An Explanation

Sophie waits on a hill overlooking the town. From where she sits, she can see almost all of it, sturdy brick buildings, old renovated mills and schools and tidy homes surrounded by trees and well-kept gardens. On the outskirts are wooden houses painted crazy colors, some pink, some yellow, some strange combinations of primer and green. In the distance she can make out a forest bordered by a highway, up from which a smoggy haze ascends. From time to time, the wind blows a few strands of straw colored hair across her cheek, and she pushes the errant wisps behind her ears with shaking hands.

Sophie squints upwards as the shadow of a man falls across her. He has crossed the overgrown field that stretches a mile back from the top of the hill without making a sound, without creasing the beige linen suit he wears. He looks down at her through dark sunglasses and stands silently. His hair is so shiny black, it seems like a cap of obsidian.

She tries gracefully to rise to her feet. “I’m not late, am I?” she asks, nervous, even though she knows she’s been waiting for him. For how long she’d been waiting, she is unsure.

“Of course not. We knew exactly when to expect you.” He bows, compressing his lips into a tight smile. “Shall we go?”

Sophie dusts off her pastel flowered skirt and follows him to a path nearby, where they begin the walk down to the town.

“That’s the hospital I was born in,” she begins, “just about 18 years ago.”

The man follows her pointing arm, glances at the red brick building and nods.

“My mother said I was so quiet in the womb, she hardly knew I was ready to be born. The doctor ended up inducing labor. He said he’d never seen such an easy birth.”

The man does not speak. His silence unnerves Sophie and she glances up at him quickly before continuing. “I hardly ever cried, except when I needed to be changed. Mother says I was a joy to raise because I was never demanding.”

Again, silence, but she knows that he is listening to every word. His footsteps are long strides, and it takes her one and a half steps to keep up, making it seem as though she is skipping alongside him. They see another red brick building at the bottom of the hill as they turn onto a paved road. “That’s my school. I was head of my class almost every year. I had to study pretty hard, though. And I did: every night for a couple of hours, on the weekends. But it paid off.” He sighs. It was the first noise he had made since she began speaking, and she feels encouraged. “My parents, teachers, they were all so proud of me, so pleased that I was meeting their expectations. Mr. Axelsson said I was the best English student he’d ever had.”

“And you?” he says. Sophie startles at his voice: quick, sharp, no wasted syllables.

“Me? What do you mean?” He doesn’t answer and instead increases his pace.

They walk through a neighborhood of brick houses, each with a garden in front and a paved driveway on the left, finally stopping in front of one fronted by roses blooming pink and yellow and red. Sophie hesitates at the door, listening, until the man jerks it open and waves her through with a flourish. “It doesn’t matter, no one will hear us,” he says as she passes in ahead of him. The house is very clean, and plastic covers the walkable spaces on the hallway carpet.

Sophie tiptoes in, leads him to the living room, and stands by the fireplace. The mantel is covered with ornate frames that contain a mixture of black and white and color photos. She can hear voices in the kitchen, sobbing accompanied by soothing murmurs, and she glances in their direction, half wanting to leave, half wanting to stay. He coughs, bringing his hand up to his mouth, then bringing it down to clasp his other hand.

She nods toward a black and white photo of a yawning baby in the arms of a laughing woman. “This is a picture of me when I was a baby, with my mother. And here’s one when I was about ten,” she continues, pointing to the next one, a somber girl with a small smile, holding hands with another girl of the same age.

“That’s Tammy. We were best friends until she turned thirteen.” Sophie’s mouth tightens. “She got a bit wild after that, hanging out with the wrong crowd. She stopped taking school seriously and argued with her parents all the time, going out for long walks in the woods.” She shakes her head disapprovingly. “There were parties in the woods, with boys.”

“Wouldn’t you say she was full of life, that in rebelling she began to enjoy herself, and life, more?” Sophie jumps at his sudden interruption, mouth agape. “Enjoy…?” Clasping his hands behind his back, he tips his head to the side to look at her before striding to the door and out. Shocked, Sophie remains by the photographs for a moment before following.

He waits at the end of the driveway. The two set off down the street again. “Why did you say that about Tammy? Do you approve of the way she behaves?”

He maintains his quick pace down the street. “I’m here to listen, not to answer questions.”

“But she was loose. My parents said so.” Sophie almost trots alongside him to keep up, trying to face him at the same time. “Bad girls don’t get anywhere in this world. They end up used and discarded. Good girls graduate high school, go to college, get married and have families.”

“Who told you that?”

“Who? Well, they did.”

“They? Who are they?” He stops and stares down at her through the dark glasses.

“Well, they are they, I guess. You know, parents, teachers, my elders. Always respect your elders…”

“They said that, too, didn’t they?” She opens her mouth to speak but he’s already walked away, turning down a cobbled street that had seen better days. Rusted fences hold in weed filled yards. Moldy clapboard rots away leaving flakes of wood next to swayback porches. Some houses are boarded up, with ancient backyard trailers serving as living quarters. Sophie stops at the top of the street and looks at his departing back. “Can’t we go this way?” she cries out and points back toward the school. He doesn’t pause, and she follows him, slowly at first, then faster, with a sense of panic rising in her throat.

As she draws level with him, he slows to a saunter, almost as though he is sightseeing. “Look familiar?” he says.

Sophie slows down to match his pace, her mood suddenly dreamy, her eyes lifted to the clouds in the sky. “His name is David,” she says. “David means ‘beloved’.” She pronounces the name with joy, but with her next step stubs a toe on one of the broken stones in the road and is drawn back to the present, and to her companion. They stop outside a house with a burned out car in the front yard.

“And he lives here,” she whispers. “At first we were in the same classes at school. He always sat at the back of the class and snapped his gum while the teacher was speaking. I was shocked when he started hanging around, waiting for me after school, walking me home on the days when he didn’t have detention.”

Joy appears on her face again, the man’s razor sharp gaze fixed on her pale features. “He made me feel so good, so happy, just by telling me I was pretty, just by being interested in me and what I had to say. I used to lie awake at night thinking about him, I stopped eating. My parents became concerned and worried about my carrying on with ‘that Salo boy’.” Quickly, she added “But my work didn’t suffer, and I still did my chores in the house, volunteered at the hospital every weekend.

“But then things started to change, subtly at first. Then he became insistent. He wanted to…he wanted me to,” she stops, embarrassed, and looks at him. He says nothing, but she can see one eyebrow raised expectantly over the sunglasses.

“He wanted me to have sex with him. But I couldn’t, I knew it was wrong, I knew the feelings I was having for him were wrong. It was so hard to say no, when he held me and kissed my hair and with my face against his neck I could smell him. It wasn’t cologne, it was a lovely wonderful smell that was his alone. I used to close my eyes and take a deep breath and imagine what it would be like to be with him…like he wanted. I’d always have to push myself away and say no; it was so hard, the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, but I did it. I did what was right, I did what was best for me.”

“What was best for you?” He laughs bitterly. “You did what was best for you?”

“Of course!” Sophie cries. “It was what I had been told all my life, by my parents, my teachers, in church. One saved oneself. One led a blameless life, one tried to be as good as possible. I know I thought bad thoughts, and I know that I did…” she looks away with a gulp, “did something bad, but before that I was good! I did what I was told. I didn’t give in to David. I gave away my own things, toys and clothes, to people who didn’t have as much as me. I was good to everybody!”

“But were you good to yourself?”

She thinks she knows what he means and looks at her shoes, ashamed. “I couldn’t see how I could live without him. I tried to make him come back to me, but he said he’d had enough. He said his friends were laughing at him for dating such a prude. He said if I loved him I would do what he asked. I kept saying if he loved me he wouldn’t ask, he would understand. He kept saying he’d been so patient because he did understand, because he did love me.”

On the street there are several large beech trees, decades of names carved in their trunks. Sophie runs her hands over one of them, and begins picking away at the carved letters.

“I got so tired, so very tired.” She wrenches the top bit of a heart off, and begins on the ‘S.T. loves D.S.’ “Eighteen, I thought. Only eighteen and 62 more years to go, at least.” She tries to control the whining tone in her voice and concentrates on picking out the letters from the tree. “How could I go on,” she whispers, “when I couldn’t cope with such a loss at eighteen.”

He slaps her hand away from the tree. She sees herself reflected in the black of his sunglasses, and thinks of deer she’d seen in headlights at the side of the road. “No one copes at eighteen,” he says through clenched teeth. He turns his head to the side with a sharp, barking laugh. “You people make me sick, do-gooders and moralists. You think that you are judged on how good you are to others, on how much you deny yourself, not how good you are to yourself. All you’ve done your whole life is give of yourself so that everyone around you could grab what they wanted for themselves. And when you finally had the chance to grab some of the joy your friend Tammy knew, when you had the chance to learn what ecstasy was, you turned your back on it. And if that wasn’t sin enough, you decided to hurl the ultimate gift back in the face of the being who had given it to you in the first place.”

“But what about what I learned from my family, from teachers, in church? The minister said that God only saved the righteous, that you have to be good and avoid sin. I only did one thing wrong!”

“The minister lied! You did much more than one thing wrong. You are only given two things when you enter this world: your life and your brain. You are supposed to use that brain to serve your life.”

“But all those people who do what they want, some of them die of drug overdoses, some end up paupers with illegitimate children, hardly any go on to anything.”

“Do you think it’s supposed to be easy? Is that what you think? That you come into this life, and if you do whatever everyone else says you’ll get an instant ticket to heaven? That’s not how it works and you were supposed to use your brain to figure that out. Rebellion is what leads you to the Promised Land. Only through rebellion can you truly learn who you are as a person, and once you know that only then can you help others.” He leans closer to her, and his words make her flinch. “Those that died failed to achieve this, failed as much as you did by doing nothing.”

Suddenly, they are standing by an open grave. Sophie stands rigid for a few seconds then turns to him.

“Please, not yet.”

She falls to her knees and grabs his trouser leg, shocked to see red seep into the expensive fabric. More shocked still as she pulls away to find her wrists cut, cut down the veins instead of across, blood dripping off her arms.

“Please,” she says again. “Please let me explain!”

“Explain? Explain?” He whips off the sunglasses to expose glacier blue eyes. “That’s what you’ve had a full hour to do. That’s why we’ve spent all this time wandering around this town. Explain, explain indeed,” he spits out.

“Please,” she cries, tears welling in her eyes. “I didn’t know, how could I have known? Please!”

“You aren’t born knowing, that’s the point of living. To grow up, to discover for yourself, to serve yourself. You think you had it so bad, and then you hope by whining as you’ve always done that you’ll get your way, the clock will turn back and all will be forgotten. But it doesn’t work like that and it’s a pity no one ever taught you this lesson when you were alive. And if you thought life was bad losing your boyfriend at eighteen, it’s nothing compared to where you might end up.” He pulls his leg back from her as she tries to wipe the blood off his trousers, spreading more on as she does.

“Do you know what happened to me? I was killed by a tree branch falling on my car. A senseless, useless tragedy. I loved my life, I served it, I rebelled but I came through and knew myself. But I died prematurely, before I had the opportunity to use that knowledge to help others. And because of that I didn’t fulfill my life potential, and I have to work assessing people like you until I’ve done the sentence and am considered worthy to join the rest.”

“Please, what will happen? What happens now?”

“Now you wait. And you wait here. If it were up to me you wouldn’t get off. You’d get what you deserve. But it isn’t up to me.” He gives her one last glare before pocketing the glasses, then walks behind a willow tree whose branches drape over the grave and disappears.

Sophie sobs by her open grave, slowly bleeding into the ground. “But I didn’t know,” she cries. “No one told me what to do.”

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