did start to feel bad, however; especially if I didn’t show up two weeks in a row.  Even if I couldn’t stay all day, I still liked to try to make it out there whenever I could.  Mom was getting pissed at having to drive me all the time – though I ended up dropping out of school again not long after I began my new lifestyle, so it’s not like she had to drive me every day anymore.  I was getting along just fine in Norway and deemed myself a successful graduate of my language studies.  I went back to passing my days in my room, and evenings were reserved for hanging out with the band.

My time with the first band actually didn’t last very long in the grand scheme of things.  About two and a half months in, I grew extremely bored with playing their same stupid songs over and over again, and the other guys would get pissed with I tried to embellish my part.  But now that I had a bit of a reputation, it was a lot easier to find another band willing to take on a new guitarist, and I soon found myself a member of a thrash metal band called Zombie Viscera.  That lasted until the singer and the drummer both got arrested for illegal drug possession and couldn’t afford bail.  I didn’t feel like waiting around for them to get sorted out so I became one of Odin’s Balls.  Their music flat-out sucked, so I quit and joined Sons of Beren.

They were a new band, and I’d responded to their ad in the record shop calling for guitarists.  They described to me their ambitions in Viking and Folk metal, and they said my style would be perfect.  This was the first band I actually really liked being a part of, because for once I had a role in the music-writing process.

I was enjoying my time with this band so much that I almost didn’t realize I’d gone a month without seeing Toki.

* * *

I was almost never home anymore, but I don’t think my mother really appreciated being called on for solely to give me rides when I needed them.  After an overly dramatic display, she told me to get in the car and we were off to the little village.

“{s} Look, I have an appointment tonight, so I may or may not be here later.  You’re probably gonna have to find your own way home. {/s}”

I shrugged, not really paying attention.  “{s} Whatever. ‘Bye. {/s}”

She peeled away as soon as I’d stepped out into the snow.  It was winter again in Lillehammer, cold and white everywhere.

I walked to the forest and kicked around the clearing where we always met.  Toki wasn’t there yet, but I knew he’d come soon.  I paced as I waited, jumping up and hanging off low tree branches, stirring up the powdery snow and humming guitar solos to myself.  I shook my head after a chunk of snow fell from farther up.  My hair was getting longer, which was of course good for putting on a show onstage.  It also suited me, I thought.  Some guys looked terrible with long hair, but maintained it for their “image.”  I didn’t need to come up with an excuse; I just looked good.

I don’t know how long I waited before I decided that maybe Toki wasn’t coming.  For a while, I worried that I’d accidentally come on one of the days his family went downtown and he wasn’t even around.  I hadn’t stepped foot into the village after that first time, but I was a more confident person now, so I decided to go in and look around.  It’s not like anything would happen to me; it was just a weird little place filled with weird, quiet people.

The sky was completely overcast and it was already getting a bit dark.  Once I reached the village limits, I did start to feel self-conscious again.  What did I expect to do, look into people’s windows?  I actually wasn’t too confident I even remembered which house was Toki’s, so I just found myself retracing my footsteps from that time almost two years ago: I walked to the end of the street and sat down on the church steps.

I shivered as the falling snow slowly turned my black coat white.  Time passed, and I watched the glow of lights turning on and off from behind the curtains of various houses.  There were no streetlamps, so it became dark very quickly.  I found myself closing my eyes and nodding off a few times, despite my unlikely surroundings.  Once the sky was almost completely dark, I finally stood up.

Toki wasn’t coming.  And neither was my mom, apparently.

I cursed under my breath.  How the fuck was I supposed to get home?  I wasn’t thrilled by the thought of walking such a distance at night.  Most of the way would be along a deserted road (which was invisible at this point thanks to the snow) in the middle of nowhere and with no light.  Why did this place have to be so uninviting?

My bad mood and the darkness emboldened me.  As I headed back down the street, I walked closer to the little houses.  Every window had its curtains drawn, so no one would see me anyway.  I circled a few of the houses, noting how the wood was rotting and the roofs sagging on many.  For the most part, they all looked exactly the same.  I could see silhouettes moving behind some of the curtains, and I even dared to get up close and try to peer through the corners where the drapes ended a couple times, but I couldn’t see anything.  I was now really curious to see what the insides of these houses looked like.  Undoubtedly very unimpressive, I figured.

The outlines of little vegetable gardens showed through the snow in the backyards.  I suddenly wondered if Toki was the only kid in the entire village.  After all, no one had ever joined us in the forest, and Toki never spoke of anyone else his age.  I sneered at nothing in particular.  What a stupid place, I thought.  Why would anyone choose to live this way?

A light turned on in a window nearby, and I saw another silhouette.  The figure stayed near the window, apparently sitting on a bed or something.  I crossed into their backyard and cautiously approached the window; it was just about at eye level for me.  Just as I stood outside of it, the figure moved and suddenly the light went out.

I could feel that sense of excited uneasiness in my stomach as I quietly tapped on the glass.  I was definitely scared – this whole place had that effect on a person.  When nothing happened, I tapped again.

The curtain drew back, and I could just make out the face of little Toki.  His expression was hard to read.

I saw him whip his head around to look behind him, and then he carefully slid the window open a crack.  I could see he was struggling, so I pushed it up from the outside.  He leaned down to stick his head out the window and it was then that it became apparent that he had been crying.

“Hey,” I whispered, unsure of how safe it was to risk talking at all.

He didn’t respond.  He just began breathing heavily and unevenly, as though trying to suppress a torrent of emotion.

I put my hands up on the windowsill.  “What’s wrong?”  I practically mouthed the words.

He scrunched up his face and tears started pouring down his cheeks.  A little squeak escaped his throat but he was otherwise silent.  He looked like he was going to burst, holding all that in.

I glanced around behind me to make sure no one had come outside and then began loosening my feet from inside my boots.  I motioned with my head for Toki to move and then pulled myself up through the window and into his room, leaving my wet boots on the ground outside.  Snow still flew all over the place from my coat and hair, but I didn’t care.  We sat completely still for a moment, listening for movement elsewhere in the house.  Satisfied I’d intruded unnoticed, I gently shut the window.

“What’s wrong?” I repeated, slipping out of my coat.  We were sitting on a small, lumpy mattress in a rather bare room.  Toki just lowered his head and covered his eyes with his forearm.  In the faint light reflecting off the snow outside, I could see that his wrists were covered in dark bruises.  I took his arm in my hand to get a better look at it, careful to avoid touching the massive black spots.

“I… I got in trouble,” he finally whispered.  “They hung me by my wrists.”  His breathing began to get louder and he let out a couple more squeaks and a little cough.  I suddenly heard a creak in the floorboards from the hallway and I threw my hand on the back of his head, pulling him close to me so that his sounds would be muffled against my chest.  My heart was now racing as I stared at the closed bedroom door, wide-eyed, expecting something to happen like in a horror movie.  But after a couple more creaks, whoever was out there was clearly just passing by, so I finally let Toki go.

He sniffled.

“They hung you?” I whispered, incredulous.

“For three days.  And they hit me a lot.  And I fell down the stairs.”

“Did you really fall?”  I was guessing he’d been pushed.

“Yes.  But they were making me carry something heavy, and I lost my balance and tripped.  I fell down into the basement.”  Probably onto a stone floor.

Toki gingerly shifted his position – by the way he moved I could tell he was in a lot of pain – to show me his ankle.  That too was black and blue and had swollen to an impressive size.

“It hurts to walk."

“God, Toki…”  I was dumbfounded.  I’d known his parents had been oppressive, but I’d never seen Toki in this condition before.

“Is this… the first time this has happened?”

“No.”

We sat in silence again for a few moments.  The muscles in his face kept twitching into that crying position and his chest heaved sporadically.  I couldn’t help but be amazed at how well he kept relatively silent.

Suddenly his body swayed sideways and he hit his head on the windowsill, causing a loud thud to echo across the room.  I heard the floorboards in the hallway creak again and I suddenly panicked: Toki had fainted, but I had to hide myself!  I grabbed my coat and scrambled under the bed just in time to see the door swing open.  I threw the coat over my head, thankful that I was dressed to blend in with the shadows, and held my breath.  It seemed like an eternity before I heard the door click shut again.

I wanted to gasp for air as though I’d been drowning, but I somehow managed to slide out from under the bed and take long, controlled breaths.  I sat back down on the mattress and scooped Toki up from the awkward position he’d landed in, cradling him with one arm and waving at his face with the other.  I tried to gently shake him awake; I’d never witnessed anyone faint before and I really had no idea what to do.

His eyes were soon open and he immediately went to start crying again, putting a hand up to his head to hold the new injury.

What a fucking mess.  He looked like he’d been hit by a truck.

I leaned back against the wall and looked up at the ceiling, still holding him across my lap like a baby.  I had no idea what to do.  It was now pitch black out and I couldn’t call anyone, but we couldn’t stay here either.

I then decided to act on a spontaneous thought.  Well, it was more of a last resort.

“Get up, Toki; we’re leaving.”

He looked up at me but said nothing.  I guided him up to a sitting position and he teetered a bit, no doubt light-headed, but he didn’t fall over.  I got off the bed and searched around his room.  “Got any warmer clothes?”  He was still wearing goddamn shorts.  He shook his head.

I picked up his ratty shoes and brought them over, but quickly realized there was no way they’d fit with his swollen ankle.  So I found a pile of socks and told him to put as many pairs on as he could, but I had to help since his wrists and hands were causing him pain as well.  Then I got his jacket – far too lightweight for this weather – and that same striped scarf I’d given him two years ago.  I looked at him for a second, then wrapped the scarf around my own neck and pulled on the jacket.  It was way too small for me.  Then I held open my own coat – thick and warm with a hood and could be zipped up to the chin – and he slipped his arms into the sleeves.

I zipped him up, tied the shoelaces of his sneakers together so that they could be carried along, and opened the window.

“Anything else you want to bring?”

He leaned over and grabbed the teddy bear from his pillow.

I slipped out the window and back into my boots, which had filled partway with snow.  Toki appeared through the opening and I helped lift him out, as it was difficult for him to move.  As I shut the window behind us, I could see him leaning against the side of the house, trying to take the weight off his injured foot.

Fuck, I thought.  There’s no way he can walk all this distance like this.  But it’s not like I could carry him the whole way.

Nevertheless, I squatted down and told him to get on my back.  At least until we got out of sight of the village, we had to move quickly, and this was pretty much the only option.

Nine-year-olds are surprisingly heavy, and I certainly had no muscles to speak of.  I honestly don’t even remember most of the journey, as it was probably as agonizing for me as it was for him.  All I remember is that it was the longest night of my life, and it took hours longer than it would have had everyone been healthy and the road not buried in snow.

It was still dark when we finally reached my house.  My fingers were blue by that point and I could barely maneuver the key into the lock.  We tumbled inside, threw off our wet coats and footwear and passed out on my bed.  We slept through the entire next day, through the following night and didn’t get up until Monday.

We looked at each other from opposite ends of the bed and both saw the same thing: fucked up hair, puffy eyes and red noses.  We both had monstrous colds and we looked and felt like shit.  But then we started giggling, and it turned into laughter because we were such a ridiculous sight.

It suddenly felt like old times again, and for a while at least we were able to forget what had brought us here in the first place.

Chapter Text

“Skwisgaar!”

My mother’s scathing voice finally awakened me from a comfortable sleep.  I couldn’t bear to move just yet.

“{s} Skwisgaar!  Phone! {/s}”

I dragged myself out of bed and cursed when my feet touched the cold floor.  Toki was still buried under the blankets at the opposite end of the bed, fast asleep.

Once in the kitchen, I was greeted by a fearsome scowl.

“{s} What is this shit you’ve left all over the floor?  It’s been sitting here for two days while your lazy ass has been sleeping- {/s}”

I grabbed the phone from her without a word, ignoring her rant.

“Hello?”

“Elros!”

“Dior?  What’s up.”

Dior was the vocalist, rhythm guitarist and miscellaneous-instrumentalist for the Sons of Beren.  We all had stage names…  Not my favorite gimmick, but he and Eluréd and Elurín – two brothers from Finland who were here for their studies – were all into that shit.  I don’t even remember their real names, actually.  The three of them were kind of geeky but they were organized, and we had a good thing going with our band.

“Missed you at practice yesterday!  You doing okay?”

“Oh, yeah.  Sorry, I’m sick.”

“Sorry to hear that, man.  No pressure or anything, but do you think you’ll be able better in time for Thursday’s gig?”

“Ahh… yeah, probably.  I’ll let you know.  I can probably still come over Wednesday anyway.”

“All right, cool.  See you then.”

My mother was still glaring at me when I hung up the phone.

“{s} I’ll pick it up!  Christ. {/s}”

She watched as I gathered up the coats and scarves and shoes from the floor.

“{s} And who the hell has been sleeping with you these past two days? {/s}”

My face flushed with anger and embarrassment but I wasn’t about to take that shit.  She had that look in her eye that told me she was just trying to get at my nerves.

“{s} Ha.  Funny.  Like you’re a stranger to having guests in your bed. {/s}”

I took off for my room before she had a chance to unleash her wrath.  As I shut the door behind me, Toki sat up and rubbed his eyes, his hair sticking out all over the place.  He smiled sleepily.

“Your bed is so comfortable,” he said, flopping back down and hugging the comforter.  I suddenly felt awkward thanks to my mom’s stupid remark.

“Uhh, how’s your foot?”

Toki wiggled around until he’d freed himself from the mess of blankets and peered at his injured ankle.  The swelling had gone down considerably, but there were still obvious signs of the ugly bruises there and elsewhere on his body.  He touched it and winced.

“It still hurts.”

I rummaged through my closet and pulled out a few things from the very back.  Old clothes that I never wore, that no longer fit.  I tossed them at Toki.

“You need to stop wearing shorts and t-shirts in the middle of winter.”  I briefly felt a little guilty, since that was obviously all he was ever given, but I felt like it was more a jab at his asshole parents even though they weren’t around to hear it.

But Toki didn’t take offense to it.  He was beaming as always, as though nothing terrible had ever happened to him in his life.  Which was nagging at me… I didn’t like my mom, and she wasn’t exactly winning any awards for her parenting, but she’d never once laid a hand on me.  Toki was always friendly, cheerful, looked the type to offer to do the dishes out of the goodness of his heart.  I had no desire to start a family of my own in the future, but I just couldn’t see how any parent could be so angry at a kid like Toki to want to beat him unconscious.

I didn’t want to kill the mood, but I didn’t like secrets looming over my head.

“Why…  Um, what got you in so much trouble in the first place?”

Toki pulled his head through a long-sleeved shirt that was slightly too big for him and avoided eye contact.

“They found that book of myths you gave me.”

It took me a good minute to process my thoughts.

I’d been telling Toki stories of Norse mythology, about the gods and warriors, of Valhalla and Helheim, and Ragnarök.  I wouldn’t admit it, but I thought it was really interesting, and I’d learned it all from that book I’d been given at school.  Toki was fascinated by the stories.  Since I’d read through the book enough times to know them all by heart, I gave it to Toki.  This was a few months ago.

Owning this book was apparently punishable… by torture?

“They said it was blasphemous and that people who delighted in such things would go to hell.”

“Am I going to hell, then?”

Toki looked conflicted.  “I mean… You’re my friend, and you’re not bad… but the Bible says…”

The muscles in his face were twitching again.  I held up my hand.

“Wait.  Stop repeating what your parents say.  They don’t always know what’s right.  Do you think you deserved to be shackled to a wall and beaten?  Think for yourself about it.”

I stood up and started to gather some things to go to the shower.

“You don’t have to figure it out right away either.”

* * *

The subject didn’t come up again, and for that I was glad.  I didn’t want to play mind games with anyone even though I had my own opinions on the matter.  I really did just want him to think about it for himself.

Wednesday soon arrived, and the Finn brothers came as usual to pick me up to go to Dior’s house.  Of course, Toki tagged along.  He was okay just limping a little now, and the brothers had a car anyway.  I had a feeling they weren’t too bad off financially, since they owned a car in a country in which they were basically studying abroad.

Then came the fun question of how to explain the kid.  The last thing I wanted to do was tell the truth, since “my nine-year-old friend is living with me now” isn’t something that goes over well unexplained.  And we looked nothing alike, so Toki became my long lost cousin.  This seemed satisfactory to both Eluréd and Elurín; they were good guys, so they didn’t have a problem with having a guest at practice.  Dior, too, was easygoing.

We practiced in Dior’s basement, lightly furnished.  He came from a very musical family, so he already had a drum kit and lots of different instruments set up down there.  I always brought my own guitar, though I enviously eyed his father’s Les Paul, displayed proudly on a wall rack.  We’d been making some modest profit as a band, and I’d been saving up for a better guitar, but I still had a long way to go.  I’d purchased some nice accessories in the meantime anyway.

Toki was very curious about all the “toys” in Dior’s basement, and Dior was all too happy to show off his musical knowledge.  The brothers and I spent the first half hour of practice plucking around with our own instruments while Dior demonstrated a couple notes on everything from panpipes to hand bells.

Toki lit up when they got to the keyboard.  “I can play that,” he said, and I looked up at him.

“Since when?”  He’d never mentioned being able to play an instrument before.

“Umm… since always, I guess.  I had to take lessons from the organist at church.”

Dior, of course, was delighted, and wanted Toki to show what he could do.  I could see the gears turning in Dior’s mind as Toki played what was obviously a hymn – could the Sons of Beren use a keyboardist?  Teach him some folk songs, and –

I laughed to myself at the idea.  Well, no time to discuss such things right now anyway; we had a gig the next night and some practicing to get to.  I could see that Toki was very impressed as he sat and listened.  Even more so at the show the following night, what with a crowd to clap and cheer for us.  I’d look over at him on the side of the stage and he’d be watching with such reverence or enchantment in his eyes, like he’d never – well, he hadn’t – witnessed anything so amazing in his life before.  He was just bubbling over with excitement after the show.

“Wow, Skwisgaar, that was so cool!  You play so well!”  If it weren’t for his ankle he probably would’ve jumped on me like a dog.  All I could do was grin back at him.  I had a groupie.  I had someone to personally show off to.  It felt awesome.

* * *

It was a rare event to have two gigs two weeks in a row, but the one scheduled for the following Friday night was something special.  It was at a larger venue than we’d ever played before – a nice club, where the music was the main event as opposed to the beer – and we were opening for a band that a decent reputation around much of Norway and parts of Sweden.  Dior was proving to be a pretty competent manager for the Sons of Beren.  We were going to have a huge audience that night.  This was going to be the beginning of much bigger things to come.

“Guys, this is gonna be fucking awesome,” said our frontman backstage, giving a brief pep talk.  “We’re gonna fucking rock this place, and it’s only gonna go up from here.  Just do what you guys do best – give these people some fucking metal!”

The four of us were completely high off of what we all considered would be our big break.  We strode onstage with total confidence, and, as far as I was concerned, played our opening song better than we’d ever done before.  The crowd was a little sparse at first, most people being there to see the main act, but we quickly pulled them away from the bar and out to the floor with our performance.  Toki was housed safely in a little box seat off to the side so that he could see the show from the front but not get crushed by the mosh pits.

The feeling of playing your first relatively major show to such welcome reception is indescribable.  It’s better than drugs.  Better than sex, even.  At that moment, I felt like I was truly famous.  And we were at the height of our performance – all four of us were extremely talented, and we were proving so without a doubt that night.

I never paid much attention to the audience anyway when I played, since I was always too wrapped up in what I was doing, but the bright stage lights we had at this place made it impossible to see past the first couple rows.  Either way, I didn’t notice them until they were already in Toki’s box.  Two black figures loomed over the kid and grabbed his arms.  He looked over at me, eyes wider than I’d ever seen them, pleading.  I could see he was screaming in protest, but the music and the crowd drowned him out.

My heart didn’t just skip a beat; it stopped.

Dior whipped his head around as I faltered for the first time ever during a performance.  But my fingers played on of their own accord, and I recovered perfectly like a machine.  The mistake had gone largely unnoticed.

As my hands continued to follow their rote movements, my mind exploded.  How the fuck did they find us?  How the fuck did they get in here??  What the fuck do I do?!  I felt absolutely sick to my stomach all of a sudden.  I had a very, very difficult dilemma facing me: do I throw down my guitar and ruin my band’s most important concert yet – one that was certain to propel us out of complete obscurity and into a bigger circuit?  Or do I leave my friend to be dragged back into the hell I’d brought him out of, no doubt to face worse horrors than ever, for the sake of my own fame?  Music?  Or Toki’s life?

The others had no idea what was going on, and they certainly weren’t slowing down anytime soon.  I plowed through my solo and Elurín had to speed up his percussion tempo to keep up.  The song ended and segued immediately into the next on the list.  I panicked.  I felt nauseous.  I was terrified.

I chose the music.

I just couldn’t stop.  I hated myself for every second that ticked by that I remained on the stage, but I was too afraid to sabotage myself and my bandmates so publicly.  Or maybe I was just too afraid to face the wrath of these demons up front. 

Dior threw a couple glares in my direction, as my playing was getting sloppy.  My fingers couldn’t hold their own without a brain behind them forever.  To my dismay, after this song ended, the next one began without hesitation either.  The room around me was starting to spin and I felt like my guitar would slip out of my hands at any point, I was becoming so unbearably anxious.  Finally, as our fourth song ended, the music paused so Dior could address the roaring crowd.

I ripped the guitar off over my head and practically threw it to the ground.  The others looked at me in shock and I answered only with, “We’re done,” as I tore off the stage and across the room.  I could hear Dior covering as best he could, thanking the audience and hyping them up for the next band as I flew out of the club.

The sky was dark, and snow was falling thick all around.  I wasn’t familiar with the area, so I couldn’t tell which direction led back towards Toki’s village.  There were no outstanding sets of footprints, as the snow on the ground there had all been trampled by the concert-goers.  I grabbed at the roots of my hair in frustration.

I had no idea where to start other than by calling Toki’s name.  My voice seemed to be swallowed by the darkness beyond the streetlamps.  I scrambled a short distance in one direction and then another, never finding any clues as to which way they’d gone, and I never once heard a response to my calls.  I was far, far too late.

Eluréd and Elurín met me as I trudged back towards the club.  We faced each other down in silence for a moment.  I could tell they were pissed, but they seemed to know that something was obviously very wrong.

“Toki’s been kidnapped,” I finally blurted out.  “His parents are abusive; that’s why he was living with me.  I don’t know how the fuck they found us here, but they took him away!”  I could feel my voice starting to sound frantic, but I wasn’t the type to lose myself in front of an audience.

The brothers looked at each other uncertainly.

“Can you drive me somewhere?”  I sounded like I was practically begging.

“Y-yeah,” replied Eluréd.  “The car’s in the back.”  He gestured for me to follow.  Elurín stayed behind to fill in Dior on the situation so he wouldn’t be left even more confused and angry than he most likely already was.

Once we drove to a more familiar part of town, I directed Eluréd to Toki’s village.  I figured we should have passed them along the way at some point, and I grew ever more anxious when we saw neither Toki’s family or their footprints on the road.  Nevertheless, we continued on till we reached the edge of the quiet village.  I jumped out of the car and ran up to the little house from which I’d rescued Toki not two weeks before.  Any inhibitions I’d had in this place before were now gone; I pounded on the door furiously.  I could see a few lights come on in other houses nearby in response, but nothing stirred from within Toki’s house.  I then tried the doorknob – locked – pounded harder with my fists and my shoulder, as if trying to break it down.  Adrenaline pumped through my veins as the anger burned like acid in my stomach.

If they weren’t here, then where did they go??

My head whipped around toward the church at the end of the street.  In the back of my mind, I knew they weren’t there either – there were no tracks whatsoever in the powdery snow that covered the ground – but I was no longer thinking rationally.  I kicked at the door and snow billowed down from the awning above me.  Shaking the handles, growling, my body finally began to slow down as I came to accept that this whole display was useless.  I backed down the steps, fiercely glaring at the building as though it were a rival in a fight.  The nastiest insults I could dredge up in both Norwegian and Swedish were racing through my mind.  Fuck you!  Fuck your religion!  Fuck your God!  But as I reached down to scoop up some snow and hurl it at the church, the words disintegrated into a battle cry that strained my throat in the dry air.  And my would-be weapon burst as it left my hand – the fresh snow too powdery to stick together – never reaching its target.

I finally turned to find my bandmate standing a few yards away from me, hugging himself from the cold.  Exhaust from the running car glowed in its headlights back at the other end of the street.

“Come on,” he finally said, and I followed without a word.

Alone in my own bedroom, later that night, I cried a little bit.  Not for very long, but it was something.  When I was finally able to fall asleep, I dreamt that Toki was dead.  It wasn’t an explicit nightmare; just that the kid was gone forever and life went on.  Nothing was really different.

When I awoke, that’s what it felt like, too.  The floor was as fucking cold as it had always been, my mom was a bitch as usual, and I sat on my bed and plucked at my guitar as though this day was the same as any other.

The only hint that anything was out of the ordinary was that I had a strange feeling in my gut all day.  It didn’t go away the next day, or the day after.  I had always been a fairly quiet person, keeping to myself and mostly speaking only when spoken to.  But now I felt easily provoked, and every little sarcastic comment or snide glance in my direction sent the fire in my belly shooting upwards, and I reacted with hostility.

This proved not only to be a problem whenever my mom was around, but also during band practice.

Chapter Text

I lit the end of the joint and sucked in the burning smoke, letting it sit in my lungs until I choked. It still made me cough like crazy, but it didn’t matter, since there was no one there to witness my inexperience. From the record player across the room, Maniac’s voice shrieked incoherently over a collision of guitars and percussion. I leaned back on my pillow and stared up at the stains on the ceiling. I’d since purchased a number of other black metal albums, but Deathcrush was still my favorite. I let the rhythm of the music pound into my ears as the high washed over my body. I found this music to be relaxing in its ferocity.

It felt like only seconds later, but judging by what song was now playing it had been at least a few minutes, when my door slammed open and my mom was glaring daggers at me. She was wearing only a light bathrobe.

“{s} Turn your goddamn music down. I can hear it everywhere in the fucking house, {/s}” she spit through her teeth.

“{s} Sorry, I was just trying to drown out the sound of you fucking everywhere in the goddamn house, {/s}” I shot back at her.

Then she noticed the smell lingering in the room.

“{s} Are you stealing my fucking weed? {/s}” she practically squealed and grabbed the little bag sitting on top of my dresser.

“{s} You can’t prove it. {/s}”

“{s} The hell I can’t! This is mine and I know it! You better pay me for this, you little shit. {/s}”

The drugs had left me a little less eager than usual to fight, so I just reached into my pocket and pulled a couple bills from my wallet and threw them at her.

“{s} There. Now I’m like one of your customers, too. {/s}”

I knew the only reason she didn’t fight further was because her “guest” was still in her bedroom, waiting (whether or not he was indeed a customer, I didn’t actually know). She grabbed the money – not nearly what the stolen drugs were worth – and gave me a lame smack on the head. Then she slammed the door shut so hard it caused the record to skip. I let it play out till the side was done, then snuffed out the joint and headed out of the house. It was all just in preparation for a party that night anyway.

The Sons of Beren had kind of withered and died after the incident at the concert. The other guys were certainly sympathetic, but my attitude had changed so drastically that Dior and the brothers grew frustrated with me. I’m sure they were also bitter that I’d basically ruined our chance at making a big impression at our first important show. Regardless, the band’s fate was sealed when Eluréd and Elurín got a call saying some close relative had taken ill, and they both had to go back to Finland. I was out of a band for the first time in quite a while, and I almost didn’t care.

I’d lost some motivation at this point. I still plucked around with my guitar a lot, but I went several weeks without actively looking for a new gig to join. The money I’d been saving to buy a new guitar gradually dwindled as bars don’t hand out drinks for free, and hanging out in places well-stocked with alcohol seemed to be the only social pastime anyone around here could think of to do.

Tonight’s party, however, was at someone’s house. This meant free, watery beer and plenty of hallucinogens to share, but also, most likely, disgusting sofas and bathrooms. People with nice houses never throw parties.

It was already getting hot inside by the time I arrived – too many bodies in too small a space, lighters flaring every few minutes and smoke billowing from mouths everywhere. This was going to give me a headache. I grabbed the first cold drink I could find and joined some familiar faces playing cards on a coffee table. A girl with long black hair was sitting on one end of a couch, watching the game with little interest. Looked like I’d found my entertainment for the night.

The best thing about parties like this, was that suddenly everyone was your best friend. You come in empty-handed and broke, and you leave drunk and high with a pack of cigarettes in your pocket. On luckier nights, you leave with your belt a little looser as well. Black-haired goth girl just so happened to be bored and alone.

Most people will leave you alone if they see that you’re busy, but not everyone thinks so clearly with their sixth drink in hand. I opened a suspicious eye to be greeted by a tall guy clad entirely in black and sporting a rather unnecessary amount of silver accessories standing over us.

“Heyyy,” he bellowed with a gravelly voice. His expression was difficult to read; either he wanted to fight or join in. “Didn’t you used to play in that faggy elf band?”

I eased a little distance in between myself and the girl, who tried to make herself look distracted.

“That’s the one…” I responded coolly. I hoped he wouldn’t stick around long enough to kill the mood I'd had going.

“Waste of talent, playing with those fags.”

“I'm sorry you’re so personally disappointed in my life choices.”

“I'm just saying you could do better. Go farther, if you were with the right group.”

“Are you really concerned about me, or are you just trying to get me to join your band? I suppose I should be flattered that you consider me the key to propelling you to fame.”

He looked pissed, but only because it was obviously true.

“Someone’s got a pretty good ego considering his last band went absolutely nowhere and he hasn’t been onstage in months.”

“Well I’ve never even seen you before, so where the fuck do you get off preaching down to me?”

The guy took a swig of his beer and gave me a disgustingly smug look.

“My band and I are from Oslo. We don’t bother to come to shitty little places like this very often.”

I rolled my eyes. By now, my hook-up had completely lost interest, so I was pissed for more than one reason.

“One: where you’re from isn’t going to help how shitty your band is. Two: that still doesn’t change the fact that I’m apparently of some interest in Oslo, yet who the fuck are you?

“My name is Espen, founder and vocalist of the black metal band Final Torment,” he said, glaring.

I said nothing but made a gesure to those around us who had begun to listen in. Everyone shrugged apathetically.

“Cool. We’re all really impressed. Could you hand me another beer?” I nodded towards the cooler behind him.

Espen met this with his own brand of stubbornness. To my surprise, he actually went and pulled out a bottle, opened it, and handed it to me. Then he took something out of his pocket and tossed it in my lap. That smug, overconfident expression never left his face - as though he had the upper hand in this battle.

“Feel free to remain in obscurity, if that’s what you'd really like. I’m sure there will never be a shortage of trashy parties to attend,” he said as he walked away. I looked at the little box on my lap - Final Torment’s demo tape. I didn’t even have to open it to know there would be a phone number scribbled inside. This was getting weird; he was going through a lot of trouble just to try to get me to join their band. How did he even know I liked black metal? As he’d said, my last act was a “faggy elf band” - I couldn't see how he thought my specific talents would be any special asset to playing black metal.

Whatever, I thought. Espen was gone, and so was my hook-up. Cockblocked for the night, I turned my attentions to the nasty beer and the card game nearby, hoping one of them would make this party at least somewhat worth my time.

* * *

I didn’t bother listening to the demo tape at first; in fact, I almost forgot about it. When it fell off my dresser a week later as I was rummaging through the drawers, I finally decided to put it in the tape player for some laughs.

Unfortunately, I found myself really, really enjoying it. Even the guitar part was clean – what the hell did they need a new guitarist for? I lounged on my bed and listened to the entire demo, musing over everything. I was getting more and more into this kind of music as of late, and here was a damn good band practically begging me to join them. But their leader was a complete asshole, and joining would mean I’d have to contend with him all the time. Furthermore, they were based about three hours away from where I lived. I sat up and began picking at my guitar, as was my usual response to such inner conflicts. I mimicked some of the things I’d just heard on the tape. Completely different from the wild licks of the Viking metal I’d recently specialized in, but heavy and fierce and… passionate, nonetheless.

That’s the thing that separates talented musicians from successful musicians. A guy could learn all the notes and play them with inhuman precision, but if it means nothing to him – if his instrument isn’t screaming and bleeding and weeping his passions aloud, if he’s not stripping himself down and unleashing every corner of his soul – then it doesn’t mean a fucking thing. You can hear it. Not everyone knows what it is they’re hearing, but they can tell when something’s different.

Something was suddenly different again for me. For months, I’d had so many things running through my head, and they were just sitting there, trapped. That day, I finally started letting them out through my fingers again.

* * *

I still wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do, however. I listened to Espen’s tape a few more times, but I didn’t call the number he’d given me. There had to be other opportunities, and probably better ones at that. In the meantime, a number of us would often get together just to play music – not in the interest of forming a band, but for our own sakes. It was a good way for me to ease back into the lifestyle I wanted.

Largely, the days were still boring. It had been unusually hot lately, which made the boredom even less bearable. Sitting around with no company but your own thoughts, or perhaps a companion who’s stoned out of his mind, sweating, stale music blaring from a cheap stereo – makes for a situation in which stupid – or at least unlikely – ideas seem like good ones. And it’s never an arguable excuse – “Why the hell would you ever do that?” someone will ask you. I don’t know; because I was bored. This answer never fails to satisfy.

It’s my answer to why I dyed my hair black, anyway. Same for why I started sticking needles into my skin and threading silver rings through it. It was something to amuse me for a little while; something to break up the monotony.

The piercings had come first. Then on another hot, boring night, I mixed some foul-smelling chemicals and started working them through my long hair. I piled the sticky locks on top of my head as I waited for the dye to take hold, then went to tend to my newest piercings. I touched the ring that ran through my right nipple and winced; this one had hurt a lot more than its brother. As I gently swabbed salt water around the wound, I heard a snicker from the hall outside the bathroom.

My mom was watching me, leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. Her eyes were completely bloodshot and she had the stupidest sneer on her face.

“{s} This is so cute. I should get my camera. My little girl’s getting all dressed up with her makeup and jewelry – have a date tonight? {/s}”

I felt my face getting hot. No one’s insults ever hit me as hard as hers. I tried to ignore her and continued concentrating on what I was doing.

“{s} You can borrow one of my skirts if you want. Just, take it off if you’re gonna get all hot and heavy; I don’t want your boyfriend’s stains all over my stuff. {/s}” She threw her head back and cackled at her own joke.

“{s} Fuck off! {/s}” I yelled, still refusing to look at her.

“{s} I’m actually really happy about this. I always wished I’d had a girl instead. {/s}”

I finally turned to face her.

“{s} Well why didn’t you just try again if you wanted a girl so much? {/s}” Our glares met with equal ferocity.

“{s} Because I never actually wanted any kids in the first place! {/s}”

I knew this.

She’d never said it before now, but I’d always known it.

Nevertheless, finally hearing it spoken aloud caused all retorts to die on my tongue. I had no witty comeback, no sharp insult to throw back in her direction. There was a moment’s short hesitation, before –

“Fuck you.”

And I slammed the door closed.

* * *

At one of our next jam sessions, someone came in more excited than usual. He’d just come back from a trip to Oslo and apparently had something to show us. He pulled out a CD and handed it to me. I squinted at the terribly grainy photo on the cover – apparently taken from a few rows back from the stage at a live show.

“Wait, what the…”

“It’s a bootleg! Of your band!” he said, simultaneously voicing my realization.

The Sons of Beren, live. Our last performance… I flipped the case over, and there were indeed only four tracks listed – all we’d had a chance to play before I’d run out on everyone.

“You can keep that if you want. I found it at a new record shop in Oslo. That was a surprise, huh! It actually seemed kind of out of place there; they had mostly darker stuff, and the guys who ran the store were kind of creeps, but eh.”

So… this must have been how Espen had heard of me. I nearly had to force my mind to block out the flood of thoughts that suddenly washed over me. The existence of a bootleg proved that we really had been on the road to greater things with our band – we’d had fans, people had wanted more. And now I was broke and irrelevant. The numbness I’d built up over the whole thing was breaking down. A pang of loss suddenly hit me in the chest.

My eyes trailed off to the side, past the boundary of the photo to where Toki would have been sitting. Guilt rose up from my stomach to accompany the loss, and the two mingled for a while. Toki was dead; I’d convinced myself of it. This was my only consolation anyway – for if he was dead, no one could hurt him anymore. I pictured him with angel wings.

Passion took the form of anger, and so anger went into my music. I had much to be angry about. But perhaps unfortunately, music itself wasn’t quite enough to quench the need to let out my emotions. I went on to do a few things that I can’t say I’m entirely proud of.

* * *

When music wasn’t enough to distract me, I turned to drugs. When those wore off, I turned to sex. What better way to spend my days than by deafening myself with loud noise, smoking my mind to another dimension, and then pleasuring myself to exhaustion? Time passed and I barely took notice. If I ever stopped to think about it – which I tried not to make a habit of – it almost made death seem like a simpler solution. I had friends but they were disposable; I felt good but I wasn’t satisfied.

Home life had become unbearable. Mom and I hadn’t spoken a word to each other in almost two weeks, and I was wondering which of us would snap first and strangle the other to death. Everything we did, we did it to piss the other off. Someone was going to break eventually.

My new game was to bring girls home and fuck them so loudly that the neighbors could probably hear. I encouraged them to moan, scream and yell as loud as they could. The bedframe beat rhythms into the wall shamelessly. I only did this when I knew my mom would be home.

One night I had a virgin in my bed. She was a little nervous; I assured her everything would be fine. I didn’t really want to hurt her, but she was tight and I was impatient. She was the loudest. As she screamed and cried, she tried to muffle her sounds into the pillow in embarrassment, but I moved her head away and told her I wanted her to let it out. Be louder. Let me hear you.

She never told me to stop, but I wonder how intimidated she must have been.

After the girl left, I went to the kitchen to get something to drink. My mother was standing next to the table, hands gripping the back of a chair, her arms twitching and shaking ever so slightly. She looked me dead in the eyes.

“{s} Get the fuck out of my house, {/s}” she said quietly, her words dripping with venom. “{s} I don’t need to relive this shit all over again. {/s}”

Without a word, I packed up my things and set out for Oslo.

* * * * * * * * *

Time continued to pass in a dreamlike manner. Weeks and months went by and I hardly noticed. I did indeed join Final Torment. Upon my arrival in Oslo, I dialed the number on the inside of their demo tape and Espen’s roommate came to pick me up from the station. He was also the bassist for their band; a quiet guy named Tomas who gave off an unsettling air. Having nowhere else to go, I ended up taking up residence on the couch in their apartment.

I soon discovered I was somewhat of a minor local legend around there, thanks to that bootleg album. The mystery surrounding the sudden dissolution of the Sons of Beren probably helped, as a legend can’t form out of something that still exists. One amazing, albeit short, performance, and then gone forever. People eat that sort of shit up.

What was strange was that Espen’s crowd generally agreed as well that Elros was an incredible guitarist, even if they hated the music itself. The suspicion that they only wanted me for my fame never died away, especially when Espen tried to convince me to continue using my old stage name.

“Fuck that,” I scoffed. “Do you even know where those names came from?” Elros was not fit to play in a black metal band.

“But who the fuck knows who Skwisgaar Skwigelf is?” Espen goaded. He was looking irritatingly smug as usual.

“Who cares? This is completely different. I’m not gonna let you just ride on my name like that. And do you really want to associate your dark and bloody band with some faggy elves?”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like a good argument. But the fights I had with Espen took all the sport out of it. More often than not, they were vicious and exhausting, mainly because neither one of us ever wanted to be the one to give in. And they never, ever stopped. As soon as I joined Final Torment – their previous guitarist, I’d found, had committed suicide – the band took off. We were not far behind the other main acts in the early Norwegian black metal scene. And even though our music was quickly accepted and praised among those in our “culture,” I could never get a break from the endless clashing with our band’s frontman. There was nothing pleasant about it, and there was no denying it – we absolutely hated each other.

I never really felt like I fit in with any of their crowd. Obviously, there were aspects of black metal that spoke to me – the music itself, the way it made me feel – it was personal. But my relationship with it was different from the way the others took it. It was a religious experience for some, and a very strong one at that. I might call it spiritual at best, but only in the way a stoner considers getting high “spiritual.” I would hang out with these guys, and I felt like I just didn’t exist. I had nothing to say; nothing to contribute to their deep theories on life and existence. Not that this was all they did, but it was enough to keep me feeling separated from the group.

My passion was for the music itself; beyond that, there was no meaning.

* * *

I cringe to think how weak I was at this point in my life. Most of it is a blur; perhaps I blocked it out, perhaps my body was so abused that the memories were actually destroyed. All I remember is that suddenly I was eighteen and I found myself holding the shovel to dig my own grave.

I barely spoke. I had nothing to say and no one who’d listen. My guitar was my only voice, just as it had been when I was younger.

There were no chains binding me, and the door was wide open, but I was trapped. Instead of my mom, I had Espen. He controlled the band; managed our expenses and profits. But he was selfish and stupid. I saw almost none of the money myself. There were often more drugs than food in the apartment, and I consumed whatever was available. But one is not a replacement for the other.

Had I been more consistently conscious, I might have taken earlier notice of some of the things I started to hear the others talking about. They were angry, they had a vendetta, something about a Crusade. Fire. Blood and vengeance.

They were being unusually secretive. I was finally getting scared.

I was sitting in the living room of the apartment; a couple guys were over – the ones who took this “lifestyle” less seriously than the others. As always, there was nothing to do but trash our minds. At this point, I’d stopped paying attention to what I put into my body. If it shut down my thoughts; made dreams take over and lifted my weight off the ground – great. The details didn’t matter.

But with this sort of carelessness runs the risk of getting terrible results. Maybe my body had had enough. Maybe this batch had been tainted. Something that night made me lose rational control.

It started with anxiety. I couldn’t sit still. I got up and paced around the small apartment, opening every door and cupboard, not quite sure what I was looking for. I was aware of every fleck of dust that landed on my skin, and it began to feel like bugs crawling all over me. I ran my fingers through my hair frantically – I had to comb out every tangle, it had to be straight. The folds in my clothes worried me; parasites could be hiding and culturing in every nook.

“Dude, calm down,” came a lazy drawl over on the couch. My eyes saw a figure melting, sliding down the cushions and into a puddle on the floor.

“What time is it?” I asked, suddenly frantic.

“Nine… nine forty-five?”

“I have to go!” I was late for something; I was missing an appointment. There was a show tonight, wasn’t there?

I grabbed my guitar case and slung it over my back.

“What the fuck, man, there’s nothing going on tonight.”

“Don’t try to trick me!” I stumbled over a footstool and found a coat nearby. Grabbing it, I scrambled to my feet and ran out the door. I heard laughter die behind me as I threw it shut and struggled down the stairs. The cold air hit me like a brick and caused my throat to close up. I gasped for air as I clumsily figured out how to put the coat on. Then I picked up my guitar and started walking.

I ran for a bit, suddenly paranoid that something was after me. The crunch of my footsteps in the snow echoed in my ears and made me all the more fearful. Every shadow cast by streetlamps jumped and danced and it was exhausting trying to avoid running into them all. The biggest jolt was looking up and seeing the moon but inches away from my face.

I wanted to cry like a little kid, but I felt like I’d forgotten how. If I cried, wouldn’t someone come and comfort me? Pick me up and hold me and tell me everything would be okay, but… when had this last happened? Had it ever happened to me?

The ground started to move; it rolled in waves and it was difficult to stand. The motion made me sick, but there was nothing but bile in my stomach. I walked, I crawled, I had to keep moving… I had no idea where I was, how long I’d been out or how far I’d gone. The hellish sights never dwindled; the fear and anxiety never left me. It was only when my body refused to go further that I stopped. Crashing into the side of a building, I slid down and lost consciousness.

* * *

A warm breath on my face and a light pressure on my shoulder awakened me. I instantly felt the ache of my muscles, contorted and pinned in the awkward positions I’d fallen in. Vertigo greeted me when I opened my eyes, sending nausea down to my stomach once more. I could tell that it was still dark out. Was it the same night? My surroundings, once my eyes began to focus, looked dilapidated, abandoned. There was a body near mine.

“S…” A breathy hesitation reached my ears. “Skwisgaar?”

I pushed myself up on one arm and looked up. My breath caught in my throat.

“Skwisgaar?” The voice repeated, and I cringed. I still felt the drugs swimming in my head. The ground beneath me still pulsated a little, I was still too aware of every sensation around me. And now – fuck.

“I… Fuck. Fuck! I killed you! I’m sorry! I know it’s not enough–” I fell back down and cowered away from this apparition. I was being haunted by my guilt. Well, I deserved it, anyway.

“Skwisgaar–” The voice was breaking, wavering, on the brink of being overtaken by emotion. But not by anger.

I chanced another look. There were no angel wings.

“Are you real?” I asked, so quietly I could barely hear myself. I inched – I floated – back up to a sitting position, willing my eyes to focus and my mind to clear.

A grin amidst tears. A weight suddenly against my chest, limbs grabbing, pulling the back of my neck forward, a heart beating next to mine. My body trembled violently and I held on as tight as I could, afraid that if I let go I would suddenly find myself alone once again.

Then my courage failed. I braced myself for accusation, for blame, for disappointment. But when words came, softly, though amplified as spoken so close to my ear, I heard –

“I’m so happy.”

We broke our embrace and I looked at him – we’d both changed so much since we’d last seen each other. But the biggest difference was not in outward appearance.

“I’m so happy I found you again. I’m sorry I left without telling you.”

Words died in my throat.

Did he think I’d not seen what had happened?

“But… you…” All I could do was shake my head and all he had for me were smiles. I let slip a sob, as much as I’d tried to suppress it.

“I won’t leave again.”

Back and forth, I just kept shaking my head. Stop it! I wanted to say, Stop pretending you’re the one at fault!

But I was too overwhelmed to say anything. These past few months had been hell for me – what, though, had life been like for him? Surviving further beatings, bearing new scars, just recently escaping… I was almost ashamed to feel sorry for myself at this point, but I was too exhausted and too hungry to pretend I could be noble. Limbs shaking, head pounding, I buried my face in my hands.

“Do you…” he began, voice wavering again, “not want…” I raised my head to see that he looked nervous.

I’d never had so much trouble forcing words out of my mouth before. But eventually, honestly –

“I fucked up so bad. I fucked everything up. For you, for me… Look at this, I was fucking drugged up and passed out in an alley… I don’t have anything anymore.”

Still feeling sorry for myself. Had I always been so selfish?

“You have your guitar.”

“I have my guitar.”

What a pitiful expression, puffy-eyed, sunken cheeks –

“You have me.”

I leaned back against the wall, closing my eyes and feeling the corners of my mouth turn ever so slightly upwards.

“It’s really cold,” I said, reaching out blindly and catching his shoulder. He moved closer to my side and I wrapped my arm around him. I could feel his chest breathe a sigh of relief as he squirmed to position himself more comfortably, possibly noting for the first time he was as tired as his dark-ringed eyes suggested. Dawn was just breaking as we both began to doze off.

So this was what it was like to be free. No boundaries, no commitments. No shackles. No chains.

It really wasn’t as glamorous as I might have thought. (No home, no money. No food. No comfort.)

But for Toki and me, it was perfect.

We had all we needed.