by Elin Olausson

Melvin’s real mom moved back to Thailand the year he turned five, and after that it was just Melvin and the dogs and his dad until Solveig came along. Melvin’s dad Stefan had met her online, though no one knew about it until she got off at the bus stop outside the gas station with two rolling suitcases big enough to fit both Melvin and me, if we curled up like the dogs when they were sleeping. The suitcases were red and sparkly like the lip gloss my mom had in her purse but never used, but the thing that caught people’s attention was her hair. It was hot pink, spilling down to her waist. I hadn’t seen hair like that on anyone before, least of all a mom. I was hanging around in the shade like I used to, studying the ants swarming the asphalt cracks. When Stefan’s truck pulled in, I squinted to see if Melvin was in the backseat, but the car was too far away. Solveig slipped into the front seat, chattering about her journey and the bus fare and this lovely little place. Stefan put her suitcases in the trunk. The sparkly red fabric clashed with his camo shorts and the tattoo that looked like a monster bird. Once, I’d told Melvin that I wanted a tattoo just like that when I grew up, but Melvin didn’t seem to think it was anything special.

Stefan drove off with Solveig, though I didn’t know that was her name until the next day, when Melvin told me.

“Do you have a new mom now?” I asked, and he shrugged. Melvin had an old man’s face, as if he grew too fast and never slept enough.

“Dad likes her.” He didn’t talk much. Sometimes I wished I’d had a friend who was more like the other boys, but Melvin always shared his candy with me, and he didn’t make fun of me for liking ants and spiders.

“Do you?”

“What?” Melvin poked at a bruise on his leg, here and there as if to see where it hurt the most.

“Do you like her? Do you want her to stay?”

He shrugged again. “I don’t think she will. Not for long.”

But Solveig stayed. She started working at the local pre-school. She became pregnant. Whenever I came to Melvin’s house she was in the kitchen, baking something—I started associating her with the smell of sugar. She was always in printed dresses, and she fed us cookies and sponge cake as she asked about our day at school.

“Any homework?”

“No,” we lied.

“That’s great.” My parents would have seen through it, but Solveig didn’t. She sat down with us and stroked Melvin’s hair. He flinched, but she didn’t notice. Close up like this the lines in her face showed, running over the forehead and around the mouth like the cracks in the asphalt that no one knew about but the ants and me.

“I wish I’d lived in a village like this when I was a little girl.” Solveig nipped a wilted leaf from one of the potted geraniums in the window. Her long nails were pastel pink like the walls in my sister’s room. I’d heard Mom talk about Solveig with someone on the phone. The rest of us have better things to do than paint our nails. But I thought it looked kind of nice, though I wouldn’t have told Melvin or anyone else.

“It’s the sort of place where nothing bad can happen,” she continued. “But I guess you boys think it’s lame, right?” Her laughter was high-pitched and loud, like the yapping of a tiny dog.

“No,” I said, though I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Solveig stopped laughing as abruptly as she had begun.

“Have another one,” she said, pushing the cookie jar toward me. Her other hand landed on her baby-belly, where Melvin’s little brother or sister lived. I wondered how the baby could breathe in there, and I was about to ask Solveig when Stefan came in. He smelled like sawdust and sweat, and the monster bird on his arm glistened.

“Time for him to go home,” he muttered, nodding in my direction. Solveig’s eyes shifted, turned a paler shade of blue.
“Of course,” she said, standing. “Say hello to your parents from us.”

When I came home and told my mom about Solveig’s greeting, she snorted. “Why? We haven’t even met her.”

That night before bed, I made a drawing of myself. I was tall and strong, and there were wings and talons etched into my skin.

Solveig’s belly grew under her pastel dresses, and she sang to the baby when she thought no one could hear. Her voice was thin like an old woman’s, and she never sang for long. Melvin and I sat under the porch and watched the dogs fight each other in the yard, while Solveig’s fading wails stroked our cheeks.

“How long left?” I asked him. “Until you become a big brother?”

We watched one dog limp away from the other, tail hanging. Melvin picked at a scab on his knee.

“Don’t know. She says it will be next year.”

That was forever away—fall, winter, maybe even spring. “Is your dad happy about it?”

Melvin looked at me. It was strange for a kid to have eyes like that, old and tired. I had known him all my life, and I still found it strange. “When is he ever happy?” he said. Then, Solveig came out on the porch and called our names, and our talk was over. Which was just as well because I didn’t want to hear more.

Stefan picked Melvin and me up from school sometimes when he ended work early. All the other boys flocked around the truck then, bulgy eyes tracing Stefan’s movements. Melvin was the only one whose dad had a cool job, and there was always some nosy kid asking how many thieves he’d caught or if he’d ever shot anyone. Grownups liked him, too, at least the moms. I once heard our teachers discussing him, lowering their voices some, but not enough. She’s not right for him. It’s all a game to her… She’s going to leave, just like Melvin’s mother did. Poor Stefan. I didn’t tell Melvin, but I asked my mom about it when I came home.

“Is Solveig going away?”

Mom cradled me in her arms and squeezed me like I did my plushies before bedtime. “Why? Would it make you sad if she did?”

I recalled the first time I had seen her. The ants filling the cracks in the asphalt. “I’m just asking.”

“Well, sweetie… Some people are a bit strange, okay? They’re not bad, they’re just different from the rest of us. Solveig doesn’t know how we do things here, and she’s not really trying to fit in. Maybe Stefan shouldn’t have offered her to come and live with him and Melvin so soon. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” I lied. I wondered what would happen to the baby if Solveig left. Would it still be Melvin’s brother or sister if he never even met it?

“Don’t you worry.” Mom ended the hug and brushed her fingertips over my hair. “Stefan and Solveig will figure it out. It’s a grownup thing; nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

The woods behind our house were my favorite place for being alone. I never brought Melvin there, or my sister, or even Mom though she sometimes demanded to know where I ran off to. There were paths and noisy brooks in there, rocks to rest on and dead trees to skip over. I never went far because I didn’t need to. The anthill was right where two paths intersected, only five minutes from our back garden. It was tall, would have reached my shoulders if I came close enough. There was a flat rock in the shade behind it, wide enough for me to lie down on my belly and watch the ants. Other people didn’t see them, but I saw; I noticed everything. Once, a group of ants brought several pieces of candy-colored cereal to the hill. The flakes danced in front of my eyes, mint and red and violet, and for a moment the ants were forgotten.

As I watched the hill a noise came at me, wet and shivery. I raised my head just enough to catch a flash of hot pink hair, and her name shot through my head but didn’t leave my mouth. Solveig walked slowly, face turned down. I silently told the ants to leave the path, or she might step on them. Her sobs were like her singing, thin and wailing. I wished she wouldn’t cry; I wished I were back home instead of here. In front of the anthill she stopped, arms falling to her sides. Her cardigan slipped down her shoulder and there were marks there, not monster-bird marks but others. Storm-cloud dark bruising that made me think about spiders and the flies that land in their webs. Solveig kept crying, and the baby lurking beneath her yellow dress didn’t do a thing to stop it. After a while she kept going, that same sluggish sleepwalk toward the far side of the woods, where Melvin lived. I watched her back until she was gone and then I told the ants about that bruise, because I couldn’t tell anyone else.

In the fall, when leaves heaped up in our garden, Melvin became sick. He did that sometimes, for days or even a week. I stared at his empty desk in the classroom and after school I tried to call him, but there was no answer. A week later he showed up, as if nothing had happened, refusing to answer any of my questions.

“How is Solveig?” I asked instead since he wouldn’t tell me about his illness. “And the baby?”

Melvin shrugged. “Okay.”

“Can I come to your house after class?” I hadn’t been to see him for a month. I thought he’d light up, but he turned away and started drawing something in the margin of his notebook.

“Not today.” His defeated voice made me think what he meant to say was, Not ever.

I think it was some weeks later that Solveig went missing. My mom had a call late at night and woke me up, speaking in a hushed voice as if there was someone else still asleep in the room.

“Something has happened, darling. Solveig never came home from work the day before last, and when someone goes missing for that long, the police will start to look into it. Stefan is worried sick. I said he can drop Melvin off here before he goes out searching.”

I didn’t know what to think. When Melvin came to our house half an hour later and was tucked into my bed, his feet were freezing.

“Is she really gone?” I whispered into the darkness.

“She took her things,” Melvin said. “The suitcases, the baby stuff, everything. Just like my mom did.”

Solveig was never found. People said that she’d probably gone back to where she came from, that she’d only ever wanted a baby and some of Stefan’s money. Good riddance, they said. She was never one of us anyway.

The next summer, I was at Melvin’s playing soccer. We did that sometimes, not because we were very good, but Stefan encouraged us to play and said we were making progress. We took turns being the goalie, and we were equally lousy at it. When I kicked the ball deep into the woods for the umpteenth time that day, Melvin groaned and said he was too tired to get it. His face was looking older than ever, gray and sagging.

I went in the direction of the missing ball. The undergrowth was thick, barbed limbs reaching for me. We never played in this part of the woods because it was too dense, and the air was swarming with flies and mosquitoes. I wanted to go back, but not without the ball. Stefan had lent it to us, saying that it was expensive and not really a children’s toy.

I finally found the ball in the shade beneath the firs. It was damp when I grabbed hold of it, as if it had been in water. The ground was soft, smelling freshly of pine. I ran my fingers through it and felt something strange. When I raised my hand to my face, there were strands of hot pink hair in it. Long strands, like from a person’s head.

I shook my fingers free of them. Reburied them, until they were below the ground where no one could see.

“Is the baby down there with you?” I asked, but as expected, she didn’t answer. I grabbed the football and headed back to Melvin. It was just another hot July afternoon, I was eight years old, and nothing had changed. Solveig had been around for a while, and now she wasn’t. It was just Melvin and the dogs and his dad, like it used to be.

January 2023

Elin Olausson is a fan of the weird and the unsettling. She is the author of the short story collection Growth and has had stories featured in The Ghastling, Luna Station Quarterly, Nightscript, and many other publications.

Elin’s rural childhood made her love and fear the woods, and she firmly believes that a cat is your best companion in life. She lives in Sweden.

∼ Read December’s story, “Shantytown: A Mexican Ghost Story” by Pedro Iniguez ∼

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