Chapter 1: soldier and rose
Ingrid was a soldier, and as a soldier, she’d gotten used to death. But this time was different.
Her breath was sharp like a knife in her ribs as she ran, footsteps pounding the pavement in time with her thoughts: stupid stupid stupid stupid-- she’d been so stupid, and now all she could do was run. And so she did--along the cobbled streets, past dingy alleyways overflowing with trash, past vendors who shouted their wares and prices, past peddlers begging for spare change, even past soldiers like herself, who turned to watch and whisper to themselves as she sprinted by. And as she ran, images flashed through her mind, faster and more vividly until they were all she could see.
Long, copper-red hair, shining in the sunlight--moonlight--candlelight, tangled against fingers and hands and skin and skin and skin, and sheets, and darkened rooms and dance floors, and fleeting glances and meaningful touches, always aware of watchful eyes, too watchful, only holding each other with the lights off and the doors closed, keeping each other safe, until today, when they came and took her away, and stood guard around her and asked her that fateful question, that are you or have you ever--are you or have you ever--
And then a few of them took her away again, away from the guards, just the three of them, and then pushed her, one of them holding her down, the other standing over her, saying things, such terrible things, and grabbing at her belt, her shirt, until--
She ran until she couldn’t run anymore, until it felt like her legs were on fire and her chest would split open, and only then did she allow herself to duck into an alley and stop for a moment to catch her breath and try and push her memories away. Now was not the time to panic.
Water... Ingrid was parched. Her sprint through the streets had been enough to suck nearly every drop of moisture from her mouth. Her canteen was about a third full, and she gulped it down greedily. It was all she had, but it wasn’t enough. Her body needed more. She had a few dollars in her pouch, enough to buy some water from a street vendor, but that would require going back out onto the street. She was stuck.
The speaker was a woman with a tight white bun and a creased, smiling face. She was pushing a silver cart in front of her. Ingrid could hear it rattling as it moved.
“N-no,” she stammered. “I’m just--just resting.”
“Ahh,” the woman said. “I see.”
There was something about her that made Ingrid uneasy--maybe her deep, dark eyes, or her knowing smile. Ingrid felt strange, as though this woman could somehow see into her soul, and know everything that had happened. She didn’t like it.
The woman began to push her cart forward again, staggering every so often as the wheels got caught on a crack or uneven bit of pavement. “Well,” she said, “I’d best be on my way.”
“Wait.” Ingrid said, without thinking.
The woman stopped, and turned to meet her eyes again. “Yes, dear?”
Ingrid had no idea what had possessed her to keep speaking to this strange woman, but she continued anyway. “May I--do you have some--may I have some water?”
The woman smiled, a bright, beaming smile, as if she had been waiting for Ingrid to ask. “Of course.”
She opened the door of her cart, pulled out a plastic bottle of water, and slid it across the cart top towards Ingrid. Ingrid took it, and then reached into her pouch. “Here, I have money--”
“Oh, no, dear.” The woman shook her head firmly. “Keep your money. You may need it. But here, have this as well.”
She pulled a small golden stick out of her pocket and held it out to Ingrid. She took it and examined it, turning it over in her fingers. It was a honey straw, like the ones that she and her sister had begged their parents to buy for them at the farmer's’ market when she was little. But through the war, and the rationing, and the strict army regiment, she hadn’t seen anything like it in ages. “Really,” Ingrid murmured, leaning over to reach into her pouch, “I can’t take this for free. Here--”
But the woman had vanished, and her clanky cart with her.
On any other day, Ingrid would have run out of the alley and tried to find her, but now she didn’t have the strength. Anyways, it was by far the nicest thing that had happened to her today.
Ingrid ripped off the top of the straw with her teeth. She knew it was unlikely she’d be able to have more anytime soon, and she needed to savor it. Still, she wanted to try just one drop.
The taste of honey on her tongue, so rich and soothing, almost made her cry. It had been so long since anything in her life had been so simple and sweet.
Ingrid felt her heart stop. She knew that voice. No, no, not here…
“How did you find me?” Ingrid asked tonelessly, refusing to turn and face her.
“Haven’t you noticed where you are? Or did you just run without thinking?” Eva’s voice sounded like it always did, calculated, teasing, always on the edge of a smirk. “Not a great plan, soldier. ”
Soldier…haven’t you noticed where you?
Ingrid spared a glance to her right, and then left, looking across the street from the alley. With a jolt, she realized she recognized one of the buildings. Fuck...of course. The place where we met.
For a moment, Ingrid could almost forget everything that had happened in the past few hours; the armed guards surrounding her, her commander’s face, the are you or have you ever been a homosexual, and what had happened after, and she was back at that first night, with the music and dancing and Eva’s long auburn hair tied tightly up in a bun (only to become quite untied later), and the hey there, soldier. For a moment. But then Ingrid turned and saw Eva, all tear-stained and with a tentative smile, and it came rushing back, leaving her feeling hollow, empty. Over.
“You can’t be here, Eva,” Ingrid murmured, fixing her eyes determinedly just above Eva’s head. She didn’t want to see her face fall.
“But I want to be.” Eva took a step forward. “Ingrid, I--”
“Please.” Ingrid could feel her eyes welling up, and she cursed herself. “It’s over. I’m sorry. But everything--” Ingrid tried to keep her voice from cracking, but failed. “--everything is over. It’s only a matter of time before they find me, and when they do, I’ll be arrested, and court martialled. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to--to see you again.”
“ Court-martialled?” Eva whispered the words, as though she was too afraid of their implication to speak them out loud. “Ingrid…” She moved closer, reaching out to touch her arm. Ingrid pulled away. “Ingrid...what happened? H-h-homosexuality--that’s a dishonorable discharge, not a court offense.”
“It’s not for--” Ingrid couldn’t bring herself to say the word. “-- that. After--after questioning, some of the commanders took me away. They said they--they needed to ask me one more question, off the record.”
The memory flashed through her mind; the heavy gray suits, commanding officers seizing her by the arm, pressing against her, pushing the cold metal table against her back, the sickening smirks on Commanders Schistad and Magnusson’s faces as they stood over her--and the gun, cold and heavy, like a viper in her hand-- “They wanted to--to--to cure me.” The words felt so bitter on her tongue, and the look on Eva’s face as she realized what they meant made her want to be sick. “But they were stupid. They didn’t think to check if I was armed first.” That thought, despite everything else, almost made Ingrid smile. “So I sh--sh--shot those sons of bitches. But I guess--I guess I killed myself too.”
Eva’s voice made Ingrid look up. There was a kind of hard, blazing look on her face, the kind of look that reminded Ingrid yet again why she’d been so drawn to her on the dance floor three months ago. Even if she was wrong. “I’m sorry, Eva, but I made a mistake and--and--and I have to deal with the consequences.”
“No!” Eva shook her head. “No, they were--they were going to hurt you!”
“No one can prove that,” Ingrid said sadly. “No one’s going to believe me over a superior officer. Especially since I’m a--since they were going to discharge me. It’s just--I’m over. I’m so sorry.”
Eva’s face was falling again, eyes welling with tears, and Ingrid hated herself, hated that she’d fucked up and made everything so much worse, hated that everything was ruined. “No,” Eva whispered again, and Ingrid felt as though her heart might break.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered again, and suddenly she was falling into Eva’s arms again, her hands pressed against the small of her back, her face against her shoulder, soaking Ingrid’s uniform collar with her tears. They stayed like that for what seemed like an eternity, Ingrid’s face pressed into Eva’s sweet-smelling hair, Eva’s arms pulling her tighter, tighter. And then suddenly, she drew back and looked Ingrid right in the eye. “No.”
“I mean it.” There was a kind of fervent determination in Eva’s voice when she spoke, and it made Ingrid’s throat so tight she couldn’t speak. “I--I have a friend. A cab driver. He does errands for the commanders sometimes. He-- we can get you out. Tonight. And I--I could come with you.”
Ingrid shook her head. “No, Eva. If we get caught--if they knew you were helping me--”
“If we get caught, we get caught, I don’t care!” Eva cried. “You’re doomed anyway, right? I know it’s a long shot, believe me, I know, but I can’t--I want to help. I want to try. I can’t just sit here and let you let you--” Eva was crying again, tears sliding silently down her face. She took a deep, shaky breath, wiped her eyes, and continued. “Please, Ingrid. If there’s a chance--if there’s hope, please let me do this. For me.”
For a moment, Ingrid let herself imagine it: her and Eva, living out their days in some sunny, southern country, far away from the army and her commanders, and death, in love, at peace for the first time in her life. Safe. Ingrid let herself imagine the word, even for a second. And then she imagined what would happen if things went wrong, if their plan, as of yet weak and half-formed, failed; what would happen to her, but most importantly, what would happen to Eva--
And then she saw Eva’s face again, the tenderness in her expression, the tears in her eyes. And Ingrid knew there was no way in hell that she was going to say no.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll give it a shot.”
The room was exactly how it always was--dark, cozy, dimly lit by only a fire in the fireplace, and the sound of music echoing up through the floorboards. Ingrid sat on the bed, tapping her foot and waiting. She wished Eva was with her. She wished she hadn’t agreed to this plan and put Eva in danger. She wished that she wasn’t living her life in the present right now, but rather living through the times before, the nights she and Eva had spent together in this room, when she had been able to forget her fear of her family, the cruelty of her commanders, and the shame of all the things she had done. More than anything, she wished it could be that way again. And perhaps it could be…
Someone knocked on the door--a short rap, then three more short knocks followed by one long knock, then one short knock and one long knock. Morse code: E-V-A. Ingrid felt her heart lift, and hurried to unlatch the door. It was her. “Come in!”
The door creaked open a crack. Eva snuck inside and quickly latched the door again. “It’s set,” she whispered. “He can take us at 10:00, right before the dance is over.”
“Two hours,” Ingrid whispered. She had barely been able to handle waiting 20 minutes for Eva to talk with her friend, how could she wait two hours? “Did anyone--was there anyone there?”
Eva shook her head. “No. I was very careful. There was no one around to hear besides me and him.”
Ingrid nodded. “Thank you so much--”
Eva cut her off with a kiss. “I love you,” she murmured, so plainly and definitely that Ingrid felt her heart swell. “And I would do anything for you.”
“I love you too, Eva,” Ingrid whispered back. Never before had she said those words, and meant it, but somehow, saying them felt like the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
The two of them lay in the half-light together for two hours, kissing, holding each other, and telling stories. They told each other things they hadn’t told each other before, hadn’t told anyone before. Ingrid found herself whispering to Eva about how her parents had wanted a son and hated that they’d only had three girls, how she’d been the last one and therefore the final disappointment, and how her father had tried to turn her into a surrogate son, eventually convincing (or coercing) her to enlist, how she knew that if she returned to them, discharged for being a dyke, they would deny that she was ever their daughter.
“I don’t regret it, though,” Ingrid said thoughtfully. “Meeting you, I mean. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, seeing you on that dance floor for the first time. As soon as I saw you, I knew that was it.”
Eva smiled. “You know, I did too,” she murmured. “When I saw you there, in your uniform, looking confused and a little lost, I felt--a kind of shock, almost. Like everything in the universe, the stars and the moons and the skies, the birds in the trees, the--the sharks and seas, and most of all me, began to--tremble.”
“Tremble?” Ingrid smiled up at her.
“Yeah.” Eva laughed a little. “Tremble.”
And Eva described in return how she’d grown up fifth out of twelve kids, how she slept in the same bed as her two younger sisters every night, how she’d needed to work full-day shifts for her parents doing odd jobs around the inn from the age of ten, cleaning rooms and the bar, washing dishes, and checking people into their rooms, and all the strange and interesting characters she’d met.
“You get a lot of funny people, running an inn in a big city like this,” Eva murmured, tracing Ingrid’s cheekbones with her thumb. “People who have never spent the night away from home before. People on their way to start a new life. People running from their old lives. People who don’t want to be found. You hear a lot of things you probably shouldn’t, scrubbing spilled beer off an old bar table.”
“Is that how you met Isak?” Ingrid asked.
“Yeah.” Eva laughed. “He came here one night, all wild-eyed and suspicious-looking. I thought he was hiding from the cops or something. Turns out his mom had driven him out. Found him with another guy. He spent the entire night at the bar, but I gave him a room to sleep it off, free of charge. And that’s how it started. He’s only a decent cab driver, but he sure knows his way around the underground of this city.”
“Is that how you knew he’d help us?” Ingrid murmured. “Cause he’s one of us?”
“Yeah,” Eva whispered. “One of us.”
Around 9:00, Ingrid found herself dancing, arms wrapped around Eva’s waist, cheek resting against her shoulder. Swaying slowly to the music that echoed up through the floorboards from the inn below. She felt something damp drip onto her head, and realized Eva was crying again. She felt her eyes begin to well up too.
The two girls stayed that way, moving and swaying together, weeping slowly and silently.
In the distance, a clock chimed. Ingrid bolted upright. “Is it time?” she asked.
Eva sat up too. “Yeah,” she whispered. “It’s time. Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” Ingrid gave her a small smile.
Eva’s heart was pounding. “I’ll go out first,” she whispered. She hurried over to unlatch the door, and peered out. There was someone there, lurking at the end of the hall. Eva saw a familiar flash of blond hair. “Isak’s there, at the end of the hall.”
She heard Ingrid breathe a sigh of relief, and felt herself heave one as well. The two of them started carefully, silently down the hall towards him. As they neared the corner, Eva called out to him quietly. “Isak! It’s us! We’re ready!”
Isak whirled around to stare at her. “Eva!” His eyes were wide and she realized he was shaking,
“Isak,” Eva whispered frantically. “What’s wrong?”
“Eva,” Isak gasped, “I’m sorry--they found--you need to get out of here. Right now!”
“Right now--what? Isak, what’s going on? What happened?”
Eva heard a door slam below, and then another, and muffled footsteps stomping up the stairs. Heading their way. Eva felt as though she was freezing from the inside out. No, no, no, this was supposed to work!
“Fuck,” Isak swore. “Eva, is there a back staircase?”
“How did they know we were here?” Eva whispered. She felt frozen to the spot.
“I--I--Eva, there’s no time! If you want to get her out, we have to leave now !”
Isak’s fidgeting had increased, and he wouldn’t meet her eyes. Eva realized with a jolt what had happened.
“How could you, Isak Valtersen? After all I’ve done for you--you pick now to turn into a fucking snake?”
“I’m sorry, but--”
Eva shook her head. “This isn’t something you can be sorry for.”
“There was a plant here tonight, and I didn’t realize it,” Isak murmured. “I took him to my room and--and--he was going to arrest me and--I panicked.”
Eva opened her mouth, but Ingrid cut her off. “Eva--if there are back stairs, we need to get to them now. ”
There was a quavery edge to her voice that jolted Eva back to reality. She grabbed Ingrid’s hand. “Let’s go.” She turned to Isak. “Are you coming or not?”
Isak blinked rapidly, but choked out, “Y-y-yes. Yes, I’m coming.”
“Then come on. ”
The three bolted their way down the hall. “There’s another staircase around the corner,” Eva gasped as they ran. She squeezed Ingrid’s hand. They reached the end of the hallway and turned the corner.
The stairwell was right in front of them. Eva quickly glanced to her left, then her right, and hurried forward, Ingrid and Isak right behind her. She’d just taken her first few steps down the stairs, slowly and carefully to keep them from creaking too loudly, when she heard the voices below.
“Did you check every room?”
A disgruntled sigh. “Of course I checked every room. What do think I am, an idiot? I know what I’m doing.”
“Okay, so what next? We going up?”
“We’re going up.”
Footsteps sounded beneath them, loud and thudding, footsteps that belonged to people that weren’t trying to hide themselves. Eva’s heart stopped. “No!” she gasped before she could stop herself.
The steps stopped. “Did you hear that?” a voice asked.
There was only one way they could go. So the three turned and ran, back in the direction they came from, to where, Eva didn’t even know, because they were soldiers behind them and there had been soldiers on the stairs earlier, and there was nowhere to go except into a room. They were trapped.
Eva turned to Isak. “Go,” she said softly. “They want us. If you leave now, you won’t be arrested for collaboration.”
Isak shook his head. “This is my fault. I’m not leaving.”
“If you want to make it up to me, get out now.” Eva glared at him as he stood his ground.
Ingrid grabbed Eva’s arm. “They’re coming!”
She met Isak’s eyes. “Go!” He took off, the two girls right behind him.
Eva didn’t realize where Ingrid was taking them until she threw the door open. It was Eva’s room, just as they’d left it less than ten minutes before, the fire still bright and alive, the candle wax still dripping. They staggered in, and Ingrid bolted the door behind them, pushing a chair under the handle.
Eva heard a door crash open down the hall, and yells. “They’re breaking down the doors,” she whispered.
Ingrid nodded. Her face was pale, and she was shivering from her place on the bed. Eva turned in a circle, looking for something, anything, that could help them. There was only one door to the outside, and the soldiers were outside it. The fireplace was too hot, and too narrow, anyway. The windows--Eva bolted over to the window and peered out. “It’s not that high,” she cried frantically. “If we make it to that tree, we could--we could--”
“It’s too high, Eva,” Ingrid whispered. Her voice made Eva’s heart stop. It was flat and defeated.
“Well, we can try!” Eva burst out defiantly.
“And what?” Ingrid turned to look at her. “We’ll hurt ourselves, break our ankles or legs or necks, and then what? They’ll just catch us, and we’ll be in a lot more pain.”
Eva knew she was right. The window wasn’t an option. “Well,” she whispered. “What do we do?”
Ingrid’s hand moved to her waist. Eva didn’t realize what she was doing for a moment, until there was a flash of metal and she saw the gun. “No.” Eva shook her head, “No, Ingrid, no--”
“Yes.” Ingrid smiled sadly at Eva. “I forced you to take me in. Threatened you at gunpoint. But then you fought back. Grabbed my weapon. And did me in the way I did in those officers. It’s perfect.”
Eva stared at her, horrified. “No! I won’t! I would never--”
“Eva listen, this is what I want!”
Eva’s throat was too tight. She shook her head wordlessly.
“Eva,” Ingrid said again. “If you don’t do this, someone else will. An executioner. An overenthusiastic soldier. Myself. I’m a dead man walking at this point. The only thing you can do for me now is choose how I want to go. Please, Eva. I didn't do much good when I was alive, but I can do so much by dying--I can save you, the girl I love.”
Eva closed her eyes and took a deep breath. And then she took the gun from Ingrid’s hand.
There was a loud bang from the room next door, and both girls jumped. “Quick,” Ingrid whispered.
Eva raised the gun, finger removing the safety, brushing against the trigger--
“Wait!” Ingrid cried. She was reaching into her pocket again, and pulled out what looked like a thin, golden cylinder.
“What is that?” Eva asked.
“Honey.” Ingrid smiled. “I got it from a street vendor earlier today. I was planning on saving it for later, but I guess there’s no point now, huh?”
“Huh,” Eva whispered. And then there was a loud banging at the door. Their time was up.
Ingrid drained the straw in a single swig, and leaned over to kiss Eva. “I love you,” she whispered, and then closed her eyes.
Eva’s tongue tasted like honey, sweet and pure, like sunshine. She wiped a tear from her eye, and then raised the gun.
She could still taste the honey on her lips after she pulled the trigger.
Chapter 2: prayer
Eva didn’t see Isak for a week after, until she’d had enough time to think about what had happened and she’d heard from someone at the inn’s front desk that he was checking out of his room. Now, she stood at the door for a moment, watching him zip up his suitcase, and then spoke. “Leaving without saying goodbye?”
Isak jumped. He turned to look at her, and then dropped his eyes to the floor again. Eva recognized that look. It was the same look she’d seen on his face as the two of them watched the soldiers drag Ingrid’s lifeless body out of the hotel room. It was guilt, shame.
“I didn’t think you’d want to see me,” he murmured. “Figured you hated me.”
“Hated you?” Eva shook her head. “I hate the institutions that caused this--the military that would discharge a soldier solely because of who they love; the courts that wouldn’t believe what--what they tried to do to her; the fear, and desperation, and anger, and cruelty that cause people to join the army in the first place. I hate those things, hate them so much that sometimes that hate is all I can feel. But not you, Isak. You, me, Ingrid--we’re just slaves to the systems that want to destroy us. In the end, we’re all victims.”
Isak nodded silently. The two of them stood there for a moment, not speaking. Then Isak bent over to pick up his suitcase, wiping at his face as he did. With a shock, Eva realized her eyes were dry. She’d cried often in the past week, but it seemed the time for tears was over.
“Where’re you going?” she asked him.
Isak sniffed, eyes still fixed firmly on his bag. “Somewhere in Greece. South. Warm. I have the name of some contacts to stay with. A guy named Even and this girl named--” he glanced at a piece of paper “--Noora.” He looked up, meeting her eyes for the first time. “Come with me.”
Eva blinked. “C-come with you?”
“Yeah.” Isak’s face was changing rapidly, Eva realized he was beginning to smile. “Come with me. Leave this trash dump of a city. Start again. Somewhere better.”
For the first time in a week, Eva felt lighter, as though a terrible weight had been lifted from her shoulders--not a permanent reprieve, but the rest she needed to regroup, gather her strength. “Yeah,” she said, and she realized she was smiling too, “yeah, let’s go! Now!”
Isak laughed, and Eva, amazingly, found herself laughing too. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s go.”
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