As she drove through sprawling fields, deep forests, and small villages, Ellen’s thoughts flashed by as swiftly as the scenery. Turning onto Highway 52, she rolled down the window. The sound of the wind drowned out some of her anxiety.
The past week had been the worst in a long while.
She really shouldn’t have been driving. She was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. The medication she was taking made it hard to think clearly. She was chewing gum to keep herself awake, and kept flicking the radio on, then snapping it off again, and then back on. As she drove, she continued to change stations, raise and lower the volume. As if it would help. Her whole body was crawling.
Nothing had turned out the way she’d thought it would.
The sun was harsh, and the heat shimmered above the asphalt. Ellen adjusted her sunglasses.
She’d spent the summer in bed, the rain pattering against the roof tiles her only companion. Since she’d reported on the Lycke case at the end of May, she’d hardly left her apartment and had completely closed herself off from the outside world.
It had been one of those summers that never really got going. It had started with a cold, rainy spring. Not until August had the longed-for heat come. And it was then — when the water finally glistened beyond Skeppsbron, when the seagulls screeched, and when the laughter of cheerful tourists down on the pier with their ice creams could be heard all the way up in her bedroom — that the whole room turned upside down. Suddenly, it had been as if she was on the ceiling looking down at herself. She’d flapped her arms and screamed, tried to turn herself around, come back, even though she didn’t recognise herself. Like she was someone else, or no longer existed.
If Philip hadn’t showed up then … She couldn’t bear the thought, didn’t want to imagine what might have happened if he hadn’t had a key to her apartment — if he hadn’t taken her to the hospital.
Philip had been working in Make-up at the Paradise Hotel shoot all summer and got worried when he couldn’t get hold of her. When he got back to Stockholm, he went straight to Skeppsbron and discovered how bad things were.
Philip knew Ellen better than anyone. They’d been best friends since they went to boarding school together at Lundsberg. Both had been forced to go there against their will. Ellen, because it was a way for her parents to finally be rid of her; and Philip, because he was gay — a fact that didn’t fit neatly with the Lester family values. And now they were colleagues at TV4.
After a full day at Saint Göran’s psychiatric emergency clinic, she was discharged with a referral for further treatment, continued sick leave, and medication as needed. Because she lived alone, they had also recommended that, for the immediate future, she should have someone around who could keep an eye on her.
Philip had stayed with her for a few days, but when he’d had to leave for another shoot in the archipelago he’d arranged with Ellen’s parents for her to go home to Örelo, so she could be cared for and monitored by her mother — even though Ellen was thirty-five years old.
The fuel gauge beeped and showed almost empty. In the little village of Stentuna, she stopped at the petrol station to fill up.
The heat struck her as she got out of the car. A faint feeling of nausea passed through her.
She guided the nozzle into the mouth of the fuel tank and inhaled the petrol fumes deep into her lungs. Sweat was running down her back, and the dusty roads had made her mouth dry. When the tank was full, she got a strange urge to lick the nozzle, but she shivered at the unnatural impulse, and went in to pay. This station was one of the few that weren’t owned by the big chains. Yet.
If possible, it was even warmer inside the shop, and it smelt like rancid meat and grease. Although it was August, the place was a riot of kitschy Christmas decorations. Elves and polar bears crowded the shelves alongside car accessories and audiobooks. It had always been like this, as far back as she could remember, even though the station had changed owners several times over the years.
‘Petrol on pump three,’ Ellen said to the oldish man behind the register, and, to clarify, pointed out of the wreath-clad window full of large flashing Christmas-tree ornaments.
‘Well, there’s only one car out there, so I could’ve worked that out with my little toe.’ He grinned and waved a fly away. ‘Can I tempt you with anything else?’
She asked for a bottle of water, some chewing gum, and a pack of cigarettes. If she knew her mother correctly, Ellen would be needing them.
She opened the bottle of water straight away and drank it all down in one.
‘Hot,’ she said, as if she needed to explain, and raised her blouse to let in a little air.
‘That’ll be 851 kronor, thanks.’
She pushed her card into the machine and entered the PIN. As she waited for the payment to be approved, she read the placards for the tabloids.
HEAT WAVE, one headline said in black capital letters illustrated with big suns. SOCCER MELEE AT DERBY IN STOCKHOLM. RECORD NUMBER OF HOMES FOR SALE. DIVORCE RATE RISES AFTER DISASTROUS SUMMER.
‘Is it the murder?’
Ellen looked up at him. ‘What’d you say?’
‘I saw it says TV4 on your car — are you a reporter?’
‘Yeah …’ She had a small sticker on the back window of her car that advertised her place of work, but that wasn’t usually what caught people’s attention — more often, it was the fact that her car was a pink Porsche.
‘I know your face. Haven’t I seen you on the news? I hope you’re not here to muddy the name of our little village. Stentuna isn’t going to be known for murder now, is it?’
‘Do you know how much they’re going to raise the petrol tax? Do a program on that instead — and the way it’s going to affect us folks in the countryside.’
‘Wait, I don’t understand. What murder are you talking about? Has someone been murdered here in Stentuna?’
‘Yes. Although she wasn’t from here — no one knows who she is. She isn’t, or, excuse me, wasn’t, part of the local population.’ He leant forward and lowered his voice, even though there was no one else in the shop. ‘She was completely battered. Mr Ahlvarsson — or Ahlvarssonskan, as we call him — found her early this morning when he was out salting the roads. At first, we thought maybe she was here to visit someone, but no one seems to know who she is. Not many people live here. Hopefully, it’s not going to turn out like Malexander.’
‘I don’t think you need to worry about that,’ Ellen said, stopping herself before she mentioned how many people were beaten to death every year without the media reporting on it.
‘Well, don’t be too sure — this seems to have been pretty brutal. Apparently, the car was parked by the side of the road. When Ahlvarssonskan drove by, he knew that something wasn’t right, so he got out to see what it was — and there she lay, dead. Bashed to a pulp. The worst he’s ever seen, he said.’
‘Where was this?’
‘Along Ahlvarssonskan’s fields. The road to Ålberga.’ He pointed off in that direction.
Ellen knew exactly where he meant. ‘How old was she? Do you know?’
He shrugged. ‘Ahlvarssonskan said she must have been a looker.’
She took a pen from the counter and wrote her phone number on the back of the receipt. ‘Feel free to call me if you hear anything interesting.’
‘Am I going to be on TV, then?’
‘You’d be great on TV,’ she said, and smiled before she went out the door.
Outside the station, she stopped, a cold numbness spreading through her body.
Death. It followed her.
She was barely out her front door before it was breathing in her face.
The sound of laughter from across the road caught her attention. Stentuna School was right there, the yard full of playing children. The sounds enveloped her, and for a brief moment she wished she could be part of it. It seemed so carefree. They were so innocent and happy.
Ellen got into her car and leant her head against the window. She wished she could do everything over. Relive her life.
Actually, she just wanted to skip out — run away from everything. But here she was, heading back to where it all started.
How could everything have turned out so wrong?