CHAPTER 01

AT THE BOOKSTORE

The kitchen was quiet. I had woken up purposely earlier to avoid the morning chaos of our routine. I could not be late today, so I decide I should leave before my sisters woke up. If I didn't, they would make me sit down and listen to a session of endless gossip before I was allowed to lift my ass from the chair.

'So, how do you feel going for your first job?' Someone asked from behind me, so suddenly I almost spit my coffee. Soon Brinja was standing in front of me with the characteristic grin of someone whose brain is already working full power at seven in the morning. Even if she was my favourite sister and the one that was usually understanding about other people's timetables, I still did not feel like talking to her. The caffeine was still to properly kick in. She was still waiting for an answer, though.

'It's no big deal. I'm just doing a favour to my friend.'

'A favour that is paying you eight pounds an hour…' Brinja's grin widened. When I shrugged and took another sip of my coffee without saying a word she playfully slapped me in the shoulder. 'Oh, don't be such a pain! It is your first job!'

'Can you please stop that? I'm trying not to be late for the first job and you're not helping!'

'Fine, fine. I'll make sure Annuka and Sini don't come until you have left.' She made that I'm-making-such-a-big-sacrifice-for-you face, got behind me and put both hands on my shoulders. Something was coming. 'But you'll have to promise to tell me everything when you get back, ok?'

Of course, of course I would. You would not let me sleep before telling you all the absolutely minute details of my day, would you?

At least Brinja did help me after that. She somehow kept Annuka and Sini from coming down while I was still in the kitchen. Ten minutes later I was thankfully out of the house on my way to the bus stop. It would take me another fifteen to reach my stop and another ten to walk to Games & Gambles.


Games & Gambles was just one small shop in a street full of small shops. It was almost invisible between a Fish & Chips stand and a mobile phone repair… thing (it was not quite a shop, and I could not think of any word to describe what it really was). Most people would happily ignore it as they went about their stupid shopping spree. Then again, who would really pay attention to a family bookstore when there were so much more interesting things such as videogame shops and boutiques only a few meters away?

I found the shop when I had been forced to take my sisters shopping for clothes. I hate going shopping. I hate going shopping for clothes. I hate going shopping for clothes with girls. But my mother was too busy on her new job (the job that brought us here), and my sisters, being sixteen, fourteen and eleven, apparently could not take care of themselves in the city centre. And so the big brother was called to the rescue (and to prevent them from buying more than they needed, I suppose).

We were on our way to one of those shops where they sell their clothes for thrice what they are worth by sticking a "label" on them when I stumbled across the fading sign of Games & Gambles, the bookstore. Seeing as Annuka wanted (or "needed", as she put it) a new mobile phone and Sini wanted to try the (in)famous fat-coated delicacy of this new land, I gave them some money and went inside, telling them to call me once they were done.

For a small shop, Games & Gambles surely new how to use the space available for their advantage. The shelves replaced walls to create corridors and special sections, all of them were packed with books (some seemed about to collapse under their weight). The floor was covered in a fluffy red carpet which seemed to invite the clients to sit on it as they read through potential purchases. It was actually a cosy place, even if a little intimidating at first sight.

Anyway, I spent some time browsing through the books and found the place to be a full of rather "unusual" titles, the type you don't usually see in the mainstream libraries. There were radical left-wing philosophy books, essays on sexuality written in the 50s or even before that, modern fairy tails with horrible twists and even a "Bible of the Atheist", whatever that meant. More "normal" books were there too, but I didn't care about them.

I had also noticed I was the only costumer at the time, and I did not see anyone else going in during the whole half an hour I stayed there that day. I probably enjoyed the fact that it was empty more than anything else, to tell the truth. And for that reason I found myself going there every time I wanted to be on my own, in a calm environment far from the chaos that was inevitably present in the home of three teenage girls.

Being there so often, I ended up befriending the shop owner, Mr. Wright. He was a man on his late fifties/early sixties, bald with a white beard that reached his chest. He was also slightly overweight. The irony was not lost on me that I had left Finland, the home of Santa Claus, to find someone in the United Kingdom who looked just like him. Mr Wright became one of the few people I actually enjoyed talking to. He had travelled around the world in his youth, and he liked to tell the stories of those trips. He could probably spend the whole day doing it and not even notice.

About two months after I met Mr. Wright he told me he was considering the idea of hiring more staff to take care of his shop, and asked me if I was interested. He said he would pay well and that I would be allowed to read any book I wanted when there were no costumers in. I was a little suspicious at first; if the shop was always empty there was no need to hire more staff – it was a wonder he could keep it opened at all. But in the end I accepted the offer. I would probably never need to deal with costumers, and a bit of extra cash was always a good thing.

So here I was, standing in front of Games & Gambles waiting for my new boss to open the door for me.

'Oh, hi Erik! Ready for your first day at work?'

Mr. Wright's appeared in one of the two big display windows. I nodded in agreement and he walked to the front door to let me in. We had about half an hour until the shop opened for the (non-existent) costumers.

'If you don't mind, Erik, I would like some help in relocating a few books.' Mr. Wright announced after a while. He knew better than to start small talk with me, and went straight to the point. He indicated two boxes stacked in one of the corners of the shop and told me to follow him. Together we took all the books out of the boxes and put them wherever they would fit. One box contained stuff underage people should not put their hands into, and the other had a collection of 19th century encyclopaedias.

'I'm not sure I told you, Erik, but I also hired another person to help you. She should be here any minute now. When the doorbell rings, can you answer it for me?'

'Yes, Mr. Wright.' I agreed, but only because he was my boss and so I should not question his orders.

Suddenly working at Games & Gambles did not sound so appealing anymore. I would have a co-worker, and a girl at that. I would not be alone like I wanted to be, would have no peace at all. Whoever that girl was, she would probably bother me all the time like my sisters did.

'Perkele' I mumbled under my breath.

'What did you say, Erik?'

'Oh, I didn't say anything, Mr. Wright.' I lied. How great would that be to have your boss catching you swearing on your first day at work? At least he did not speak Finnish. Even before she arrived that stupid girl was already screwing things up for me.

The doorbell rang while I was distracting myself thinking of all the insults I could use in relation to my new co-worker. Sure, I did not know her yet, but she was a girl, she was bound to be at least annoying and, well, girly. I played my role of good employee and went to get the door as I had been told. The girl waiting for me on the other side was not alone, she had a guy taller and skinner than me by her side. They were both blond and had freckles on their noses and cheeks. Her hair was long, reaching her waist line (like Annuka's), and his was cut short and made spiky by a copious amount of gel. They both had the same retarded smile and they both waved their right hand when they saw me. No prizes for guessing they were related.

'Hi! Are you the guy Mr. Wright told me about?' asked the girl, stepping forward so that we were face to face. She was about a head shorter than me, around Brinja's height. They were probably around the same age. 'I'm Alice Bragança and that's my brother João. It's nice to meet you!'

I was hoping the girl would at least be civilised enough for us to politely shake hands, but instead she launched herself on me and gave me a full-on bear-hug. I almost fell back in surprise, but as soon as I could I fought my way out of her arms.

There was only one rule about interacting with me: Never. Touch. Me. My sisters and my mother were the only ones allowed to do that, and even to them I had reservations. I had to refrain from jumping on the girl's neck to reinforce my point, so I sent her a death glare instead. Unfortunately for me her happily stupid face did not change even a tiny bit.

'What's in your chest? What t-shirt are you wearing that feels so weird to touch?' she asked, pointing at my chest.

'That's none of your business.' I sent her another failed death glare. This girl had to be dumb to not realise my killing intent. She was asking too many unwanted questions already. At this rate one of us would not make it to the end of our shifts. 'Come on, we'll open in a few minutes.'

I was hoping she would just follow me and that once inside I would be able to hide in the labyrinth of books and not need to see her again until it was time to go home, but that girl seemed settled in doing everything to annoy me. Instead of coming inside, she gave one of those bear-hugs to her brother. Because he was at least 1,90m tall, she had to jump quite high to catch his neck. She then kissed him in the cheek, hugged him again for good measure and shouted stuff in a language I did not know. Only then the older brother turned around and left, and she turned to me.

'You haven't introduced yourself yet.' she said, tilting her head to the side in an expression of doubt that still contained that dumb smile of hers. Could she not smile for a second?

'I'm Erik Skirnoff.' Enough said. At least she was quiet until we reached the back of the shop, where Mr. Wright was waiting for us.

'Oh, hello, Alice! Did you have a nice trip here?' he asked the girl as soon as he laid eyes on her. Alice's smile broadened and she ran forward to hug Mr. Wright. Why couldn't she keep her hands to herself?

'Oh, yes! My brother came with me! He said it was for good luck on my first day!'

'This is great! I hope he is right!'

Mr Wright was smiling just like the girl. And he suddenly became just as enthusiastic. Their stupid conversation looked like it was going to last forever, so I decided to open the shop by myself. At least this way I wouldn't have to hear them shouting at each other in sugar-high mode.


When it was time for lunch I found a secluded corner to sit and eat my home-made sandwich. I had been able to avoid the girl for the whole morning, hiding in the labyrinth while she dealt with the odd costumer that showed up. If I could keep doing that until four o'clock than maybe I had a chance of survival. Unfortunately, no sooner had I sat down in the fluffy carpet, that the bouncing mass of blond hair disguised as a girl became visible and screeched as she saw me. Being the social monster she appeared to be, she obviously decided to sit with me. And I, being the anti-social jerk I am, grunted at her as a form of greeting.

'Hi there! What are you eating?' she asked. I showed her the sandwich, not bothering to speak. 'That looks nice. Did your mother do this? My mother always prepares my lunch. She's a very good cook.'

I glared at her. How could she think my mother still did those things for me? I was not a baby anymore. 'No.' I said simply. I did not feel like sharing all the things going through my mind right now. Mr. Wright might be watching.

'That's a shame. How old are you?'

'Seventeen. Eighteen in October.'

The girl's eyes widened considerably and I braced myself. I had a feeling I knew what was coming.

'Seventeen? You look so much younger! I thought you were younger than me!' At least that might explain why she thought my mother still cooked for me. Might. I hadn't discarded the possibility she was just plain dumb and spoiled. 'I'm fifteen, by the way. My brother is twenty-three. We're from Portugal! Where are you from?'

It took me a while to realise she had asked a question. My attention had been focused on my sandwich, since I did not need to hear once again that I looked like a thirteen year-old. I was sick of hearing it, and about to strangle the next person who thought Brinja was my older sister.

'Hey, are you there?' the girl asked me when I didn't say anything. She leaned towards me, forcing me to fall back against the wall. Her blue eyes were too big for my liking, and so full of emotion it was disturbing. 'I asked where you were from.'

'Finland.'

'Oh, Finland! Where Santa lives! I wish I could go there!' My reply came in the form of an unhappy grunt. 'You don't like to talk much, do you?'

No, I do. I talk a lot. I just happened to have been forced into silence that day by an elf hanging from my vocal chords. Ha, ha. My patience was reaching its limit, so I thought it would be more polite to give out a warning before I definitely snapped at her. Though me being me, the warning was very close to the actual snap:

'I'll tell you something: we Finns don't really like other people. We don't like to talk, we don't like to sit together for lunch and we certainly don't like to be hugged. Now go away before I get in a really bad mood.'

She was obviously hurt by that. Her lips became a straight line, not a smile for once, and her eyes filled with water. She looked like she was going to leave, but then she turned back and started at me eye on eye:

'But… but…'

'What?' I snarled. She backed up a bit, but kept staring at me.

'But if we get to know each other better, than we can work together better too!'

'I don't see how that would work'. Why was it so hard for her to get the message that I wanted to be alone? Was she that dumb?

'It's because… because if we get to know each other, we understand each other, and if we understand each other we can be a good team!' she babbled, adding hand gestures for good measure.

That finally made me snap. I almost got up, the anger causing my body to heat up. Who did she think she was to talk about understanding? She was just a stupid fifteen year-old girl! She would never understand me, not even in a million years! We would never be a good team. Did I need to beat that message into her head?

'Erik…?'

'I'll go back to work. Don't bother following me.'

This time, she didn't.


I left at four o'clock sharp. If that girl had been upset by what I did, she did not let it show. She seemed irritatingly happy when she chatted with Mr. Wright and one or two costumers, and did not approach me again. She smiled and waived when I closed the door behind me, but I could not care less. I made my way towards the bus and got home without any major incident.

The first day at work had not been that bad, all things considered. I found a book on Asian History that kept me busy when I had nothing better to do, and I did not have to deal with costumers thanks to the girl's enthusiasm in doing so herself. I would be back tomorrow, and all five days of the week until university started – then I would work at the weekends.


When I got home Sini was watching tv sprawled in the sofa. My youngest sister smiled slightly as she greeted me, and I smiled back because she was my sister, not the dumb girl I now had for a co-worker.

'Want to sit with me?' she asked. I considered her question. I certainly deserved to give my brain a rest after the day I had. I just was not sure Britain's Got Talent was the sort of "rest" I needed.

'I might if you put on something worth watching.'

'Then go away.'

We both grinned. My sister was turning out more like me than I had thought. Considering how close she was to Annuka, and how girly the older girl was, I was expected Sini to turn out just as insufferably girly. Maybe the tomboy gene was just too strong. Oh, well…

I threw myself in the bed as soon as I opened the door to my room. Being the only one not sharing my space, I was forced to get the smallest bedroom. It was fair enough, but it also meant I could jump in the bed from anywhere in the room (the bed alone used around seventy percent of the floor space. What was left were three narrow corridors, one which was also partially taken up by a desk and another which had drawers and a bookshelf. Thankfully the wardrobe was built in the wall).

I sat up after a while and took my shirt off. Looking straight ahead I opened the weird Velcro thing under my left armpit and felt a bit of unrequited relief as my chest was liberated from the binding pressure of my "special" undershirt. The relief was short-lived, however, for soon after came the disgusting feeling of the two way-too-large "tumours" that were inconveniently attached to my chest and hanging loosely there. I took the undershirt off and lied on my stomach to ease the uncomfortable feeling, and also to get rid of the sweat accumulating in that area. I stayed like that for about five minutes, before turning to lie on my back. I looked mostly at the blue ceiling and the little glass sun that surrounded the light-bulb, but eventually my gaze wondered to the wardrobe.

Two huge mirrors replaced the doors. They were probably placed there to make the tiny room look bigger, but I hated them. It had been some good five years since I last stood in front of a mirror bare-chested without feeling I was looking at an alien body, a body that could not be mine. Since those… things… started growing I had felt sick every time I looked at my reflection. It was not me,it could not be me. Those things did not belong there. I am a man. Men do not have those disgusting things hanging from their chests like that. And yet they refused to stop growing, and refused to go away. They stubbornly stay there, reminding me of a past – of a life – I needed to forget.

At least the undershirt helped. The compression power kept my chest looking flat when I had clothes on, but it was obviously uncomfortable to wear and made me sweat a lot. My mother and my sisters had asked me not to wear it at home, and for some reason I complied. It was not like my family didn't know what was under it, anyway.

I put on something to keep the balls from moving around too much and put on another t-shirt, an old one that I used only at home. Downstairs Sini was still watching tv (I could hear it from my room), but there were no signs that mom, Brinja or Annuka were home already. Bored, I decided that maybe Britain's Got Talent was not such bad entertainment. Before heading out of my room again, I glanced at the "Deed of Change of Name and Title (Deed Pool) of Miss Erika Skirnoff now Mr Erik Skirnoff" lying on my desk. It made me smile. At least while I was here in this country I would be free to be who I really was.