As our taxi passes in front of the airport, heading home, I keep looking at the narrow vegetable gardens that compose most of the field between Irún and Hondarribia. Tiny greenhouses built with plastic tarps, homemade A-frame trellises on which nothing has grown, rectangular patches of khaki dirt empty except for scattered tufts of weeds. I spot a couple of old men; one of them has bared his tanned torso and is bending over to tend to his tiny farming estate.
A couple of minutes later we reach Hondarribia itself, with its mostly white two to three story houses, but our driver exits a roundabout into a road that follows the outskirts. We leave behind apartment buildings surrounded by low walls and hedges, so peaceful and close to parks and playgrounds that any young couple should want to move there. The taxi passes by a pelota court, located inside a bland building that would otherwise contain offices. The streets are quiet and empty save for a couple of elderly women sitting on a bench in the shade, reading magazines. They look like they’re waiting for something to happen. A roundabout later I see the coffee shop where I had sat down to write my memoir peacefully, only for Kateryna’s brothers to harass me and Oleksiy in particular to strike me twice in the guts. Alazne and I wouldn’t have gotten tangled in a trip to Asturias if I hadn’t wanted to flee from Asier’s responsibilities.
This city should feel familiar. I’m quite sure it did before our trip, and yet it now looks small and out of place. To the few people walking along the sidewalks at this hour, when most are eating their meals at home, I want to ask them whether they know what’s out there in the wide world. Take a train or a bus in any direction, except in one that will end up with the vehicle plummeting into the water, and whole new worlds open up. One is forced to reframe their thoughts, to ponder one’s troubles even if that person had grown used to their way of life. But I knew all this, didn’t I? I spent my first years as a ghost travelling throughout Europe. Very few memories remain of those days during which I tried to add some color to the faded, odorless, tasteless afterlife. I suppose that in the end similarly threadbare memories will remain of my time with my girlfriend in Asturias: just some images here and there, or if I’m lucky, sequences of a few seconds. Maybe none of the contents of my conversations with Alazne will survive beyond how they made me feel. If we lost the pictures that my girlfriend took, we would forget most of the details as if we hadn’t been there.
The countryside on the left of our taxi resembles the wide open spaces between cities, with no hint that if one looked to the right he’d face a row of apartment buildings. At the end of this street that our car is climbing up, we’ll get to see our house again.
“Where exactly do you want me to leave you both?” our driver asks. “Around here there’s only a graveyard.”
“We get that all the time. You guys need to update your maps!” I say amiably, relieved that I get to return home. “Just keep going. Past an ivy-covered wall there’s a gate that leads into our community.”
The driver frowns as if he believes I’m pulling his leg, but when he finds the gate, he veers to the right onto the asphalt that paves most of the ground except for our backyards. The man looks around confused, as if he had visited the graveyard recently and he shouldn’t have found these rows of two-story houses here.
“Just stop the car,” I say. “We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
After I pay the guy, Alazne and I drag our luggage towards the second column of houses while the driver pulls around. Once the house in front of ours stops blocking the view, I realize that I had been holding my breath. I guess I had expected our house to have gone up in flames, or to have blown up to the extent that only charred rubble remained. But it looks as undamaged and palatial as it used to, with its tawny bricks and the ornate cast iron balustrade that surrounds the huge balcony on the second floor. We are home, and we can rest.
“It feels so odd to be back, doesn’t it?” Alazne asks tiredly.
“Well, I did fear that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the bus ride a second time.”
“But you did, with only some weird complaints. I’m proud of you.”
I pull out my keychain and I was reaching towards the lock when I hear it turning from inside. The door opens decisively to reveal an empty, darkened hall. I get goosebumps, but then I chuckle and step onto the hardwood. As I leave my suitcase next to the console table, I grin at the invisible presence.
“Thank you for the warm welcome, Kateryna.”
“I have missed you,” Alazne says, then closes the front door. “I think you would have enjoyed Asturias.”
“If only because some parts of it looked like Soviet Russia.”
“Hey, what parts of Asturias reminded you of Soviet Russia?” Alazne asks, amused, as she takes off her cardigan.
“Those that seemed like the outskirts of some medium-sized factory town. It was like travelling back in time to the Cold War.”
Alazne rubs my shoulder.
“They made me feel safer somehow. Maybe because they reminded me that some people are working hard to keep things going.” As she shuffles by, she lets out a long sigh. “I need to take off these boots. My poor feet…”
The living room call bell rings twice. Alazne stops and turns towards it. Kateryna had rung the bell impatiently, so we hurry up to the ouija board. The planchette was already twitching when I see it from up close.
PLEASE DONT EVER LEAVE FOR SO LONG AGAIN, the planchette spells out.
“We’ll try not to, I promise,” I say with a lump in my throat. “All along I had thought you would have tolerated, or even welcomed, some quiet days…”
THE WORLD OUTSIDE IS FULL OF GHOSTS AND I WAS ALONE.
“You’re not alone anymore. We’ll be here for you, Kateryna.”
“W-what do you mean full of ghosts?” Alazne asks, worried. “Did you see lots of ghosts surrounding our home?”
NO I DIDNT SEE ANY BUT I MEANT IN GENERAL. The planchette hesitates for a few seconds. I DONT LIKE BEING ALONE.
I shake my head.
“The whole world is a ghost town. We thought we saw some people in Asturias, but they all turned out to be ghosts.”
“Well, I guess they may as well be dead to us, all of them…” Alazne says sadly. “It’s not as if we are likely to see them ever again.”
I coordinate my stiffened arms to take off my jacket. I don’t want to get on another bus for months. When I fold the jacket over a chair, I look down at the board to let Kateryna know that I’m about to address her, although our ghost roommate is standing in front of it.
“I had thought of buying an answering machine so whenever I want I can call home and share my thoughts with you. Maybe they can be programmed so they replay the message a few times, in case you have wandered to another room, or even the second floor.”
SOUNDS GOOD I DO FEEL BETTER WHEN YOU TWO REMIND ME I STILL EXIST.
“You’ll have to remind me to change the tapes for you, just so you know. Unless modern answering machines don’t come with tapes… The times have changed a lot.”
“Don’t worry, Kat,” Alazne says while smiling warmly. “Now that we are here, we’ll return to spending hours together, the three of us.”
The planchette is quick to spell out YES WE WILL LIVE TOGETHER FOREVER AND NEVER BE LEFT ALONE.
Before I know it, Alazne stands on her tiptoes, crosses her arms behind my neck and kisses me on the lips. We embrace and I hold her tightly, losing myself in the warmth of her lips. I would have gladly carried her like a princess to our bedroom, but she pulls away from me.
“My love,” Alazne says, “I will grab my notebook and a jar of water and I’ll spend some time writing on the balcony of the second floor. I’ll be there if you need me.”
I SHALL BE THERE WITH YOU IN SPIRIT, the planchette spells out.
As Alazne strolls down the hallway towards the bedroom, where she left her notebook, I feel that I need to improve Kat’s mood. I’ll spend some time with my suicide sister.
“Let’s go to the kitchen, Kat. I’ll tell you all about Asturias, their gigantic armadillos, iron trees, fish-men, black metal, futuristic spas, highwayman taxi drivers, nightmarish factories, rotting old bastards, sooty kings and flame-throwing smokestacks.”
I HAVE MISSED YOUR NONSENSE IRENE.
Alazne walks out of our bedroom into the hallway, and when she realizes I’m standing close by, she grabs the fabric of her hoodie with both hands.
“These are the sportiest clothes I have,” she says apologetically.
Alazne is wearing her beloved grey hoodie that features the azure blue, white and grey Wings of Freedom logo, along with cloud grey sweatpants, and she has tied up her light brown hair in a loose ponytail that leaves two locks framing her face. The coffee she drank has barely worked yet, because her eyes remain sleepy.
“You look cute,” I say. “I have missed you wearing some of your old clothes. But more importantly, they will do just fine for this morning’s purposes.”
“I wouldn’t call my clothes sporty normally, though, because I wore them to feel more comfortable at home during the chilly days. You are the one who is used to working out, and your tracksuit suits you.”
I cup her angelic face with my hands and smile warmly as I look down at her hazel eyes.
“We’ll turn those clothes into proper sporty ones, and you for that matter. You need to keep healthy.”
Although she blushes, she doesn’t avert her gaze at this point.
“Alright, but I doubt I will be able to run for more than five minutes.”
“We aren’t running, though. Let’s go to the backyard.”
We exit through the living room into the backyard, and Alazne spots the bikes that I had left leaning against the fence. The one I bought for her is a cross hybrid, or at least that’s how the guy at the store called it, because I hadn’t ridden a bike in more than twenty years nor would I have cared then about the terminology. The bike is black except for bands of bumblebee yellow in the saddle, the handlebars, the top tube and the forks that hold the wheels in place.
I gesture towards her bike.
“Pretty badass for what it is, right?”
Alazne narrows her shoulders as if she wants to look smaller, and her gaze sweeps the grass.
“Yeah, they look cool, but… Asier, I-I don’t know how to ride a bike. I have never even touched one yet.”
I raise her chin with my hand and lean in to kiss her lips. I let my mouth linger for a couple of seconds. When I straighten my back and open my eyes, Alazne is looking up at me tenderly.
“I suspected that was the case. That’s great, sweetie, because I’ll get to teach you! And you’ll reward me for it, let’s say with some activities that involve you taking off your sporty clothes.”
I hand Alazne her bike, and she holds it in front of herself as if it were a giant sea shell. She seems unconvinced that she’ll be able to learn.
“As if we wouldn’t do that anyway. So this is what those two giant boxes contained. I knew you intended to surprise me with something, given how shady you were being with them, but I never thought they would be bikes…”
“Well, at first I was surprised that I hadn’t found one in this house. I guess the previous me before the accident wasn’t fond of aerobic exercises. But my main purpose is for the both of us to go on some lovely rides together.”
Alazne’s face brightens, and she grins. The morning sun is lightening half of her facial features, making some of her beautiful freckles disappear. If I allowed myself to be fully motivated by causing as many of those grateful smiles as possible, I would dilapidate my fortune in a year.
“I think you will have a hard time teaching me how to ride this thing…” Alazne says as she probes the handlebars. “And where can we do it without bothering anybody?”
“Why, we only have to walk up our street to stroll along a picturesque, albeit narrow, concrete path that cuts through the countryside, passing in front of farms and grazing fields and whatever shady stuff those isolated people do. I’m sure some of those stretches of path will be deserted enough, because I gather that you will be embarrassed about your biking abilities.”
“Sure, about my lack of them. But h-how narrow is that path? What if I fall?”
“I’m sure some bushes or plants can catch you.”
Alazne frowns, but as if she were about to pout.
“That can get serious! Some of the bushes around these parts can cover you in scratches. And with my luck I might fall on nettles.”
“If I get to lick the irritation away, I hope you strip naked and disappear into a bed of nettles.”
She chuckles and pushes my arm.
“I was about to say that no licking today, but I’d be shooting myself in the foot. Let’s go, then. The sooner I learn how to ride this thing, the less embarrassed I’ll be.”
I grab my bike’s handlebars and begin rolling it into the living room, so we can exit the house through the front door, but behind me Alazne complains. She’s staring puzzled at her bike.
“What? It doesn’t move. Aren’t the wheels supposed to keep turning even though I’m not pedalling?”
“You are squeezing the brake. Just hold the grip.”
“Oh, got it. I’m such an idiot…”
“It’s alright. Now you know.”
We push the bikes forward and leave our house through the front door. I end up holding Alazne’s bike upright as she locks the door. Then we carry on past the gate of our community.
“What a beautiful morning,” I say as I take a deep breath of fresh air.
“A bit chillier than one would expect with a clear sky, but I guess it’s good enough for biking…”
We walk a bit further to the right until the full view of the countryside opens up beyond a barbed wire fence.
“Look at those hills, the healthy trees, the random sheep, and the conspicuous lack of factories,” I say merrily. “We are so lucky.”
“Yes, it is beautiful, Asier.”
“I guess when you stop considering the myriad of things that makes the world horrible, it is quite pleasant.”
We push our bikes on the side of the path, in case a farmer’s car drives down and we end up having to move aside anyway. We pass by a gated farming estate with fruit trees in bloom. A house we come across is so close to the path and so unguarded that we could just walk straight into their yard. Some of the sheds are rusted, and I wonder when they were built. As we climb up the path, it now borders flimsy barriers that should prevent the cows and sheep from escaping. One of the cows, mostly white with black spots, looks up at us while it ruminates grass and swats flies with its tail. The animal gives off a pungent smell of dung.
“She looks so innocent,” Alazne says. “Cows always make me sad, for some reason.”
“Maybe because the person who owns them may end up butchering them?”
“I guess so. Do you think the people who live in these rural places are happy, Asier? I mean, they have a kind of freedom that most people will never experience. They can open their front door and go wherever they wish. No cars, no trains, no trams, no buses, no police. They can walk for long stretches without seeing another soul. They aren’t crowded on top of each other like most of humanity.”
“They’re not free, though. If they have cows and sheep, then they have to tend to them every day of their lives. Maybe some don’t own their property, the government does. They’re paid little for their milk and meat. Their children might end up working in the farm as soon as they’re able.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“But I’m painting their life much harsher than I should. I’d rather slip and fall in cow shit and get headbutted in the nuts by a ram than work at an office five or six days a week. Those are the people you should pity.”
“Yeah, I can’t say I want to remember my days at the office…”
The path becomes steeper until it reaches a plateau covered in a threadbare sheet of shadow, thanks to some big oaks that have grown next to the path. I stop.
“This looks perfect. No nettles around either, just ferns.”
“A-alright. What do I do then?”
“First, straddle the bike. That should be easy for you, as you’ve become a pro at straddling.”
“Shut up,” she replies, but does what I said.
“Those things to the side of your bike are called pedals.”
“I know what they are called,” she says, embarrassed.
“Hey, I don’t like assuming things.” I stroke my chin for a moment as I look to the side. “We better start with you getting comfortable with the brakes. Just push the bike forward slowly as you keep straddling it, and squeeze each break lever to get a feeling for how hard you should squeeze them according to how much slower you want to go.”
Alazne totters forward while her ponytail sways, and amorphous spots of light slide down her back. That ass of hers looks so cute in those sweatpants. I’m glad that we stopped at the top of this hill; any steeper and she may have fallen off.
She comes to a stop as she leans into the brakes, both feet spread wide.
I push my bike up to her.
Alazne smiles at me and nods as she stretches her fingers, her palms resting on the handlebars.
“Alright, now comes the hard part. Lift one of the pedals with your foot until reaches the apex of the circle it makes, and then push it forward slightly. The idea is that when you are ready you will push that pedal down fully as you put the other foot on the opposite pedal, because the rotation of the wheels will keep the bike upright for a couple of seconds, which will give you the opportunity to start pedalling normally.”
Alazne teeters as she balances all her weight in her right leg to lift the left pedal. However, after she pushes it forward slightly, she raises her face towards me.
“But how will the rotation of the wheels alone keep the bike upright?” she asks as she furrows her eyebrows.
“Magic, probably. Who the fuck knows. Maybe nobody. But the fact is that the faster you pedal, the steadier your bike becomes. You don’t have to pedal that fast for most rides, though.”
She nods, then she bites her lower lip. She balances herself on her feet evenly as she grabs both handle bars. She bends her left knee, but for a couple of seconds her left foot can’t locate the pedal.
“Now for the last, most vital piece of advice,” I say. “The moment you push down that pedal, the bike is going to thrust in the direction the front wheel is oriented at, so before you push down you have to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. In this case, to the right.”
“That makes sense. I would have never thought of that.”
Alazne turns the handlebars to the right, then pushes down the left pedal with her foot. Her face becomes a mix of fear and exhilaration. The chain rubs against the cogs as if it were an oversized zipper. However, Alazne’s determination only lasts a couple of seconds until she loses control of the front wheel in a panic, which begins to turn to the left. I drop my bike and hurry up so I can catch my girl, but I don’t reach her in time and she falls face up onto some ferns.
I stand over Alazne, blocking the patches of light that had been brightening her body. She’s breathing through her mouth, and she seems disappointed.
“You look so cute lying on the ferns and the grass like that,” I say. “Can I take a photo?”
“Sure, why not.”
I take out my phone. I move around my girlfriend to find the best angle of the sunlight filtering through the gaps of tree branches as it falls on her face and upper body. I snap a few shots and then show them to her.
“Just like a forest angel,” I say proudly.
“I think those are called dryads.” She sighs. “Anyway, I fucked up the bike riding.”
“But you didn’t get hurt. I’m impressed that you were able to turn the handlebars and fall like that. It was like you were doing parkour or something.”
Alazne props herself on her elbows.
“I think I’ll get the hang of it, though. Let me try again.”
I grab her hands to help her stand up. As she turns around to lift her bike, I pat her ass to brush the dirt off, and also because I wanted to touch her butt.
“Now you are just feeling me up.”
“Just a bit. Let’s start over.”
I stand further back as my girlfriend balances her weight in her right leg again to lift the opposite pedal. She bends her neck to the side for a moment as if to crack it, and then takes a deep breath.
“Alright, here we go.”
She leans forward and pushes the pedal down. Less than a second later she steers the bike to align both wheels. She snaps her head back as if surprised, but then she pushes the other pedal down, which allows her to keep pedalling.
“I did it!”
I roll my bike quickly, because a bend on the path up ahead would make Alazne disappear past a mound.
“Yes, but stop for now, turn the bike around and do it again in the opposite direction. You need to get comfortable with it.”
I stand on the grass to the side of the path. I lean the kickstand of my bike with my foot so I don’t need to keep holding the frame. I watch Alazne ride past me. She’s balancing while turning the pedals with little issue. She looks over her shoulder towards me and waves.
“Hey, look at this! I’m actually doing it!”
“You are, but don’t take your hand off the handlebar!”
She breaks to a stop and then swivels the bike around awkwardly, wobbling, so she can ride in my direction. She then bites her lower lip, lifts the left pedal and pushes it down almost in the same movement. She steers the bike to approach me while patches of light slide up her body. Alazne grins, which brightens her angelic face.
“This is so cool. I know how to ride a bike!”
A warmth fills up my chest.
“Yes, you do.”
We return home around midday, still riding our bikes. We veer into our gated community, then turn until we reach the front of our house. We get off. Sweat shimmers on Alazne’s face as she takes out her key.
“I’ll open the door. And I’ll need to take a shower. I haven’t sweated this much outside of a bedroom in many years. My legs are burning.”
“A good burn, though.”
Alazne opens the door and rolls her bike into the hall. I’m picturing my beloved naked in the shower when something vibrates in the pocket of my tracksuit, then plays the short melody indicating that I have received a message. As I struggle with the narrow pocket to pull my phone out, it vibrates and plays the same sound twice. I open the messaging app. All three messages are from Oleksiy.
My whole body tenses up and freezes. My vision goes blurry. For a moment I can’t even breathe.
The first two messages only contain a photo each. The first thumbnail shows a hand holding an A4 page that features printed text, but just the upper half of the page. The second image shows the lower half. The third message just contains words, and it says ‘read it and call me’.
My breathing becomes labored. I touch the thumbnail of the upper half of the page, then turn the phone around for landscape mode so I can read the text better. Even before I read the first words I know that I’m staring at Kateryna’s suicide note.
I can’t take it anymore. I’m sick of putting faith in people only for them to turn out to be shit. One after another, all pieces of shit. You said you would make me happy? How can a human being say those words when they know that they have done nothing but ruin other people’s lives? Even when those two exes of yours confronted you, I defended you. Although I understood you had been a cheating piece of shit with them, I told those women, and myself, that you had left it in the past, that you were someone new. That’s what you kept repeating to me, after all. I have always been too eager to trust people and see the best in others, that’s why I didn’t realize what you were doing. Even when someone slaps me, I prefer to put the other cheek, because deep down I know it must be my fault. Those times when you left for hours only to return and go straight into the shower without touching me, I didn’t think anything of it. You should know that I have so little support, because I have lost my friends and I can’t return to my family, that even if you cheated in my face I would have preferred to stay. Even after you tore my heart out by fucking other women, I would have remained by your side.
My hands are trembling. My heart hurts for how much Kateryna suffered during her last days, and my frayed nerves tell me that the Zaretsky brothers will want to beat me to a pulp. I keep reading, ready to touch the second thumbnail when the text reaches the end of the first photo.
But what goes through the mind of someone not born in hell when he knows that he’s fucking everything that moves and still offers to marry the girlfriend he’s lying to? Not just that, but puts a baby in her. What was growing inside me wasn’t a clump of cells, you son of a bitch, but our daughter. In my mind I still called her Bohdana even though you insisted she should have a Basque name. You came into my womb without giving any thought that it could make me pregnant, as if you couldn’t care about the consequences. Although you were becoming shittier and shittier, for all those weeks I was sure that I would end up giving birth to our baby. I was sure even the day you finally broke me down, as you had been doing bit by bit, saying that it was too soon to become a family, that we would try again in the future, that fetuses aren’t alive at that point and that I wouldn’t be murdering her. After I killed Bohdana and I lied in bed for days as I cried and cried, you couldn’t have cared less. You got what you wanted, which was to never become that attached to me or anyone. You sell lies so naïve women will open their legs for you, and then you throw them away. What I would have never expected from any person is what you have done to me now. I’m glad that I’m not the kind of human being who would have imagined it. I still see you there, standing near my bed in the dark, caring nothing that I’m weeping, and telling me that I have become too annoying and whiny, that you have been dating other people, and that I should leave the ring on the nightstand and get the fuck out of your house before the end of the day. Where would I go? I have nothing anymore. I don’t want to keep struggling. I feel it, my heart is broken. From now on I would have to carry this pain and this regret for as long as I lived. I am through being kind, I need to feed this rage with which you have infected me. I want to grab every beautiful girl you flirt with and lock them in a dungeon. I want to cut your throat and feel you choke as I watch your life fade out. So before I become a monster like you, certain as I have never been, I’ve made my decision. By tonight you will find me still here, lying in your bathtub. I hope there is a hell and in the end I find you there.
Oleksiy won’t be content with giving me the beating of a lifetime. He must want to torture me to death. I would too. But I’m not crying out of fear, but because I can’t comprehend why someone would hurt my sweet friend like that. Her unborn daughter upon dying floated on to the beyond, blissfully unaware of how close she had been to being born in this horrible world. But the regret for aborting her daughter has chained Kateryna to the afterlife, and because she can’t get pregnant anymore, Kat is fucked. She better sit tight and get used to the dark.
Kateryna’s brothers already know that I have read their messages. The messaging app sent them the notifications. Either I call him now or I call him hours or days from now, but I better do so immediately as he demanded. And not only I have to fear them both, but also the police. If the law gets ahold of Kat’s suicide note, they’ll want to throw me into a jail cell.
The phone is already connecting to Oleksiy’s number before I have thought of what to say. And how would Asier have defended himself? I would be cheering for him to get fucked.
Oleksiy is on the other line, but I just hear him breathing, as well as the hum of an engine.
“Oleksiy,” I begin, “I’m sure we can–“
“Don’t fucking speak, you fucking bitch,” he interrupts with a growl. “Now that you have returned from your trip, we can get justice for Kateryna. I want you to know that it’s coming.”
“Oleksiy, there’s no need for violence. Asier’s dead. He can’t be brought back, so it’s pointless.”
“I don’t care that you lost your memories. You did it. You have a debt to pay.”
“I just want your forgiveness and a friendship between the two of us.”
He’s quiet for a moment, then he lets out a creepy laugh.
“I don’t think so, monkey. Look up and wave.”
A brick red car is entering the community through the gate. Its bulky, the armored version of a regular car. The bumpers, the wheels and the lower half of the doors are splashed with dirt, as if the owner had driven over muddy puddles and hadn’t bothered to clean the damage. As the car turns towards me and slows down, I notice the Toyota logo, and even though the windshield shadows the two people sitting in the front seats, I make out their blond hair.
“What’s wrong?” Alazne asks from the hall.
She’s approaching me cautiously. Her light brown hair is falling loosely around her shoulders.
“Why were you crying…? And who is that guy who looks like Reiner Braun?”
I turn my head sharply towards the Toyota 4Runner. Oleksiy and Hadeon have already exited their car and are marching side by side towards my house. Hadeon is wearing the same crimson hoodie with the prominent image of an anime girl, as well as some black drawstring trousers, while Oleksiy is wearing a worn, short-sleeved shirt, pine green and slightly dirtied with white paint, along with coffee-colored cargo pants. Neither of the brothers have shaved for a week. Hadeon is looking towards the neighboring houses as if he fears getting spotted, while Oleksiy is scowling unblinkingly at me with his pale blue eyes, while with his right hand he’s holding upright a baseball bat against the side of his body, as if hiding it.
I speak to Alazne with a guttural voice.