Lukas and Elsa

By EARLE MCCARTNEY

1.

Søren sat on his stoop rasping his hands together, listening to his sister Elsa shouting inside the house. She had been coming home late, and Søren’s father was finally speaking up. Lukas Clemens’s Mustang—a rebuilt black muscle car whose engine Lukas had somehow replaced with a stock-car Hemi—stood idling in the driveway, its headlights casting long shadows behind the tilted stakes of their mother’s abandoned garden. Søren thought he could hear Lukas and Elsa laughing. Just as he’d decided he should go in and help, the door swung open, and the two of them barged out. Lukas patted Søren on the head and said, “Later, buddy.” Elsa pinched his ear and twisted it, then ran through the snow saying, “Don’t wait up!” The Mustang roared and carried her away.

Inside, Søren’s father pretended to watch television. They didn’t have cable, and the picture was always bad. His father crouched and put a hand on either side of the TV, as if it were a misbehaving child.

“Did she say where she got her fat lip?” Søren asked.

“Slipped on a banana peel.”

His father smacked the side of the television, and the picture got worse. He stood up and unbuttoned his shirt. “Well,” he said, “I’m at a loss.” He turned off the TV, kicked off his shoes, and lay on the couch. “Hit the lights, would you?” He covered his eyes with the bend of his elbow.

“So you let her go out again?”

“She’s a grown woman,” his father said. “Turn off the lights?”

“She’s eighteen.”

“Jesus,” his father said, shaking his head, his face still buried in the crook of his arm. “That’s old enough to join the army.”

“Lukas is twenty-five,” Søren said. “He doesn’t even have a job.”

“They’ve got money.” Lukas’s parents owned the game preserve across the meadow. “He still lives at home.”

“So does Elsa.”

Søren’s father propped himself on his elbows. “I thought you liked Lukas,” he said.

“I never liked him,” Søren lied.

His father again laid his elbow across his eyes; he was ready to let the issue go, as he did with everything. Søren told him to go up to his bedroom, if he was going to sleep.

“It’s cold up there. I’m more comfortable here.”

Søren sighed loudly and flicked off the lights. As he bagged the recycling, he made as much noise with the bottles as he could. Then he collected the trash from both bathrooms and set a new roll of toilet paper on the dispenser upstairs, knowing that nobody else would. He put away the leftovers and made a pitcher of instant lemonade, rinsed and dried the wooden stirring spoon, and jammed it in the silverware drawer. Then he unfolded the afghan that he’d folded himself the night before and spread it over his sleeping father. His father frowned and turned his face into the couch cushions.

Søren stepped outside and called for the cat, then pulled a loose chunk of brick from the edge of the walkway and jogged it in his fist. It felt substantial. It made Søren feel substantial to hold it. Its rough weight allowed Søren to feel the strength in his hands. The work he’d done to keep up the house since his mother’s death—splitting firewood, shoveling snow, clearing the foxtails that encroached at the edge of the yard—had given Søren blisters that had hardened into calluses like scars on both his palms. His knuckles were thick, and his fists were square. He was thirteen years old, and no one at school had hands like his. If he held a handkerchief in one hand and decided to keep hold of it, even pulling with his other hand he couldn’t make himself let go.

It seemed very simple to Søren: it was wrong to hit a girl; it was even more wrong to hit his sister.

Lukas and Elsa went bowling on the weekends, and since Lukas usually picked her up early, that Saturday Søren set his alarm and got himself out of bed at sunrise to haul in the firewood before lunch. Then he sat down on the stoop with the cat. The sun was warm. The yard was full of the sound of snowmelt dripping from the branches.

The Mustang flashed around the corner of the pigpen and came to a skidding stop in the slush behind his father’s little hatchback. Lukas honked twice and stepped carefully from the car. His boots looked worn enough not to be waterproof; he placed his feet in a set of Søren’s old footprints as he made his way across the yard. When he was halfway to the door, the cat jumped from Søren’s lap. Lukas claimed to have a way with animals. He said, “Pussy, pussy!” as he massaged her head, pulling back her fur until her yellow teeth were bared and the skin of her face came halfway over her eyeballs. From where Søren sat, twenty feet away, he could hear her purring.

Approaching the stoop, Lukas said, “Good afternoon, sir,” and held out his hand.

Søren ignored it and got up on his own. Standing on the bottom step, 
he was taller than Lukas. He said, “I need to talk to you.”

Lukas smiled. “I don’t converse with a man who neglects to shake my hand.”

Lukas’s hands were larger than Søren’s, but because he kept them clean, they looked fragile. Søren took hold of his hand and squeezed.

“Now we’re talking,” Lukas grunted, thinking it was a game.

Søren squeezed harder, and so did Lukas. Søren imagined he was about to crush Lukas’s fingers.

Out came Elsa. “Oh, jeez,” she said. “Don’t hurt him, Luke.”

“He started it.”

“Well, quit fooling around.”

Lukas started squeezing for real. Søren winced, stepped off the stoop, went down on one knee in the snow, and then managed to say mercy.

“Say uncle.”

He said uncle.

“Say ‘I’m a monkey’s uncle.’”

He said it. Lukas shook out his hand and asked, “What’s got into you?”

Søren was breathing heavy. His hands were full of weird energy.

“Enough with the manly bullshit,” Elsa said. “Let’s get moving.”

“Better luck next time.” Lukas clapped Søren on the shoulder. With Søren still down on one knee, Lukas might have been knighting him. He stared at Søren a moment, considering. “Hey, I’ve got a bright idea. You want to come with us?”

“No!” Elsa said.

“He obviously needs to have some fun. Be good to get away from the old man. Am I right?”

Søren didn’t want to talk to Lukas in front of Elsa. He was afraid that she’d defend him. But he did imagine she’d be safer if he went with them.

The bruise by Elsa’s lip grew darker when she frowned. “Look at him, Lukas. He’s a downer.”

Lukas laughed. “I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment.”

“I don’t want my little brother out with me! It’s like mixing work 
and pleasure.”

“Oh, Elsa, shut up.”

Elsa smacked Lukas on the arm and told him not to tell her to shut up, but she didn’t smack him hard, and Søren suspected that she did so at all only because he was watching. She kicked her way through the snow to the Mustang. Lukas followed Søren’s footprints back the way he had come.

The Clemenses’ hunting preserve was directly across the water from Søren’s property, probably no more than a couple miles away—the gunshots carried sharply across the ice—but the drive, along a ten-mile loop around the meadow, took half an hour. At first, Elsa sat with her hands folded as Lukas explained to Søren the many big improvements he was saving up to make to the Mustang’s interior—CB radio, CD changer, speaker system, new upholstery. When he began describing the color of the new upholstery and where he’d get the new upholstery and how the new upholstery would be installed, Elsa yawned and said, “Ugh, fuck this.” Over the next twenty minutes, she finished four tiny bottles of liquor from a stash beneath the seat and tossed each of the empties back at Søren. “You asked for it,” she said.

Søren collected the bottles in a paper bag he found at his feet.

“See? He’s always serious,” Elsa said. “He’s the man of the house.” She seemed to find this statement hilarious.

Lukas led them up a bouncing flight of wooden steps to his apartment over the tractor garage. Elsa jumped on Lukas’s back as he crossed the threshold, causing him to topple a coat rack as he stumbled into the room. There was no carpet and no television, just a bed, a brown corduroy sofa, a mini-fridge, and several stacks of neatly folded clothes. The place smelled bad in a way that

Søren hadn’t smelled before, like armpits but more sour.

With Elsa still riding piggyback, Lukas fell backwards on the couch. 
She screamed and started kicking underneath him.

“Don’t hurt her,” Søren said.

“Hurt who? This girl’s indestructible.”

She bit him, and he jumped up with a yelp. Then she drew from between the cushions a skinny bottle half-full of something yellow. In the bottom was a curled-up worm. She took a gulp, making the worm jig around in the bottle, and then passed it to Lukas.

“You’re drinking too much,” Lukas said. He drank and passed it back.

“Yeah, yeah,” Elsa said, and belched.

Lukas waved the smell away from his face. “You’re showing off for 
your brother.”

“So what if I am?” Elsa offered the bottle to Søren, but Lukas snatched 
it away.

“Don’t give him that.”

“You’re the one who said he should have fun.” She hoisted herself out of the couch by the armrest. “It’s not like I’m his mother.” She steadied herself against Søren. “I am not your mother,” she told him.

“Where are you going?” Lukas asked.

“I have to take a piss.”

“Already?”

“Søren’s making me nervous. Look at him!” She waved a hand in front of Søren’s face. Søren was working up his courage and didn’t want to be distracted. Elsa gave up and left.

“Great,” Lukas said. “She’ll be peeing all night.”

“Shut up!” Elsa yelled from the bathroom.

Søren stood in front of Lukas. His arms felt heavy. He’d made two fists but didn’t know what to do with them. It was like he was holding a hammer in each hand.

“What’s with you?” Lukas said. “There’s beer in the fridge.”

“I should kill you,” Søren mumbled.

“What?”

“For what you did to my sister.”

Lukas looked surprised. Søren’s hands wanted to shake. He tightened 
his fists.

“What’s he saying?” Elsa yelled.

“Her face!” Lukas said. “You mean her face! Oh, man, she did that to herself!” He laughed and jumped up to take Søren by the shoulders. “Søren, I swear to God, she did that to herself. Tripped and fell on a bowling ball. She was drunk as a skunk. Scouts’ honor.” He tried to make the Boy Scouts’ signal but then seemed to realize that he didn’t know how. He did “live long and prosper” instead. Then he opened the fridge. “That’s cute, though. You’re a good brother.”

Søren didn’t know what to do. He was embarrassed and confused. Lukas used a handkerchief to twist the tops off two beers. He pried open Søren’s fists and placed a bottle in each hand.

“Relax, buddy. No need to get emotional.”

Søren didn’t want to cry. He hated crying. He started drinking the beer. 
It tasted terrible.

Elsa emerged from the bathroom, said, “Much better,” and threw herself onto Lukas’s lap.

“Honey, tell your brother how you got your fat lip.”

“Oh, give it a rest,” she said. “It’s humiliating.”

Lukas winked at Søren, then drank from the wormy bottle. Elsa drank, and drank again. She looked comfortable, experienced. Søren finished the beer in his right hand and started on the beer in his left, feeling out-of-place and under-informed. They all finished drinking at the same time, which was almost like finishing a meal together, except for the fact that the three of them together felt nothing like a family.

They still had an hour before it was time to bowl, and Lukas said he couldn’t drive until the liquor had settled, so he took them for a walk around the compound—to give them the tour of his kingdom, as he called it. The place was empty. Elsa shouted, and her voice rang against the steel sheds. “I like it here! Everything’s new! Someday it will all be mine!” Lukas told her not to count her chickens.

He led them past a registration booth, shuttered and locked—Lukas’s parents were on a Caribbean vacation—and past a boathouse stacked high with plastic skiffs. While they were near the water, Elsa squatted in the foxtails. Next they passed a snack bar, also locked, for which Lukas said he’d lost his key. Elsa rattled the door and kicked the lock. Off the main driveway, Søren could see the steel sheds where the ducks were raised, could hear the gabby sound of the birds. Lukas waved a hand in the sheds’ direction and said the process was all very scientific and sophisticated.

Elsa insisted that they visit the chick shed. The stale air inside smelled of oil and dust and corn. A moving yellow carpet had been laid in a channel down the center of the bay.

“The babies!” Elsa sang. She ran her fingers over their soft backs and heads.

“Look at this poor little guy,” Lukas said, bending to scoop one out of the crowd. It didn’t peep like the others. A lump the size of half a golf ball was growing from its back, and one of its feet stuck out sideways.

“They’re all dead meat anyway,” Elsa said.

“Not true,” Lukas said. “A few make it away after release. This one’ll get culled, though.” He stroked the top of its head. “You’re going to be cat food, aren’t you?”

“Let me hold him,” Elsa said.

“No way,” Lukas replied. “I know you. You are in no condition to hold this bird.”

Søren thought that he’d like to hold it, too. He could take it home and care for it. He said so.

Elsa said, “Let me hold that thing,” grabbing Lukas’s arm and yanking him towards her.

Lukas almost dropped it. “Look what you’re doing!” he shouted. He shook her off and slipped the chick in with its brothers and sisters. “Run!” he said. “Blend in!” It walked with a tiny limp.

Lukas started laughing. He picked it up again and held it high above his head.

Elsa jumped and swatted. “Give me my fucking bird!” she said. The chick let out a frightened croak.

Lukas kept his back between the bird and Elsa. “Søren,” he said, “think fast!” He tossed the baby duck high into the air.

Søren surprised himself by making the catch. He made a bowl with his hands and held the duck against his chest. It occurred to him that this creature would never get closer to flying than it just had. He knew he couldn’t let his sister have it. Away from home, Elsa was dangerous. And she didn’t seem to like the look on Søren’s face. She walked over to Lukas, pushed him against the wall, and started kissing him on the mouth.

“You are a nut,” Lukas marveled.

The duck squirmed. Its feathers were the softest, most delicate thing that Søren had ever felt. He suddenly didn’t want to be holding it anymore. It was no longer in immediate danger, so he set it amongst its siblings and left to wait by the Mustang. He picked up a rock and imagined smashing in the headlights, breaking all the windows—which was better than imagining what his sister was doing. He threw the rock at the shed instead. There was a gong, then laughter. Søren decided to walk home across the meadow.

It had started to get dark, but Søren could judge his direction from the sky. The ice had frozen rough and was easy to walk on. Søren had left home without his hat and gloves, and a breeze on the open ice sent swirls of salty snow skidding around him, but he told himself he was tough enough to enjoy discomfort. He skirted the islands overrun by foxtails—the stalks were tall and thick and made a secretive, whispering sound—but he walked directly across one large, flat island whose clumps of marsh grass came only to his waist. As he ran his hands over the rough stalks, he started to feel strong again. He could have stayed home, he could have waited with his father, he could have dropped the baby duck—but he hadn’t. Halfway across the island, he passed an old foundation.

A pile of green bottles was frozen in a pool of clear ice in the bottom. He imagined that it was the remains of the house of a Swedish settler, maybe a distant ancestor, from the time before the Dutch had built the dikes that kept the meadow flooded. He’d never heard of anyone crossing 
the meadow ice on foot before. He imagined himself as a trapper trekking 
home across a wasteland, his hands his only protection in this dark, hostile
place. Was Lukas Clemens a Dutch name or an English one? The Dutch were 
the Swedes’ worst enemies.
Søren was a little drunk, and he’d never been drunk 
before. A pair of mallards passed overhead like flying bowling pins. At least this all was new. He was one of the very first travelers in an unforgiving country.

 

 

2.

One night not long after Søren’s walk across the ice, he awoke to the sound of the Mustang in the driveway. Through the springs of his bed he felt Elsa’s footsteps on the stairs. He went back to sleep thinking she’d snuck out for another crazy liaison, but in the morning he found that her jewelry had been cleared from the dresser and half her wardrobe pulled from her closet. In the kitchen he discovered an empty, dusty space where the microwave had been.

“Are you going to call the police?” he asked his father over breakfast.

“For a microwave oven?”

“Elsa’s been kidnapped.”

“Søren, you know that’s not true.”

“Well, I’m going to call the police.”

“They’ll just ask to talk to me,” his father said. “And we know where she is. You think I don’t miss her, too?”

Søren did not believe, in fact, that his father truly missed Elsa. His father didn’t care about anything anymore, which seemed to make life easier for him. He wore socks that didn’t match, and the knot in his tie was crooked, and there was nothing Søren could have said to make him bother to do better. He read the sports page and the comics while his car warmed up, and he said nothing more about Elsa. He didn’t even seem to notice that he was going to be late for work. Søren decided that his fatalism looked suspiciously like laziness.

When Elsa didn’t come back, Søren started to work even harder. Determined to split enough wood to fill the corncrib, something that had never been done before as far as he knew, Søren spent the few hours of daylight after school every day swinging the maul and sweating through his long johns. Each swing relaxed his arms and catalyzed a cool, spreading calm inside his chest; decisive action was like an emotion in itself. When he’d finally split all the wood there was to split, he started breaking up the pigpen, and his father didn’t stop him. With his mother gone, they would never own pigs again. Each time Søren swung the sledgehammer, its echo chopped against the house. In the cold air, sounds carried. He worked to the constant crackle of gunshots across the ice. Now and then a loud car roared down the highway.

He filled his last free hour before bedtime drawing pictures. He drew mallards from a book he’d stolen from the school library, and then he drew birds of prey. He drew falcons grappling with mallards midair, then hunters shooting at falcons. Then he drew pickup trucks and cars and engine parts from a Popular Mechanics and used them to put together his own monstrous vehicles. When he got tired of drawing from pictures, he brought the cat upstairs and drew her. He spent a lot of time petting her. He started calling her by her name—Loki—which his mother had given her but which nobody but Elsa ever used. He slept every night with aching ribs and throbbing hands, and Loki seemed to know that he was hurting. She let him sleep with her next to him half under the covers.

School seemed useless. Søren was easily the tallest boy in his class, and he felt too old for the daily routine, the pointless instruction. He stopped doing homework. He drew in the margins of his notebooks, on the blank pages in the back of his textbooks, on the squares of scrap paper they gave out in the library for writing down call numbers, a handful of which he carried in each pocket all day. After he fell asleep in keyboarding class—he couldn’t imagine ever needing to know how to type, and the drippy sound of the keys annoyed him—the teacher sent him to the principal, who couldn’t get a word of explanation out of him, threw up his hands, and called Søren’s father to take him home.

His father’s car was small and hot. The floor was crowded with old, folded sections of the newspaper. The engine made a noise like a pocketful of change in the dryer. Being together in such a small, uncomfortable space must have made his father feel like he had to say something.

“I’ve been thinking,” his father said. “I suppose you’re emulating your sister.”

Since it wasn’t a question, Søren didn’t respond.

“You know she dropped out of high school.”

Søren had heard.

“She’s working at the new Walmart.”

Søren hadn’t heard that. But it didn’t matter much. He had no way to get there.

“I suppose everyone works at Walmart now,” his father continued. “It’s 
a whole world in itself. They’ve got everything you could need.”

“So you saw her?”

“I saw her through the window.”

“You didn’t talk to her?”

“I didn’t go inside.”

The meadow strung by. Ducks flew aimlessly in every direction.

“It’s driving the Ames out of business,” his father continued. “Your mother used to work there, before you were born. At Ames, I mean.” He frowned. 
“I suppose that’s the nature of things. Maybe one’s just as good as the other.” Søren’s father became quiet, and the silence was awkward. There was rarely any talk of Søren’s mother. “She looked good,” his father added. “Your sister.”

“Tell me about Mom,” Søren said.

“You knew her.”

“She was sick for so long. Before that I was just a kid.”

His father smiled. “How old are you now?”

Søren did not appreciate the condescension.

His father shifted in his seat and became serious again. “When she was younger she was a little like Elsa,” he said, as if he were admitting to 
something embarrassing.

Søren waited. It occurred to him that silence was empowering.

“For instance,” his father said, “when you were four or so, she left for a year. Do you remember? She never told me where she’d gone. Maybe Elsa remembers. It was when she came back that she started with the pigs and the gardening. She settled into herself then, I think. Got something out of her system and settled into herself.”

Søren could see what his father was up to. He was trying to give Søren something to hope for. But knowing that the urge to wander off was in their genes, that someone as kind and good as his mother could develop it and that it couldn’t be reasoned with any more than a disease, made it even more alarming.

“She was like you, too,” his father added. “Hardworking, independent, liked to be left alone.” They passed the ruins of the pigpen. “Strangely driven.” He smiled at Søren, and Søren ignored him. He didn’t need to be flattered. “The dourness, though, you got from me. I’m sorry for that.” He parked the car but kept his hands on the steering wheel. “How did you get me talking like this?”

Søren said he had work to do.

That night Søren stayed out two hours past dark, and when he had finally finished the pigpen, he stood on the rubble with his sledgehammer on his shoulder, imagining the ruthless figure he cut. Then he pulled up the stakes from his mother’s garden. As Søren made dinner, his father lay on the couch with the blanket pulled up to his chin, looking like he might cry. Søren carried his own bowl of spaghetti up to his room. Loki rubbed her nose against his feet, and he ignored her, too. He tried to draw his mother, but he couldn’t remember what she looked like. He tried to draw Elsa and found that he couldn’t remember her exactly, either. So he drew a Swedish settler, alone on the ice. He set up a mirror, added his own face to the settler’s body, and then tore up the finished picture. It was unavoidable—his face was changing, and he was starting to look like his father.

Elsa came home once more, in the middle of the night. Søren heard the roar and the footsteps and this time got himself out of bed. He found Elsa packing up her room. A trash bag sat open on her bed. She’d already stripped the blanket and the pillowcases. She drew her sock drawer out of her dresser and turned around with it. She jumped.

“Holy cow, Søren. I didn’t see you there.”

“I made up your bed,” he said. “For when you came back.”

“I saw that,” she said. “You’re sweet.” She carried the drawer to the bed and dumped its contents into the bag. A couple of balled socks went rolling across the floor.

“Elsa,” Søren said. She continued with the drawers. “You could at least have said goodbye.”

“Søren, it’s the middle of the night.”

“So you should have come earlier.”

She stuffed handfuls of underwear into the bag.

“You could have woke me up,” Søren said. “I wouldn’t have minded.”

She stopped and put a hand over her mouth and stared up at the ceiling. “You don’t understand,” she said. Then, “I’m in a hurry. Luke’s waiting.”

“I’m having a really hard time,” Søren said, and only as he said it did he realize it was true.

Suddenly Elsa was hugging him. Elsa never hugged him. Now everyone was acting emotional. Søren didn’t want to feel emotional, so he pushed her away.

She rubbed her eyes with her palms and said, “Maybe when we get a new place, you can come stay with us?”

“You should come home.”

“I’d have to ask Luke,” she continued, “but once we have a house, I’m sure there’ll be room.”

“Pop would die without us.”

“Oh, stop it,” she said. She watched herself tying the bag. “He’s a grown man.” She unknotted it and tied it again.

“What are you doing?”

She seemed to think he meant the tying, so she gave up on the knot and hefted the bag. She looked at Søren standing in the doorway. Søren knew he was in her way. She smiled. “You’re a good brother,” she said.

Søren wasn’t sure what that meant. She was waiting for him to say something. Her smile looked fragile.

“Okay,” Elsa finally said, pushing past him. “Luke’s outside.”

Søren followed. “Are you getting married?”

“That’s up to Luke.”

Lukas was waiting by the Mustang. The light from the open door led all the way to his feet. Elsa stomped through the snow, and Lukas came halfway—
not careful of his boots—to take the bag from her. “Thank God,” Søren heard her say as she shoved it into his arms.

Lukas looked over the bag at Søren. “You couldn’t help her with this?”

A second yellow rectangle appeared on the snow. Lukas looked up. “There’s the old man.” He waved.

“Let’s go,” Elsa said. “This place uses me up.” Before climbing into the car, she cleared her throat, a gesture that seemed rehearsed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You are welcome to come visit.”

“That’s right,” Lukas added.

It was February. The ice would hold for only a couple more weeks. How was Søren supposed to get there?

Loki sprinted out of the house and went leaping straight for Lukas. “You little rascal!” Lukas shouted. Søren slammed the door. The stupid animal could sleep outside. From his room, he heard the Mustang rev up, then cut out. Maybe Elsa had changed her mind. Søren sat on his bed and waited. It was a strange moment. It felt like he waited a very long time. It seemed like all he’d been doing lately was waiting. But a minute later the Mustang roared again. Through the bedsprings, Søren could feel his father pacing. The two of them were trapped inside the empty house together, equally powerless and ashamed. It all seemed arbitrary and inevitable and unfair. Søren thought he knew how Elsa was feeling. He didn’t want to be stuck here, either.

 

3.

Loki didn’t come inside the next morning, and she wasn’t around after school or after dinner. Søren asked his father if he’d seen her.

“Who’s Loki?”

“The cat,” Søren said. “Mom’s cat.”

“Sweet Jesus,” his father said. “She’s gone now, too?”

Søren told himself that if Lukas and Elsa wanted Loki, and if she was dumb enough to go with them, then they should keep her. Every day that she was missing, though, made her absence seem more significant. It seemed like everything he wanted to keep, he inevitably lost. He might as well have been trying to hold onto a fistful of snow. At the same time, the things he would rather have let go of were impossible to forget. He carted the rubble from the pigpen to the meadow, and he pulled up what was left of his mother’s garden, and with the next snow, the land became an empty white waste, making it seem like the pigpen and garden had never existed. And yet Søren found that their absence made them even more intensely present. All he could think about was a newly remembered image—Loki balancing on the pigpen wall as his mother dropped her rotten pumpkins in with the feed. It was like he’d cleared room for new memories.

That afternoon he picked his way back across the ice. The surface had melted and refrozen since his last trip, so that now it was slick and reflective, bright enough to make him squint. He fell several times before he was used to the surface. At one point he shouted a profanity and discovered that it felt good to do so. When he passed the old foundation full of bottles—its rim rounded with wind-worn ice, its bottom covered with crusty snow—he leaned over and profaned it, too, and the shape of the structure projected the word right back at him. He kicked a brick loose from a corner and threw it in with both hands. The ice must have been salty at the bottom, or thin, because the stone went through, and the sound of shattering ice and glass rang out with a volume that was larger than the gesture and thrilling for the discrepancy.

He passed a series of blinds as he approached the preserve. Gunfire erupted all around him. As he entered the compound, he walked through a crowd of men in camouflage jumpsuits and fur-lined orange hats, and he imagined that they were shamed by the sight of him striding out of the wilderness in nothing but a windbreaker. He was Swedish: he owned the cold. As he climbed the spongy steps to Lukas’s apartment, he noticed the Mustang—ageless, monstrous, and unimpressed—watching from the tractor bay.

Elsa seemed happy to see him. She hadn’t expected Søren to visit so soon, she said, nor in such cold weather. Had he walked? Across the ice again? Lukas came out of the bathroom buckling his belt, shook Søren’s hand and said he was impressed as all get out. Was Søren okay? Søren said he was fine. Elsa took his jacket from him and hugged him. She was skinnier than he remembered.
They seemed excited to have a guest. Elsa poured Søren a cup of coffee and cleared a pile of dirty clothes from the couch. The place was still musty and dingy, but now it also was strewn with Elsa’s sweatshirts and jeans, her dirty socks, her brassieres. On top of the fridge sat the microwave. Elsa saw him looking and offered to make popcorn. Before she could hand Søren his coffee, Lukas said, “Let me sweeten that,” and added a splash of brown liquor from a bottle the shape of a container of maple syrup. “To celebrate.” When Elsa passed Søren the mug, he noticed the ring on her finger. It was gold with a fat, orange gem.

She spread her hand and twisted her wrist to make the stone sparkle. “It’s a garnet,” she said. “Beautiful, right?”

“Damn straight,” Lukas said.

Søren nodded and sipped his drink. “Congratulations.” He made 
himself smile.

Lukas handed Elsa a tumbler half-full of brown liquor and then lifted his own glass to offer a toast to his batshit crazy soon-to-be brother-in-law, and to family. They touched glasses and drank. The coffee wasn’t bad. Loki wasn’t there. It was a relief that they hadn’t taken her. Maybe the situation didn’t have to be unbearable.

After several more drinks—it felt to Søren like they were celebrating his escape as much as their engagement—Lukas invited Søren to come bowling. It would be a hell of a time. Elsa surprised Søren by saying she thought it was a great idea. They must have grown tired of talking only to each other, Søren thought, now that they saw each other all the time. They didn’t seem to want him to leave, and that was fine. Søren didn’t want to go home.

The inside of Lukas’s car smelled interesting. The new upholstery smelled like Søren’s arm smelled when he was sweaty. He licked the leather, and Elsa laughed harder than he’d heard her laugh in months. Søren realized he was drunk. They laughed and laughed. The car was dark and strangely textured. It bucked and bellowed, all gas and brakes. The air was cold, but they drove with the windows down anyway, and as the wind disheveled Lukas’s hair, Søren had to admit the man was handsome. Søren filled his lungs with cold. The air was delicious and sharp.

Groups of teenagers stood smoking cigarettes along the curb in front of the bowling alley. Police prowlers coasted by. Somebody somewhere shouted and broke a bottle. Lukas passed around another pint of whisky from his stash in the Mustang. Elsa was as drunk as Søren, but when they got out she didn’t seem to have trouble walking. She led the way past the bouncers, a pair of giants 
in sweatpants and leather jackets, and as she walked with her head thrown back to scan the room, she seemed powerful, as if she were a respected force in this menacing place.

Inside, the lights and the haze from the smoke gave everything a sickly yellow tinge: yellow scorecards projected onto dusty yellow screens, yellow bowling pins standing in little garages at the ends of the long yellow lanes, yellow tiles alternating with shiny black on the checkered linoleum floor. And it wasn’t just the lights; the league team in the lane next to theirs was wearing yellow shirts and yellow caps with hunting licenses pinned to the brims. 
The waitress’s bleached blonde hair looked yellow next to Elsa’s natural gold. Lukas and Elsa’s friends, whose names were a jumble and who seemed always to be laughing, drank yellow beer in clear bottles and twisted their cigarette butts into plastic yellow ashtrays.

Søren threw a strike, and the pins made the sound that he imagined a handful of piano keys would make if he threw them against a wall. Somebody cheered. Søren’s next attempt traveled the whole length of the lane in the gutter. Somebody laughed. Søren decided to take a break from bowling. In the bathroom, he found a woman standing at the urinal next to his. She’d leaned 
a mirror beside the flush and was fixing her makeup. She looked over and down at Søren and said, “Nice night for a walk.”

So this was adulthood. “I like to be drunk,” Søren told her.

He found himself watching Luke’s friends as they bowled. Elsa called Lukas “Luke,” and Søren decided to try it out. Luke finished his beer. Elsa was sitting on Luke’s lap. She was mussing the back of Luke’s hair. Now she was tugging on Luke’s ear.

“Hey, Elsa,” Søren said.

“What’s that?”

“I think I prefer to call Lukas ‘Lukas.’”

“That’s not a crime.”

“It fits him better. It sounds Swedish.”

“It’s not,” Lukas said.

“But it could be.”

They waited for Søren to say something else. Lukas burped.

“Hey, Elsa,” Søren said.

“What’s that?”

“Hey, are you happy?”

She laughed. Søren tried to smile. He hadn’t realized he was joking.

Elsa said, “I’ve never been happier.” She kissed Lukas on the cheek and left a wet spot, which he wiped with his sleeve.

It made Søren happy to think she might actually be happy.

“Elsa Sinnickson’s always happy,” one of their friends added as he handed Elsa another beer. “To happy Elsa!”

“Soon to be Elsa Clemens,” Lukas said.

“I have never seen Elsa Whoever unhappy,” the friend said. “This Elsa.”

“I don’t know,” another said. “She was pretty broke up about that cat.”

“Shh!” Lukas said, looking angry at the person who had just spoken. 
The person was trying not to laugh. Lukas looked at Søren. Then at the person. Søren. The person. Then Lukas laughed so hard that Elsa fell off his lap.

She landed on the floor, and they laughed at her.

They had killed Søren’s cat. They had run over Søren’s mother’s cat, and everyone was laughing about it, and with the simpleminded clarity of his drunkenness, Søren watched his newfound happiness transform into something altogether different but equally intense. He knew that he should try not to get emotional, but the alcohol made it extra difficult.

Elsa sat next to Søren. She handed him another beer. “Don’t be upset,” she said.

“I’m not upset.”

“Don’t get upset. It was an accident. We were devastated.”

“I’m not upset.”

“I don’t like it when you get upset.”

Søren had to go to the bathroom again. He watched his urine trickle down the drain and remembered just recently thinking this was adulthood. Then the same woman from the bathroom followed him to his lane and sat on his lap. She kissed him. The kiss tasted like beer. My first kiss, he thought. I will never have another first kiss, and my cat is dead.

“Elsa!” Søren said. “Elsa, it’s time to go home.” Søren stood. He steadied himself on the back of a bench.

“You feeling okay?”

“It’s time to go home.”

“Sure,” she said. “We can drive you home.” She shoved Lukas’s shoulder, wanting to make him stand.

“Yeah, okay,” Lukas said.

“No, Elsa,” Søren said. “It’s time for you to go home. You need to come home with me.”

“Søren, don’t start.”

“You need to come home with me right now,” he said. “You shouldn’t be drinking so much. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Søren, you are making me tired,” Elsa said. “You’re not my father.”

Søren waved a finger in Lukas’s direction. “Neither is he.”

“I don’t need a father,” Elsa said.

“Well I don’t need a brother. In fact,” Søren said, “I wish he was dead!”

Lukas looked hurt, and looking hurt made Lukas look vulnerable. Søren had never seen Lukas Clemens looking vulnerable. Søren decided to take a swing at him. He let go of the bench. Then Søren was on the floor. The floor had smacked him on the face. The floor was very dirty.

The cold air sharpened Søren’s senses. He was passing by the bouncers. They told Lukas to take the old rummy home. The old rummy was Søren—
he got that. Lukas was helping Søren walk.

“Where’s Elsa?” Søren said.

“She’s coming,” Lukas said. “She’s cleaning up the hundred bottles you knocked over.”

“Sorry,” Søren said. “I didn’t mean to hurt the bottles.” He didn’t mean to hurt anybody.

“It’s okay,” Lukas said. “I forgive you. Just try not to puke in the Mustang.” And then he was laughing again. Lukas’s laugh was unbearable.

Everything was funny to Lukas Clemens, because Lukas Clemens was invulnerable. His Mustang was waiting for them, and there didn’t seem to be a spot of slush or salt or grime anywhere on its muscular body. It was the source of his power. Søren could see that. He pushed himself away from Lukas and picked up a fist-sized piece of concrete from the broken edge of the curb, and then he threw it. It bounced off the driver’s-side door and splashed into the muck underneath.

Lukas ran to his car and drew a handkerchief from his back pocket. 
He pressed it to the point of impact like a bandage and wiped in a circle. He cleaned the spots of slush from the bottom of the door. It didn’t seem possible, but Søren hadn’t even left a mark.

Søren sat on the curb. Lukas said, “You’re running out of lives here, buddy.”

Søren felt sick. He said, “I don’t want to ride with you.”

“Fine,” Lukas said. “I’ll call your father.”

Søren threw up in the storm drain. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“You’re lucky I’m in love with your sister,” Lukas told him.

Then Elsa was there. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Now he wants to stay?”

“He doesn’t want to ride with me.” Lukas shrugged. “He wants us to call your father.”

“Call my father?”

“Well it’s fine by me. He threw a rock at my car.”

“Søren!” she said. “What the hell is the matter with you?”

Søren coughed and spat but did not speak. He didn’t want to start crying. Elsa rubbed his back while Lukas went inside to make the phone call. When he came back, she stopped rubbing.

“What are we going to do with him?” Lukas said.

“He’s my brother.”

“Well, he needs to get his shit in order,” Lukas said. “Every time we see him it’s another clusterfuck.”

They talked about Søren as if he didn’t have ears. He retched into the drain again.

Søren’s father arrived. He wore his pajama pants and a T-shirt and scarf, and he seemed angry to have been gotten out of bed.

“He didn’t know when to say when,” Lukas said.

Søren’s father slid his arm around his waist and helped him stand.

“Let me help,” Lukas said, but Søren’s father continued to ignore him. 
He sat Søren in the car and closed the door.

“Will he be okay?” Søren heard Elsa asking.

“He’s not a baby,” he heard Lukas reply.

Elsa touched the window near Søren’s face. Then she followed Lukas 
back toward the bowling alley. Søren waved goodbye, but she had already turned away.

Then Søren was riding in his father’s car. The heat was on high, the radio was off, and his father kept looking over at him. There was vomit in the crumpled newspapers around Søren’s feet. There was vomit on Søren’s shoes.

“Pop,” Søren said, “I feel lousy. Will I feel better in the morning?”

“Well, maybe,” his father said. “Let’s hope so.”

“Don’t laugh,” Søren said.

“Sorry.”

“They killed Mom’s cat.”

“Who did what now?”

Søren put both hands on the dashboard to steady himself as he retched.

“Son, you need to be more careful.”

Søren leaned back. “You need to be more careful.” Now Søren was crying. “You need to do better.”

“I know, son. I’ll try.”

The hand was on his shoulder again. Søren was still crying. He felt weak and disgusting. His father somehow seemed to know it. “It’ll be okay,” he reassured him. “You’re a good son and a good brother.”

“I’m lonely,” Søren said.

“I am, too.”

“She didn’t even say goodbye.”

“I know, son,” he said. “She knows it’s not right.”

Søren dragged his nose up and down his sleeve. “I hate crying,” he said. But he could tell that he was almost finished. And he finally felt a little less drunk.

“I don’t like crying, either. Maybe tomorrow you won’t even remember it.”

“Why wouldn’t I remember?”

“Sometimes that’s the way alcohol operates.”

His father shrugged, but to Søren it was disturbing to think he might not remember. So much had happened. He felt wretched, but older. He leaned against the window and watched the foxtails rush in and out of the passing headlights, waving as they went. The glass was cool on his forehead. The sensation was nice, and he didn’t want to forget it. He exhaled, and his view was occluded by fog. Søren tomorrow might not remember this Søren. He didn’t feel quite alive, then. He was as false and as doomed as everything else. 
He didn’t like the idea—he was sure he was the genuine Søren, and he didn’t want to be forgotten. As the window cleared, he saw that they were 
almost home.

 

4.

In the morning Søren still had his memory. He hardly felt sick at all. His father said it was because he was young. Søren was angry at Elsa but decided to forgive her. They hadn’t meant to run over the cat, and she was his sister, after all. So he made up her bed again, just in case. Then he shoveled the walk. It had snowed before sunrise, and the fields were hushed and blank. The low sky mirrored the white of the snow. He couldn’t remember exactly where the garden or the pigpen had been, and for once there weren’t any gunshots coming from the Clemenses’ preserve. Søren’s world now seemed to be made out of nothing but snow and cold, silence and absence and memories. 
And there he was in the middle of it, shoveling.

Later that morning, the hospital called. The Mustang had been totaled. Lukas had skidded through a stop sign in front of a prowl car, and because he had been drinking, he fled. He ran a light and was broadsided by, of all things, another Mustang. Elsa had internal injuries. Her leg was broken in four places. They’d had to plate her femur back together. Lukas was in jail, uninjured.

Søren and his father stayed with Elsa at the hospital. At first, she wouldn’t speak to them. She seemed embarrassed that they were there. The emergency room doctors and nurses had cut through her clothes and packed up her possessions, and when she’d woken from her operation, the first thing she’d asked for was her engagement ring. Her bed was next to a pair of windows with a view of the meadow, and she liked to turn her fist through the white winter light and watch the garnet sparkle. Lukas didn’t call, Lukas’s parents wouldn’t talk to Elsa, and no one was sure when he’d be out. Søren and his father took turns keeping Elsa company, and in the late afternoons all three of them sat together in the clean, pale room, watching television or reading, waiting for the light to fade.

It made Søren feel important to sit alone with Elsa. He felt bad for Lukas—
he really did—but he knew, as he always had, that only he could really take care of his sister. If the light was too strong, he’d notice her squinting and close the shade. If she needed her bed adjusted, or if she had to use the bathroom, or if the pain was becoming too much for her again, he would run to find a nurse who could help. His father was fine for fetching magazines and meals—
at least he was trying—but Søren watched over his sister with an intense kind of tenderness that was surprising to all three of them. He kept the IV tree close enough for the tube to stay slack but not clumsy. He fluffed her pillows and tightened the back of her gown. He brushed her hair from her eyes when she was napping, and although she flinched in her sleep at first, she eventually got used to it. And as Søren did all these things and more—as Elsa took him for granted and lay there quiet and miserable and helpless—he couldn’t help but think of his mother. His last memories of her were from a bed like this, 
and she and Elsa looked so much alike.

“Elsa,” Søren asked, “do you remember Mom?”

Elsa said, “Of course I remember,” and turned up the TV. A soap opera 
was on.

“I don’t remember her.”

“That can’t be true.”

“I don’t remember anything important about her.”

“I don’t know,” Elsa said. “She looked like you. I don’t like to think about it.”

“Pop said she looked like you.”

“You’re going to listen to Pop?”

“I can hardly remember her before she was sick.”

“She was wonderful. She was fun. You can’t help but bother me, can you?”

Elsa turned off the television and held up her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. Søren closed the drapes. In the shade they seemed even more alone.

He dug his notebook out of his backpack. He’d been trying to draw his mother for days, while Elsa was sleeping. The pictures all started with Elsa.

She shook her head at every single one. “I’m not kidding, dude—she looked like you.”

Søren closed the notebook and laid his hands on top of it.

“Don’t get upset,” Elsa said. “I mean, get upset if you want to. It’s okay. 
But what are you going to do. She was great. She’s gone. That’s how it works. And I don’t want to think about it. Not right now.”

“So you don’t think about Mom.”

“That’s not what I said. I think about her all the time.”

“Me too.”

“I mean it, Søren. All the time.”

Søren’s father came back from the cafeteria with a tray in each hand.

“What’ll it be?” he said. “Chicken salad or chicken salad?” He unwrapped his own sandwich and sat by the window. Then he noticed the quality of the silence and seemed to understand that they’d been saying something difficult. When they didn’t continue, he took it as a good sign. “Did you guys see the bald eagles?” he said. “There’s two of them.” He opened the drapes. “The ice is breaking up.”

“I got her talking,” Søren said.

“Hot dog,” his father said. “And I missed it.”

Elsa bit into her sandwich and spoke with her mouth full. “He’s been drawing pictures of Mom,” she said. “They’re terrible!”

Now she pointed at Søren’s face. “Look!” she said. “Pop, did you see what I just saw?”

“How about it,” his father marveled. “Even rarer than eagles.”

“What the hell are you smiling at? My hip’s in a cast over here.”

They hadn’t eaten together for over a month and hadn’t joked like this for at least a year. Søren wiped his eyes with his palms. “Here we go,” Elsa said. Søren said he was sorry. Elsa told him not to be stupid. His father looked in the bathroom for tissues.

They were eating dinner again the next day when Lukas Clemens finally showed up. He’d been out on bail for three days. He wore a pair of khaki pants and a collared shirt still creased with the folds from its packaging. He said that his parents’ lawyer had picked up the outfit at Walmart. He joked about missing Elsa’s discount.

He pulled over a chair. He kissed Elsa’s hair, her head, her face, her arm, her hand. He kissed the engagement ring. He said, “I’m going crazy without you.”

“I’ve missed you, too.” Elsa looked at the ring, then at Lukas. “Where’ve you been?”

“Oh, baby,” he said. “I’m sorry. This is such a big fucking mess.”

Elsa tapped a finger on her cast. She said, “You haven’t said hello to
my family.”

Surprised by her tone, Lukas turned to Søren’s father and said, “Hi there, Mr. Sinnickson.” Then he looked at Søren and said, “Hey, buddy,” without getting up to shake hands. He bounced his leg, which made him look like he didn’t want to be there. He turned back to Elsa. “How are you feeling? When do you get out?”

“Lukas,” Elsa said, rubbing her forehead with both hands. “Do you still have working eyeballs? Do you see this big white thing covering half my body?”

“I see it,” Lukas said, “I know.” He pulled a pen from his pocket and said, “Look.” He wrote Lukas + Elsa on her cast.

Elsa told him to quit screwing around.

“Maybe we should go,” Søren’s father said.

“No,” Elsa said. “We’re in the middle of eating. Lukas, do you want something to eat?”

Søren’s father held out half of his sandwich.

Looking confused, even startled, by the gesture, Lukas said, “No, thank you,” as if the words were unfamiliar to him. He gazed down the length of Elsa’s cast, looking like he was gauging the possibility of picking it up. He said, “When you get out of here, maybe we’ll have some fun.”

“I’ll have to go through rehab,” Elsa said. “Could we please stop talking about having fun?”

“How long could that take?”

“I don’t know,” Elsa said. She kind of smiled. “It’s not like I’ll be bowling anytime soon.”

“Well, Jesus,” Lukas said. Both legs were bouncing now. “We don’t have forever. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Well, neither do I.”

Lukas stared. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying how am I supposed to get up your crappy steps.”

“What?”

“How am I supposed to get around?”

“I’ll carry you,” Lukas said. “I’ll carry you up the steps.”

“I’m eighteen years old,” Elsa said. “I’m not going to let you carry me around. Be realistic.”

“What are you saying?”

“You should have visited sooner,” Elsa said. “Look at me—I’m injured. I’m hurt. Why didn’t you visit sooner?”

“I’m sorry!” Lukas said. “I said I was sorry!” In his new clothes, he didn’t look invulnerable at all. He looked young and unsure of himself and afraid. “Didn’t you hear? The other guy died. I’m in trouble. They’re talking manslaughter.”

Lukas waited for a response. It was strange to see Lukas waiting. He looked around at all three of them, as if one of them was bound to come up with something comforting to say to him. The creases in his clothes made it seem like he’d been sleeping in them.

Elsa covered her eyes with her hand and said, “Oh my God.”

With both hands Lukas took hold of his shirt, as if he were about to pull himself apart. Then he let go, took a breath, and smoothed his front.

“I can’t talk to you right now,” Elsa said. “I can’t talk to you. You have to go.”

“Elsa, please.”

“I mean it. Get out.”

“Okay,” Lukas said. “I understand. Okay, okay, okay.” He backed out of the room still looking at Elsa, as if he wanted to give her every last chance to change her mind, but also as if he were backing away from something unpredictable and dangerous. He bumped clumsily against

Søren’s chair and said, “Sorry, man.” Then he left.

Elsa raised her hand and pulled back her hair, causing the garnet to flash. Lukas hadn’t asked for the ring.

“That poor man,” Elsa said. She placed one hand over what Lukas had written on her thigh, the other over her eyes. For a moment Søren thought that she had meant Lukas, but then she added, “That poor family.”

Elsa took off the ring and placed it on the tray table next to her. Removed from her finger, it was just a thing like any other thing—no magic, no sparkle, no power—and its diminishment, Søren realized, diminished Elsa. She looked neither happy nor sad—just tired, older, less hopeful. It occurred to Søren that she might never forgive herself for what had happened, and it occurred to him also that he couldn’t win, that everything he did was just another way of losing. In Elsa’s shadow, the ring was a small, dull circle, like the collar around a drain, and Søren imagined that everything he considered worth preserving—his family, his home, all of his history and himself—would be sucked down it in the end. What would come afterwards? Søren hoped that his mother would be waiting for him. Maybe she could tell him what it means to be forgotten.

 

Earle McCartney was awarded a Schaeffer Fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently at work on a novel. 

[Purchase your copy of Issue 05 here]

Lukas and Elsa

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