To my five-year-old daughter Lea, who was brave enough to model for the front cover of this book.
Arnakke, Denmark 1992
"Are you sure you want to do this?" the social worker, Line Petersen, who was handling the girl's case, said. "I mean, we're thrilled that you want to take Edwina in, don't get me wrong, but Edwina is…a special case."
"Mother used to say that no pit is ever so deep that God can't reach into it and pull you out," Marie-Therese replied calmly, even though she wasn't sure she believed it. She was neither religious nor superstitious, even though her mother had been both.
"Well, that's settled then," Line Petersen said, and handed Marie-Therese the case file.
It wasn't the first time the girl had come into foster care. Every time before this had gone wrong somehow. But that didn't frighten Marie-Therese. She had heard about the girl's unfortunate story from Mrs. Hansen, who owned the local grocery-store that Marie-Therese visited almost daily. The girl's mother used to work at the grocery store, back when they had just arrived from Ukraine. But now, the mother was dead, leukemia they said, and the father had died before they left Ukraine to move to Denmark.
Marie-Therese knew perfectly well why the girl was the way she was. She was introverted and shy because of her mother—and probably the loss of her father in early childhood. But her mother had to have been the worst factor. The fact that she had hidden Edwina from the world for almost a year when they moved here from Ukraine, was something that would have made Marie-Therese furious, if she wasn't such a controlled person who never let her temper (which her own mother had taught her could only come from the devil) get the best of her.
Edwina wasn't the first foster child Marie-Therese had taken in. She had two more waiting at home for her to bring back the new kid. Evil tongues claimed, from time to time, that she only took the kids in for the extra two thousand dollars a month per child she received, but Marie-Therese didn't see it that way. She told herself that she was doing something good for these children; she gave them a home and a family, and since she had no man or children of her own, there was plenty of room in the old house on the street of Langholm. It was just an extra bonus that she, now with Edwina in the house, would be able to finally quit her part-time job as a nurse at the local hospital.
Marie-Therese never cared much for taking care of sick people. Her mother had told her being a nurse was a good idea, a good way to pay God back for all he had done for her. But Marie-Therese didn't feel like she owed God anything. She didn't care much about him, and didn't think he cared much about her either. It was mostly her mother who had been into all that, being religious and all. They lived together in the mother's old house until she died four years ago. Marie-Therese inherited the house and it was while sitting alone as a spinster in the old house, reading the paper about a woman who had done the same, that she had come up with the idea of taking a child into foster care, giving her a home and, of course—as a bonus—at the same time providing an income for herself.
Now Marie-Therese was sitting in the social worker's office once again, waiting for Edwina to be brought out to her. She read the file a couple of times, and it was heartbreaking what had happened to the family before her who had taken in Edwina. She felt mostly bad for Edwina. That poor girl. All alone in life once again. Marie-Therese was thrilled to be able to provide a new home for her.
The door opened and Line Petersen stepped out. She stopped and held the door open.
"Come on, Edwina," she said with a sigh.
A face peeked out, hiding slightly behind the doorframe. A set of eyes met Marie-Therese's.
"Well, come on," Line Petersen said with another annoyed sigh. "We haven't got all day."
More of her face was shown and, even though she had been warned, Marie-Therese couldn't help but gasp. The lump on the girl's forehead was substantially bigger than what Marie-Therese expected. All the veins were visible and it looked like it was pulling her face, making it lopsided.
"This is Edwina. Edwina, meet Ms. Lundtofte, she'll be taking care of you, so you be good to her, you hear me? Ms. Lundtofte is a very nice lady."
Marie-Therese felt revulsion, and was almost nauseous. She had heard the rumors about the girl and her appearance, but never really believed them. But this…this was almost too much. The girl's glowing green eyes stared at her and made her feel uncomfortable. Marie-Therese looked into them and searched for just a hint, just anything she could care about in there.
"Hi, Edwina," she said, swallowing her nausea and bending down in front of the girl. "I'm Marie-Therese."
"She doesn't talk much," Line Petersen said. "Mostly grunts. They don't know why. It's not that she can't talk; she just doesn't do it." Line Petersen leaned over and whispered. "It might be the thing in her forehead that blocks her brain somehow, the doctor says. Poor girl."
"What is it?" Marie-Therese asked, staring almost paralyzed at the lump.
Line Petersen shrugged. "Some sort of tumor, as far as they know it's benign. But it's too much a part of her head to be removed; it’s been there since birth, so they’re afraid it’ll kill her if they remove it. It is a sort of deformity caused by the radiation she was exposed to in her mother's womb."
"Yes. You read the file. They were both there when the explosion happened. The parents worked there. Edwina's mother was pregnant at the time of the explosion. It's a miracle that Edwina is even alive. I heard a rumor that the mother was, in fact, expecting twins, and when the explosion happened, the other child died, and Edwina sort of absorbed it in her brain, but as I said, those are just silly rumors," Line Petersen said, laughing. Then she got serious. "The fact is, we've had several doctors look at her and they don't know what it is; they only know that it is somehow a part of the girl's body. It has been with her since birth and removing it might be fatal, as I explained. So I guess she is stuck looking like this."
"But that's terrible…"
Line Petersen shrugged. "We all have our lump to carry, don't we?"
Marie-Therese nodded while staring at the girl, who wasn't much bigger than a four-year-old, even though she was supposed to be six.
Marie-Therese knew all about burdens to carry. She had taken care of her mother all those years when she had struggled with cancer, and that wasn't a pretty sight. In the end, her mother had become mean as a bat, constantly yelling at her daughter, calling her awful names and throwing things at her. On the really bad days, her mother couldn't even recognize her, and accused her of stealing from her, of being a thief. Once she even managed to call the police to come and arrest the woman who had broken into her home and was stealing all her money.
In the end, the brain tumor had made her brain into complete goo and she could hardly speak and certainly not yell, but she kept her meanness and fanatic fundamentalist religious beliefs. All she had to do was to stare at Marie-Therese in a certain way to let her know what she thought. She didn't need to speak to tell Marie-Therese that she thought she was sinning against her creator, that she needed to pray for forgiveness, do penance. Her mother would sometimes hurt herself and Marie-Therese had to strap her down to her bed. Yes, she had been some burden to carry, and Marie-Therese had carried her all the way to the grave. Now it was her turn to be taken care of. If no one else would, then she would have to do it herself. With the money she received from taking in Edwina she would be able to do just that.
"Let's go home," she said to the girl with a smile.
Thomas Bastrup awoke one morning in September, not long after Edwina moved in next door, needing to go to the bathroom. It had become more and more frequent lately that he had to go in the middle of the night. He knew he had
to try and fight it in order to not end up like his father, who, right up till he died, needed to go every fifteen minutes, even at night.
Still half asleep, he walked across the bedroom while his wife, Minna, turned in the bed and grunted something in her sleep. Thomas lowered his pants and urinated for what felt like forever. He flushed and left the bathroom. With one leg back in bed, he saw the girl. Thomas blinked a few times to better focus in the darkness. Right there, in the neighbor's window on the other side of the fence, there she was, staring back at him. Her glowing green eyes lit up in the darkness and her lump seemed to glow with a strange light. Till the day Thomas Bastrup died, he claimed that she was laughing and that he could hear her laughter.
The laughter of death, he would often call it.
He was even certain he could feel her cold breath on his skin. It was at that moment, remembering his childhood nightmares, Thomas Bastrup let out a scream so horrific it woke up his wife with a start.
"What's going on?" she said. "What's happening? Is it something with the kids? Did something happen to the kids? Why are you screaming, Thomas? Stop screaming, for crying out loud!"
She pulled his T-shirt. Thomas pulled out of his trance and stopped screaming. He looked at his wife.
"Thomas, you're waking up the kids; what's going on?" she asked with concerned eyes.
Thomas was breathing heavily, almost hyperventilating. He turned his head and looked again. The girl was gone. Just like his childhood monsters in the closet or under the bed, which Thomas now remembered had followed him all the way through elementary school. They too were always gone once his parents came into the room, but they had been there, he knew it; he had seen them again and again. Now she was there, in that window, and Thomas knew he had seen her before somewhere, not as an adult, but when he was a child; he had seen that face, and those eyes with promises of a painful death in them. She was a bad omen; she was a warning that something bad was going to happen.
Last time he saw her, he was thirteen and dreamt about her coming up from the water, walking towards him, laughing that same laughter she did standing in the window. Shortly after, his mother was killed in that stupid car accident and his life was torn to pieces.
"What's going on, Thomas?" His wife pulled his hand and placed her palm on his forehead. "My God, Thomas, you're burning up. You must have a fever. Maybe you had a nightmare caused by the fever?"
Thomas sighed and tried to calm himself down. He looked at his wife, then stroked her cheek. His beautiful, overbearing wife, who loved him through everything all these years. He knew at this second that she, much like his parents, would never understand. She would never believe him, even if he tried to tell her what he had seen, what he believed it meant. She would do her best to pretend that she understood and believed the girl had been there and wasn't just part of a feverish nightmare. He knew she would only pretend for his sake, to not hurt his feelings. He didn't want that, and he certainly didn't want her to worry about him or about what the dream could mean.
"I guess so," he said. "I guess it was nothing but a bad dream."
"Let me get you some ice water," she said, and got out of bed, put on a robe, and went downstairs. He heard her on the stairs, then ran to the window. Still nothing there, no girl, no green light. He sighed with relief. Maybe it had been a stupid nightmare after all.
Minna returned with the water and he gulped it down quickly. Then he smiled with a "thank you" and put his head on the pillow again.
"The kids are still sound asleep," she said, just before she got under the covers and went back to sleep.
Thomas didn't sleep anymore; he lay wide awake, with his eyes open wide, and stared into the darkness of the room, thinking about the time when he had come home from school to find his father sitting in the kitchen with his head bowed and eyes red.
He should have known something was very wrong when someone from the school's front office entered the classroom and talked to his teacher while they both glanced in his direction. He should have at least suspected that something bad could have happened when his teacher told him to gather his belongings and go home early, then given him a long hug before letting him go.
But Thomas couldn't have prepared himself for what was waiting for him behind that door leading into the kitchen. He didn't even have a clue walking home. Instead, he thought he had somehow gotten himself in trouble and that was why he was sent home, that his mom was waiting for him in the kitchen with the proper punishment.
Oh, God, they know about the air soft gun I accidentally fired from my tree house and hit a woman on her bike, causing her to fall. They know it was me!
But it was much worse than that, Thomas realized, as soon as he met his father's eyes in the kitchen. In that moment, everything broke down; everything shattered in his young life.
"Hey, you're that new girl. Edwina, right?"
Linda climbed onto the fence to better have a look at the supposed monster that everyone in her class was talking about. She wasn't disappointed. The girl on the other side was disgusting, even worse than she had heard she would be. Her head was weird and repulsing and almost hairless. Gross, she thought to herself as she studied her. The girl was squatting in the yard and didn't seem to react to Linda's approach. What was she doing anyway? Linda leaned in over the fence to get a better look. The girl hardly moved; she was holding her arms around her knees in the strangest position. How was she even able to sit still like that? She looked like a small ball or balloon when she sat like that.
Then she moved. Linda gasped when Edwina reached out and grabbed a butterfly, forming a small cave for it between her hands.
"What are you doing?" Linda asked.
Edwina only scowled in Linda's direction, but didn’t answer or even look at her. Linda wasn't used to that. She scoffed.
Edwina opened her hands and Linda could see the orange and black butterfly. It tried to escape, but Edwina held onto its wing so it couldn't fly.
"Don't do that," Linda said. "Don't you know that butterflies can't fly if you touch their wings?"
Edwina still didn't react; she kept holding on to the wing, then pulled out a needle from her pocket and pinned it through the wing, leaving a hole. The butterfly fluttered its wings frantically as Edwina pulled the needle out and watched as the butterfly tried to fly again, but failed miserably.
Appalled by her actions, Linda yelled at Edwina. "Don't do that. What did the butterfly ever do to you?"
That was when Linda saw Edwina's eyes for the first time. She lifted her head and looked directly at Linda with a deep beastlike growl. Linda gasped and pulled back, jumped down from the fence and walked backwards, her heart racing in her chest. Then she turned and ran.
Linda's mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen, and looked up as Linda entered, pushing the door open with a loud bang.
"What's the matter, sweetie?" she said. "You're all pale. Please don't tell me you're coming down with something like your father. He's been in bed with a fever for three days now. Fever and strange ulcers in his mouth that won't seem to go away. You don't have that, do you?"
Linda breathed heavily and shook her head. "That girl…the girl next door…the new one that Ms. Lundtofte has taken in." Linda stopped to catch her breath. She had never been much of a runner and it always left her breathless, even when it was just for a few feet. Linda wasn't into sports and she knew she should be, since she had been slightly overweight most of her life, but it just wasn't for her.
"What about her?" Minna asked, half distracted by the potatoes that were boiling and spilling water on the stove. She turned down the heat.
"Mom," Linda said with a serious voice, to let her know this was important. This was very urgent and required all of her mother's attention. "She is torturing a butterfly. She stuck a needle through its wing and now it can't fly."
"Well, she's probably just playing," her mother replied with her back turned to Linda, pulli
ng the roast from the oven that soon filled the room with its wonderful smell and made Linda forget about everything for a few seconds.
"No, Mom. You're not listening. She was being really mean to that poor butterfly, and then she growled at me."
Her mother turned and looked at her. "Growled at you? Are you sure about that?"
Linda nodded eagerly to make her point. "Yes, Mom. She sounded like Hansen's old dog when you walk past their house and it growls at you from behind the fence. You know, you always tell me it means it wants to warn you to not come any closer. You know that kind of growl. I was afraid she was gonna bite me."
Minna laughed lightly in the way her husband always had loved, the way he found to be enchanting, back when they were young and still very much into each other. "Now you're just making up stories," she said and pinched Linda's chubby cheek. "Now go and wash up. Dinner is in five minutes."
"But Mooom," Linda said in that reproachful way only children can.
Her mother shushed at her. "Now, do as you were told," she said with a tired tone to her voice from days of taking care of everything in the house by herself.
Marie-Therese enjoyed her new life, even with one more mouth to feed in the house, up until a couple of weeks later when the problems began.
Until then, Edwina had been as easy as they come. She kept out of the way most of the time; she hardly ate anything, so she wasn't much of an expense either. Marie-Therese had finally quit her job like she had always dreamt of, and now she could do what she pleased all day long. The kids were in school and when they came home she would tell them to go to their rooms and keep quiet so she could watch her soaps without being bothered.
Marie-Therese wasn't one of those women who enjoyed cooking, but luckily one of the kids was. Ida had turned out to be quite a pleasure to have in the house. She would cook and even clean up afterward. All Marie-Therese had to do was to go to the grocery store and shop, which was one of the few things she truly enjoyed, since down there she could get the latest gossip from Mrs. Hansen, who knew everything there was to know about everybody in Arnakke, and then some that nobody else knew.