twenty-two months later
It’s always the same scream.
Henning Juul blinks and fumbles for the light switch. The sheet under him is wet and the air quivers with heat. He runs clammy fingers over the scars on his neck and face. His head is pounding with a bass rhythm that is pouring out from an open window in Steenstrupsgate. In the distance a motorbike roars as it sets off, then there is silence. Like the drumroll before an execution.
Henning takes a deep breath and tries to strangle the dream that still feels all too real, but it refuses to go away.
It had started off as a good dream. They had gone outside to play, Jonas and him. A thick layer of snow had covered the ground overnight. At the junction by Birkelunden Park the tramlines were reduced to just ruler-straight silver lines, and they could barely make them out. The dense snowflakes were still dancing in the air, but they melted the moment they landed on Henning’s cheek.
He was pulling Jonas on the sled down Toftesgate and into Sofienberg Park, where the children looked like ants on the small hill sloping down from the church. Jonas threw himself energetically from side to side. Henning was exhausted when they finally reached the top of the hill. He was about to sit down at the rear of the sled when Jonas stopped him.
“Not you, Daddy! Only me!”
“Okay. But you know that means you’ll have to pull the sled back up the hill all on your own.”
“Do you promise?”
Henning knew that the wet snowflakes had a longer life span than the promise Jonas had just made, but he didn’t mind.
“Give me a push, I want to go reeeeally fast!”
“Okay. Hold on tight. Let’s count to three.”
They counted in unison:
“ONE! TWO! Aaaand THREEEE!!!”
And Henning gave Jonas a big push. He heard the boy squeal with delight as he got under way and noticed that the other children were watching him, too, enjoying the sight of the little boy with the pale blue woolly hat hurtling toward a jump that someone had built halfway down the hill. And Jonas reached it, gained some height, but landed quickly and whooped as he turned the steering wheel to avoid colliding with a girl coming from the side. She turned around and followed Jonas with her eyes as he veered further and further to the left.
Toward the tree.
Henning saw it, too, saw where Jonas was heading, his small fists gripping the steering wheel. Henning started running down the hill, but he lost his footing. He stumbled and rolled over a couple of times before he managed to get back on his feet.
The snowflakes, the voices, and the din faded into the background as Henning mouthed a scream, but no sound came out. He looked in desperation as the other parents who were also watching Jonas stayed rooted to the spot and did nothing to help him. In the end he closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see it when it happened. He didn’t want to see his son die. Not again.
And Jonas was gone. As were the hill and the snowflakes, the trees and the people. It grew dark all around him. The unmistakable smell of smoke stung his nose. And even though he couldn’t see Jonas, he had no trouble hearing his cries. Henning waved his arms frantically to carve a hole in the darkness surging in front of him, but it made no difference. The intense heat scorched his face. Breathing became difficult and he started to cough.
A glimpse of light appeared in the smoke. Henning blinked and focused on the opening that grew ever larger; he could see a door being eaten up by the flames. He coughed again. Then the gap started to close up and soon the smoke covered it completely. It was burning hot and black as night everywhere. And then Jonas started to scream.
Henning exhales at the sight of the flashing red light. His eyes seek out the other smoke alarm in the ceiling. He waits for it to emit its cyclical indicator of rude health. But the seconds pass. And some more. And even more. He feels a tightness creep across his chest and spread out to his shoulders and neck. At last the second smoke alarm lights up. A quick red flash.
He flops back onto his pillow and breathes out while he waits for the monster in his chest to calm down. Eventually it resumes its normal pace. He touches the scars on his face again. They still hurt. Not just on the outside. And he knows they will keep hurting until he finds out who torched his flat. Who snuffed out the life of the best little boy in the whole world.
Henning turns to the clock on the bedside table. It’s not even ten thirty in the evening. The headache that made him lie down an hour and a half ago is still throbbing. He massages his temples as he shuffles to the kitchen and takes the last can of Coke from the fridge. Back in the living room he tidies away clothes and newspapers from the sofa before he sits down and opens the can. The sound of bubbles rising to the surface makes him sleepy. He closes his eyes and longs for a dream without snowflakes.