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Charlotte Link, who was born in Frankfurt am Main, is one of today’s most successful German writers. Her psychological thrillers are international bestsellers, and in Germany alone more than 24 million copies of her books have been sold.
“Charlotte Link … has the eerie insight peculiar to writers of psychological suspense. While most of us look at our neighbors and see ordinary people living humdrum lives, they see something dark and menacing beneath the surface.” New York Times
Also by Charlotte Link
The Rose Gardener
The Other Child
The Unknown Guest
Translated from the German by Marshall Yarbrough
The original edition was published under the title “Der fremde Gast” by Blanvalet Verlag, an imprint of the Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, Munich.
English e-book edition 2015
© of the original German edition 2005 by Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, Munich
© of the English edition 2015 by Blanvalet Verlag, an imprint of the Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, Munich
Cover art: www.buerosued.de
Cover photo: plainpicture/Arcangel
For Kenzowith love
ANONYMOUS LETTER TO SABRINA BALDINI
May has come … My, but how pretty and green your yard is, Sabrina! Everything’s in bloom! I saw you yesterday; you were sitting outside late into the evening. Where was your husband? He’s not home much, is he? Does he know that you’re not at all the faithful wife he sees in you? Have you confessed to him, told him everything about your life, all that’s hidden in its murky depths? Or do you keep the really big things to yourself? I’d be interested to see whether you manage to grow old with him and still keep him in the dark about your adultery.
Whatever the case, you’re alone a lot of the time. It got dark and you were still outside. Later you went into the house, but you left the back door open. How incautious of you, Sabrina! Haven’t you ever heard that that can be dangerous? The world is full of evil people … full of people hungry for revenge. It’s an evil thing, this hunger for vengeance, but sometimes it’s all too understandable, don’t you think? Everybody gets what they deserve. The world is only bearable if you believe in the kind of justice that evens things out. Sometimes justice keeps you waiting for too long, and that’s when you’ve got to give it a little push.
You understand that you deserve to die, right, Sabrina? It should have been clear to you ever since those days so long ago, when you failed so miserably. They call it failure to render assistance, what you did back then. Or better yet: what you didn’t do. What was the reason, Sabrina? Laziness? Indifference? You didn’t want to pick a fight with anybody? Didn’t want to put yourself on the line? Ruffle any feathers? Oh, it’s always the same story! You were so committed to helping other people. But only so long as you didn’t have to catch any flak yourself. All talk, no action. It’s so easy to look the other way! And nothing but trouble comes from getting involved.
But somebody, sometime, has to pay. Somebody always has to pay. I’m sure you were hoping this cup would pass from you, right, Sabrina? So many years … the memories fade, and maybe you repressed your own memories of those days long ago, glossed over them in your mind, and slowly you started thinking to yourself that you’d gotten lucky . That you’d gotten away without having to pay up.
Did you actually believe that? Really, to me you seem too intelligent for that. And too shrewd.
Now the time has come. It had to come sometime, and the way I see it, at this point, there’s no good in waiting any longer. It’s all clear from where I’m standing. The verdict against you has been handed down, and very soon I’ll be carrying out the sentence. Yours and Rebecca’s. She’s just as guilty as you are, and it wouldn’t do for it to be only your head on the block.
I’m going to take my time with each of you. Quick, easy, not a lot of fuss — that’s not how it’s going to play out. You’re going to suffer, both of you. Your deaths will be difficult. They’ll drag on long enough that you’ll have the opportunity to think nice and hard about yourselves and your lives.
Are you excited to meet me already, Sabrina? So excited that you’ll no longer be sitting in your pretty yard for so long in the evenings? That you’ll make sure to always keep the back door closed? That you’ll carefully look left and right when you leave the house? That you’ll jump when the doorbell rings? That you’ll lie awake in bed at night, when yet again your husband isn’t home, and fearfully listen into the darkness and keep asking yourself again and again if you’ve really locked all the doors good and tight? Or will you leave the light on all the time, because you just can’t bear the blackness all around you anymore? But you know that this won’t make you safe either, right? I’ll come exactly when I’ve planned to. You won’t be able to protect yourself.
And deep down, you know it, too.
You’ll hear from me again soon, Sabrina. It’s nice to know that until then you’ll be thinking of me day and night. And that you’ll be looking grayer and grayer and more and more miserable. It makes me happy to watch that happen.
With you as always!
SUNDAY, JULY 18
She dreamed that a little boy had rung their doorbell. She turned him away, just as she always turned away anyone who stood before her uninvited and wanted something from her. This attack-style begging had always been a thorn in her side; she felt harassed and intruded upon whenever someone suddenly showed up on their doorstep with hand outstretched. Most of the time it was for a good cause, of course, but then again, who knew if these people were always honest? And even if they flashed some credential that showed them to be authorized to collect for charitable organizations, it was still simply impossible to tell that quickly if you weren’t looking at a more or less well made counterfeit. Especially when you were sixty-seven years old and were having more and more trouble with your eyes.
No sooner had she shut the door than the doorbell rang again.
She sat up in bed with a jolt, confused, because this time the ringing in the dream had actually torn her from her sleep. She still had the image of the boy in front of her: a gaunt, pale, almost translucent face with giant eyes. He wasn’t asking for money, he was asking for something to eat.
“I’m so hungry,” he had said, softly and yet almost with a note of accusation. She had slammed the door shut, terrified, horror-struck, confronted with an aspect of the world that she didn’t want to see. Had turned around and tried to get the image out of her head, and right at that moment the doorbell rang and she thought: Now here he is again!
Why had she woken up just now? Had the doorbell actually rung? One did like to incorporate noises like that into one’s dreams. But in that case it could only have been an alarm clock, and they didn’t even have one. They didn’t work anymore, after all, and in the morning they were both awake rather early anyway, purely of their own accord.
It was very dark, but through the cracks in the roll-down shutters a little light from the streetlamps made its way inside. She could see her husband asleep next to her. He lay there completely motionless, same as always, and his breathing was so soft and steady that you had to listen very closely to know if he was even breathing at all. She had read once about how older couples would fall asleep together at night, and then in the morning one of them would wake up and the other would be dead. She had thought then that if Fred were to die in this manner it would take a good long time before she noticed.
Her heart beat hard and fast. A look at the digital clock, its digits shining bright green, told her that it was almost two o’clock in the morning. Not a good time to wake up. You were so defenseless. She was at least. She had had the feeling many times that were anything bad ever to happen to her — were she to die, for example — then it would occur between one and four in the morning.
A depressing dream, she told herself, nothing more. You can just go back to sleep.
She lay back down on her pillow, and right at that moment the doorbell rang again, and she realized that it hadn’t been a dream.
Someone was ringing their front doorbell at two o’clock in the morning.
She sat up again and heard her own hectic breath in the oppressive silence that followed the shrill ringing.
It’s completely harmless, she thought. I don’t have to answer.
It couldn’t mean anything good. Not even salesmen came to call at this hour. Anyone who would scare people out of bed at this hour was either up to no good or was in serious need of help. And wasn’t the latter much more likely? A burglar or a murderer wouldn’t very well ring the doorbell, would he?
She switched on the light and bent over her husband, who was still sound asleep. He couldn’t hear a thing; he had put in earplugs. Fred was so sensitive to noises, even the whisper of the wind through the trees by their bedroom window disturbed him. Or the creak of a wooden floorboard, or the withered leaf of a houseplant detaching itself and floating down to the floor. It woke him up, and for him that was the absolute worst. To have to wake up when he had in fact decided to sleep. It plunged him into a nameless rage. His mood was ruined for days. It was because of this that he had eventually started using the earplugs. And his wife had been able to breathe again.
She was therefore hesitant to wake him. He could be so upset with her for it that for a week he would barely speak to her. At least if he later concluded that it hadn’t been necessary to tear him from sleep. If it turned out that he really ought to have been woken up, and she hadn’t done so, the result for her could be the same. She had been married to this man for forty-three years now, and her life with him had consisted overwhelmingly of moments like this: Torn between two options, nervously weighing which path might be the right one, the top priority in this always being not to stoke his rage. God knew it wasn’t an easy life with him.
The doorbell rang a third time, ringing longer this time, more demanding, more insistent. She decided that given such an unusual occurrence, Fred’s night’s sleep could be sacrificed. She shook him by the shoulder.
“Fred,” she whispered, even though he couldn’t hear her, “wake up! Please, wake up! There’s someone at the front door!”
Fred rolled reluctantly on his side, grumbling. Then, in an instant, he was suddenly wide awake and sitting up in bed as well. He stared at his wife.
“What the hell …,” he began.
“There’s someone at the door!”
He could only see her lips moving and he grudgingly took the plugs out of his ears. “What’s wrong? What are you doing waking me up?”
“The doorbell’s ringing. Three times already.”
He kept on staring at her, as if she weren’t quite sane. “What? The doorbell’s ringing? At this hour?”
“Yes, I think it’s very unsettling, too.” She hoped the doorbell would ring again, since she could tell that Fred didn’t believe her, but for the moment everything remained calm.
“You were dreaming. And on account of a stupid dream you think you’ve got to wake me up?” His eyes flashed angrily at her. His white hair stood up in all directions.
A moody, surly old man, she thought, and at this point not even attractive anymore, either. I might live twenty more years. If he doesn’t die before me, then I’ll end up having lived with him for sixty-three years. Sixty-three years!
All at once the thought made her feel so sad that she could have cried.
“Greta, if you do this again …,” Fred began, full of scorn, but just at that moment the doorbell rang again, somewhat longer still and more persistent than before.
“You see!” It sounded almost triumphant. “There is someone at the door.”
“It’s true,” Fred said, bewildered. “But it’s … it’s two o’clock in the morning!”
“I know. But an intruder …”
“. . . would hardly ring the doorbell. Although theoretically it would be the only chance he’d have to make it inside the house!”
That was true. Back when they had bought the house and moved in four years ago, Fred had put a lot of time and effort into turning it into a fortress. A retreat for their later years, as he called it. Quiet suburb on the outskirts of Munich, a rather well-to-do neighborhood. They had also lived in Munich before then, in a completely different part of town, but then it too had been a so-called better area. They had been younger, however. With old age Fred had developed a pronounced paranoia when it came to intruders, and so by this point all the windows on the first floor had bars on them, all the shutters in the house were outfitted with padlocks, and there was of course an alarm system on the roof.
“Maybe we should just ignore the sound.”
“Ignore someone who deliberately pulls us out of bed?” Fred swung both legs over the edge of the bed. His movements were still rather agile for his age. But he had gotten very thin recently. His blue-and-black-striped silk pajamas hung on him like an empty sack. “I’m going to call the police!”
“But you can’t do that! Maybe it’s a neighbor who needs help! Or it’s …” She said nothing further.
Fred knew whom she meant. “Why should he come to us if there’s something wrong? He hasn’t shown himself in ages.”
“Still. It could be him. We should …” The truth was she was completely at a loss and out of her depth. “We have to do something!”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying! We’ll call the police!”
“And what if it really is just … him, though?” Why, she thought, do I always have this fear of even just saying his name in front of Fred?
By now Fred was tired of this back and forth.
“I’m just going to go see right now,” he said with resolve and left the room.
She heard his steps on the stairs. Then she heard his voice down in the foyer. “Hello? Who’s there?”
Later — when she no longer had any opportunity to discuss it with Fred, and when she understood that she wouldn’t be living twenty more years, but rather just hours or at best days — she asked herself what answer her husband had received from the other side of the door to make him open it so quickly and readily. She heard that the various locks and bolts were undone. Then she heard a dull blow; she couldn’t tell what it was, but it set her entire body on alert. The little hairs on her forearms stood up. Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding.
“Fred?” she called, full of fear.
Something downstairs fell crashing to the ground. Then she heard Fred’s voice. “Call the police! Call the police right now! Quick! Hurry!”
It was the wrong instruction. There was no telephone on the second floor of the house. She could have managed to reach her bedroom door, to close it and to lock it, and then she could have opened the window, leaned out into the night and screamed for help. If he had only told her to do this … or if she had had the thought herself … But as it was she jumped out of bed in a panic, slipped into her dressing gown — her whole body shaking like a leaf — and hurried to the staircase. Obedient wife to the end. Call the police, he’d said. The phone was in the living room. Besides that Fred also had a cell phone, but where that was lying around, she didn’t know right then.
Only on the stairs did it hit her that she had made a fatal mistake.
But by then it was already too late.
TUESDAY, JULY 20
At half past four in the morning, Karen gave up trying to get any more sleep, deciding that it would be better to get up and do something useful than to continue to roll around in bed and eventually end up completely wiped out.
But what is useful, anyway, she thought, what, in my life, is useful?
Wolf, her husband, was still asleep; he hadn’t picked up on his wife’s sleeplessness at all. It was better that way, too, since he would have reacted to it with either mockery or reproaches, and either would have made Karen — yet again — burst into tears. For sure he would have pointed out how she went to bed too early at night, and so by necessity woke up too early the next morning, too, and ended up making everyone crazy with the big fuss she made about lying awake at night.
Maybe he was right. After all, what he said did sound logical. And unfortunately there was never much use in trying to get him to be open to other arguments and explanations. For Wolf there was only one way of looking at things, and that was his, period. Karen was herself aware that she went to sleep too early at night, but she was so exhausted, so drained, that she just couldn’t keep her eyes open, no matter what she did. She crawled into bed like a sick person whose body has given out on her, and she fell almost instantly into a near-narcotic sleep. Which she would be startled out of just as immediately at around half past three in the morning, from then on wide awake, tormented by fearful thoughts concerning her future and that of her family.
She slipped into jeans and a T-shirt, put her sneakers on, and crept out of the bedroom. She had read in a book that exercising in the open air was supposed to help with depression. She didn’t exactly know whether or not she was suffering from depression, but some of the symptoms described in the book she certainly found occurring in herself.
No sound came from the kids’ rooms. It was clear she had managed not to wake up anyone in the family.
When she came down the stairs, Kenzo, the boxer, was already standing in the hall below and vigorously wagging his short tail. Although he had been asleep in the living room — the sofa was his favorite bed just then — it of course hadn’t escaped his notice that Mommy was up and dressed. He read her sneakers right at once too: This looked just like an early morning walk. Excited, he hopped into the air a few times, ran to the front door, and looked at Karen full of expectation.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she whispered to him and reached for his collar and leash. “But be nice and quiet, now!”
The midsummer morning was already quite bright, the air still cool, but in a pleasant, refreshing way. The day would get sunny and hot. Dew glittered on the grass. Karen took in a deep breath of fresh air.
How peaceful it is, she thought. How quiet. Everything is still sleeping. It’s like Kenzo and I are the only living things in the world.
She decided to walk over to the woods and to make a big loop once she got there. Just a few neighborhood streets to go down, and she’d be there. Proximity to the woods — with regard to the dog — had been one of the reasons why she and Wolf had decided on this house in a subdivision on the outskirts of Munich.
Ever since they had moved into the new house, things had been getting worse for Karen. She had already been suffering from all kinds of problems and worries before then, although she had never been able to define the exact nature of her difficulties. A friend had suggested that she wasn’t happy in her marriage, but Karen had denied this. Had very forcefully denied it. She and Wolf had known each other for fifteen years, had been married for eleven years, and had two healthy, beautiful children. Not counting the common quarrels that by necessity take place between two adult people who live under the same roof, everything between them was, for the most part, all right. Maybe they didn’t see quite enough of each other, since Wolf was building a career at the bank where he’d worked since he’d finished school and was rarely home. Karen had given up her work as a dental hygienist when the second child came, and it had seemed a reasonable solution to both of them.
“I make enough money,” Wolf had said, “and this way you can focus on looking after the kids and won’t have to be running yourself ragged all the time.”
At times Karen suspected that Wolf didn’t have the slightest clue of the extent to which caring for two kids in itself forced you to run yourself ragged, especially since on top of this there was also of course the matter of keeping the house in order, looking after the yard, taking Kenzo out, getting all the shopping done, doing all the laundry, and ironing Wolf’s shirts. And it was — and here, as she sometimes thought she recognized in a kind of subconscious insight, here she perhaps came close to the core of her frustration and melancholy — a life of stress for which no one would grant her even an ounce of recognition. On the other hand, it wasn’t any different for just about any other housewife, if Karen could believe the letters sent in by readers of women’s magazines. So why, then, did she cling to this well-worn cliché, adding her voice to the collective whining of her fellow women instead of seeing the good in her life? The healthy kids, the lovable dog, her husband’s steady career, the nice house?
Yes, because they had had the nice new house for three months now, and in her puzzling over the cause of her growing malaise the thought came to her now and again that maybe she wasn’t able to handle the move, the new surroundings, the new neighbors. Without question her symptoms had gotten more pronounced. The insomnia had gotten to be more of a torment, but paradoxically, so had her weariness. The hours of the day stretched out into an endless void, and often she wasn’t capable of finding something useful to fill the minutes that were ticking away, even though there would have been enough to do. Sometimes she sat on the sofa, interminable grocery list in one hand, billfold in the other, stared outside at the blossoming yard, and couldn’t find the strength to get up and go to the supermarket.
Was she lonely? Was she, in the middle of a four-person family, so lonely that the will to live was slowly but incessantly seeping out of her soul and trickling away somewhere where she’d never find it again?
A week after the move she had screwed up her courage and gone to visit the neighbors in the hopes of being able to find a few nice acquaintances here. The visits had depressed her. The old lady on one side was rather senile and embittered; she had been rude and unfriendly toward Karen, as if she were personally responsible for some misery or another in the old lady’s life. On the other side lived a married couple, likewise very old. Karen didn’t like the two of them, at least she couldn’t imagine entering into a friendly relationship with them. He liked to hear himself talk and never stopped boasting about career achievements from the time when he, as a highly sought-after attorney — if you chose to take his word for it — had celebrated sensational achievements. His wife hardly spoke at all, but still was constantly staring at Karen from the corner of her eyes, and Karen had the uneasy feeling that she would mercilessly drag her through the dirt just as soon as she had left the house. She sat, rather beaten down and as usual also thoroughly depressed, on the tasteless brocade sofa, nipped at a glass of cognac, and tried to smile in admiration at the right moment or to summon an amazed “Oh!”
And fervently wished herself back in the security of her own home.
“I find them unpleasant,” she had told her husband that evening. “He’s totally full of himself, and she won’t even open her mouth and is full of pent-up aggression. I felt really uncomfortable.”
Wolf laughed, and as she so often did Karen thought that his laugh had a measure of condescension in it. “My, but you are really quick with this analysis of yours, Karen. I thought you were over there for barely half an hour? And already you can pin these complete strangers down so precisely? Hats off to you, that’s all I can say!”
Of course he was mocking her, but why did it hurt her so badly? It hadn’t been like this before. What had made her so sensitive? Or had his mockery gotten more pointed? Or was it that both were happening at the same time and each was dependent on the other? Wolf had gotten more caustic, and that had made her more sensitive, and her sensitivity in turn provoked him to be rougher in the way he treated her. Which wasn’t perhaps what a loving husband should do, but human nature followed its own laws.
And the new neighbors were certainly not worth fighting about.
The new neighbors …
Kenzo had discovered an interesting scent on the asphalt and noticeably quickened his pace. Karen just about had to jog to be able to keep in step with him. She noticed that jogging in the early morning like this was really much better than tossing and turning in bed, but unfortunately she still couldn’t quite manage to banish all the ugly thoughts from her head. For example, by no means did she actually want to think about the neighbors, and now it was precisely they who had snuck back in. It was because she had been having problems because of them for days, and having problems for her meant: looking for solutions incessantly, finding none, feeling ever more miserable, getting on the nerves of everyone around her with her complaining. Or anyway, that’s how Wolf had described it in a very long lecture that he’d given her recently.
The problem with the neighbors was that she hadn’t been able to reach them for two days. And she urgently needed to reach them, because she wanted to ask them to keep a bit of an eye on the yard and above all collect their mail while she was in Turkey with Wolf and the kids. There were now just about one and a half weeks left till the beginning of the kids’ summer vacation from school; a week after that and they were supposed to be off. Karen had already set it up that Kenzo would stay at her mother’s, and she felt it was important to have everything else settled as soon as possible beforehand. She had gone over to the neighbors’ house and rung the doorbell yesterday and the day before, in the morning, at midday, and in the evening, but there’d been no response at all. What seemed odd to her was that at times on Sunday the shutters on some of the windows had still been down, and then again on some windows they were rolled up, and nevertheless nobody seemed to be home.
“I could swear they’re home,” she said to Wolf, “but I haven’t seen them in the yard, and nobody answers the door!”
Wolf had looked a little put upon, like he always did when Karen pestered him with things he thought she should take care of on her own — and should please leave him out of. “Then they must have gone off on a trip! Such things have been known to happen!”
“But the shutters …”
“They’ve probably got one of those automatic security systems. It controls the shutters on its own. Precisely so that nobody will notice that the house is empty.”
“But last night …” She had observed something peculiar sometime late Sunday night or early in the morning on Monday. She had once again been unable to sleep and had gone to the bathroom to get a glass of water. As she did so she had looked out the window and noticed that the lights were on in some of the rooms next door. She had thought with relief that the neighbors, wherever they might have been, had now obviously returned, but the next day it had been the same story: No one responded when she went to ring the doorbell.
“Okay, so then the lights going on and off is part of the security system too,” Wolf said, annoyed, when she spoke to him about it. “Dear God, Karen, don’t make such a big deal out of it! There are still over two weeks till we leave. They’ll turn back up again by then! Besides — wasn’t it just last Saturday that he called you?”
That was true. The neighbor had called and complained because Karen had parked her car so poorly outside their garage that allegedly the neighboring garage was partially blocked as well. Karen had then moved her car and afterward retreated to her bedroom, crying, because she felt that this way of treating her was unfriendly and mean.
“So why didn’t you go ahead and ask about the vacation right then?” Wolf wanted to know.
“Because he was so unfriendly and I …”
“Because he was so unfriendly! Does it ever occur to you that at this point you say that about almost all the people you’ve come into contact with in any way? They’re all unfriendly toward you! They’re all ugly to you! Nobody loves you! Why, for example, don’t you just ask the old lady on the other side if she can get our mail for us? I can tell you why: because during your first visit she was so unfriendly to you!” The last words he had said in a theatrical, affected way. “You walk around all the time with this look on your face, Karen, like a weepy martyr, and maybe that’s just what it is that provokes people to treat you badly!”
Could it be that he was right?
She and Kenzo had turned onto a street at the end of which there was a short patch of field that you could cross to reach the woods. Kenzo stopped at the fence in front of someone’s yard and sniffed, interested; Karen’s opportunity to stop for a second and catch her breath. Even though the walking did her good, she had already come back to her agonizing thoughts, almost all of which were apt to cause her to lower her opinion of herself. Was being a victim not a matter of chance? Did one bring it on oneself? Did she carry herself in such a way that it invited others to treat her badly?
Obsequious, fearful, dependent on others’ opinions, no self-confidence.
At this point Wolf would say: Change it, she thought. But did he have any idea how hard it was to pull yourself out of the mire?
No, a man like Wolf couldn’t remotely imagine the troubles and hardships Karen was almost constantly steeped in. He just went his own way, unswerving and steadfast and not constantly questioning himself. He didn’t know the condition of being permanently dissatisfied with yourself. And unfortunately it was really in all likelihood an unholy spiral: she criticized herself, therefore the people around her did so as well, which in turn reinforced her bad view of herself. Where was a path like that supposed to lead?
Most certainly not to a strong, independent, self-assured woman, she thought meekly, more likely to one that grows ever more fearful and ever more neurotic and is afraid of everything and everyone.
Kenzo could already see the trail in the woods in front of him and pulled heavily on the leash. Karen let him go and he trotted cheerily away. A few meters before he had reached the small path, however, he stopped and lifted his leg by the back tire of a parked car.
Oh, shoot, Karen thought, I hope no one saw that! My goodness, couldn’t he have waited another ten meters?
She looked around guiltily, thankful that no one was awake at this early hour. Naturally the car Kenzo had picked out for himself was the nicest of all the cars parked here: a dark blue, spotless BMW. And suddenly, to Karen’s horror, the driver’s door opened and a man got out. A very respectable-looking man in suit and tie. He seemed exceptionally furious.
“What the hell does your dog think he’s doing?” he barked at Karen.
She immediately called Kenzo to her — so that he couldn’t give the stranger a friendly greeting as well and slobber all over his suit in the process — and grabbed his leash again. If only she’d just let him loose at the edge of the woods! But who could have guessed that he’d mistake a car for a tree trunk all of a sudden? And that there’d be someone sitting in it this early, before the break of dawn?
What could this man be doing up at this hour? she thought unhappily. But that didn’t really matter. In any case he was good and angry at her, and she once again started trembling because someone — she could just hear Wolf’s smug voice — was unfriendly to her.
“I’m … I’m sorry about that,” she stammered. She knew that she came across like a schoolgirl, her face going from red to pale in quick succession, and not like a grown thirty-five-year-old woman. “He … he’s never done anything like that before … and I just don’t understand how …”
The man’s eyes flashed menacingly at her. “No, I don’t understand it either! If a person can’t control their dog, then they should stick to keeping goldfish!”
“Like I said, he hasn’t ever …”
“Hasn’t ever! Hasn’t ever! Some good that does me. What do I care what your dog allegedly hasn’tever donebefore!Either way he’s soiled my car in a disgusting way!”
Karen couldn’t help but think of something she’d read once, that men thought of their cars as a part of themselves — as extensions, in a certain way, of their most important part — and to look at it like that, it was as if Kenzo had pissed on the stranger’s penis … no wonder he was so worked up.
“If he’s damaged anything … we have insurance, and I’d gladly take on the costs …” If only she wouldn’t stammer like that! If only she weren’t so close to tears yet again!
The man kicked the abused tire in a rage, snarled something unintelligible — it sounded a bit like “stupid cow!” — got back in his car, and slammed the door shut behind him. Karen felt positively hollowed out by his angry look, as she went on down the street in order to finally reach the path and a hundred meters farther on to disappear in the safety of the woods. Her eyes were burning.
No reason to start bawling, she scolded herself, but she knew that in a few minutes she’d be crying her eyes out. Her hands were trembling, and her knees were shaky. Just what was it that was wrong with her? Why did she start bawling at the most trivial instances? But also, why did things like that keep happening to her? The neighbor who chewed her out because she’d parked her car poorly. The stranger who called her a stupid cow because her dog had desecrated his car? Or was it not like that at all? Did things like this happen to other people, too, but they knew how to better defend themselves against them?
Other people have a stronger sense of self-worth, she thought, as the first tears trickled down her cheeks, and therefore it doesn’t shake them to the core when they’re treated like trash. It rolls right off them.
But she would never get a handle on it. Never, it was hopeless.
She crouched down, threw both arms around Kenzo, pressed her nose in his somewhat bristly, dark brown fur, with its familiar smell, and cried. Shed rivers of tears once again and was just thankful for the dog’s warm, firm body, which gave her a bit of consolation and support.
Because Wolf would only roll his eyes again when she sat weepy-eyed at breakfast later. The children would look awkwardly off to the side.
As a wife and mother she was no doubt on the verge of becoming a disaster.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 21
Inga trudged behind Marius on the brutally hot village street, and not for the first time since they’d been together — and even, for the past two years, married — she felt that he was inconsiderate in the way he treated her. And likewise not for the first time she could not escape the knowledge that she would stay with him nevertheless, because with some part of her rational, grounded being, she loved the chaotic craziness which was typical for him and which she had to thank for landing them, again and again, in situations like the one they were in right now. It wasn’t that he was inconsiderate only toward her; he was to the same extent inconsiderate toward himself, and this inconsiderateness came out of his utter inability to plan anything at all, to think things through, to weigh the risks and to perhaps back out of a great plan, because its disadvantages outweighed its advantages.
And the end result, she thought, wavering between rage and resignation, is that you wind up with it almost forty degrees Celsius in the shade on a dusty village street — which has no shade — somewhere in the South of France, and you don’t know which would be better, living or dying! It’s so damn typical of this man!
She stopped and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She wore a sleeveless T-shirt that clung to her like a wet rag and wrinkled shorts that she would have preferred to have ripped off because wearing them made her too hot. She would have preferred to walk in her underwear from that point onward, but even though she thought she was close to perishing, on this question her sense of shame still won out. Still! She could definitely imagine herself standing there completely naked in the foreseeable future and not caring one bit what people thought of her.
“Can I have another sip of water?” she asked. It might have been just about ten minutes since she’d last had something to drink, but already her tongue was clinging to the dried-up roof of her mouth again, and her vision was getting blurred.
It’s probably more like fifty degrees on this street, not forty, she thought.
Marius turned around. He, same as Inga, was carrying his camping gear on his back, but he had offered to carry their provisions on top of that. Though this didn’t amount to much at this point; their pockets were empty in this regard, too.
“We barely have anything left to drink,” he said. “Maybe we should wait a while for the next drink break.”
“But I’ve got to drink something. I don’t think I can take another step if I don’t!”
Marius let his massive backpack fall to the ground, opened a side pocket, and took out a plastic water bottle. It was barely a quarter full. Regardless, Inga reached for it greedily, started to drink, and would have given a fortune to finish it off. Out of fairness of course she had to save half of it for Marius. It took an act of will for her to physically hand the bottle and its lukewarm contents back to him.
“Here. For you.”
Marius drank the rest and flung the empty bottle on an overgrown patch of land to their right. Normally Inga, the environmentalist, would have protested, but at that moment she lacked the strength.
“Well,” said Marius, “that’s the end of that. Now we’ve got no more water left!”
“But there’s got to be a store around here somewhere. The people in this shithole have to go buy groceries, too!” Inga looked around. A village street, no people anywhere. Houses left and right with closed shutters. Dead silence. Of course no one would be caught dead outside at midday in this heat. Just two crazy tourists with a tent could pull off that feat, to go creeping along here and risk getting heat stroke.
“There’s definitely a store,” Marius said, “but it’s probably somewhere more in the middle of the village. Obviously not here on the side street.”
“I don’t have the strength to go running around the whole village right now.” Inga let her backpack slide off her shoulders and then sat down on top of it. Her legs were a little shaky. “Maybe we should ring somebody’s doorbell and ask for some water.”
“Hmm,” said Marius and now took a look around himself, as if in the meantime a human being could have materialized from somewhere. But still nothing moved, and not even the faintest hint of a breeze blew over the street.
Inga was close to tears. She shouldn’t have stopped. Shouldn’t have drunk anything. And most definitely shouldn’t have sat down. Because now she had the feeling that she wouldn’t ever be able to get up and get going again, not for anything in the world.
“Oh, Marius, why … I mean, how could we ever have set out to hitchhike to the Mediterranean in July?”
Really, though, she could just go ahead and answer her own question: Because once again Marius had had a brilliant idea, and because — as usual — it had turned out that of course not everything went as smoothly as he’d thought it would. Which, however — and this was also typical — had in no way made him step back and reconsider his plan.
“Inga, great news!” he’d blurted out on the telephone. Inga had participated in a two-week workshop in Berlin as part of her history degree program during the semester break, while Marius had stayed behind at home alone in Munich. Naturally they’d talked on the phone every night.
“I can get a car! A guy I know is going to lend me his car. I thought once you’re back we’d use it to drive to the Mediterranean and really enjoy ourselves!”
“Who’s lending you his car? Who is this guy?”
“You don’t know him. I helped him pass a class, and so he wants to return the favor! Isn’t that a great opportunity?”
She had cursed the skepticism that took her over every time Marius came to her with his ideas, suggestions, plans. Why did she always immediately have to play governess, pointing out problems and cooling down Marius’s bubbling excitement?
“We don’t have any place to stay down there, though. And we definitely won’t be able to find anything at this point.”
“We’ll camp out.”
“But we don’t have any …”
“We’re getting that, too. A tent, sleeping bags, camping stove, pots and pans for cooking. No problem.”
“This guy you know must be really grateful to you …”
“Yeah, well, you try getting somebody to write almost your entire term paper for you! He’ll be groveling at my feet for years!”
“You know, Marius, I’m afraid that in the Mediterranean in July it’s nothing but hot and packed and …”
“But we’ll be mobile. We can find really quiet towns to hole up in. If there’s a place we don’t like, we’ll just drive somewhere else. Come on, Inga, stop acting like your own grandmother! Just say yes and get excited about our trip!”
What other choice did she have? She’d said yes, had gotten excited at least about his excitement and tried not to let her sense of disquiet get the upper hand. It hadn’t given her any sense of triumph, only filled her with a mild, sighing resignation, when it turned out that the guy Marius knew actually didn’t want to hand over his car, and that all they would get would be the promised camping gear, which was already blocking the small hallway of their apartment when Inga came back home.
“It’s too tricky for him, the thing with the car,” Marius had explained, “what with the insurance and all that …”
Sure. From the start she had had a feeling that there would be something just like that. But at least they had a brand-new tent, fantastic sleeping bags, and great backpacks. Even the pots and pans were of the highest order. The camping gear seemed never to have been used before and was clearly top of the line.
“This guy must be loaded,” said Inga.
Marius shrugged his shoulders. “Rich parents. Either you’re lucky or you’re not.”
Inga couldn’t help but think of this expression that afternoon on the hot village street, when she thought she’d go crazy from thirst and wouldn’t be able to bear the pain that the blisters on her feet were causing her any longer. In any case the two of them had not been lucky on this trip, even if Marius would probably see things quite differently. They had gone a long way in a short amount of time, that she had to admit. They had set out late in the afternoon the day before, since Marius, who during the break had a job at a shipping company, had still had to work. A young couple had taken them as far as Lyon, but they had arrived there at three o’clock in the morning, had had to pitch their tent in total darkness on a dirty campsite on the edge of the city, and Inga had been so tired that she could have wept. They had slept for barely three hours and then stood there cooling their heels at the entrance to the highway. Who would want to pick up two people with such a huge amount of bulky luggage? Finally a young Frenchwoman with a small child in the backseat had taken pity on their lot, but she hadn’t been able to take them far, really, since she was on her way to visit her mother in the country for a few days. She had let them off at a fork in the road and said they wouldn’t need more than half an hour to get to the next village, but in fact they’d been on the move for over an hour. And now they found themselves nowhere near the highway, though there had been no rest area for far and wide, and it had been clear from the start that they would absolutely have to buy more water.
“We really should have gotten dropped off at that last parking lot,” said Inga.
“Yeah, but this way we’ve gone a good twenty kilometers farther.”
“So what? What good does that do us? There’s probably not a single person coming by here who’ll be driving farther than the next village. Which means we have to walk back to the highway, and that’s at least five kilometers. In this heat …”
Her voice was quavering, and to be safe she didn’t say anything more. She could see in Marius’s face that he was afraid she could really start crying, because her tears always made him helpless and unhappy. Not that she cried often; it was extremely rare, even. But in that instant …
Exhaustion, she thought. If I start bawling now, it’ll be out of exhaustion more than anything. I can’t take any more. I just can’t take any more.
She loosened the laces of her thick sneakers. As she slowly took the shoes off her feet she whimpered with pain. Carefully she rolled down her socks. Thick, fire-red blisters came into view.
“I need a pharmacy,” she said, although it was clear to her that it might be even more difficult to spot a pharmacy in this village than a grocery store. If there even was one.
Probably not. The first tear broke loose and rolled over her hot, reddened cheek.
“Don’t!” Marius was at her side at once, catching her tear with his finger. “Don’t cry. Listen, it wasn’t smart to take your shoes off. Now you’re guaranteed not to get them back on again.”
“I need some ointment. And Band-Aids. Or else this’ll get infected.”
“It really does look bad,” said Marius, almost admiringly. “But we didn’t really walk that far, did we?”
He forgot everything. Truly and always, everything.
“The woman who gave us a ride has never gone this way on foot, or at the very least she did it in cold weather, when you make better progress. Half an hour! That was way off!”
“Still, I think that your feet …”
She looked at him, irritated, because she knew she had made a big mistake. “Yeah, okay, they’re new shoes. And I know you’re not ever supposed to wear them for long distances. But then it also wasn’t clear to me when you broke the news about this dream vacation that we’d end up in no-man’s-land and would have to march for kilometers at a time. Somehow you completely forgot to mention that part!”
He crouched down in front of her, looking at her feet and then up at her. As always, she had a hard time keeping up her anger and aggression when facing his gentle expression and almost childlike blue eyes.
“Let’s not argue,” he pleaded. “It’ll just use up strength!”
She ran a hand through his blond hair, wet with sweat, which formed a stubborn mass over his forehead — which would forever prevent him from ever really looking serious.
“Okay. But …” She said nothing further. There was no use in explaining to him that it was yet again his carelessness and rashness that had gotten them into this situation, and that it would be necessary for him to try and cultivate a bit more maturity and a more adult way of behaving. Because of course he would change just as little as anyone else. People didn’t change in their most basic makeup — not, at any rate, at the request or suggestion of others. Some kind of world-shaking experience, a disruptive event, could cause a readjustment in Marius, but it did not lie in her power to bring this about.
“Listen up,” said Marius, “you stay here and rest. I’ll leave all our stuff with you and go looking for a pharmacy. And a supermarket. I’ll bring you ice-cold lemonade and some nice, soothing ointment for your feet. How does that sound?”
The offer sounded extremely enticing, but Inga would feel joy or relief only when Marius was standing in front of her again with the promised items. Until then the danger was too great that he would either lose his way and only come back hours later or forget on the way why he’d set out in the first place. Inga considered it entirely possible that he would turn up at some point with a CD in his hand with music from a band that he’d been looking for for a long time and which he’d just discovered at a drugstore. Whereupon he, in his excitement, would have forgotten his actual intention.
But since she had no choice, she nodded. “All right. That’s nice of you. Are you sure you can manage it?”
“I’m feeling just fine. Above all my feet are still in good condition. So,” he jumped up like a spring, “wait for me here, okay?”
She smiled wearily and watched him as he went back along the lane and then turned off on a side street to the left. He was obviously in better shape. Though he also played a lot of sports — as opposed to her, who just kept her head down all the time, stubbornly focused on only her studies.
I should at least sign up for a gym class at the community center, she thought.
Farther down the street a ways, she spotted a wall that provided a bit of shade and decided to haul herself over to it, since without a doubt she would soon get sunstroke otherwise. It cost her a huge effort to stand up, get her things together, and go twenty more steps, on top of which she had to patter along as quickly as possible, since the pain of her bare feet on the hot asphalt was unbearable. She had to go back and forth three times before she had managed to get all the stuff to the wall, and then she sank down on her rolled-up sleeping bag panting. She felt a bit dizzy. Maybe she had already gotten too much sun, and her physical deterioration wasn’t only from her being unathletic.
The shade felt good. Sitting felt good. Now if she could just get some water, she would almost feel completely healthy again.
She closed her eyes, trying at the same time, however, not to fall asleep under any circumstances. After all, everything they had was lying spread out around her. The thought of this made her sit up.
Everything they had … had Marius even thought to take any money with him?
She moaned softly at not having thought of it right away, reached over to his backpack, and opened the outer compartment. His wallet wasn’t there, and she let out a breath, relieved. He had apparently taken his cell phone, too, so she could still reach him. Maybe she was always far too quick to brand him a fool, maybe she hadn’t been fair in her judgment of who he was for a long time now. After all, he was charging through his studies with excellent grades, and he even wrote term papers for other students. He was partly a mess, but not a mess through and through. It was necessary — for their marriage — that she make that clear to herself from time to time.
She closed her eyes again.
She must have fallen asleep, because she hadn’t heard the car approaching. She jerked awake only as someone was bending over her. A hand might have even touched her, but she couldn’t have said so for certain.
“Yes, hello?” she asked, totally disoriented, as if she had picked up a telephone and was waiting for the voice on the other end of the line.
Instead she was looking into the face of a stranger. To her he looked somewhat older, mid-forties, maybe. He seemed kind and concerned.
Yes, concerned above all. That was perhaps the trait that she’d most have associated with him at that moment.
“Oh, you’re German!” he said. His speech was accent-free, so he was probably German himself, Inga guessed. Now she also spotted the car that was parked behind him. Munich plates.
“I fell asleep,” she said. “What time is it?”
The man looked at his watch. “It’s quarter past one.”
When Marius had set out, it had been twenty minutes past twelve. She’d slept for almost an hour.
She sat up, looked left and right over the empty, sun-scorched street.
“I’m here waiting for my husband. He’s trying to find us something to drink.” As she said this, she noticed how dry and cracked her lips felt. The longing for a drink of water started to get overwhelming.
“My God, that’s no problem at all. Wait here!” He stood up, went back to the car and reappeared with a cooler. He opened it and pulled out a can of soda, covered in condensation from the cold.
“Here. I drink soda like a madman on long car rides, so it’s all I’ve got, unfortunately, but …”
She took the can from his hand, opened it with trembling fingers, put it to her lips, and drank. Drank like someone dying of thirst, and felt how life slowly returned to her and renewed strength grew within her.
“Thanks,” she said when the can was empty. “You’re a life saver.”
“I was coming up the street, saw you lying here, and asked myself if everything was all right with you. That’s why I stopped.” His gaze slid down her bare legs and fixed on her feet, horrified. “Good Lord! Your feet look just awful!”
“We walked quite far. And I, stupidly, was wearing brand-new shoes.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Somehow we were thinking the whole hitchhiking thing would be easier.”
The man looked around. “I think I’m the only driver to come through here in ages. This village isn’t exactly well-situated for finding a ride. In any case … I guess I don’t know where you’re headed, but …”
“To the Mediterranean.”
“You’ve gone a bit out of your way then.”
“I know. We’re trying to get back to the highway, see, but in this heat we’re going to have to wait till evening, I think.”
He looked at her thoughtfully; it looked like he was weighing something or other in his mind and trying to come to a decision. “I’m driving to the Mediterranean. Cap Sicié. Côtes de Provence.”
“Oh … but then you’ve gone a bit out of your way, too, right?”
He brushed the hair off his forehead. It was dark, just barely graying. “They said on the radio that there was an accident. With a lot of cars backed up. I’ve just been trying to drive around it.”
She looked at him. She knew that she looked trustworthy. But only too well did she understand people who as a rule didn’t take hitchhikers. She was one of them herself. A friend of hers had let a young couple ride with her in the freezing cold one winter, moved to sympathy because the two of them appeared to be almost frozen stiff. At some point the guy had suddenly put a knife to her throat and made her turn off on a dirt road that led through the woods. There the two of them had forced her to get out and taken off with her car as well as her purse, which had all her money, credit cards, and papers. And she could probably still count herself lucky that nothing worse had happened to her.
The man sighed. “Normally I never pick up strangers,” he said, as if he’d read her mind, “but I feel like I can’t leave you sitting here. So, if you like …”
“The problem is …”
He nodded. “Your husband. We’ve got to go scoop him up too, of course.”
“I can’t just leave him here.”
“Of course not. Do you have an idea of which way he went?”
“In that direction.” She pointed up the street. “And then that first left. I don’t know any more than that. He was hoping to find a grocery store somewhere. I can try to reach him on his cell phone.”
“Hold off for a second. The village isn’t large, we’re sure to find him in no time.” The man closed the cooler and stood up. “Come on, we’ll load your stuff in and then we’ll get going.”