It is quiet.
It is so quiet you wouldn't believe.
Yet the radio is on in the front seat, he's got his headphones on and the engine is making dinting sounds in the curves. Not that it helps. It is still just as quiet.
Rain is hammering against the windows of the car and the droplets on the glass turn the forest outside into a blurry mess. There are trees everywhere, but none of the kind he's used to. No beeches. No elms, maples, rowans or any other kind of deciduous trees. There are just firs, pines and the occasional birch tree lined up on either side of the road.
Not that it bothers him.
He just notices.
"…hear me? Kalle?"
Someone calls him from the front seat, and he carefully removes his headphones from his head.
"Were you asleep?"
He silently waits for the point of the one-sided conversation.
"No? Just wanted to tell you that we're almost there."
He nods and then waits a bit to see if his mother wants to say anything else. When she doesn't, he puts his headphones back on and returns to stare out the window.
Because there is only so much to do.
The farm – which he from now on is supposed to call his home – isn't big by any means. The main house is a Falun red two-storey building at the end of a long dirt road lined by pines. Fifty meters further in, one will find the stable and about an acre of fenced land. If you don't count the similar house on the other side of the dirt road, there are ten kilometers to the next neighbor.
So Kalle can see why his parents chose this place; this little farm in the depths of the Dalecarlian woods. Out here, it is so easy to hear your own thoughts. And thus harder to hear others'.
Since he was born and raised in Stockholm, it's quite hard to adjust to the isolation at first. But it is a lot easier than he thought it would be. He doesn't know anybody, so he has no reason to take the bus into town. There are no friends for him to visit; never was.
Outcome: Kalle's only interaction with people is over the phone or via the Internet. He talks to his parents too, but he's careful to keep that interaction to a minimum extent.
The counselor back home said to his parents that it would be good for him to have something else to focus his energy on; something that would take his mind off things. So, since his mother always had wanted to keep horses, she thought it was a good idea to get a few of them, now that they had time and money on their hands. And he agrees that it was.
He loves the horses.
They don't judge.
The first two months after the move, he spends all of his time either out in the stable with them or in his unlit room playing video games like some other vampire. When he's not studying, so to say.
The principle at the new school says that he has to catch up due to his truancy before he can start attending school again. Three months is quite a long time while skipping classes after all. So they give him two months to catch up, saying he'll be able to go to school once he's shown that he knows the things he must know to continue on the Social Science Programme.
He is not even sure if he ever wants to go back to school.
Since there isn't much to do apart from studying, it soon becomes a habit to go for a ride in the afternoon. And that one time he happens to pass by the bus stop just as the only afternoon bus shudders to a stop. His horse makes some weird sort of side-step at the foreign sound, but after a quick pat on the neck, it quickly calms down and they just walk past the large vehicle.
But as the doors hisses open, he can't help but throw a glance over his shoulder to get a look at the person who stumbles out of the bus. It must be the neighbor – no one else lives out here. His mother told him a bit about them and especially the fact that they had a son his age seemed to be important for some reason.
And even though he doesn't want to admit it to himself, Kalle is a bit curious what he looks like.
As he turns around, he catches a glimpse of blonde hair, a messenger bag and a yellow raincoat that all belongs to this tall kid. Kalle lets his eyes linger for a bit as the kid waves at the busman. Polite bastard...
The Icelander beneath him snorts and calls for his attention; making him forget about the other boy in an instant.
When his mother tells him that it is time for him to go back to school again, he doesn't argue with her. There is no energy left in him to do that. Especially not after spending another afternoon cleaning out the horses' boxes. He doesn't want to go back; she knows that he doesn't want to go. Yet they both know it is for the best. He needs to learn how to interact with people again; stop being so scared.
Not that anyone can blame him.
They had beaten him so badly he'd been forced to spend two days in hospital. The school management wanted to officially say that it was unprovoked. He wanted to say the same thing, even though everybody knew the cause. Yet he knows that it wasn't, just like everybody else. It was his fault. He should've just kept his mouth shut and none of this would have happened.
His parents and the counselor weren't too happy with how things turned out back home; no attention was drawn to the crime and there wasn't any further attention drawn to hate crimes as a whole either. They had wanted him to step forward and not to let them get to him; to show the world that he was stronger than that.
But he couldn't.
Because he's not.
It is an awfully chilly morning when Kalle for the first time walks the five hundred meters out to the bus stop. It's raining and the wind easily makes its way through both his coat and the hand-me-down sweater. He's early. There are still ten minutes until the bus arrives; his mother didn't want him to miss it by any means.
A quarter to eight, a person that must be the neighbor comes running down the road; messenger bag beating against his hip. When he arrives, he's panting harshly, so he leans forward with his hands on he's knees to catch his breath. The blonde hair is tousled and he has a cut on the bridge of his nose.
"Thanks for holding the bus! Was certain I'd miss it!"
The boy pats him on the shoulder. Kalle flinches away from the touch, but the boy doesn't seem to care.
"Wait… I've haven't seen you before. Not here anyways… Ah! You're the neighbor, right? Are you also going to Högbergsskolan? Or what do I know. But you look like you're my age anyway…"
The kid scratches his nose; the cut opens and a single droplet of blood trickle along it.
"Name's Nejla. Well, it's Felix if you want to be correct, but no one ever says that. Mom's Sámi, so that's why it has stuck. Don't know how that happened though. Nejla literally means Nils, you know."
A hand juts out in his direction. It's a big hand, clad in a colorful mitten with cut off fingers which leaves the long, lanky piano fingers naked.
Kalle hesitantly takes it, shakes it. The shake actually lasts too long for his liking, but he doesn't bother to say anything since the other's hand is so warm.
An awkward silence stretches out.
Then Nejla finally lets go. "Ah, sorry for asking… but do you suffer from selective mutism?"
Kalle startles and then stare at the kid. "What?"
Nejla shrugs. "Just wondering. You were so unbelievably quiet, and I know this girl who suffers from it, so you know…" he excuses himself and look down at his boots, obviously embarrassed. "Are you okay?"
"Yes" he says, even though he knows that everyone knows it's a lie.
A new heavy silence follows.
Nejla clears his throat. "What programme do you attend?"
Kalle throws him a glance.
"Social Science" he says.
Nejla's eyes widen. "Oh, so it was you they were talking about! Sorry, I'm kinda–"
The rest of the sentence is cut off as the bus arrives. Not that Kalle cares; he doesn't like talking to strangers. It's always so awkward and weird and he just wants to run and hide somewhere.
Even though he's not feeling half as awkward as he should.
He sits down in the front of the bus, putting his bag on the seat beside him; silently telling Nejla that he wants to be alone. But he does throw some glances over his shoulder during the forty-five minute ride; just to get a better look.
Because he just can't help himself.
First day of school he steps through the doors with his heart in his throat; glad he's wearing the largest shirt he has. The other pupils float around in the wind catcher; well-dressed girls holding hands, guys from the Aesthetic programme sharing earplugs and couples tenderly whispering to each other over cheap coffee from McDonalds. He's so nervous; it feels like he's going to throw up on his shoes right there in the hallway.
What if they can see what the others saw? What if these people are just as… cruel and evil as they were back home? His parents say that if that's the case, they are just insecure. But he knows that's wrong. Pure hatred raged in those people back home.
He takes a deep breath and goes to first class, thinking that it's good he doesn't have to introduce himself.
The teacher takes roll and then starts the lesson. Swedish. Some project on authors; it will be due on November 21st. There are groups.
One group is one man short; the leader is a short girl with a lot of pondus. The other two boys in the group nod at him when he sits down. The girl, Jonna, shows him what they're working on and then tells him what she wants him to do. He nods. He's fine with whatever as long as he doesn't have to say anything.
It's so easy just doing what you're being told.
No need to think.
The day passes on. He sees Nejla in the canteen and the neighbor waves at him. Kalle returns the gesture, but decides to sit down beside the girl from Swedish class and a couple of her friends. There's too much people surrounding Nejla for his liking, and even if people seem curious about him, he won't risk anything. If they want to talk to him, no problem. But he won't approach anyone.
Not again. Not ever.
He's actually surprised that the people he meet wants to talk to him. Kindly. No harsh words. Still, he can't really bring himself to answer, but it doesn't seem to bother them. Apparently it's common to be shy around here.
Woodsmen are kind.
On the way home, the bus is empty with him as the only exception. The driver plays Elvis with blasting speakers, so he sits down in the back, bag between his knees and doesn't even attempt to listen to his own music. Elvis is not that bad.
The next day he's once again early at the bus stop, and Nejla once again comes running along the dirt road just in time. Kalle is kind of grateful that he's late again since he's certainly not in the mood for small talk.
Being plagued by flash-back dreams due to his post-traumatic stress is something that is wearing him out. He thinks that he should be used to it by now, and he is of sorts. Usually he can handle the dreams pretty well. Last night just happened to be so damn realistic. He even had to run to the kitchen and throw up so hard that it left him all shaky and weak.
And as they enter the bus, he's quite certain that Nejla can feel his reluctance, since the neighbor once again heads for the back of the bus rather than sit down beside him in the front.
As the days grow colder, he discovers a pattern. Nejla is always late to the bus stop, except on Mondays. He's never there when Kalle himself arrives, but on Mondays there is no need to tell the busman to hold the bus for a minute or two, because Nejla will already be there by then.
Mondays are thus the only day when he has to endure the constant stream of words that flow out of Nejla's mouth.
"… so I just thought that, hey, why do I need to change? It was freaking freezing and it wasn't like she could do anything to stop me either. I mean, she could scold me and stuff, but right at that moment, there was nothing she could do you know? So I just went for it. And all the sheep just went nuts; my jacket was that orange."
Nejla chuckles to himself, and then gives him a look. "Are you even listening?"
He nods, so Nejla just continues. And Kalle can't help but see that the cut on the bridge of the nose has healed and turned into a small scar instead. It just sits there like a white, shiny dot right between those eyes.
As the first snow falls, it gets noticeable that Kalle and his parents can't handle all the work with the horses all by themselves. It's just too much work for two working adults, and their teenager with no social life whatsoever, to take care of the Icelanders.
His mother contemplates whether she should put an employment ad in the local newspaper, since they have the money now. The house back in Stockholm sold for a lot. His parents ask him what he thinks about it, and he just shrugs. He's fine with whatever as long as he doesn't have to interact with someone besides them and Nejla.
He doesn't really know when it happened, but somewhere along the line, Nejla ended up as something that he's not bothered with. He rather likes him, to be honest.
But just the day before his mother is going to turn in the ad, Nejla – who has just gotten his anticipated license – accidentally razes their mailbox when he's going for a drive. And being the polite bastard he is, he knocks on the door, sincerely apologizes for what he's done and then asks if he should pay with money or if it's fine with just a favor.
And that's how he ends up helping Kalle out in the stable.
"I had never tipped you as a horse-kind of guy, you know. You look more like a gamer than anything" Nejla chirps as he puts a bale of hay in one of the boxes. "I always wondered what you did after school, since it was always so dark in your room and I never, ever saw you around."
"Did you really?" That surprises him. They're just neighbors.
"Yeah. Don't ask me why…"
Kalle reply is short and he tosses another load of dung into the wheelbarrow. It lands with a thud and Nejla smiles at him, but he has no idea why he does that. Whenever Kalle tries to kill the non-existing conversation with a stale answer, Nejla will always give him that smile. A kind, almost a little sad smile that makes his chest tightens, even though he knows he's done no wrong.
The presentation on the August Strindberg-project goes really well – he thinks they end up with a VG each, at least. Jonna, who quickly figured out that he wasn't one to talk, had assigned him to do the PowerPoint. According to her, the result was really good, and considering that she sports a MVG in Swedish in general, she's to be trusted.
He likes to say that she is his friend, and he's pretty certain she labels their relationship as that as well. But one thing that he doesn't discover until well into November is that she's really good friends with Nejla too. They were neighbors before he moved in.
So that may be why he one Wednesday decides to ask her why Nejla talks so much.
She just gives him an odd look before stuffing a piece of potato cake into her mouth.
"It's Nejla we're talking about, huh? He doesn't talk much. He just babbles when he's nervous. Otherwise he's just as quiet as you are" she says as she munches away. "Why do you ask?"
He shrugs. "No reason" he almost whispers and stabs one of his own potato cakes. Then he sees how a light goes on in those brown orbs of hers and there's no turning back.
"He talks a lot around you, doesn't he?"
Kalle doesn't answer; just reluctantly stares out the window at the snow outside. Everything is covered in a thick layer of white, and yesterday the snow depth measured one meter and twenty centimeters. If it continues like this, they'll drown.
"You know he's gay, right? That he likes boys?"
"I asked him out once, and then he told me. So, don't tell him I said this, but it may be that he's got a crush on you" she says, then downs her glass of milk and stands up. "Don't kill him; just tell him you're not interested. If you're not, so to say."
Kalle wants to believe her, he really does. It just that… it's too good to be true.
He won't fall for that again.
He'd just told him that he liked him; maybe loved him. And that he thought that Love would take it well; that they were good friends enough that he would at least be nice and kindly tell Kalle that they never could be.
Love himself obviously didn't have a problem with it, since he just told him no. No, thank you. But Love's friends found out somehow, and they wouldn't let Kalle turn him into "a fucking homo".
So first of all, they told the whole school that Kalle was a fag; putting it so that people distanced themselves from him and whispered whenever he got near.
Then they tricked him. Sent a message from Love's phone to his phone that said that Love wanted to meet, since he had reconsidered and that he wanted to talk.
And naïve as he was, Kalle believed it.
So easily they had lured him into the boys' bathroom on the second floor.
They had forcefully pushed him in; he'd hit his head on one of the sinks hard enough that he ended up with a concussion.
His hands had been tied to the pipes underneath the sink. The warp thread had dug into his skin so deep that it had left scars; thin, white lines around his wrist that reminds of cuffs.
Then they had beaten and kicked him until he lost consciousness and then left him to bleed.
Pure hatred raged in those people.
As November turns into December with Advent Sundays and Christmas spirit, life just trudges along. School is school and the afternoons are spent out in the stable with all the chores.
Ever since Jonna told him about Nejla, Kalle can't help but see that it's true. Apart from the blabbering, the neighbor is also skittish and blushing all the time. Kalle is just not sure if Nejla's behavior has become more obvious or if he just sees it because she told him.
The afternoon on the last day before Christmas break is spent just as any other afternoon. They take in some of the horses, groom the ones who need it, clean out what needs to be cleaned out and then go ahead to give them water and food.
The way all the Icelanders heads perk up when they hear the rustling of food will never stop amusing him.
"I've no idea how the hell you manage to get so fucking dirty, lady! The mud should be frozen…not fucking stuck in your fur! "
Nejla lets out an exasperated sigh as he works on the mud that is stuck in Hetja's grey fur. The mare playfully lets out a snort right down his neck, and the jump that Nejla makes is enough for Kalle to feel something bubble up from deep within; something that has built up for quite some time now.
And soon he finds himself laughing. He laughs and laughs until his stomach is starting to hurt and then he just laughs some more; the tension disappears along with the pressure around his lungs
Somewhere in the background he hears that Nejla emits a snorting sound as well.
"It's nothing to laugh about, you know. She freaking scared the shit out of me."
"She was just being affectionate."
"Yeah, right…" Nejla says, sounding somewhat deflated.
Kalle swallows and look down. His boots are so dirty. They need a cleaning.
They continue with the work in silence. There is nothing to be said. But when it's finally time to wrap it up and head back in, they're met by a surprise.
Outside one hell of a blizzard is raging.
It's only about fifty meters up to the house, but it's still scary. The sight is so bad that you can barely see your own hand in front of you.
"We just have to run, you know?" Nejla tells him as he's looking over his shoulder at the storm outside.
"Really? What if we get lost? And we still need to take in the rest of the horses."
"We won't get lost. And they will be fine. They've got hay and fresh water…plus, they're born to handle these kinds of storms."
Kalle sighs, but doesn't object when Nejla takes his hand and drags him out into the white noise.
They make it back in safely and even if he doesn't what to admit it, Kalle was actually clinging to Nejla the whole time. Blizzards are not to be taken lightly, even if Nejla seems to think he's overreacting to it all.
He just tells him that he was born and raised in Stockholm. There are no blizzards in Stockholm; not like this anyway.
Plus, Nejla contradicts himself when he refuses to go home due to the blizzard.
Kalle's parents call after a minute or two and tell him that they probably won't be home for the night; the roads are closed, making it impossible to go home by car or bus. Almost all the busses are cancelled anyway.
That's how he ends up alone with Nejla for a whole night. And that is probably why things turn out the way they do.
The reason why he suddenly blurts out:
"I've heard that you're in love with me."
He can hear everything in Nejla's sharp intake of breath; the overwhelming fear that blends with that tiny percent of anticipation. Kalle knows it all too well. And he knows that he owns him an explanation.
"And… it's fine. I… I'm not only flattered, seeing that I'm not… straight. But… well… last time I wanted something more… it ended… bad. So I… can't."
Nejla doesn't answer, but Kalle hears that he swallows thickly; as if he's close to tears. The why is hanging in the air.
He closes his eyes and count to ten.
"I… got tricked. And his friends… beat me up. Tied me up and basically put me in hospital. Just so I shouldn't turn him into a… fag."
He doesn't realize that he's crying until something falls onto the kitchen table with a dripping sound.
Three seconds later a sob wrenches its way out of his throat and he succumbs to it; no longer wanting to pretend to be apathetic.
It could be seconds, minutes or even hours, but then Nejla finally comes around the table, sits down beside him and holds him. Kalle doesn't melt into his arms – he sits just as upright as before. But just the feeling of a warm body, the smell of a beautiful boy and horses; lips against his hair and soothing words in his ear…
It helps a lot.
Eventually he comes back to his senses; angrily wiping all the traces of tears from his face. His eyes are still puffy, but he just doesn't care. Nejla saw – knows – everything already; no use pretending.
"People are really so hateful..."
"I know" he says; unconsciously leaning into that horse-smelling sweater.
Nejla swallows. "I won't let anyone get to you, you know? If you give me a shot..."
"I didn't say I was helpless. I'm fine on my own..."
"I know… but you don't need to be. I'll just... you won't be alone if it ever happens again, okay? Not that I'll let it happen."
Kalle closes his eyes again; the darkness is as soothing as Nejla's voice.
They end up on the couch in the living room; watching a Swedish crime series they're not paying any attention to. They don't even notice that the blizzard is becoming even worse. They're too busy with each other.
Kalle doesn't tell that he's never been with anyone; that the warm kisses that leave him all shaky are his first, along with the hand that makes its way underneath his shirt and touches places he's only touched by himself before.
He learns that Nejla tastes like coffee and still smells like horses even after he's taken a shower. That those hands are so gentle that he doesn't mind when they push his scarred wrists into the couch.
"Are you okay?"
And this time he actually means it.
A/N: Some explanation is in order. It's a long text, but I recommend you read it if you want to know a bit more about some of the things I mention.
Icelander: Icelanders is what we call Icelandic horses.
Kalle: Is short for Karl/Carl and is pronounced as [Kalːɛ] in Swedish. It is a boy's name.
Sámi: The native Swedes are called the Sámi and they live in Norrland, the northern parts of Sweden. They have their own language and mostly engage in reindeer keeping. They're also known for "translating" their names when talking to swedes that aren't . The Sámi name Nejla for example, becomes Nils in Swedish.
School System: In Sweden, we have two education stages. First there's Grade School and it's compulsory. It consists of grade 1 through 9 and is divided into three parts; the low stage, the middle stage and the high stage. You start the year you turn 7 and graduate the year you turn 16. Every grade is treated as a separate year with separate graduation ceremonies and so.
Then there's the lyceum; grade 10 through 12; you're 15 or 16 when you enter and 18 or 19 when you graduate. It's optional, but you won't get anywhere without it. Kalle is in grade 11, hence why he attends the Social Science Programme.
Programmes: In grade 9, you get to choose which programme you want to attend when you start at the lyceum. There are 17 programmes; some which can be found at every Upper secondary school in the whole country and some that only exists at certain schools. Every programme focuses on a certain kind of subjects and has different alignments. The Social Science programme for example, studies the core subjects Swedish, Math and English (no matter what programme you attend , you study them) plus Social Studies, History, Psychology, and Philosophy etc. Some might also study Literature, Communication, etc. depending on what alignment you choose in grade 11.
Most of the programmes are Occupational Preparing- programmes. This means that the pupils who attend one of these programmes have a lot of praxis and in theory they can start working when they have graduated.
Five of the programmes – the Social Science programme, the Science programme, the Technical programme, the Economics programme and the Aesthetic programme – are Academic programmes. The pupils who attend these programmes mean to continue further studies at a university.
The grading system: is that of four grades; IG, G, VG and MVG. IG is F. G– is basically an E and G+ is a D. VG is a C and VG+ is a B. MVG is similar to an A. G stands for Passed (Godkänd in Swedish), VG for Passed with Distinction (Väl Godkänd) and MVG is Passed with Special Distinction (Mycket Väl Godkänd).
The school pays for lunch: you get one free (hot) meal every day. Whether the quality is good or not can be discussed, but in general, the lyceums serve good food.
August Strindberg: is a well-known Swedish author that has written "The Red Room" and "The Natives of Hemsö" among others. He was born 1849 and died 1912.
Love: Love is pronounced as [Luːvɛ] in Swedish and is a unisex name. "Love" in English is called "Kärlek" in Swedish.
And that's it, I think. Feel free to send me a PM if there's anything that still doesn't make sense.