Before Let the Right One In was one of the best horror movies of the past decade, it was a novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. In addition to tackling vampires, Lindqvist has written about zombies and other supernatural creatures. But his new novel, Little Star, is about something... weirder.
Check out a couple of chapters from Little Star, in which a man finds a mysterious baby in the forest, with a perfect singing voice — and realizes that he wants to keep her, no matter what it costs.
The range of baby products had increased significantly since Jerry was little. There were bottles with one teat, two teats, smaller teats, bigger teats. Different sized bottles. Lennart chose three at random and threw them into his trolley.
It was the same with nappies. Jerry had had cloth nappies that you washed, but the ICA hypermarket didn't seem to have anything like that. Lennart stood before the wall of brightly coloured plastic packs like a Buddhist at a prayer wall. This wasn't his world. He hadn't a clue.
He almost did the same as he had with the bottles, but then he noticed that the nappies came in different sizes for different ages. There were only two kinds for newborns, and Lennart chose the more expensive ones. Fortunately there was only one kind of formula; he put two boxes in his trolley.
He had no idea what else he might need.
Dummies? Jerry had had a dummy, and look how that turned out. No dummy, at least for the time being. Lennart spotted a giraffe, or rather a giraffe's neck and head attached to a ball so it always popped back into an upright position. He put it in the trolley.
Every single time he picked something up and dropped it among the rest of his purchases, he thought how absurd the situation was. These were baby things. Things for a baby. A wriggling, screaming creature where food went in one end and shit came out the other. A creature he had found in the forest...
Once again that sense of unearthly calm came over him. His arms went limp and dangled as his eyes sought out a mirrored dome in the ceiling. He could see little people moving along the aisles, he could see them from God's perspective and he wanted to reach out and tell them all that they were forgiven. Everything they had done to him in the past was unimportant now.
I forgive you. I like you. I really like you.
For a moment he thought someone had actually responded to his amnesty. Then he came to and saw a fat, pop-eyed woman pushing past him to get to the baby food.
He grabbed the handle of the trolley and looked around. Two elderly men were standing looking at him. He didn't know how long he had spent in his state of grace, but it could hardly be more than a few seconds. That was all it took for people to start staring.
Lennart pulled a face and set off towards the checkout. His palms were sweaty, and he suddenly felt as if he were walking oddly. His temples were throbbing, and the gaze of imagined or actual observers seared into his back. People were whispering about the contents of his trolley, suspecting him of all manner of things.
Calm down. Got to take it easy.
He had a special trick when feelings like this came over him, as they sometimes did: he pretended he was Christer Sjögren. The gold discs, the TV shows, the German tours, the whole lot. People were looking at him because he was so horribly famous.
Lennart straightened his back and manoeuvred his trolley a little more carefully. A few more steps towards the checkout and the fantasy was complete: here comes Christer. There was no queue, of course, and as he loaded his shopping onto the belt he smiled at the checkout girl, revealing the charming gap between his front teeth.
He paid with a five-hundred-kronor note, took his change and packed everything into two bags, then carried on through the crowd with confident steps; it wasn't until he had thrown the bags in the back of the car, got into the driver's seat and closed the door that he could drop the mask, return to himself and start despising Christer again.
My very own bloody Blue Hawaii.
He found Laila at the kitchen table. The little girl was in her arms, wrapped in one of Jerry's old baby blankets. Lennart put the bags down on the kitchen floor and Laila looked up at him with the expression that made his stomach tie itself in knots: mouth wide open, eyebrows raised. Helpless and astonished. Which might possibly have worked in those days, but not anymore.
He dug out the box of formula and asked without looking at Laila, 'What's the matter with you?'
'She hasn't made a sound,' said Laila. 'Not a sound, in all this time.'
Lennart put some water in a pan and placed it on the burner. 'What do you mean?'
'Exactly what I say. She ought to be hungry, or... I don't know. But something. She ought to say something. Make some kind of noise.'
Lennart put down the measuring scoop and leaned over the child. Its face wore the same concentrated expression as before, as if it were lying there listening intently for something. He prodded the flat nose, and the lips contorted into an expression of discontent.
'What are you doing?' Laila asked. Lennart turned back to the stove, poured powder into the water and started whisking. Laila's voice rose. 'Did you think she was dead?'
'I didn't think anything.'
'Did you think I'd be sitting here holding a dead baby without noticing, is that what you thought?'
Lennart whisked hard for a moment, then tested the temperature of the milk with his finger. He took it off the heat and grabbed a bottle at random as Laila droned on in the background.
'You're unbelievable, that's what you are. You think you're the only one who has any idea how things are, but let me tell you, all those years when Jerry was little and you just — '
When Lennart had poured the milk into the bottle and screwed the teat in place, he took a step towards Laila and slapped her across the face with the palm of his hand.
'Shut your mouth. Don't talk about Jerry.'
He took the child from her and sat down on a wooden chair on the other side of the table. He crossed his fingers under the blanket, hoping it was the right sort of teat. At this particular moment he didn't want to have made the wrong choice.
The child's lips closed around the teat and she began to suck, eagerly drinking down the contents of the bottle. Lennart stole a glance at Laila, who hadn't noticed his success. She was sitting there rubbing her cheek, silent tears rolling into the creases around her neck. Then she got up and hobbled into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
The child ate almost as silently as she seemed to do everything. All he could hear was quiet snuffles as she breathed in through her nose while her mouth continued to suck away and the level in the bottle fell. When the bottle was almost empty, Lennart heard the faint rustle of foil from the bedroom. He ignored it. He had enough to think about.
With a pop the child let go of the teat and opened its eyes. Something crawled up Lennart's spine and made him shudder. The child's eyes were bright blue, enormous in the little face. For a second the pupils dilated, and Lennart felt as he if was staring down into an abyss. Then they contracted in the light and the eyelids closed.
Lennart sat motionless for a long time. The child had looked at him. It had seen him.
When Laila came out of the bedroom, Lennart had placed the child on a towel on the kitchen table. He was turning a nappy this way and that in his hands, trying to work out how to put it on, when Laila took it off him, pushed him out of the way and said, 'I'll do it.'
Her breath smelled of chocolate and mint, but Lennart didn't say anything. He put his hands on his hips, took a step back and carefully watched what Laila did with the flaps and sticky strips. Her left cheek was bright red, striped with the tracks of dried-on, salty tears.
She had been a party girl, a sexy little thing. A pretender to the glittering throne on which Lill-Babs sat, yodelling away. A reviewer had once jokingly called her Little Lill-Babs. Then she and Lennart had teamed up and her career had taken a different direction. These days she weighed ninety-seven kilos and had problems with her legs. The party girl was still there in her face, but you had to look hard to catch a glimpse.
Laila fastened the nappy and wrapped the child in the blanket with blue teddy bears. She fetched a clean towel and made a bed in the big picnic basket, then laid the sleeping child carefully inside it. Lennart stood there watching the whole thing. He was happy. This was going well.
Laila picked up the basket and rocked it gently like a cradle. She looked at Lennart for the first time since she had emerged from the bedroom. 'What now?'
'What do you mean?'
'What are we going to do now? Where are we going to take her?'
Lennart took the basket off Laila, went into the living room and placed it on the armchair. He bent over the child and stroked its cheek with his forefinger. He heard Laila's voice behind him. 'You can't be serious.'
'It's against the law, you must know that.'
Lennart turned and held out his arm. Laila backed away slightly, but Lennart turned up his palm, inviting her to take his hand. She moved closer cautiously, as if she expected the outstretched hand to turn into a snake at any moment. Then she placed her hand in his. Lennart led her into the kitchen, sat her down at the table and poured her a cup of coffee.
Laila followed his movements with a watchful expression as he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down opposite her. 'I'm not angry,' he said. 'Quite the reverse.'
Laila nodded and raised the cup to her lips. Her teeth were discoloured with gooey chocolate but Lennart didn't point this out. Her cheeks wobbled unpleasantly as she swallowed the hot drink. He didn't say anything about that either. What he said was, 'Darling.'
Laila's eyes narrowed. 'Yes?'
'I didn't finish telling you the story. What happened in the forest. When I found her.'
Laila placed her hands on the kitchen table, resting one on another. 'Go on then. Darling.'
Lennart ignored her sarcastic tone. 'She sang. When I'd dug her out of the hole. She sang.'
'But she hasn't made a sound.'
'Listen to me. I don't expect you to understand this, because you haven't got an ear for it, but... ' Lennart raised a hand to forestall the objections he knew would come, because if there was one thing Laila was still proud of, it was her singing voice and her ability to hit a note cleanly. But that wasn't what it was about in this case.
'You haven't got the ear like I have,' said Lennart. 'Your voice is better and your pitch is more accurate blah blah blah — all right? Happy? — but that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about having the ear.'
Laila was listening again. Despite his delivery, the praise was enough. Her talent had been acknowledged and Lennart was able to go on. 'You know I have a perfect ear for a note. When I opened the plastic bag and got her out... she sang. First an E. Then a C. And then an A. And I don't mean cries that sounded like notes, but... sine waves. Perfect. If you had set a meter to measure her A, it would have shown 440 hertz.'
'What do you mean?'
'I don't mean anything. That's just the way it was. She sang. And I've never heard anything like it. Not the hint of a slide or a grating sound. It was like hearing... an angel. I can still hear it.'
'What are you trying to say, Lennart?'
'That I can't give her away. It's impossible.'
From Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Copyright (c) 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.