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The Last Summer by Jens Birk

The Last Summer by Jens Birk

Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013

Years later, Erik would remember that dinner. He would remember the bird that flew past the terrace, as if in slow motion, taking in the details of their food before settling on a nearby branch of an oak tree. It observed the family as the sun disappeared into dark-blue night. He must have missed it when it flew off, although he was hypnotized by its presence. He must also have missed his mother going to the kitchen for dessert, but the bird remained in his memory.

It would have been about then that they realized his twin brother, John, had been in the bathroom for too long.

When they finally got around to checking, the door was unlocked. It opened to a room filled with emptiness.

*

It had been another warm day during one of those rare, never-ending summers in Denmark, interrupted only infrequently by a shower and then again by record-breaking heat. Long days were spent on the beach, eating lunch in the shade of the oak tree. It felt like living somewhere in the South of Europe.

The heat and the homemade white wine, produced in a dark basement laboratory, always made their parents sleepy after lunch. That’s when Erik would lead his brother, John, and their 4-year-old sister, Trine, down to the wide, sandy beach and the sea that was so cold they almost fainted when stepping into it. It was in this, their land of adventure, that they often tried to catch small fish, which they would save in old jam jars.

The twins, who had just turned twelve, quickly settled into the summer rhythm of not having to get up in the morning. Their father, a journalist for a magazine, worked from the summer house where they moved each year. Their mother had reluctantly left her job at the local town hall when the twins arrived. The children kept her busy, but she continued to spend time every day reading novels, imagining people who lived lives different from hers. She hungrily smoked her Prince Light cigarettes and drank late-afternoon cocktails, even while breastfeeding. “Those books keep me sane,” Erik often heard her tell one of her friends before swallowing more of the ubiquitous, amber-colored liquid and giving out one of her dark, hoarse laughs.

Erik sensed she was unhappy and would do anything to cheer her up—a circus clown going to extremes to make her smile. He wanted, more than anything, to see her tired face look up at him from one of those books.

Erik and John played on the swing that early evening. The setting sun cast shadows from the oak tree onto the house, where their parents were preparing dinner. Erik loved the summer evenings, when the barbecue sent its fumes up against the evening sky. It was a time when his mother and father seemed relaxed and more engaged with him and his siblings. Erik was never consciously aware of his parents’ inattention, but friends would often find it odd that they were left so often on their own. He enjoyed being in his parents’ presence when they sat down for a meal in the evenings. That’s when they would ask about their children’s afternoon on the beach: had they caught any fish, if they’d met any of the neighbors? His parents seemed to enjoy listening as he, Erik, the most outgoing of the three, eagerly presented his version of the day. He would also hungrily take in his parents’ comments about how adult he seemed, how well he carried his responsibility at his young age.

Erik noticed, by contrast, how John, his identical twin brother, would sit quietly, listening, as if he were the younger of the two, as if several years separated them, although it was only a matter of minutes. When John eventually said something, it was often loaded with frustration, and their parents would quickly turn their attention back to Erik.

In spite of their differences, people would often mistake one twin for the other. They were mostly dressed in identical clothes despite John’s quiet protests. John would leave his shirt untucked, or avoid wearing socks. He also refused to comb his hair. Subtle ways to distinguish himself from Erik.

Their mother went back and forth to the kitchen as Erik continued to chatter and his father checked the sausages and the prime rib, turned them over, and let them rest for a minute.

Their house was at the end of the road, isolated from the rest of the small community by an empty lot that belonged to the odd old man who had sold the house to his parents in 1956, the year the twins were born.

Erik and John shared a room with bunk beds and a deep, old closet. That closet was the only thing about the place that Erik didn’t like, and he would never dare open its massive doors after dark. It was as if it contained a compact version of all the dangers of the outside world. John thrived in the darkness and even made fun of Erik’s fears.

The house had been built in the beginning of the twentieth century as a summer house, although it was inhabited throughout the winters of the World War despite its lack of heating, save for the wood stove. Now the family would visit the house only once or twice during the winter to check on the pipes. It was cold and damp in winter. Spider webs and dead insects crowded the rooms. It was a small house with just two bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, a living room. A few years after his parents bought the house, they added a bathroom in the shed outside, across from the kitchen.

*

Erik remembered not being able to sleep the night after John’s disappearance. Being alone in the room without John made him restless and anxious. His parents kept trying to reassure him, between calls to the police, that John would be back by morning, that he’d just gone out for a walk on his own, had gotten lost, and found a place where he could sleep. It was a safe area, they kept repeating, nothing ever happened there. Nobody drowned. Nobody died. It was all about vacation, days of playing, days of sunshine.

Why, then, was his father out all night? His mother up drinking coffee, smoking? Why were they whispering so loudly? Why did he think that he heard John turn in his sleep, in the darkness in the bed above him? If he believed it hard enough, sleep would bring John back.

But sleep wouldn’t come. Erik couldn’t stop thinking about all those other times when John had disappeared on the beach. He never dared to tell his parents about those terrifying moments. He convinced himself it wasn’t important. In any case, John always came back by the time they needed to return home. Erik never learned anything about where he’d been and finally stopped asking.

He tried to think of ways of telling his parents and the police about this history of John disappearing, but felt unable to express anything. He sensed that it could be critical, but felt bad about not having enlightened his parents earlier. They would lose their trust in him—the last thing he wanted at the time. He thought about telling them so many things during that night. Once it was over, once the sun started rising, things had forever changed.

It was too late.

A 12-year-old child doesn’t just disappear, they said. The police sent their forces to the area. Even Erik went out searching, eventually, with his parents. He went down to the beach in the days that followed. Looked around the area where they used to gather fish, taking the direction that John used to take. He tried to remember all the places they had visited together.

The police wanted him to show them the beach and the nearby woods, and asked him why he thought John had disappeared. But Erik felt overwhelmed and couldn’t think of anything to say. Although the police officer had tried to be gentle, Erik felt that it was his responsibility his brother had gone missing. The officer’s questions felt like massive accusations that blocked his mind from helping them.

Erik was still hoping, still trying to understand what had happened.

He slowly realized that there was another world in which John lived, a world he kept to himself. He did not even let Erik in. They were so different from what he heard about other identical twins.

Erik couldn’t stop recalling that last evening on the swing, hearing his parents’ voices from the kitchen as the swing took him higher and higher and higher. John stood on the ground, pushing him forcefully, until Erik almost lost his breath and felt himself disappear into the darkening sky.

John never went easily to sleep at night. He would read books for hours, using his small, powerful flashlight. Books from his mother’s library. Erik had little interest in them and would stop reading after half a page, not really understanding. He remembered waking up at night and seeing the light emanating from his brother’s bed. He never said anything. He often felt ill at ease around John, not understanding what was going on in his brother’s mind.

The moment John disappeared meant definitively having to become the oldest child in the family. His parents started to count on him in new ways. There were no more carefree walks to the beach. The outside world forced its way into his quiet life. Yet, he was no longer competing with John for attention. Momentarily, he felt relieved, then quickly caught himself.

His mother was soon hospitalized. When she returned, boxes of medication would show up in the bathroom, and Erik discovered empty whisky bottles scattered around the house. His father tried to keep them together—a family, still a family, he kept saying. “We should count ourselves lucky we still have Erik and Trine.” His mother rarely appeared and then would look blankly at him, always wearing the same faded blue kimono, smelling of hospitals and otherness and smoke.

Erik helped increasingly with the cooking and the shopping. Tried, in his way, to bind the family together. He looked for clues from their neighbors’ lives, tried to imitate their tidiness, their normality. His father eventually got better at taking over at home while his mother’s trips to the hospital became more frequent.

*

Almost twenty-five years later, he would still wake up, most nights, with the same dream: He was lying in the bunk bed, that summer, and looking at the window slowly being opened from the outside, someone climbing onto the window sill. In the dream he could never see who it was, but the person would then climb to the top bed as Erik held his breath, not daring to move, not daring to make any noise, hoping but not truly believing that it was John who had returned.

At some point the police had called it useless to keep looking. His parents spoke to so many police officers. He contacted some himself, without his family knowing, when he got older. He always asked the officers if they had an identical twin brother. He never met anybody who understood what it meant to him.

After almost ten years, his parents seemingly gave up hope. He still recalled how his father announced that there would be no more searches, that the police had decided to file the case under “unsolved.” His parents were finally persuaded that the best thing to do was to move on. To forget. He remembered looking at his mother. She had been trying to dress up, even put on a bit of make-up, though her face remained motionless. She didn’t acknowledge that yes, this was what they had decided together. It only reinforced the urgent sense that he must take over.

Of course he could not give up hope of reuniting with John. He had to find out why John, who looked so much like him, would have wanted to separate himself so brutally from Erik. He also knew, deep down, that his parents hadn’t really given up—they just needed to pretend.

After finishing high school, Erik moved away from home and found a small apartment in Copenhagen.

He decided that working in sales would make sense, as it would allow him to travel around the country. He found a job selling Lego toys to stores all over Denmark. He never asked anybody directly about John, but always looked for clues. In this small country, encapsulated by the sea, he felt he was sure to find him. One day they would meet, in a cafeteria, in a hotel bar. He came to believe he had a certain power to see things other people didn’t.

Erik focused entirely on his quest. He saw his peers beginning to date, develop relationships, and start their own families. But he pushed away any thoughts about living his own life. He was on a mission. He was living for John.

He searched for John in the papers, scrutinized photos of various events, developed theories. Maybe John had changed his identity, fled abroad. He was not kidnapped. He hadn’t died. He left because he wanted to become somebody in his own right. He left for many reasons, one of them being Erik, but mostly Erik thought he left because of their parents’ lack of understanding.

Nobody ever really listened to John.

The reality of it was that Erik was never any closer to finding John than anyone else. There were days when he saw this clearly and tried to forget, with a virtual toast to his mother, and another one, before he would fall asleep on the couch in his small studio apartment, his pizza half-eaten, an empty bottle resting on his chest.

*

One night Erik woke up, after a very different kind of dream, one in which he visited a castle. And then he remembered something.

A forgotten episode, a home movie from the sixties playing in his head, all pale, washed-out colors, a rewind to that last summer. One of the last days before everything changed. It was a cloudy day, the air heavy with the threat of rain. They drove to the nearest town, Elsinore, he and John, with their mother. In the car she was humming along to the only song that seemed to play that summer, And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

While she shopped, they went off to Kronborg, “Hamlet’s castle.” John led Erik assuredly through the paved back alleys behind the old houses, away from the crowded pedestrian streets. He never figured out how John knew the way. It was as if John had been there many times before with somebody else. They ended up in front of the enigmatic, history-laden castle. Once inside, John characteristically vanished. Erik wandered around, trying to enjoy the visit, but felt uncomfortable being there on his own and grew weary, going from one room to the next looking for John. Eventually the guards told him the museum was closing. He tried to explain that his brother was in there somewhere, that he needed to wait for him, but they wouldn’t listen.

He walked back to the car on his own, almost getting lost. And there was John, triumphantly waiting for him. Their mother, who was smoking cigarette after cigarette, nervously ushered them into the car, telling Erik that he had let her down.

On the way home they heard that song again. Only this time it was John humming along to it, as he looked at Erik with a wicked grin from his side of the back seat.
The clouds that had been building throughout the afternoon finally burst open to a violent storm that lasted all night.

*

After work, on the day he had the memory, he drove aimlessly in a nearly dissociated state. He didn’t think about where he was going, still upset after his recollections in the early morning. Darkness fell. The streets were unusually deserted. He drove slowly out of Copenhagen, taking the scenic drive along the sea, facing Sweden. He looked into people’s homes and thought about his own family, torn apart all those years ago. Only Trine seemed to escape the worst effects. In fact, she hardly remembered John. The last time Erik saw her, she urged him to move on.

He rarely spoke to his father anymore, and there was no point trying to communicate with his mother. It was a miracle she was still alive.

He himself was exhausted, ready to give up. Maybe John had actually been kidnapped, killed, buried in the woods. But he desperately needed John to be somewhere, to take over. He was tired of being the older one; he needed John to explain, needed him to say no, it wasn’t your fault, but I just had to leave. And Erik needed to prove everybody wrong—show them that there was hope.

He found himself in the outskirts of Elsinore. Despite the dark, he could see the castle. A flashlight shone from inside the building. A small one. He felt sure it was that same light.

He drove into the old town, over its cobblestone streets. It was empty, a soccer match occupying the nation’s TV screens. He drove slowly past a pub and heard cheering from inside. He felt certain that somebody was expecting him.

As he approached the entrance to the castle, he looked up. The only sound came from the ferry to Sweden setting off in the distance. The beam of light from inside subtly illuminated the evening sky. The door would be closed. As he touched it, though, it opened. From the inside.

He couldn’t make out the silhouette of a person in the darkness. He tried to see the face, but the lights were off, and the moon was blocked by clouds. The flashlight had stopped its beaming.

Erik tried to speak, but no words would come. The shadow stood still before him, like a statue. When he looked at it, he saw himself. It was like looking at a mirror in the dark.  He thought about the house again, about his parents and sister, and about John. He had not visited the house since they stopped being a family. He suddenly felt the need to return one last time. To try to find a way back to everything he had lost.

Erik walked backward out the castle door, which slowly closed behind him. He headed toward the car, still sensing the steely glare on him, a glare that nearly froze him as he got into the car and turned on the ignition with trembling hands.

The castle slowly faded away in the rearview mirror as he hastily left town.

The car sped toward the house—their old summer house. His parents had sold it years ago. Erik never dared to go back to that place that had haunted his dreams ever since. He had never driven there on his own, only with his parents all those years ago. He was surprised that the car could find its way in the night, taking a left after the harbor, then a right by the abandoned inn, finally continuing on a seemingly never-ending muddy path as he approached the old house.

The road was deserted; the snow had melted and it was difficult to believe anybody had been there since the houses had been closed off for the winter.

At the end of the road, he saw lights. As if he’d made a leap into another world. A house fully lit. An old car in the driveway. He recognized it, a Citroën ID, a black one. Like the one his father had sold after that summer.

He stopped the car, turned off the lights.

Faces around a dining table, his eyes growing stronger the more he looked. The wooden table, almost eaten by worms. He remembered all the holes and always looked for the tiny, invisible insects. He could almost hear the conversation, smell the food. That never-forgotten odor of slightly burned meat.

He could see the living room behind them, that pale-green couch, the black stove. There was a light in his old room; he could almost see the bunk beds, both unmade, maybe still damp from a nap in the late afternoon. The dark closet. He sensed the closet door slowly opening as it always tended to, but the darkness was overwhelming, and he tried to avert his eyes from looking in.

The door to the bathroom would be closed, but unlocked. The lights would be off. It was in back, and he couldn’t see it, couldn’t remember what it looked like.

He turned his attention to the front of the house.

A woman. A man. Three kids. Two sons, looking alike. A younger daughter.

The woman and the man were cheerful as they toasted, their eyes meeting. The man’s eyes were full of sparkle. They didn’t look out. They didn’t notice him. But Erik almost felt part of their celebration, although he couldn’t move; he was unable to get out of the car, unable to open the door, hypnotized as he was by the festivity inside the house.

He desperately wanted the man to be John and had been ready to reunite with him after seeing the Citroën. But this man looked nothing like Erik’s identical twin brother.

Everything else still looked the same. The oak tree. The garden. Nothing had aged, nothing had changed.

The swing was still there, almost hidden in the darkness. It was moving slowly, as if somebody had just jumped off.

Preludes by Matthew Burnside

Writer Round-Up: Jennifer H. Fortin, Russell Dillon, Nick Sturm, & Caroline Cabrera

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