In which defeat is turned to victory, of sorts, for someone.
This is not happening.
The ceiling that looked back at Anne-Linn was a shade of blue that might have been popular a generation ago, but probably not. Probably it was the generation before that again. For all she knew, it might be the original color, although it seemed to have been repainted fairly recently.
This cannot be happening.
A familiar face interposed itself between her and the featureless ceiling. "You know" said Marianne, moderate reproach in her big blue eyes, "things would have been easier on all of us if you had not decided to faint dead away. It is not like Jon here..." The blonde girl waved inward in the room, and Anne-Linn automatically turned her head. The slender, black-haired young man was looking at her with mild concern. "... is some kind of monster or something."
Jon reeled as if struck across the face, and turned hastily away, shielding his eyes.
It's all some kind of nightmare.
Marianne continued as if she had noticed nothing amiss. Perhaps she didn't, she seemed quite intent on something. "I have already told him why we came here the way we did."
"Yes... the porcupines ... and mating ..."
"Don't mind her! She is still very much out of it. After all, she is just waking up, probably from some weird dream."
"So it would seem. Let me fetch her a Jolt Cola. I have the fridge full."
"Just a beer for me, thanks" inserted Marianne.
"Hey, I am 18. I can prove it!"
"Young lady, I am a programmer. Can you imagine what would happen if you tried to mix beer and programming?"
"Uh, you would get funnier programs?"
"Funny as in 'funny, this program is not working at all!' I did not exaggerate when I said my fridge was full of Jolt. There is nothing else. There can be nothing else. There is only the Jolt. Original, imported from America."
"I am so sorry! I did not mean to blaspheme against the One True Cola! I repent on my knees and will not mention any other beverage in this house ever again."
"Good. I'll be back in a blink, then."
"I'll stay on my knees, then."
Marianne was indeed on her knees, beside the old-fashioned sofa, and urgently whispering to Anne-Linn. "Forget the porcupines! We are here to inspect the house. On behalf of the old woman who owns it."
"It isn't his house?"
"Not yet! This is our chance to see everything!"
"Why didn't you say so before we came?"
"Because he hadn't asked me yet if the old lady had sent us!"
"You are still making it up as you go??"
"Shh! You think it would be better to claim that you were looking for porcupines in his bathroom?"
"I just want to go home!"
"We are so lucky he didn't call the police. If we start to come up with different stories now, we are so in trouble!"
"OK, OK! How did I get in here? I can't remember anything..."
" I would think not! I'll show you the pictures later."
"But I have to admit, he is a little bit stronger than I had expected from a pencil pusher."
"I work with manuals" said Jon right behind her. "In fact, I wrote some of them. That's the worst part of programming, all the manual labor!"
Anne-Linn scrambled to sit up. Lying on her back with him looming over her seemed just plain wrong, simply not decent somehow. A bit late to think about decency now, don't you think? She wondered how they had got her loose, but shook her head: Better not ask about that while he was here!
"You don't want it?" His voice sounded surprised, and as she snapped back to the real world she saw that he was holding an opened bottle of Coke -- no, Jolt cola -- toward her. She blushed at the misunderstanding and hurried to grab the bottle. For a moment as she took hold of the bottle with both hands, her fingers met his. He made a startled sound and jerked his hand away as if burned. The suddenness of it almost made her lose her own grip, but luckily she managed to catch the bottle without spilling the contents. Even Marianne looked at him with surprise. But he turned his head away quickly, as if afraid to meet their eyes.
The cola tasted unusual, but not bad. Jon turned to them again: "I guess I should give you the tour of the house now, right?"
"Sure, if Anne-Linn is up to it."
"I'm fine now." She stood up, and found that she was indeed fine: The dizziness was gone, and while everything still felt slightly unreal, it was more like an unfamiliar town than outer space.
"Well, then... this is of course the living-room. It is largely unchanged except that I have set up my home office in this part. This is probably what you want to photograph. As you can see, I have mounted several shelves here. I have also drilled holes for installing the second phone line for the computer, and extended the grid for grounded equipment."
"You don't seem to have much in the way of light here for an office workplace" mused Marianne behind the camera. When did she bring that?
Jon blinked at her, as if taken totally by surprise. "Light... that is... you see..."
"Hey, it is you who have to work there. I was just curious."
"It's OK... you see, the screen is luminescent... and I am touch typing anyway, I don't need to look at the keyboard. So, really, I don't need much light."
"I see! You are a creature of the darkness! Ha ha ha ha!" Marianne closed her eyes, lifted her head and laughed heartily.
But Anne-Linn did not close her eyes, and so she saw Jon wince again, as if in pain. "Marianne! What a heartless thing to say!"
"Hey, I was just joking! Can you imagine a nice guy like him as a vampire or something? It's hilarious!"
"Even so, it's not something you say to someone you barely know."
"Oh come on! He has been shopping for months at our shop, in broad daylight. The idea of someone like him being a monster is just plain ridiculous!"
"The shop! Of course!" Jon had stopped, frozen in mid-step. "Now I remember! I knew I had heard that voice before..."
"That's for sure! 'Talkative' is my middle name..."
"Not you. Her. Anne Lynn."
"Me?" Anne-Linn could barely believe her own ears. He had noticed her and not Marianne?
"Her? And her name is Anne-Linn, by the way. You should pronounce it like one word. Anyway, that figures. Here I babble like a Furby for six months, while she barely whispers a few words. And who do the boys remember? Life can be so cruel sometimes!"
He has noticed me! Me, not the popular Marianne!
"What a coincidence, that you know me from the shop, and then it turns out that Mrs. Jonassen was a school friend of your grandmother."
"Hehe, the world sure is small, isn't it? And Fjordheim in particular! Actually, that was how we came to talk about you."
"Do you often talk about your customers at home?"
"Actually, it was the other way around. When I heard the description of you, there was no mistaking it. There is no one quite like you, is there?"
"Not around here, I guess."
"That's right, of course you have relatives who look like you! But in Fjordheim, there is no mistaking you, not with those eyes."
"Well, let's move on then" he said quickly. If that was not brushing Marianne off, nothing was. "You have already seen the bathroom..."
"Quite enough, thank you. Right, Anne-Linn?"
"Enough for a lifetime!"
"Well, here is the kitchen. I've brought my own microwave and this large fridge. No serious reconstruction here either. You may want to take a photograph of two to prove it."
Marianne did, and he moved on. "Then there is the bedroom." He opened the door, and it was quite dark inside. Marianne fumbled for a light switch, and Jon apologized: "Sorry, it seems the light bulb broke just the other day and I have forgotten to get it replaced. By the time I notice, it is already past closing hours."
Marianne moved in to the end of the bright rectangle from the door. Only her shoes were clearly visible. "Ah, the smell of a man's sweat. No matter how much you air a bedroom, one can immediately smell whether it is inhabited by a man or woman or both. Despite the large bed, it seems you have it all to yourself."
"Of course. This house may have been large enough for a family before the war, but not anymore. And it is not like I'm wearing a wedding band."
Anne-Linn just wanted to hide. How can she stand there, talking about smell in someone else's bedroom?
"Oh, there is no need to be shy. I have a boyfriend myself, not much older than you. Even though we don't live together yet, our bedrooms sure don't smell the same way they used to do."
"I don't recall making any deals with Mrs. Jonassen about the smell of the bedroom, so I consider this case closed."
Almost hesitantly Marianne came back out of the dark room. "Hmm, have we seen it all yet? What's with those stairs over there?"
"The... the attic. I... I haven't been there. I haven't opened that. I... I don't need it."
Marianne had noticed it too. She suddenly looked quite intrigued. And Jon looked visibly shaken, even pale.
"Do you mind if we take a look?"
"No! No, not at all." But he did not move closer.
It was more like a ladder, really. And a hatch rather than a door. There was no lock, and Marianne pushed it open all on her own while the other two remained in the short corridor below. "Oh man, everything is covered in dust! I guess you really haven't been here, and neither has anyone else, for years."
"I told you" replied Jon defensively. He did not try to approach the stairs.
"Well, I guess if there are any skeletons here, they are from before your time!" Marianne climbed down, looking slightly disappointed. "I guess that concludes our tour, then." She gave the camera to Jon. "Be sure to stop by the shop as soon as the film is developed!"
"What?!" Anne-Linn stared at her friend in horrified disbelief. "You are giving him the camera?"
"Well, it was his in the first place. He gracefully offered to let me borrow it when I told him that I had forgotten mine at home."
"Yes, I used to have both my camera and my binoculars in my birdwatching knapsack. And then, absent-minded as I am, I grabbed the wrong item and ran! How dumb is that? Tee hee."
"That's the worst..."
"Well, I guess we really have to be going! Its getting late, and Anne-Linn has to feed her dog. I look forward to seeing you again, and I'm sure Anne-Linn does too! Thank you for an unforgettable evening!"
He's got the pictures, and I don't even know what they are pictures of!
Dazed, Anne-Linn followed her friend through the iron gates to the street beyond. "This was horrible! A complete disaster! You fed him a bunch of lies, and all of them could unravel simply by him deciding to talk to the old woman at any time in the future! What will he think of us then? And what was that about pictures?!"
"Disaster?" asked Marianne with wide-eyed surprise. "This was a greater success than we could dare to hope for!"
"How can you say such a thing?"
"He got to run his hands all over you! Actually, he was quite conservative, but even so. He got pictures! He got to show you his whole house! You are as good as engaged already! When he finds out, it will be too late. Our fine spider web will have caught his feet before he even knows!" Marianne slapped her friend's back and laughed with elation. "Anne-Linn, you have already won! We've caught you a boy! A BOY!!"