“Axel, come on. Wake up.”
The violent tug that wrested me from the deep becomes a hand that shakes me softly, yet it brings me no less abruptly back to the waking world. I break the surface gasping, disoriented, confused by the quiet, the clashing calm that surrounds me. No sirens, no splashing. No anguished cries. Nothing but the tired faces of restless travelers and Kåre, beautiful Kåre in the seat beside me, unaware that he’s only just saved my life.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out,” he apologizes, recoiling slightly at first and then reaching out once more to rest his hand on my arm. “You must have been having one hell of a dream.”
“Oh, man.” I yawn, shake my head, and blink to clear my waterlogged awareness, still struggling to return to complete consciousness. “That was the most vivid dream I’ve ever had.”
“I don’t always dream of tornadoes.” I chuckle, rubbing at my forehead. “This was a good dream — I think. I haven’t quite decided yet.”
Kåre plucks up his book from where it lies splayed over his lap and leans down to slip it into his bag. “Well, we’re almost home. So you had better get your stuff together.”
“What time is it?” I frown and run my hands over my jacket, frantically searching for my phone, unaware of how long I was under. It could be minutes or years. I lean over to glance out the window and get my bearings, but I remain too groggy to grasp where we are.
“We’re late, that’s all I know,” Kåre grumbles. He pulls out his phone faster than I can find my own and glances at it. “It’s 11:40. We’re nearly two hours delayed.”
“What?” I slump in my seat. “Seriously?” My mouth drops open, my eyes darting about the car, as if seeking some impossible escape route. The rest of me is paralyzed.
I’ve been stung by a wasp once before. It happened at the Minnesota State Fair when I was seven years old. I’d done nothing, absolutely nothing, to provoke it. Regardless, the wasp flew in out of nowhere, landed on my thumb and stabbed me with its stinger. The shock I remember more than the pain itself. I stood there staring at my thumb as it swelled and turned red, unable to move until the sensation suddenly struck. Unbearable at the time, forgotten soon after.
Now, as the train approaches the Wasp’s Waist, the junction where all southern rail traffic into Stockholm converges, I’m a stunned child again. Once reality sinks in, I experience the sharp sting of loss, a venomous ambivalence that slowly morphs into resigned acceptance as I stare in silence at the city beyond my window.
It’s him. Micke. I see him in my mind’s eye; I re-envision him frantically tugging on that train to delay us, to derail my plans. Not out of spite, but out of love. He haunts me; he lives in my mind, and yet I still misread his intentions.
I’m awake enough now to realize there’s no way I’d make it to the bridge before midnight. We’re several minutes away, plus however long it takes to disembark. I wouldn’t make it, even if I ran. I’d almost have to fly. And in my current state, I’d likely drop dead before I got halfway there. Sure, it would get the job done, but not how I’d envisioned it. And yes, I believe I’ve made my choice. But I’d prefer to know the decision was ever mine to make.
As with any sting, I suspect this too will be short-lived. The pain will pass. What I will remember is the shock.
The conductor apologizes over the intercom as he announces our delayed arrival at Stockholm Central Station. Outside, the city hall, crowns lit like a beacon, welcomes me home. My heart lives on here in Stockholm. And in Stockholm it shall die. But not today.
“You look upset.” Kåre notes, reading the disillusionment on my face as he wiggles into his leather jacket. I must be highly legible. “I thought you said you had a pleasant dream.”
I sigh and whisper, “It’s nothing.” But a pained, paradoxical smile hijacks any chance of hiding how I feel. It’s more than nothing; it’s just plain silly to despair over not dying when you’ve only recently decided to live. But why make sense this late in the game, in what should have been my final chapter?
The train slows as it approaches. A small flock of frustrated passengers retrieve their bags from the overhead racks and line up impatiently to leave before we even come to a stop. Me, I suppose I’m no longer in any hurry. A few hours ago, time was a scarce commodity. Suddenly, I’ve got far more than I ever bargained for.
I snap up my hat from the floor and scoop up the fugitive empty minibar bottles that broke free from the bag beneath my seat. I don’t know why I thought that miniscule stash would suffice to carry me into the abyss. It was barely enough to carry me to Stockholm.
We join the line as the airlock on the door hisses. The passengers file out slowly, at an excruciating crawl and once we’ve emerged, Kåre signals at me to stop while he taps on the surface of his screen. Disgruntled travelers dart off in a rush as I stand in their path, dazed, waiting for Kåre to finish. As I wait, the ghost of me, a shadow from another dimension, sprints for the door, still intent on dying today. For no other day would do.
It’s a strange sensation. Not quite déjà vu, but not unlike it. Since last we stood here, my entire world, or my perception of it, has changed. Yet Stockholm C looks the same. Something profound has shifted, but only within me, and the unsuspecting swarm marches on unaware.
It feels when I first found myself here at 19, scared, so uncertain of what lies ahead. But unlike then, I have no lofty dreams to drive me forward. I’ve already achieved them and I destroyed every last one of them over the course of a weekend. So, I got nothing. No course, no direction, no rudder. The winds have died down; there’s little more than the faintest whisper of faith to fill my sail. Meager as it is, it’s more than I had before.
Untethered, I drift with the current down the stairs and across the rotunda. I rush toward the escalator to the main station hall, as Kåre distractedly makes off in the other direction, to the left, toward the underground. Once he realizes that our courses have diverged, he comes dashing after in a panic, in hot pursuit as I veer off in the direction of the main entrance.
“Where are you going?” he cries out, gasping for breath.
“When I noticed I lost you, I nearly had a heart attack. Don’t do that!” He latches onto my jacket as I shuffle through the revolving doors that spit us out into the cool night air. My lungs release a series of tiny clouds, a reminder that I’m still breathing, still existing. I watch as they rise and dissipate, snap the seal on the final, tiny untouched bottle from my bag. Then, I raise a toast to Nils Ericson standing statuesque at his post. I owe him that. Had we flown, I’d never have had the time required to come to terms with all of this. Ericson gives nary a nod, too consumed by his stony watch over the railroad of his own design.
Closing my eyes, I hang my head like a white flag across my slumped shoulders.
“Please, just tell me what’s wrong.” Kåre sounds as exhausted as I feel.
“We’re too late,” I breathe. “I had plans.”
He snorts lightly. “You had plans on a Sunday night?” I guess it seems implausible, although I’ve never been a nine to five, Monday through Friday kind of guy. Then he proposes, “Why don’t you call whomever you were meeting and tell them you’re running late?” If only it was that simple.
“I can’t do that,” I tell him, lifting my eyes again. “It’s impossible.”
All the same, I pull out my phone and scroll through my contacts, a seemingly unending list of those I love and who love me. All of them people I was ready to abandon. And finally, the one that abandoned me. Upon seeing his name, I feel homesick and I have to wonder if the mere sight of his name will ever cease to evoke an ache for a place and a person who no longer exists.
I place the call. It goes directly to voicemail and Micke’s voice, his sweet voice, washes over like a breaker: “Hej, it’s Micke. Leave me a message. And if it’s Axel: Seriously, stop it. I love you.”
Stop it. Stop dying. Stop trying to reach me.
“Sorry, love. I won’t be joining you tonight,” I say, seconds before the soulless, digital voice announces that his inbox is full and cuts me off. But the message isn’t really for Micke, anyway.
My lips are trembling, so I press them together and I stare at the phone. The screen locks, and when I at last glance up, Kåre looks as if he’s heard a ghost. Of course, he could hear Micke’s outgoing message. We’ve already established that I’m a veteran musician, half-deaf by trade. My phone is always close to max volume. He, Kåre, looks aside, blinks a few times, and narrows his eyes when he again looks at me. His lips part, but no sound escapes.
I take a deep breath and reveal precisely what my intentions were. “To die on the same day… that was what I wanted. To die at the same age he did and in the same way. I thought - I didn’t die with Micke, but I could die like Micke.” I shove the phone into my pocket.
In verbalizing it and thereby releasing it, I’m as a child moments after losing grasp of a cherished balloon. The sense of loss returns, striking me in the dead center of my chest. My body feels so heavy, weighing me down as my balloon takes to the atmosphere. I’m tempted to cry, scream as it floats up into the sky, away from me and beyond reach. Until it’s a mere tiny dot, barely discernible against the night sky. It shouldn’t matter, but it’s devastating. I’m letting go of my demise, of the death wish I’ve romanticized for far too long.
“You were just gonna walk right off the train and…” Kåre’s voice trails off as he looks down at his feet and bites his lip for a second before lifting his head again and continuing: “Give it another year. Give me a year to show you things can get better…”
“Stop, Kåre,” I cut him off. I can’t let him go on bargaining in fear and desperation. “Stop for a minute and come here.” It’s somewhat awkward with all of our bags, but I reach out and pull him close to me. “I’m not going anywhere.” I fold my arms around him, close my eyes and rest my head atop his own. The scent of hotel shampoo lingers there, mingling with the acrid smell of his hairspray. “You heard me on the phone. I canceled my plans.”
He inhales deeply. I feel his chest expand against mine and crimp like an accordion as he expels it. His arms are wrapped around me, clutching my jacket in his fists like he’s afraid I’m still in danger of disappearing should he disengage. Like I would hold on to Micke if I had gotten a chance to save him. Still, it catches me off guard.
“I want to stay.” My grip on him tightens in response. “With you, if the offer still stands.”
My jacket muffles his response, and I only barely decipher it: “Of course.”
“Hell, I should be begging you to give me a year.”
“You’re… not wrong.” His shoulders shake with gentle laughter.
The church bells ring out, first from afar and then from Saint Klara’s church across the way, heralding in a new day. It’s arrived. A future I was never to be afforded. And now here I stand, embracing it.
Kåre relinquishes his grip on me at last, taking a step backward before taking my hand. For a moment, he doesn’t make a single, solitary sound. He stares at me long enough for shame to creep in, compelling me to drop my head so that my hair shields him from having to see my offensive face.
Finally, “Well… if you’re gonna stay with me, it’s getting late. We should get going.” He gives me a slight tug back to the station. I notice his eyes stray momentarily, as if something has caught his eye. Meanwhile, I resist his attempt to guide me toward the next train to his place.
“Wait,” I say and he stops, returning his focus to me. “Walk with me to the bridge. Please.”
“No. No fucking way are we doing that.” The right corner of his lip crimps, and his expression morphs from genuine relief to a glower of disbelief. “Not after what you told me.”
“You’ll be with me. And I made a promise to you.” When I’m with him, I am safe. Not because of a vow I made. It’s because he provides a sense of safety, of protection, just by being near. “If I’ve learned anything this weekend, it’s that I have to face my past. I can’t keep avoiding it. If I can’t confront it, I can’t move on.”
Kåre makes a clicking sound with his tongue, and I note how his shoulders drop sharply as he mulls it over. His eyes lift to the sky in frustration, but he relents all the same. “Fine.” His reply is drawn out on a long, resigned sigh.
“Yes.” He nods, evading my gaze and turning his own toward the entrance of the station. “I’m gonna trust you. But only so far as I’ve trusted you this entire time: contingently. So…” He throws an exaggerated nod toward something behind me, “…in the interest of full disclosure, Tor over there will also be, uh, accompanying us.”
My jaw falls open as I drop Kåre’s hand and turn to see. Lo-and-behold, there’s good old Tor, ambling in our direction, having just emerged from the station. He offers a meek wave from a distance as Kåre suggests, “Go say hello!”
“What the heck is he doing here?” I hiss, spinning around again toward Kåre.
“He came to help me escort you,” Kåre says. Then, mumbling under his breath: “Although he is a bit late.”
“Escort me? Escort me where exactly?” I grimace and release a sigh as he grabs my arm as if he’s expecting me to flee the scene. But rather than show any further discontent at this unexpected turn of events, I shake free from Kåre’s grasp and slowly stride towards Tor, feigning nonchalance. “Wow! Are we already getting the band back together?!” I wrinkle my nose. “It’s a bit soon, don’t you think?”
Tor, he gives an awkward laugh and shrugs in response. “Well, you already paid me, so uh… I reckon I owe you another gig or two.”
Once close enough, I give him a friendly hug, hoping to dispel any bad blood between us and, dropping my voice in volume, tell him, “Listen, I can’t imagine what Kåre must have told you, but it was probably all true - several hours ago. This was profoundly unnecessary. I’m okay.”
As I release Tor, he turns to Kåre, wearing a confused frown. “So… we’re not taking him to the hospital?”
“Oh my god, I knew it!” I step backward, shaking my head as my face splits with uncomfortable laughter. “I fucking knew it.”
Kåre releases a loud groan. “What the actual fuck, Tor!”
“What, I brought the car and everything…”
“I didn’t say anything to him yet!” Kåre informs him through gritted teeth. “I assumed we’d do it together.”
“It’s cool, Tor,” I say bluntly, dismissing any idea that I’m about to dissent. It’s getting hard to hide my mounting mortification and project a false, unruffled front. “I was thinking we’d take the scenic route.” I head off down Vasagatan, toward Tegelbacken. “Come on. Let’s do this. Then you guys can go ahead and haul me off!”
They’re coming to take me away, ha ha, hee hee, ho ho.
“Um, scenic route or not, Axel, you’re kinda headed the wrong way!” Tor calls after me.
And Kåre comes chasing along, as he always does, speaking at a pressured pace to match: “I never intended to force you into anything. I was hoping we could convince you it was in your best interest,” he explains. “I only wanted to keep you alive.”
“Yeah, I realize that. I’m just embarrassed that you had to drag my drummer into this.” I give the straps of my bags a sharp tug, more a display of irritancy than a move of utility.
“I needed someone with a car. Preferably one who already knows what’s going on.” As we move under the overpass, shadows momentarily engulf his face. Still, I can imagine the pained expression on it; I hear it in his voice. “Please don’t be pissed off. He and Lisa were concerned about you too. Everyone is worried about you.”
I breathe in deeply again and release it, slowing my step to a more accommodating pace. I’m aware that he’s simply doing to me what I most definitely would have done to Micke, in retrospect. That’s the thing. Kåre has the same hindsight I do. How could I be angry at him for doing precisely what I wish I had had the premonition to do? How could I be upset with him for not wanting to relive that nightmare?
“I knew you’d be embarrassed,” he continues. “I knew you wouldn’t take it well. But I figured at least you’d still be here to hate me.”
As we emerge from the shadows into the light, I halt and look him squarely in the eyes. “I could never hate you.” Then, I peer down at my Docs, scuffed up and disfigured by my pigeon-step, and concede. “I admit that I need help. I realize I’m not well. Still, I don’t think it’s hospital help I need, okay?” I supplement it all with a resigned shrug. “I mean - I’d rather not. The tabloids would be all over that shit. But — if it would ease your mind, I would let you parade me through the center of town in a straight jacket.” I slide my bag around to my other hip and reach out for Kåre’s hand. “Okay?”
“I’m kind of tempted to take you up on that,” he mutters. Although his tone is rife with sarcasm, and his face remains partially obscured by shadow, I detect the faintest hint of a smile as he slides his hand into mine.
“Thank you,” I tell him. “I mean that.” And that’s true, although the words are like molasses; I have to swallow to dislodge them from my throat. “I’m not mad.” Chuckling softly, I add, “Or rather… I’m not angry.”
Kåre gives me the benefit of a muted laugh. We continue onward in a conciliatory silence, Tor straggling behind at a respectful distance. At last I turn to him and I call out, “Thanks for coming and making sure I don’t end up dead, Tor! You’re a real stand-up guy!”
“I only hope I’m not needed!” he calls back in a sing-song voice.
“I’d be careful if I were you,” Kåre advises. “He’s probably eager for any opportunity to tackle you to the ground.”
“Oh, I bet he is!” I offer Kåre a sheepish smile and wave for Tor to catch up. “Why are you following behind like you’re the secret service or something? Not even I wanna assassinate me. Come up here and walk with us!”
“I figured you needed your space.” He breaks into a light jog. Once he catches up, he sneers, “Do I also have to hold your hand? Is this what we do now?”
“Okay, on second thought, you can fuck off.”
Near Tegelbacken I stop, ironically enough, within a stone’s throw from my paparazzi friends over at Aftonbladet. With Kåre and Tor stationed at either side of me, I grasp the guardrail where Micke did two years ago, when we spilled out of the taxi. I stare out over the water. Scattered lights sparkle silver and blue on a serene sea, split by the iconic bridges that span it. The sky is clear, the moon a sliver of a sickle hanging overhead.
The flow of time folds in upon itself so that two distant edges meet. The present and past merge momentarily and I almost expect the metal to be warm to the touch, with Micke’s warmth. Of course, it isn’t. It differentiates the two and reminds me this is, in fact, the present. I cannot live in the past, nor can I continue to stagnate. The future unfolds, spooling out, carrying me farther and farther from that day, whether I care to accept it or not.
“To warn you both, I… I have no idea how I’ll to react to, you know, being there,” I confess. My eyes remain fixed on the waterfront. “I haven’t gone near the place since that night; I never even glance over in that direction if I can help it.” And try as I may, I’ve not been able to even envision myself enduring a return to the place where it happened.
“Well, we’re here with you,” Tor says, and his calm voice is reassuring. “And we can handle it.”
“Or we can turn around and take the underground,” Kåre suggests. “You can wait until you’re in a better place. We don’t have to do this tonight.”
“No, actually, I do.” I turn and face what I’ve been avoiding for so long. The Parliament building sits nestled up against the banks just beyond, its semicircular facade adorned with a soft glow. The golden orbs of the streetlights are adorned with halos, exactly as they were on that night. They cast off radiant white and amber spears over the waves in defiance of the darkness I had envisioned here. I remember it so differently, as a black hole obliterating all light and threatening to consume the city along with everything else I love. Suddenly benign, it seems simultaneously foreign and familiar, yet precisely as it should be, as it has been for years. Even as my knees begin to shake, I know: “It’s time.”
This bridge, Vasabron, is my limbo. I may never get Micke back, however I can reclaim myself. I want myself back. It isn’t for him that I’ve come, but for me. Releasing the rail, I step away from the spot where Micke once stood. I start off anew. Kåre and Tor follow suit.
Crossing the bridge, my field of vision diminishes. The walkway itself comes into sharp focus, like I’m peering through a periscope. It becomes all I can see. The closerer I get, the harder and faster my heart beats, the more sweat bubbles up on my brow and the less my lungs seem capable of expanding. I wonder if my legs will continue to bear weight, quaking as they do. Momentarily, I lose contact with Kåre, Tor, the world.
A tiny glimmer in the distance catches my eye and somehow, upon seeing it, my panic slightly subsides. It’s only a grave light, a dancing candle flame behind its clear, plastic casing. A tiny lighthouse that draws me near. The flicker becomes my fixation, calming me as it guides me. My breathing slows, my heart ceases to hammer. And suddenly, here I am. I’ve arrived, and the journey has not broken me. All I needed was to alter my focus.
As I bend down to examine the flowers and missives, - a fairly meager memorial this year - my beloved guitar topples off of my back and swings precariously. I catch it right in the nick of time. I find it strangely reassuring that I’m not the only one who’s back here hurting, missing Micke, two years on. I’m not alone and never was.
I rise, sling my guitar back over my shoulder, and look all around me. It’s a quiet night. The surrounding streets are virtually empty. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, but I feel as barren as these streets. I take a few steps forward, and peer into the darkness that swallowed Micke on that day. Suddenly, I have very little desire to meet that same fate.
Micke had options. He didn’t have to die. There were several trajectories, many other ways out. He could have run any direction, fled to the other side of the bridge. He could have done anything but jump and he’d be here. Maybe.
When you’re in the thick of it, you simply cannot see the other side.
“How could you do this?” I wail. My untethered anguish is carried across the water and swallowed by the drone of night-time traffic rushing by on the Centralbron bridge. I squeeze my eyes shut, and a torrent of tears topple down my cheeks. I clutch the rail so tightly that my knuckles ache. Two years’ worth of anger and grief bluster up, a sudden gale on an otherwise calm night. “How could you choose this?” I lean against the wrought iron railing and my knees buckle. It supports me, sturdy as I crumble, collapsing over it. As the echo fades out, as it leaves me, as it frees me, I whisper, “You should be here… I should be here.”
Kåre’s hand rests on my shoulder. I’m not sure if he intends to console me or assure himself that I won’t lean farther over the ledge than he’s comfortable with. Either way, it’s okay. I place my hand over his and give a nod to signal I’m ready to move on.
Here. This is where the story of Micke and Axel ends. But it’s not where I am supposed to end. I have other stories to tell, more songs to sing. I may not know what the future holds. To a certain extent, I dread it, but I will face it. I don’t have a clue where I’m headed, but wherever it is, at least I know who I’m going there with. There are possibilities, a multitude of trajectories to consider.
I see that now.