Today's Reading

PART ONE

FIVE MONTHS LATER WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 19

ELEANOR

It's too hot in the car for my liking, but I keep my thoughts to myself. This winter has been unusually gray, and the passing fields lie pale, desolate, and frosty beneath a heavy sky, only a thin dusting of snow to shelter them from the wind. It's enough to make anyone feel chilled to the bone.

Besides, it's Sebastian's car, and Sebastian's driving, so it only feels fair that he should choose the temperature.

"Thanks for driving," I say.

He gives a faint smile, keeps his eyes on the road.

"No problem. I like driving out here. It's only in town that I get a little shaky."

I put my hand on his knee because I know it's the right thing to do, then give it a gentle squeeze. Even though we have been together six years, this type of gesture still doesn't come entirely naturally to me.

For a few minutes neither of us says anything. Then Sebastian says:

"I wonder if the house is in a bad state or something. If that's why your grandmother never mentioned it, I mean."

"I don't know," I reply.

When Vivianne's lawyer first mentioned Solhöga I assumed it was some sort of mistake. It was back when I was fresh out of the hospital, still unsure of how I would cope in the real world.

The lawyer was very matter-of-fact. He didn't offer any condolences, which came as a relief.

'First and foremost we should discuss Solhöga.' That was how he opened the meeting.

He kept it brief. Said that Vivianne had documents relating to a property registered in her name, an old manor house with woodland and private hunting grounds around an hour and a half's drive north of Stockholm. She had inherited it from her deceased husband. My grandfather.

"I think my grandfather died around Christmas," I say to Sebastian. "From what I've heard they used to celebrate Christmas at Solhöga, so it might have happened there. That could be why she never went back."

I see Sebastian's brow furrow slightly.

"How did he die, again?" he asks. "Sorry, I'm sure you've told me."

"I haven't," I say. "I'm not actually sure myself. She never talked about it—she didn't like to talk about him in general. I've always assumed it was a heart attack or something. I don't get the impression he was sick for long—it must have been pretty sudden."

Out here the houses are fewer and farther between, the homely rural villas replaced by farmsteads, in turn replaced by isolated old cottages with bowed walls and broken windowpanes. The icy smattering of snow lies untouched on last year's yellow grass. The entire landscape looks deserted. It's easy to imagine that we're alone out here.

I look out of the window and chew at my thumbnail, an ugly childhood habit I never quite managed to kick. For months at a time I'll be able to keep my fingers out of my mouth, but then something will happen and I'll fall back into it again. Ever since that night I've given up trying to stop. My nails are all stumps, squat and ragged, and my cuticles are constantly raw and inflamed.

The GPS impassively instructs us to turn right. Sebastian turns onto a forest-lined road.

The road to Solhöga.

ANUSHKA JUNE 18, 1965

Before I left home Mama told me this place would be nothing but cold, cold cold, that I had to get used to being freezing all the time. She made me pack thick sweaters, and even gave me her warm winter coat to wear on top of my own threadbare one.

But this house is so hot that I'm dripping with sweat. I feel too big for my skin, heavy and swollen.

We've been out here in the countryside for four days now, and I don't know how I'll make it through summer. I can't even open the windows— someone's painted the frames shut with big, long brushstrokes. Pointless as it is, whenever Ma'am and Sir are down at the lake I find myself tugging away hopelessly at the handles, resting my forehead on the hot glass, leaving greasy marks on the panes.

I always wipe them off before Ma'am and Sir get back, so that she won't find them.
...

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