A Car Trip

After Nikolaj slams the car door shut they realize that Tobias isn't in the car. “Damnit,” he says, and looks at Mie, who unbuckles her seatbelt and gets out. He watches her walk back to the house, he sees her fumble with the key. “When are we there?” Signe asks, and Little Brother begins to cry. Nikolaj turns and reaches down to grab the pacifier, but it scoots away underneath the front seat. “Give him the pacifier,” he says to Andreas, who is engrossed in a comic book. “Give it to him now!” Andreas grudgingly sticks his hand under the seat and recovers the pacifier. Little Brother quiets down. Nikolaj looks impatiently up at the house. Mie finally comes out, pushing Tobias in front of her. The rangy fifteen-year-old sulks, stares straight ahead. Nikolaj senses a rustling, as if a gust of wind has blown through rushes, as if the rushes grow inside him. He clenches his teeth and starts the car. Tobias mashes himself into the back seat. “He's sitting on my leg,” Andreas says. “Ow, damn!” says Signe. “All right,” Mie says, her voice resolute, “let's go.”

She eyes the kids in the rearview mirror as they pull out of the drive. Signe pushes Andreas, Little Brother sucks energetically on both the pacifier and his thumb, and Tobias, with his hood now up, presses his head against the window. “We're not going to make it,” Nikolaj says. “Why did it take so long?” “My mother called. She's still in the hospital.” Mie turns the radio on. “I told her we'd stop by on the way home.” Nikolaj isn't listening; he leans over the wheel, straining to see the road. It's raining. The windshield quickly fogs up, they have to crack open a window even though they're on the freeway, even though it rains in on Mie's neck. She passes out candy drops. Signe says that she's carsick. Andreas says he has to pee. And shortly after: “If we don't stop now I'm going to pee on the seat.”

Tobias slides out at the gas station and lights a cigarette, turns his back to the car, tilts his head to cover his cellphone. He is soaking wet when they take off again. “Tobias stinks like cigarette smoke,” Signe says, and holds her nose. “And wet dogs,” Andreas says. “Leave Tobias alone,” Mie says. She's sitting awkwardly, one arm stretched back over the seat, trying to give Little Brother his pacifier. “Can't Signe give it to him?” Nikolaj asks. “No I can't,” Signe says. “There's no such thing as 'can't’,” Nikolaj says, and Mie says: “It's okay, I can do it.” The rain is pouring down now. Semis pass them, splattering their windows and windshield with muddy water. “We'll never make the ferry,” Nikolaj says, chomping furiously on his nicotine chewing gum. “We'll see,” Mie says. Little Brother finally falls asleep. Mie examines his pale face, the blood vessels that tint his eyelids blue. She rubs her aching arm and hand. Tobias's cellphone constantly makes noises. “Why does Tobias get to use his cellphone in the car and I don't?” Signe asks, rhythmically kicking the back of Nikolaj's seat. “Why don't you answer me?” “Quit kicking your father's seat,” Mie says. “If he gets to, I do too,” Signe says. She brings out her cellphone, its unbearable sounds join in with those from Tobias's cellphone. “Stop your kicking, Signe, STOP it!” Nikolaj says. “Put that cellphone away,” says Mie. Signe stops kicking but continues to play ring tones. “You'll wake Little Brother up,” Mie says, and reaches over to grab Signe's phone. Signe holds it up out of reach and laughs. Mie unbuckles her seatbelt and twists around, she's practically on her knees as she presses in between the front seats. “I can't see shit with you there,” Nikolaj says. Mie grabs hold of Signe's arm and wrenches the cellphone away from her. “OWW! Ow, damn, you hurt my arm!” Signe says. “Watch your language.” Mie is sweating. Signe pretends to cry. The baby wakes up with a howl. Mie lifts her hand, as if she is about to smack Signe over the head. “See what you've done! Give him his pacifier, Andreas.” Andreas sticks the pacifier in Little Brother's mouth and mechanically strokes his cheek while continuing to read his comic book. “Give me that comic, it's MY turn,” Signe sobs. “You have to share it, Mom said!” “Leave the others alone, Signe,” Mie says. “I'm not doing anything! You said we had to share it!” She's hysterical. Mie gives her a candy drop. The back seat grows quiet, except for Little Brother's wheezing breath. “I just hope he's not getting sick,” Mie says to Nikolaj. “As much as he coughed last night.” Nikolaj doesn't answer. She sees how his jaw works at chewing his gum. Mie leans her cheek against the cold, moist window. She listens to the windshield wipers. She drops off into a lull, dream-like thoughts dart around in her head like jittery insects. There's something with Nikolaj's hand, sliding up into her. A mouth, her own mouth, sucking his finger. A bird landing in a treetop. And there are dark images of herself, walking down a long corridor, doors on both sides flying open, but there are no people, there are only these empty offices opening as she passes them, the sound of her shoes on the polished floor. “You asleep?” Nikolaj asks. “No, no no.” “I don't think he's getting sick,” Nikolaj says. A moment later: “When we get there we need to sit down and make a master plan.” “Plan?” “For this vacation.” “What do you mean?” “I mean, there have to be some rules.” “Rules for what?” “For the kids.” Nikolaj glances at her. “Like, what responsibilities they're going to have, how far they can wander off alone, when they have to be home.” She studies Nikolaj's profile, she reaches over to touch his hair. He glances at her again. She smiles at him. He puts his hand on her thigh, she puts her hand on his. He speaks softly: “Tobias is going to have to look after the others once in a while, we need some time to ourselves.” “No way,” Tobias says. “I'm leaving Friday when Niki gets back home from vacation. I'm not going to sit and rot in any summer house.” “Stop it, Tobias,” Mie says, “we've talked about this. Niki can come stay with us. She's welcome to.” Tobias shakes his head inside his hood. He stares coldly at Mie in the rearview mirror until she slides over, out of his reflected line of sight. “This is what I'm talking about,” Nikolaj says. “We need to get clear about some things.” “But we already are,” Mie says. “I want that comic now! We had a deal!” yells Signe, breaking her silence; apparently she's finished her candy. She rips the comic book out of Andreas's hands and begins kicking the front seat again. “I'm hungry,” Andreas says. “I'll starve if we don't stop now.”

On the stretch down to the ferry landing they see the ship, it's already far out at sea. The rain has slacked off, and there's another hour until the next ferry sails. ”We should have taken the bridge, like I said,” Nikolaj says. “How much do we get for candy?” Signe asks. “You said you'd give us money for candy.” Mie climbs out. Signe yanks on her coat. “Give us our money!” Nikolaj is on his way to the bathrooms and Andreas is nowhere in sight. Mie looks down the long rows of cars. She looks toward the lounge just as Nikolaj opens the door and walks inside. “Where's Andreas?” Tobias shrugs his shoulders. She looks down toward the sea. “But where IS he?” She calls out for him, she yells his name. She runs alongside the cars. She reaches the first car in line and runs over to the gangplank that connects the harbor with the ferries. Andreas isn't here, either. She can hear the waves crashing against the wharf, and she stops, out of breath, and looks up and down the coast. She sees no sign of his green windbreaker, his blond hair. Then she envisions the dead boy, the funeral and her own derangement, she thinks of how the other children will mean absolutely nothing to her if Andreas is gone. Of how Nikolaj will mean nothing, how she will never be able to live with him or with anyone else. The wind flails away at her coat and blows her hair in her face. A red, burning hate for all of them manages to surge through her before she begins to weep loudly and uncontrollably, strange and ugly sounds that the wind quickly carries away. Then suddenly it's as if she can't breathe between the seizures of weeping, as if the wind is blocking off her breath, and she's overwhelmed by an even greater and absolutely terrifying anxiety for her own life, her own death. That's how she is standing, staggering and with her coat flapping, with one hand covering her mouth, her eyes wet and wild, when Tobias appears, slowly trudging toward her. His hands are in his pockets, his hood is tied around his face, and the wind inflates his much-too-large pants. It's a ridiculous sight. He stands directly in front of her. Mie is overcome by another bout of weeping. She tries to say Andreas's name, but moaning sounds are all that come out. “Take it easy. They found him.” She drops her hand from her mouth. “Where?!” she screams. “I don't know. He went over to look at some car or something.” “A car?!” she screams. Tobias looks at her with contempt. “Yeah. A car.” He raises his shoulders all the way up and drops them, then he turns and walks away at the same slow tempo as before, back to the endless rows of cars. Mie looks over the water one last time. She sighs deeply and rubs her eyes. Then she staggers back.

Andreas is sitting in the back seat, reading a comic book. He doesn't react to Mie's outburst of rage and affection, he turns his head away when she tries to hold his face, he clutches his body when she fumbles around for his hand. Signe sits beside him, stuffing herself with candy. Nikolaj has lifted Little Brother out of his car seat, and now he's hanging there on Nikolaj's arm, in the thick bunting that makes him look stiff and deformed, with arms sticking helplessly out in the air. He babbles delightedly when he catches sight of Mie, snot bubbles out of his nose. Nikolaj eyes her with a mild, puzzled expression. “Have you been crying?” he asks. She pokes her hand into Tobias's pocket and grabs his cigarettes. “Hey, what the hell are you doing?” Tobias asks. She turns her back to the wind and lights up. Nikolaj furrows his brows and steps back. “Mom! What are you doing?” Tobias rips his cigarettes out of her hand. “Mie, goddamnit now, you . . . .” Nikolaj says. “We agreed we weren't going to smoke.” Mie walks over to the waiting room. He yells at her back: “You quit, Mie!” She pushes the door open and sits down on a bench. The room smells of ancient, cold smoke. Two young girls giggle while sharing a cigarette. Mie smokes intensely until she becomes nauseous. She goes out to the bathroom and drinks from the faucet. In the mirror her face looks puffy from crying, mascara and eyeshadow run down her cheeks; it looks as if someone has smeared ashes all over her face.

Nikolaj has already started the car when she returns. The kids are in their seats. Signe has given Little Brother a sucker, and someone obviously has broken wind, the smell of rotten eggs permeates the car. No one says a thing. Nikolaj searches her face, and Mie thinks: It's all gone. He looks dismal, as if he's nearly given up. She puts her hand on his knee. “I'm sorry,” she says, though it's not at all what she was going to say. “You owe me a smoke,” Tobias says. Signe begins to sing the same two lines of a song, over and over, Andreas kicks her on the shin, and Little Brother grabs Signe's hair and tries to put it in his mouth that the sucker has dyed a screaming green. Shortly after, Andreas and Signe are in fits of laughter at Little Brother's green mug. They can't stop pointing and shrieking, even Tobias can't hold back a smile.

Andreas and Signe are given money on the ferry to play the machines, and in return they're supposed to take Little Brother to the playground area afterward. Tobias disappears with a cola and his cellphone. Mie feeds the baby puree from a glass, Nikolaj gets the coffee. The ferry rocks. After the two older ones leave with Little Brother, Nikolaj sits next to Mie. He puts his arm around her shoulder and pulls her close. “Hon,” he says. They sit for a while, silent, with their coffee steaming in front of them, watching the crowd of people around them. “What was that about your mother?” he asks. “How's she doing? Any better?” Mie nods. The coffee sloshes in her stomach every time the ferry tilts. She's hungry. Nikolaj looks as though he's about to say something, when Signe suddenly shows up carrying Little Brother on her arm. “He dirtied his pants,” she says. “He smells like shit.” She hands the stinking baby to Nikolaj. Mie gives him a diaper. She sees how he smiles at Little Brother as he walks away, he kisses him and says something in his ear. For a moment she doesn't recognize Tobias when he sits down at the table. It's not until he speaks that she realizes who he is. “I'm going home on Friday, Mom. Johannes is throwing a party, and anyway, Niki's coming back.” He's sitting across from her. Both his hands lie flat on the table, and he leans forward and looks her straight in the eye. ”I'm going whether you let me or not. Just so you know. I can stay with Dad.” “He's in London.” “I've got my keys.” Mie shakes her head, thinking that it will end with her letting him go, without her having any idea at all if it's the right thing to do. Tobias stands up abruptly and walks off. It's as if a gust of wind blows through rushes growing inside her; she holds her breath. Nikolaj returns and puts Little Brother on her lap. “Tobias is going home on Friday,” she says. “It's just like I said,” Nikolaj says, “we should have let him stay home.” “But you said that you want him to look after the kids at the summer house?” Little Brother sticks his hand in her mouth and scratches her lip with his sharp little fingernails. “He might as well make himself useful since he's with us. Don't you think?” Mie looks down at the table. Violent hunger, stomach rumbling. “Hon,” Nikolaj says, taking Little Brother's hand out of her mouth. “It's good enough, isn't it? He stays a few days then he goes home. Everybody's happy.” Mie looks up, he sweeps a strand of hair off her cheek and loops it back around her ear. He cups his hand around the back of her neck. Then he kisses her suddenly, his tongue glides over her teeth, the blood rushes between her legs, he grabs her hair, and Little Brother whimpers, he's squashed between two bodies trying to meet. At that moment she recognizes Andreas's wailing; he's sprained his left foot in the playground area, he landed wrong when he jumped off the slippery slide.

The car is filled with candy wrappers, toys, and empty cans of cola. Tobias is sitting in front now, Mie has jammed herself in between the kids in the backseat. She sings to Little Brother. Signe sings along. Andreas sits between them, pale and silent. Mie strokes his hair. After a while Nikolaj and Tobias begin talking. Between songs she hears fragments of their conversation, something about a convention Tobias apparently attended, something about the European Championship in soccer, something about how many absences Nikolaj had in tenth-grade German class. It's a lot clearer now but the sky is still dark in places, dark gray and blue, deep purple. Mie sings and looks out the window. Wet fields, occasional stretches of woods. The road snaking through the hilly landscape. She recalls what it was like, freezing while sitting on the table bench when she visited her aunt during summer vacation. She distinctly feels the goosebumps on her arms, the hair that tasted of snot, the chocolate sandwich in front of her and the flies landing on it. She's sitting at the table with the plastic tablecloth, to the right of the buffet, on the slippery wooden bench, and she pinches her knee and spreads the nutella all over the plate. She sniffs and sucks her hair, the flies tickle her bare feet, she kicks at them, and in the background the kitchen radio plays, pots clatter in the steel sink. And all the while there is this terror inside, her aunt says she's homesick, it's a physical yearning for her mother's body, to lean against her nylon stockings and bony hip, to reach up and try to hold on. And her mother's breath, often sour, but she lets her mother breathe on her without turning away, even though it's so awful, she sits tight anyway, close to the big angular body, while she picks at a small sore near her mother's mouth, yes, that's it, that's how it should be, and then her aunt comes into the room and puts her hands on her hips and asks if she's really still sitting here, picking at her food. Mie slips back and forth between that child's body sitting on the bench and her own body in the crowded car, where she can't even move, with wet feet in her rubber boots, squeezing the baby's pacifier in her fist. And it's only when Signe yells, “Mom, are you even goddamn listening, or what?” that she opens her hand and drops the pacifier on the floor of the car, turns her head, “you are really strange, are you asleep or what?” and stares into indignant Signe's face. She's stern. “Watch your language,” she says. Nikolaj smiles at her in the rearview mirror; she smiles back, stiffly.

They stop at a cafeteria in a small town about thirty kilometers from the summer house. Andreas limps, he has to be carried up the steps. Signe immediately begins running in circles on the grass, squealing with delight. Nikolaj and Tobias get the food, and Mie tries to give Little Brother his milk but he can't concentrate on sucking. When they sit down to eat Nikolaj runs his hand up her blouse, and she fumbles around under the table for his cock. They look at each other. His eyes are blurred, a strong lust grows inside her, he tries to shove his hand down her pants. Then Little Brother howls and throws himself back in his chair. The people around them are shocked by how loud his screams are, they turn and stare, and she stands up and takes him outside. He struggles for breath between his ear-shattering screams. He kicks violently. She paces in front of the cafeteria, rocking him, speaking soothingly to him, but nothing works. Nikolaj comes out with the bottle, now both of them stand there in their thin clothes, freezing to death while they coax the baby into taking the bottle. The milk goes down the wrong way and he starts coughing, it looks as if he's choking to death. Mie shakes him. Then he screams again, enraged, his strength renewed. Mie catches sight of the kids sitting at the table inside. It looks like Signe and Andreas are fighting over some French fries. Signe hits Andreas on the head. Andreas grabs hold of her ponytail. They roll around on the floor. A man at the next table gets up and intervenes, his wife shakes her head in reproach. Nikolaj hurries to the car with the screaming baby, Mie runs up the steps to the cafeteria. The kids are still on the floor, Signe sobbing and Andreas licking remoulade off his fingers. The couple at the next table observe her as she gathers coats and bags together and yells at Tobias, who can't hear from the music pumping into the canals of his ears, that they're leaving. She grabs hold of Signe and Andreas and hustles them out. Andreas hobbles. “Why do we have to leave, I'm not finished eating,” he complains. “Take it easy, God!” Signe yells, jerking free of her hand. “I didn't do anything. What did I do?”

After they drive away, Little Brother keeps up his insane wailing for ten minutes, and all this time Signe and Andreas hold their hands over their ears and stare accusingly at Mie. She has a stale taste of grease and thin coffee in her mouth. It's about to turn dark. She thinks of how much she's looking forward to lying close to Nikolaj's body. How nice it will be to get there, that they'll all have a good vacation anyway. That they will have to have a doctor look at Andreas's foot. She looks down at her white, folded hands. And she feels her heart skip a beat as she lifts her hand up and rests it on Tobias's shoulder. She squeezes; he turns halfway around, his dark eyes look wonderingly at her. Then her cell phone rings. A voice says that it's about her mother. She's dead.