I WAS TWO HOURS LATE getting off the plane in Stockholm thanks to a missed connection in Amsterdam. Another 45 minutes to get through customs and I was searching for a dark-haired cousin in a sea of blonde heads. I must have been easy to spot because a raven-haired beauty detached herself from the crowd and waved at me.
“Kusin Dag,” she exclaimed. “Välkommen hemåt an Sverige!”
“Hej, Kusin Teresia!” I said, greeting her with the ritual kiss on each cheek. “It is so nice to see you again.” If she was expecting any more Swedish from me, I had news for her. I’d exhausted my entire vocabulary.
“Was it a good flight? You must be exhausted. I’ll get you straight to Mormor’s flat and you can get a nice nap before everyone else gets there for dinner. Can I carry a bag for you? My car is this way. Do you need a chair? I know you’ve had trouble with your heart.” Language wasn’t going to be a problem. It was obvious that she didn’t even need me to keep up my end of the conversation. She was a bundle manic energy. She was barely shoulder high on my 6’2” frame and her dark hair fell in a no-fuss bob just below her chin.
We reached the car following a non-stop trail of where everyone in the family was at this moment and when they were expected to arrive at Mormor’s (grandmother’s). She said she really didn’t mind that my flight was late because she had read the entire last issue of her favorite magazine. She popped the back of the Volvo sport wagon open and I shoved my larger suitcase in beside a collapsible moped. I pulled my hand back suddenly from the warmth of the exhaust pipe on the little bike.
“That’s my normal transportation,” said Teresia. “This is Mormor’s Volvo. She never drives anymore and told me to take it to pick you up. We knew you would have a big suitcase.” We got in the car and I tossed her student med-kit into the back seat. She had passed her pre-med exams and would be studying to become a doctor soon.
When we pulled up to the exit, I handed her a 20€ note to pay for the three-and-a-half hours of parking. She’d been there early, even for my scheduled arrival. I’d sent a text indicating I was on a different flight. She handed me the change and we drove off. Mormor is actually my aunt—my moster or mother’s sister. She is going on ninety-five now and insisted that I come at least once more to Sweden before one of us died. It was looking lately like I could be first, so I decided to make the trip. Teresia is my cousin’s step-daughter, which makes her my first cousin once removed by marriage, I think. In other words, nothing but an extremely cute, hyper, and flirty girl driving way too fast for the quick exit she was making. In minutes she’d pulled up in front of an apartment building that was partly draped in sheets of plastic protecting passersby from construction debris.
“They’re renovating some of the old apartments in this area. It makes it noisy and dirty. We wanted Mormor to move to a temporary care facility while they finished the work. There are so many awful people on the construction crew! They make rude comments when they see me pass. I hate it.”
Well, I could understand. I didn’t like it, but I understood. I’d followed Teresia’s online journal for the past nine years, since she started it as a thirteen-year-old. I’m sure she didn’t realize that some of the sage advice she’d received over the past several years was from her dear cousin. I’d been concerned lately, however, about how dark the journal had become. I credited it with the discoveries that one makes when one is about to graduate from the university and be thrown headlong into the “real world.” I fully intended to invite Teresia to visit in the US before she went to med school.
The narrow stairway inside the apartment building was quiet compared to the street noise outside. We reached the apartment door on the fourth floor with only two stops for me to rest. Stairs are murder on me. But Teresia was kind and bumped my big bag up the stairs for me, stopping whenever I needed to rest, and entertaining me with a non-stop description of the pre-med classes she was taking. Teresia sorted through the keys on her grandmother’s keyring to get the right one for the door. She knocked as we entered and called out Mormor’s name.
There was no answer. A window stood open on the far side of the room and I could see the scaffolding for the construction standing empty outside.
“That’s strange,” Teresia said. “Mormor, where are you?”
She left me alone in the living room as she proceeded down a short hallway. The sudden scream from down the hall had me moving in that direction faster than I had moved in a month. I found her kneeling next to the bed where Mormor, the aunt I had only met once when I visited with my mother, lay with her eyes open, staring blindly at the ceiling. She was already cool to the touch and I could tell she had been dead for at least an hour, maybe two. I closed her eyes gently and led Teresia out into the living room.
She was a sobbing mess and it took me a few minutes to get her calmed down enough to call her father for me. Once he was on the line, I explained the situation and he said he would call the authorities and meet us there in a few minutes.
An hour in Sweden and I was going to have to talk to local police about a dead body. Damn. Why did she have to die before I got to see her? The whole purpose for my trip was cooling on her deathbed in the next room.
Authorities came. The body was removed. The family gathered. All told it was a somber reunion. I intended to move to a hotel, but Teresia’s father, my cousin, Stig, insisted that the room was ready for me here. I should stay where the family would be gathering on Sunday for the wake and reunion. It seemed a little strange to stay alone where so recently there had been a death, but frankly, I was so jet-lagged that I am not sure I could have stayed conscious long enough to move to a hotel. The family left me in the apartment after showing me how to work the shower, stove, and coffeepot. I dropped exhausted onto the bed about 5:00 in the afternoon and was asleep in an instant.
Like jetlag often does, it was just about midnight when my body clock rebelled against sleep. It was dinner time in Seattle. I thought about Maizie but knew Riley would take her out for a walk. Probably having her toenails painted. I padded around the house in my bare feet without bothering to turn on a light. I noticed for the first time the draft from the open window. Funny, I thought. I was sure I’d seen Teresia close the windows when the police were at the apartment. I looked out and saw the scaffolding illuminated by the city street light. But for all intents and purposes an intruder would be invisible from the street because of the heavy plastic sheeting draping the work area. I supposed that you could enter and leave by the window and not be seen by anyone unless a neighbor happened to be looking out the window. I closed the casement again and latched it. I stumbled slightly as I turned and jabbed a sharp rock into the ball of my foot. I looked carefully and saw a light trail of plaster and dust leading a few steps from the window.
I froze. Suddenly, I was sure I was not alone in the apartment. I returned quietly to the bedroom and flipped open my laptop. I logged onto my VPN at home and cruised immediately to my cousin’s journal. The entry shocked me even if it wasn’t unexpected. My suspicions were confirmed.
“The old bat is dead. I’m glad. I didn’t even have to help her along. I just want what is mine. She promised. Wicked people should rot in hell.”
I closed the laptop as I heard the scrape in the next room and rose to silently pad out to the living room. The windows were open again and cousin Teresia had one foot out onto the scaffolding.
“Did you find it?” I asked. “Or were you just coming back to make sure she was dead?” At the sound of my voice she spun around and nearly fell as she pulled her foot back into the room.
“Cousin Dag!” she exclaimed. “I thought you were asleep.”
“Surprise. Now answer my question.”
“Don’t be mad at me. I just wanted to check for something I dropped earlier today. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“And since you already knew you could get in through the window you thought that would be easier than knocking. You’d done it this afternoon.”
“What do you mean?”