A little while later and I’m transported back to Minnesota, to the house where I grew up. I recognize it as my old house, but something’s off. I’m fully grown now. And this place is no longer a home. Bare white walls, polished hardwood floors that reflect the light more starkly in a home devoid of furniture. It’s oddly empty, like it was on the day my family moved away and I, with great relief, said goodbye to America for good. And I seem to be all alone.
But I shouldn’t be alone. I shouldn’t have to be alone. Somebody else is supposed to be here. In fact, I sense he was here just seconds ago.
Outside, sirens blare, first in the distance, then closer; an ominous wail carried across a sinister, green-tinged sky. The trees are still, almost too still, and the clouds revolve just beyond their black branches, threatening to form a funnel.
I have to find him; I can’t just leave him behind. As I scream Micke’s name, I tear through the house, frantically tossing open doors, checking the rooms one by one in a panic. Every one is empty.
At last, I come to the realization that I’m going to have to ride out this storm on my own. I stand reluctantly at the top of stairs to the basement for a moment, terrified of the darkness and how it yawns below me like an open grave. Only the sound of the approaching storm drives me onward. I stumble down the stairs, clutching a fast-dying flashlight, relying primarily on touch to feel my way around the stairwell and crouch beneath them. The still, stale basement air reeks of rot.
On my knees, I bend down and cover my head with shaking hands, just like they taught me to do in elementary school. As the light sputters and fades out, I can’t see a single solitary thing. I listen to the unmistakable roar approaching, accompanied by what sounds like cracking whips, shattering glass. Tears slide down my cheeks; they fall upon my thighs and dampen my jeans. There’s an oppressive aura of dread, and I know in my heart that nobody can survive this, that nothing will ever be the same again.
A gentle kicking against my thigh definitively informs me that I’m dreaming. I squeeze my eyelids tightly shut at first, unwilling to wake and abandon the dream, unable to let go until I know if Micke made it through. Then it occurs to me that Micke, he never makes it.
Reluctantly, I open my eyes and look around, bewildered, not even sure of what country I’m in. It takes some time before I realize I’m still on a train bound for Oslo, that I’m ‘safe’. But with safety, with survival, comes guilt. I could have tried harder to save Micke; now I’m alive and he’s not. The ending is always the same, yet I keep hoping that one of these times it will end differently. It never does, it never will.
Kåre must have placed the thin travel blanket over me, because I don’t recall doing it myself. Which was thoughtful of him, as much as it makes my heart ache. Micke did that, too. Religiously. Didn’t matter if I woke up on the hard, turquoise tile of our bathroom floor, I would inevitably do so with a pillow under my head and a blanket tucked lovingly around me. These days I just wake up cold, the pattern from the bathroom tile embossed on my face.
“You were talking in your sleep.” Kåre turns the page of his book and slips his black leather bookmark into place. “Seemed like you were having a nightmare.”
“Yeah. Tornadoes. Again.” I rub at my cheek. It’s damp. “How long was I out? Where the hell are we?”
“I dunno, about an hour?” He sets the book down on the table between us. “The last announcement I remember paying attention to was… Karlstad, I think? So we’re more than halfway there?” He falls silent for a second. Karlstad is Micke’s hometown, and Kåre is well aware of that. Then he adds, “You were mumbling Micke’s name.”
“He disappeared.” My neck is stiff and I stretch it, tilting my head to the right, then left, wincing. “I couldn’t save him.”
“I’m sorry, Axel.” He probably doesn’t know what else to say. Nobody ever does.
“It’s silly, anyway.” I say dismissively, diverting my gaze. “He was never there; we never went to Minnesota together. Who knows why I keep having that stupid dream?” I’m looking forward to never having it again.
The train has stopped to pick up more passengers. I watch as a family boards our car from the midpoint. One teenager catches my eye and stops abruptly in her tracks, her jaw gone slack. I can see her shaking from here. She’s wearing a floppy hat like many of my fans do these days, an attempt to emulate me. She covers her face and whispers something to the lanky boy with the bad skin and the Melvins t-shirt that she boarded with.
My initial response is to sigh and look away. To be honest, that form of attention has always embarrassed me. It’s an embarrassment that borders on shame. To my great relief, they move on to their seats in the next compartment beyond the sliding glass doors. But I still notice the girl occasionally glance over her shoulder in my direction with nervous excitement as they tuck their luggage into the overhead rack and take their seats.
Facing the wrong direction, and thus oblivious to the fact that I have just become a spectacle, Kåre informs me, “Tor sent a message to check in while you were sleeping.” He starts pulling out our lunches. “We had better eat. We’re getting into Oslo right around sound check. I’m not sure we’ll have time to eat until quite late.”
Tor. Tor Haraldsson. He’s my new drummer. Well, I guess you can’t really keep calling someone who’s been in the band for a year ‘new’. But I can’t get used to him being there behind the drum kit, where Micke once sat. Tor was tasked with driving up with his girlfriend Lisa this morning, their Škoda filled to the brim with all the gear we couldn’t carry by train.
“What did Tor have to say?” I ask.
“Yeah, he wanted me to tell you he forgot your keyboard.” Kåre cringes in anticipation of my response.
“What?” Now it’s my turn to go slack jaw. “He did what?” I whip out my phone and immediately place the call. “You’re shitting me!” I grumble while it’s ringing and when Tor picks up, I repeat myself: “Excuse me, you did what?”
He heaves a very audible sigh. “I forgot about your keyboard.”
“What do you mean, you forgot my keyboard? What the hell am I supposed to do without my keyboard?”
“I dunno? Strum a guitar, maybe?“ Just as I’m sucking in ample oxygen, readying myself for a verbal beat-down, he laughs. “Dude, I went back for it, chill out.” I hear Lisa laughing as well. I’m clearly on speakerphone.
I glance up at Kåre, who is attempting unsuccessfully to stifle a chuckle himself. “You fucking knew!” I roll my eyes at him before returning my attention to the call. “Are you all trying to make me have a heart attack?”
His characteristic roar is robust. He thinks he’s hilarious. “I figured you could stand to get the blood pumpin’. You know, get in a little cardio on the way to the gig?” Lisa falls into a fit of giggles.
I supply a sigh of exaggerated aggravation, waiting for them to stop laughing long enough to get a word in. “So what you’re really telling me is that you’re gonna be late because you had to turn around?”
“Well, yeah, at first,” he admits. “But now we’re making excellent time. Lisa’s a lunatic on the road. I bet you one gig’s pay that we still beat you there!”
“Yeah, no, I’m not doing that,” I respond. I’m no fool. Lisa’s been my merch girl for far longer than Tor’s been my drummer, and I’m well-acquainted with her and her lead foot. “Just get him there alive, do you hear me, Lisa?”
“Yeah, yeah. I ain’t got a death wish!” she retorts in her usual snide way, right before they end the call.
I look down at the phone in my palm before focusing my narrowed eyes on Kåre. “You. You’re dead to me.”
“You should have seen your face, though!” Kåre grins, covering his mouth as he chews his food. “I got it all on video, if you wanna see.”
“Thanks, I’ll pass,” I remark, tearing away the wrapping from my meal.
I’m about halfway through my lunch when that gangly, gawky Melvins fan creeps up to me. He is clearly having trouble forming anything resembling a sentence, try as he may to maneuver his lips in vain. I smirk and raise my eyebrows at him in an encouraging ‘Yes, what is it?’ kind of way to coax it out of him. It doesn’t seem to help. He only stands there anxiously, waving his appendages in the air. I can’t help but wonder if he’s possibly making some sort of desperate attempt at sign language.
Finally, after a series of ums and uhs, he manages to pull it together: “Are you uh… Axel Lundén?”
“No.” I shake my head, shrug, and offer him a sheepish half-smile.
The kid’s eyes widen, and he laughs nervously. “Um… I - I’m pretty sure you are.”
“Well, you sound reasonably certain.” I wipe at my mouth with a napkin and prepare for what I already know is coming.
“No offense, but it’s sort of difficult to mistake anyone else for you,” he says. Which is a rather kind way of saying I’m uniquely ugly. “I’m really, really sorry to bother you, but my sister over there is your biggest fan…”
“Yeah, well, they all are.”
“Uh, yeah. So, I guess they all probably… do say that. But it’s her birthday, and I was, I was just wondering if you could… pop over and say hi to her? She’s too nervous to come over here herself… and while she’s in the bathroom, I wanted to…“ His voice trails off and he momentarily stumbles over his words again. “Or maybe you could just sign something for her? I mean, if it isn’t asking too much.”
I interrupt him. “If you kindly allow me to finish eating, I might do better than that.” I give a brief nod up at my guitar case overhead. “Allow me a few minutes, okay?”
A slow grin spreads across his face, and he claps his hands together in excitement. “Oh wow! She is gonna freak out!” He backs away from me toward the door to our compartment, wearing what has blossomed into an enormous, contagious grin.
“Oh no. What are you going to do to that poor kid?” Kåre snickers.
“Just wait,” I wink at him.
Furtively, I observe the sister as she returns to her seat, gnawing away at the wrap until I’ve had my fill, then take a gulp of water and swish, because who on earth wants anyone to serenade them with lettuce stuck in their teeth? I rise from my seat, stretch and inadvertently sniff my armpits to ensure that my day-old clothes don’t reek of despair. When everything seems perfectly in order, I pull down the guitar case and lovingly unzip it.
My favorite guitar. The one Micke gave me for my birthday that glorious first year that we could finally get married. A bright blue, custom Gibson semi-acoustic. My eyes rest on it for a fleeting moment; I caress its fingerprint-tainted patina. Some of those prints are probably still Micke’s, mingled with my own. God, I hope so. But I’m aware the more I play it, the less likely that is. My heart sinks, but I force a smile because I have to. Forcing it is how I get by.
As I make my move down the aisle, I realize Kåre is following close behind. “Are you coming, too?”
“Are you kidding? I have to see this!”
He lingers inconspicuously between the two compartments as I continue through the glass divider to the other end of the compartment with some careful maneuvering. Taking a deep breath, I summon up my rockstar self. To the extent I’m able to muster him up with this lingering hangover. It’s hardly the first time; I’ve had plenty of practice.
“Excuse me?” I tap the girl on the shoulder. I can only barely see beyond the brim of her floppy hat that she’s intensely focused on playing Candy Crush on her phone. When she finally looks up, her jaw unhinges for the second time today. She catches it in her hand. “I heard it’s your birthday?”
“Oh my god, oh my god!” She looks over at her brother, whose smirk gives him away and she smacks the guy.
I can’t resist laughing. “I assure you, I am no god. In fact, I’m mortal and shockingly mundane,” I confess as I casually check my tuning. “How old are you, then?”
“Sixteen!” she squeals. “Oh my god…”
“Oh my god, you’re so young!” I exclaim, channeling my inner valley girl. Then I turn to the rest of the passengers, who are staring now anyway. “It’s this young lady’s sixteenth birthday, everyone. Would you all mind if we sing at her?” I give the guitar a slight jiggle. “I’ll lead.” I perceive the clapping as a sign of approval. She asks me to wait while she extracts her cell phone to record and with her nod of approval, I jump into the Swedish birthday song: “Ja, må hon leva, Ja, må hon leva, Ja, må hon leva uti hundrade år. Ja, visst ska hon leva, Ja, visst ska hon leva, Ja, visst ska hon leva uti hundrade år.” The cabin erupts in applause for this girl, who looks about ready to faint. She fans at her face with one hand while the other films my every move. “What’s your name?” I ask her.
“Alice!” she squeaks.
I turn back to my fellow travelers. “Now, if I may ask for your tolerance for about two, three more minutes… Alice’s brother over there informed me she’s crazy enough to call herself a fan of my music. So if you all agree that I can continue to disrupt the silence, I would like to sing her one more song. If that’s alright. Is that okay?”
More clapping ensues, so I take that as a yes. Even more phones go up in the cabin, recording. The girl’s mother is crying, and the brother is still grinning from ear to ear. I sing ‘When You Were Happy’ from my most recent record for her. Forget that I wrote it in a state of abject misery. Forget that its working title was “Sad Song #8”. It’s a love song, when divorced from context, so what harm can it do? Alice moves her lips soundlessly in unison with mine, tears streaming down her cheeks: “I remember how your crooked smile would split your face, your eyes pinched tight with joy, when you were happy by my side. I was yours, you were mine, those were simpler times and I cannot forget you, wouldn’t want to try.”
I draw out the ending for the sake of theatricality. Stereotypical rocker move. The cabin breaks into applause again. I slip the strap over my head, removing my guitar, and she stands up.
“Can I?” She pauses, politely awaiting permission. Not all of them bother to ask, but I always permit it. She throws her arms around me and her hat tumbles off into her seat. “Thank you,” she says, her voice muffled by my chest. “Thank you so much.”
She takes a selfie with me. Her brother mouths his thanks, still smiling, eyes glowing with authentic gratitude. Her mother dabs at the corners of her eyes with a tissue. And I’ve done my humanitarian deed for the day. I turn off the charm and slink modestly to my seat again.
That’s him. It’s like bam, he’s back, like he awoke from a stupor and suddenly sprang into action all for the sake of one delighted girl. That was what he was like before, the true Axel Lundén. And when he emerges, he’s beautiful. When he appears, I feel such an ache, because I know he’ll vanish again in an instant. So I try to enjoy every second I get with the real Axel. Even just a moment with him is worth all the other shit. It’s easy to forget that.
Kåre meets me in the middle and slides the divider closed behind me. Once we return to at our seats, I carefully place my precious Gibson in her gig bag. Zipping her up always feels like closing the lid on a coffin.
“Axel,” Kåre softly says my name as I heave the bag back over the seats. He waits, clasping the seat with one hand before we both sit down. “That was beautiful. No so-called ‘ugly person’ could do something that beautiful.”
“Thanks.” I take my seat, cross my legs, fold my arms over my chest, and sink back against the window again. “I’ll take that into consideration the next time I feel the urge to berate myself in public.”
The thing is, Kåre doesn’t have to live in here. He doesn’t see the wilt and the decay that serve as a constant reminder that I’m not who I once was. Sure, the things I do may be beautiful, but they’re no longer an extension of who I am. I’ve grown as ugly on the inside as I am at a glance. My acts are a habitual continuance of the person I used to be, but—tear the sheet from the ghost and you’ll find a lot of nothing underneath.
Kåre holds up his phone to show me a tweet. “Look at this.” He has my name on hashtag alerts, something even I don’t bother with.
The first thing I think as I’m forced to view the accompanying selfie she shared is how horrible I look and I wince. It’s gruesome.
“Word travels fast in the Twittersphere,” I nod.
I pretend to dose off again so he won’t show me any more poorly angled pictures. I need a break from the attention. But I have to admit that I feel good about myself, or at least about my position in life. To think that I have the power and privilege of making a person, even just one person, so immensely happy with the mere recognition of their continued existence. For a moment, I recall how it felt to be the version of me that Kåre remembers with such fondness. Sometimes I miss him, too.