Freia had started to jump in her seat with excitement, and again I had to remind her, she was still the one driving the car.
“Come on! Are you really not excited?”
She asked loudly, competing with the sound of the booming radio. I curled a loose strand of discoloured hair between my fingers, keeping my attention locked on the approaching pine forest. I had
been eager with excitement this morning. As we made our way closer however, the tiny flock of butterflies in my stomach crumbled.
I nodded to her. A gesture that clearly lacked the enthusiasm she was searching for. With a grin she continued
“Well I know there’s at least somebody
there that will get you excited” Her comment caught me off guard; they tended to do that. Before I could unleash a barrage of vengeful tickles on her, I reminded myself, she was still the one driving the car.
Freia had been the one to initiate or weekend get-together with our two childhood friends: René and Erik. On top of this we would be staying in our favourite vacation location: The old cottage, belonging to René’s grandfather. As children we would spend entire weeks there promising each other it would be that way forever. Now It had been almost three years since our last trip together. Different choices in high schools led to different circles of friends, cutting away at the times we hung out together. I thought of the potted plant I never had time to water. I wondered if friendships wilted the same way.
The smooth asphalt was replaced with uneven gravel, as we entered the narrow road leading uphill. As the forest grew denser, the thick pines created barricades only allowing few sunbeams to pass. The sudden darkness coupled with rogue branches forced Freia to finally slow down her vehicle. At the end of the road, the dark woods opened to reveal a sunny little plot of land; The cottage sat there peacefully in the middle. It was two stories tall, painted in red with white window frames, as tradition dictates.
Sticking my head out of the car I took a deep breath of the sweet humid forest air. The cottages front door creaked open, and out came René to greet us. Before I had a chance to step out of the car, Freia had already been immersed in a big bear hug. As I made my way towards them, I noticed something dragging behind my left shoe. Looking down, I flinched. A disgusting clump of dark tangled hair clung itself to my foot. I flailed my leg in a short moment of panic and watched the lump be flung into the bushes.
René looked up from his embrace and our eyes met. His facial expression changed to confusion, but then he suddenly gave me a wide smile “Your hair!” he chuckled. My face turned red, painfully reminded of the whole ordeal yesterday. Before I could say anything, René lifted me up in a tight hug. His thick woollen sweater stung my face, and I had to gasp for air when he finally let loose. René had grown quite a bit in the past three years where we had barely seen each other, now towering over Freia and me. His hair, however, was still a mess of thick golden strands accompanied with the matching set of bushy eyebrows. I stared at the house and expected a second figure to emerge. When I saw none, I turned my gaze back towards René. As though he could read my mind, he said with a wink
“Erik hasn’t arrived yet”.
I felt both disappointed and relived as I brought my bags upstairs to Freia and I’s shared bedroom. I looked around in the little attic room. It was exactly like how I remembered it. The walls were adorned with embroideries together with murky landscape paintings and on the nightstand stood an antique oil lamp. The house was old and rarely used, thus having acquired a somewhat musty odour. I quickly pulled the curtains aside and opened the bedroom window, letting in a fresh breeze. Leaning over the windowsill I tried to get a better view of my surroundings. The second story window had a great view, overlooking the overgrown garden and the forest that lay just behind the stone fence. A quick movement in between the pines, had me almost lose my balance. It could have been a fox I thought, eagerly reaching for my sketchbook. As quickly as the movement had come, it had gone again. Disappointed I instead focused my attention on the tiny red outhouse. I did love the charm of these old cottages that offered neither plumbing nor electricity.
Freia and I had almost finished setting the table for lunch, when another car pulled up into the driveway. My heart skipped a beat as the lean dark-haired figure stepped out of the car. Excited, I went to greet him, but I stopped dead in my tracks. Erik looked irritated, with dark circles surrounding his even darker eyes. René swooped past me, seemingly unaware of Erik's state of mind. “So you found it after all!” he said as he gave Erik a brotherly hug and a pad on the shoulder. Erik, not sharing Renés enthusiasm, muttered curses about driving in circles as they went up the driveway.
When they reached the house, I finally dared approach Erik. I went for a tight hug, but the gesture was not returned. Erik recoiled slightly and with a stiff motion padded me on the head, as though I been nothing but a muck covered mongrel. Erik’s demeaner did not appear to soften until Freia went to greet him. Her long chestnut coloured locks shined in the sun as she put her arms around him. I subconsciously let my hand slip through the mess that was my hair. My short natural hair has the colour of dead grass and a texture not far from it. Prior to our trip I decided to shine up my frizz, hoping to impress the others.
At the local store I was faced by a wall of different hair colours, one more fascinating than the other. My plan had initially been to acquire a single auburn dye. On top of that, a blonde and fiery copper coloured package landed in my shopping cart. A sudden vision of long flowy locks in every shade of the forest had struck me and the final decision was made.
I had started applying all three dyes, hoping to create my stripes with “striking contrast”. The only “striking” contrast, however, was the difference between my expectations and the utter disaster that was the outcome. I did not have time to recolour it before the trip and was forced to leave my scarecrow-hair be.
René had already filled up his plate before the rest of us had got a chance to sit down. He had bought a great amount of sausages and bread together with an even greater amount of beer. The only water we had available was placed in large jugs by the kitchen sink, only meant to be used for cleaning dishes. The main options for staying hydrated was through beer or the occasional soda, kept cool in the dark cellar. As we had not seen each other for quite a while, it was great to hear what everybody was up to. Erik also seemed to be in a much better mood after a couple of bites.
“I heard you wanted to be a model?” Erik asked Freia, resting his eyes on her a moment too long. She shook her head.
“I’m going to study biology. Already found the perfect University up north”
“Shame” Erik replied. His comment filled me with a bitter realization. Still, my eyes kept wandering back to him. He had always had sharp features, surrounded by the heavy locks of dark hair. His eyes seemed different somehow, dull, and enclosed by the dark circles.
Erik reached for his pocket, pulling out a pack of cigarettes.
René lifted his eyebrows “Not at the table mate” Erik narrowed his eyes “Come on man we are outside.” Sending him a sharp look, René responded. “I don’t care, it smells awful”. Muttering something inaudibly, Erik returned the box to its dark hiding spot.
Lunch continued until René had finished his fourth sandwich, and I my legs had started to go numb from sitting. Erik looked relieved that he could finally go for a smoke. So relieved in fact that he forgot to help clean the dishes and went straight to the backyard. I looked in disbelief as the most considerate guy I knew, disappeared around the house.
After hours around the table, I wanted nothing but to stretch my legs with a stroll in the forest. A memory of the lake we used to bathe in as kids struck me. I asked Freia to join me but was slightly relieved when she declined. A moment of quiet for myself was all I needed I thought, grabbing my towel, just in case, and heading into the forest.
The air inside the forest was more humid and slightly colder. It had started to be a very warm summer day and I appreciated the chilly forest air. The forest floor, created by decades of pine needles, felt spongy and soft underneath my shoes. It felt as though I was bouncing my way through and I couldn’t help but smile. After a while in the dim light of the forest, I finally spotted a clearing up ahead. Stepping through the threshold, I was greeted by a familiar sight. The sun danced on the water’s glittery surface. Surrounding it was reeds and tall grass, and just beside it stood a tall boulder. As kids, we used to climb on top of it and push each other into the water below.
I went around to check if I was truly alone before dropping my clothes and jumping in. The water was cool and felt great against my warm sticky skin. For a while I laid there with my eyes closed, listening to the sound of the birds and the trees rustling in the breeze. Only when my body started to shiver, did I finally decide to leave my small oasis. Before I could crawl out, I heard the snap of a twig. Listening intently, I failed to make out any other noises. The forest had turned silent.
Struggling to keep my shaking limbs still, I scanned the area. Nothing. After a long moment of utter silence, I carefully pulled myself out of the murky water. Covering my naked body with my hands, I inched myself towards my towel. Thankfully, it was still waiting for me, offering protection for my exposed flesh. My wet skin and shaking hands made getting into my clothes a graceless affair. If anyone had been watching me, they would at least get a laugh out of it.
The tall trees surrounding the clearing loomed over me, dissuading me to step back into the gloomy forest. Still, I knew there was no other places to go.
My feet seemed to sink into the layer of pine needles as I made my way back. Every so often I would glance over my shoulder, but there was never anything behind me. Still, my walking became a jogging, that turned into running that ended up being a sprint. I practically jumped the stone fence and did not feel safe before I had landed inside the lot.
“Good, you are back!” said René cheerfully. When he noticed the state I was in, his expression changed.
“Is everything all right?”
I just nodded, and he continued
“Great! We’re gonna play frisbee out back, you in?”
The others had already started throwing the little red disk back and forth. I had never been great at the game, but I enjoyed spending time with the others. For a brief moment it sent me back to our childhood, laughing smiling and playing together in the garden. I looked over at Freia. She had always been good at these types of games, her elegant moves making it look so easy. For each time I dropped the disk, I became more embarrassed of myself. At the corner of my eye I felt Erik’s facial expression growing more annoyed as I slowed down the game for the others. I was clutching the disk tightly when I heard Freia yelling from the other side of the yard
“Pass it to me!”
with great enthusiasm in her soft voice. Her sudden encouragement fuelled me to give it all I got. I sent it off with great power, but Instead of flying over to Freia, the frisbee went way up in the air. A sense of failure washed over me, seeing the disk stuck in a branch high above me. Watching the red toy gently sway I the wind, a memory of my childhood resurfaced.
One late afternoon in fall, Erik and I walked on the edge of the forest. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blew my favourite scarf away. Like a kite it twisted and bend in the wind, before finally settling down on a nearby treetop. My heart dropped, thinking I would never get it back. Then I remembered how something had changed
in Erik’s eyes, the moment he noticed the tears well up in mine. He let go of my hand and immediately started climbing the tree. He moved with a speed like this was the most natural thing for him. Even when the branches got thinner and the tree started to sway, he continued. Finally, he reached the top and managed to untangle my scarf from its captor. With ease, he made his way down. A proud smile grew on his face, the moment he handed the scarf to me. Reaching out for it, our hands briefly touched, and I looked into his eyes. They left me mesmerized; seeing their usual dark brown having turned into deep pools of ochre in the setting sun.
I looked over at Erik, half expecting him to jump into action. Much to my surprise, he Instead asked René
“You think you can get that?”
“Nah, think I weigh a bit much” René responded, padding his stomach.
“Didn’t you use to be really good at climbing?”
I blurted out as I shifted my gaze back to Erik. I almost expected his eyes to have returned to their ochre tone in the light of the challenge, but they remained a pale brown. He lifted one eyebrow.
“Me? I’m good at a lot of shit but climbing has never really been my thing”
“That’s cus’ hes afraid of heights” teased René with a smirk on his face
Erik shot him a look, but before I could ask any more questions, René had haphazardly started to throw rocks at the frisbee. Erik joined in and soon we were all throwing nearby objects trying to wrestle the disk loose. One lucky shot from Freia sent it flying down in her arms. Fearing that I would end up ruining the game again, I excused myself to go sketch the surrounding area.
“You’ll join us again, right?” Freia asked with a smile, but I could see a glimpse of concern in her eyes.
“Of course!” I lied as I made my way around the house.
The overgrown bench in the front yard turned out to be the perfect spot to draw the local birds. My eyes locked on a silver and black crow scavenging for food on the forest floor. My pen eagerly scrawled across the coarse paper, catching the birds features as it went. Before I got to lay the finishing strokes however, the crow suddenly flew away. It seemed as though it took all the other birds with it as it went. Being left with the sudden quietness, I started to feel a bit uneasy. The silence was suddenly broken by a loud scream. The scream sounded like that of Freia’s and I rushed back around the house. To my confusion, the backyard laid desolated. Stepping over the stone threshold I managed to get a glimpse of my three friends. Rushing towards them, I noticed they were gathered around something sprawled on the ground. Stepping closer, a foul odour hit my nostrils.
In front of them laid a dead deer. The throat appeared to have been torn out and most of the entrails were gone. Next to the deer’s empty eyes sat the frisbee.
“What do you think did this?”
Freia asked, not looking away from the creature. René shrugged
“Wolves, I assume. They could easily do this kind of damage”
Freia backed a little further away from the cadaver
“Is.. it safe to stay out here?”
René nodded and continued in a reassuring tone “They rarely ever attack humans, especially if we don’t go into the forest alone”
Walking back towards the house I was last in line, my back exposed to the carnivores of the forest. Setting my foot on the stone fence, I noticed something move above me. Quickly I turned my head, but saw nothing but a clump of blonde hair on a high branch, gently wavering in the breeze.
I went to collect my sketchbook, but it no longer rested on the bench. Instead I found it laying on top of the stone fence.
Above me, the sky had turned a dark shade of grey, and not long after the first heavy drops of rain landed on my face. I could hear René cursing from somewhere behind me. His plan had been to start up the campfire and grill a myriad of different sausages followed up by smores for dessert. Much to his dismay he had to admit defeat. Instead he postponed the idea and started to prepare dinner on the old gas stove inside. The faint scent of gas mixed with the smell of frying bacon, immediately sent me back to our childhood spent in the house. I smiled to myself. Looking at Freia, I saw that she too, was smiling.
Food was served in the small living room that looked like it had remained untouched for more than a century. Flower themed wallpaper adorned every vertical surface, topped off with hanging copper and old photographs. The centrepiece was a beautiful carved wooden table surrounded by a worn sofa and a matching set of armchairs.
I concluded that picking a seat in the sofa would heighten my changes of sitting next to Erik. much to my dismay however, he brushed past me to take a seat in the armchair. An arm wrapped around my shoulder, distracting me from my self-pity. With her free arm, Freia held up her glass;
The oil lamps illuminated the room with their soft orange glow as we spent the late hours talking and laughing about old times. Freia seemed to remember every little embarrassing story about each and every one of us, but somehow managed to forget all her own little missteps. Luckily both Erik and René seemed to remember plenty of those. For a moment I feared someone would remark on my feelings for Erik, but I was luckily spared.
Despite the great atmosphere in the room, I couldn't completely suppress the twisted feeling inside. Erik’s eyes never left Freia. I could not blame him. She looked beautiful in the dim light with her long chestnut hair and her striped summer top.
“Remember when Mai used to make those funny sketches of us? “
Freia’s question snapped me out of my daze. I used to make absurd little drawings documenting the daily events. We would sit and laugh about them every night and for a while it had been my wordless way of connecting with the others. René’s eyes lit up
“Speaking of old sketches… Mai I think I found one of your old sketchbooks last time I went here”
He jumped up from his chair and started to ransack the cabinet. After a while of tossing around old books and card games he finally yelled “found it!” retrieving a small blue book from its dark hiding spot. Sitting with the dusty sketchbook in my hands, I did not immediately recognize it. I reached to turn the first page, but hesitated. What if it contained embarrassing sketches of Erik and me? I had no clue what compromising things past me could have come up with.
I glanced over at Freia, whose eyes had widened with anticipation. Even Erik had bend forward in his chair, trying to get a better look. With a deep breath, I opened the book.
Four children greeted me on the first yellowed page. A tall boy with yellow hair, a girl with long flowy locks, a boy with dark hair and lastly a girl with short frizzy hair. Her fringe was drawn in an awkward attempt to mimic my own, roughly mixing yellow and grey pencil. There was no longer any doubt this sketchbook had belonged to me. We looked through pages of characters acting out stories that I had long since forgotten. Only a few sparked vague memories from the others.
Erik pointed to a to a drawing of the longhaired girl sitting next to a lake. She had a frown on her face whilst the other characters were happily swimming around
“Do you remember that time I told you the lake was full of snakes?”
Erik asked, tilting his head. Freia scoffed
“You think I can forget? I didn’t dare swim for two years straight! Even in public pools!”
René tried to hold back laughter but struggled to contain himself.
“Don’t back him up, René! It’s not funny!”
said Freia but could not hide the laughter in her voice. As to demonstrate her irritation she slapped his arm, but the motion was too soft. Her hand lingered too long on René’s sizable forearm. I glanced over at Erik to see that his smug expression had faded. His eyes full of discontent were fixated on the area where Freia’s hand had landed. His gaze was of a person looking at the spot where a fine wine had spilled.
As to change the subject I turned the next page. We had almost made our way through the entire book, and I started to feel relief. That was until I was met with the picture of a girl with dull short hair holding hands with a happy dark-haired boy. I froze and darted my eyes between my friends. The room had suddenly turned awfully quiet
“…Is that Erik and Mai?”
asked René as a coy smile started to grow on his face. I could feel the blood rush to my cheeks, most likely turning them a deep shade of red.
“Can't be” Freia responded matter-of-factly “You see, that boy there is smiling”
René started to laugh again and I quickly shot Freia a “thank you” glance. Without looking at Erik, I quickly turned the last page. For a moment I forgot about the embarrassment, as I found myself utterly puzzled by the last entry. It was much like the drawing prior, but now the girl was holding hands with another child. This child had fluffy long hair that reached its feet. Furthermore, the hair was striped in many different nuances of red brown yellow and black. I let my hand slip through my hair, wondering if it had served as the original inspiration of my new look.
“Who's that?” Freia asked curiously
I shrugged. The child’s face was covered by the long bangs.
After finishing the tour through my old sketchbook, I felt completely drained.
“Think I’ll get into bed soon” I said with a demonstrative yawn.
“I'll join you too in a sec. Just gotta’ head out one last time” Freia said, glancing out the window at the small lit outhouse.
Returning to my room upstairs, I noticed my current sketchbook still rested on my bedsheet. Curiosity overcame tiredness as I wanted to take one last look at today’s favourite sketch - The one with the silver and black crow. Picking up the red book, I started to skim through the newly drawn pages. After a while of glancing though mediocre plant drawings I reached my destination. Or rather, where it should have been. Instead of the drawing of the crow, only a thin strip of torn paper sat. I furrowed my brows as I lifted the book to inspect it. I wondered why any of the others would have torn it out. If they had wanted the drawing they could just have asked, and I would gladly have given it to them.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of two muffled voices coming from below. Their tones picked up in volume as their discussion became more heated. I could only make out a single word, repeated over and over again:
Then the air was pierced by the sound of something shattering. I was about to head downstairs to check up on the two boys, when I heard the front door opening. This immediately made the two voices seize. Freia who had just entered the house seemed to exchange a few words with the others. Soon after I heard her footsteps coming up the stairway.
“What happened downstairs?” I asked when she entered our little attic room.
“The boys just broke a bowl while cleaning. Doesn’t really surprise me after all that beer”
“Typical” I just said, avoiding any mentioning of the argument downstairs. It was their private matter after all.
I turned off the oil lamp, leaving the room in long crooked shadows. For a while I just stared at the wooden celling, illuminated by the vague blue moonlight. For some unnerving reason, all the face like patterns reminded me of Erik. They all appeared off and twisted somehow. Sleep was not going to embrace me anytime soon, so I rolled over towards Freia.
“You still up?” I asked quietly
“…yeah… For now” Freia yawned
“…. Is it just me or is Erik acting… off?” I asked
“You mean, just being himself?” Freia said uninterested
I shook my head “I don’t remember him being like this… I used to think we were so close.”
“Are you sure? No offense but I did not think you guys were ever that close. And for as long as I have known him at least, he’s had attitude issues.”
“Attitude issues? Like what?” I asked in disbelief
“Can’t you remember? He used to steal from the store and pick on others at school. He’s always been up for trouble, but that’s also why he has been so fun to hang out with.”
I froze in my bed. I had no memory of that. In fact, I had almost no memories of Erik in middle school. My memories of us were pleasant and almost always took place in the cottage.
“That makes no sense” I started “I remember how much we used to play together as kids here. Run around in the forest. Jump into the lake butt naked. Sit on top of the big rock till the sun went down…”
Freia puffed air through her lips “Sounds like you and I know two different Eriks”
In my head, my memories were swimming around. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that Freia was right. That we were both right. Whenever I thought of school unpleasant memories of him reached the surface of my mind. But when I thought back on our trips together, I could mostly remember happy times.
I needed fresh air. I got out of the bed and went to the window.
“Do you mind if I open for a bit?” I asked
“You can keep it open for all I care. Smells so damn musty in here”. I looked out into the darkness one last time, before drawing the curtains.
That night I slept better than I had for weeks. In my dream, the worry and confusion that had built up over the past weeks grew distant, as the quiet figure next to my bed gently caressed my hair.