I closed my eyes, fully aware I was being watched. Every expression. Movement. Reaction. Everything was noted and analyzed. I, Leona Lindberg, had done it myself a thousand times. As a detective with the Violent Crimes Division of the Stockholm Police, I was no stranger to interviewing people. Scrutinizing their stories for inconsistencies. It was a familiar role I was comfortable with.
But this time was different.
This time, I was the one being scrutinized.
My therapist, Aimi Nordlund, watched me intently from her armchair. Her office consisted of a single room, decorated to encourage conversation. The walls were a cool shade of green, the somber upholstered armchairs had cushions that guaranteed a soft landing in an ergonomically correct position. The color palette made the office feel like a homey living room, but I still had a hard time breathing whenever I was in there. It was as if there was a heavy weight on my chest. Pushing me against the backrest of my chair.
I never thought I would one day find myself in a therapist’s office, talking about my life. Just a few months ago, it would have been unthinkable. Seeing a shrink wasn’t my bag. But after everything that had happened, I had officially hit rock bottom.
No, I had fallen even lower. Financially.
Five months after returning from England, I had woken up one morning and been unable to get out of bed. My body had felt like it was strapped to the mattress. It had taken me an hour to get up. I have no recollection of going to work. Apparently, I had gone about my business as usual, even though I had been completely switched off mentally. When I wasn’t at work, I stayed home. Sat in the dark, curtains drawn, just staring into space.
During my first therapy session with Aimi, I had barely managed to put two words together. Hadn’t known where to start. A thousand thoughts had been swirling around in my head. Sorting through them by myself had proved impossible. Solitude only seemed to give them free rein. They flapped around like bats in the night, never more than briefly glimpsed, impossible to corral. But here, in Aimi’s office, for some reason, they slowed down and stopped.
She asked me questions. The kind of questions no one had asked me before. About my background, who I was.
So who was I?
Most people would say I was a normal, divorced mother of about thirty-five, some might mention that my profession, police detective, was a bit unusual, but that aside from that, I was more or less like everybody else. My colleagues considered me a skilled investigator. One who often challenged authority and tended less toward teamwork than some, granted, but an otherwise upstanding member of society who shared the Police Authority’s values and respected the laws of the land.
Few knew who I really was.
That I had rejected the ordinary, honest life of the average Swede. Had stopped trying to conform and started living instead.
Without a safety net.
I had sacrificed a lot and crossed lines few ever even stray near. But it had been necessary in order to escape a life built on lies.
The select few who knew I was a crooked detective with one foot in the criminal underworld had every reason to keep that to themselves.
I looked up at the ceiling in Aimi’s office. Thought about what she would say if she knew that a few months previous, I had framed another detective for a crime I had committed. Wondered if that would make her reconsider her approach. It hadn’t been my intention to set him up; it had been a last resort. He had started poking around my business, screwing me over for his own personal gain. Only afterward did I find out that he had been tapping my phone. He was arrested while trying to collect enough evidence to nail me.
I got away with it by the skin of my teeth, but didn’t have to wait long for his demands. When he realized just how much money was involved, he opted to blackmail me, rather than rat me out. I was forced to hand over all my ill-gotten gains, several million. In return, he was prepared to spend a few years in the nick. He reasoned that even if he appealed his sentence and was exonerated, he would never be able to regain the trust of his superiors at the Police Authority and continue his career. He was probably right. Rumors about his sketchiness had been floating around for years. Lots of people had heard him complain that the salary wasn’t worth doing the job for. My millions had simply been too tempting. Now he was behind bars at Hall Prison outside Södertälje.
Forking over the money had stung, obviously. I had gone through a lot to get it. I had planned to use it to start a new life.
But crying over it was pointless.
I had made new plans.
Which would make me even richer.
The only thing I needed now was the strength to pull them off. I needed help to get back on my feet and Aimi was the right person to talk to. I studied her. Apparently, therapists prefer not to talk about themselves, so I only knew what I could glean from her appearance. Her straight, dark brown hair, light brown skin tone, name, and the rings on her left hand told me she was in her
fifties, of Japanese descent, and married to a Swedish man.
I took a deep breath, pushing the weight away from my chest. Had to fight to get the words out, more than ever now that I was preparing to tell her about the thing that nearly suffocated me every night. I closed my eyes.
“I’m in a church. Dressed all in black. A veil over my head that I’m trying to remove so I can see. It’s all I can do to keep moving down the aisle. I put one foot in front of the other, but it’s like I’m not getting anywhere.”
I spoke quietly and calmly. Made an effort to recount the dream as accurately as possible.
“The pews on either side of me are full of people in black robes. When I look down at my body I realize I’m wearing one too. They all have their hoods pulled up. I manage to pull mine down and turn to catch a glimpse of the people’s faces, of who they are, but the hoods make it impossible. They all stand there, swaying gently, like tall, black phantoms. I don’t know why I’m there. Someone must have died, I think to myself, but I don’t know who. Not knowing makes me feel desperate.”
Even though I could feel my heart pounding, I pressed on. “There’s a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. My legs are heavy. I can hear organ music. I drag myself all the way to the end of the aisle to see if there’s a coffin up front. It’s like moving through molasses, but I slowly get closer. Seven rows left. Six.”
I had never described this dream to anyone. Now that I was, it felt almost as real as at night.
“Everyone suddenly sits down as one. There’s not a sound. Then I see it. It’s to the right of the altar. A tiny, blindingly white coffin. At the same time, the person in the front row turns to me. Even though his hood hides parts of his face, I can see who it is. My husband. His eyes are red from crying. When I move closer I realize he’s holding our five-year-old daughter Beatrice’s hand. She’s sitting next to him. Looks up at me with those clear, blue, innocent eyes. The space next to her is empty. At first, I fail to put two and two together. I look around for Benjamin. My darling son. Where is he? When my eyes fall on the coffin again, I stop breathing. I’m falling. The church floor disappears from underneath my feet and I plummet into a bottomless, black abyss.”
I looked up at Aimi. Her facial expression radiated kindness and calm. She urged me to continue.
“I wake up in a panic, fighting for air. Can’t breathe. Like I’m drowning. Then I hear Benjamin.”
Not a night went by when I didn’t hear Benjamin crying. Calling out for help when his stomach pains overwhelmed him. Even though he was gone and no longer cried in the night, it was as though he didn’t want to let go. Or maybe I didn’t want to. It hurt that I could no longer help him. I usually didn’t catch myself until I was halfway out the bedroom. He wasn’t there anymore.
“It’s a horrible dream, but the worst part is waking up and realizing that…it’s not a dream. That he’s gone forever. My son was…”
It was difficult for me to put my thoughts into words. To talk about him. I would really have preferred not to. And yet, I knew I had no choice.
“…he meant everything to me.”
My eyes welled up. Tears blurred my vision. When I closed my eyes, there was no room for them; they rolled down my cheeks, fell onto my black blouse. I could hear Aimi rustling the box of tissues on the table. I reached out to take one.
“And then there’s the memories from the hospital,” she said.
I nodded. The memories from the English hospital often ran on a loop in my head. Waiting for Benjamin’s complicated intestinal transplant to be over. For the doctors to come out and tell us that everything went well, that our beloved son was going to survive his Crohn’s disease and that we would be hearing his thin little voice again before long. Instead, I watched the surgeon walk up to my husband. Peter, my stable, composed husband, collapsed on the floor right there in the corridor. The doctor had told him they had done everything they could, but that they had been unable to save Benjamin’s life. I hadn’t heard the words from where I was standing; Peter’s reaction was enough.
My throat had closed up. I had wanted to scream, but hadn’t been able to get so much as a sound out. Hadn’t been able to pull air into my lungs. Reason had told me I had to go over and listen to what the doctor had to say, be there for Peter, but my body refused to obey. Stunned into some kind of trance, I had started backing away from Peter and the doctor. I needed to get out of there. Needed air. The only thing I can remember after that was that I ran. And ran. Until my legs wouldn’t carry me anymore. Then I collapsed. Cried. Sobbed.
“How were things between you and Peter afterward?” Aimi asked.
I didn’t reply. The weeks and months that followed were a haze. The days had all blended into one. My new boss, Alexandra, had forced me to take a week off against my will. I had been worried about what would happen if I had to be on my own. Work had been a refuge. The only thing keeping me upright. Until everything came crashing down and I was no longer able to get out of bed.
“Peter wanted to talk about him all the time,” I said. “It was unbearable. I couldn’t even say his name. It was too much for me. Peter had already told me he wanted a divorce, so I moved out. Did my best not to think about everything that had happened. It was the only way I knew to survive.”
In a way, you could say Peter’s and my relationship has carried on much the same since I moved out; Beatrice was the only thing we ever communicated about. I didn’t miss our marriage. While we were together, I had strived to be a loving partner to Peter and a good mother to the children. In the end, our family life was more like running a business. All of Peter’s and my conversations were about pickups and drop-offs, buying groceries, driving the children to various activities, cooking, reading stories, organizing family outings; the list went on and on. Our day-to-day was all about the rat race, about running as fast as we could to keep our robotic lives from coming off the rails.
That was what people expected life to be.
Even as a child, I had discovered that it was vital to do what was expected of me. As long as I did that and never stood out, I survived. It was easier at work; I never got particularly close with anyone there, but with Peter things had been more complicated. Having to keep up appearances within my own family had gradually worn me down. When I realized I no longer had it in me to be the loving wife Peter wanted, or the perfect mother my children deserved, I knew I had no other choice but to leave the life I had spent years building.
That was when my journey toward a new life began.
I was conscious of the fact that my decision ran counter to what a woman, mother, and officer of the law was expected to do. But I refused to let others dictate my actions. Was no longer going to adhere to their rules.
I went my own way, and I improved the lives of the people I worked with. One of them was a half-Finnish father of young children, who had now gone back to Finland, a few million kronor better off. Another was a prosecutor, who after teaming up with me was able to quit her job and move to the French Riviera.
I had come so close to getting what I wanted, but because I had lost my share of the money, I had been forced to go back to square one and come up with new schemes.
If not for the fact that most things felt meaningless without Benjamin, the serenity and silence that enveloped me whenever I stepped into my apartment would have made things easier. I no longer had Peter to think about and no one to keep up appearances for in my own home. I tried to be there for Beatrice, but was overcome with restlessness during the day and sleeplessness at night. Thoughts of Benjamin kept me awake.
Aimi slowly leaned forward in her armchair. Looked me right in the eye and said in a calm voice: “Leona, have you given yourself permission to grieve for the loss of your child?”
I looked away, gazing out the window while tears streamed down my face. I had done everything to avoid grieving. To function normally. Do my job. Sort out a new place to live. Try to look after Beatrice. Before, changing my focus had always been an effective tactic when I encountered resistance.
But not this time. I was afraid of myself. Didn’t understand what was happening. I still didn’t know. That was why I was here, talking to Aimi.
“What would happen to you if you did?” she asked.
The silence was broken by my mobile phone going off. It was Alexandra, my boss. I picked up but couldn’t get a word out.
“Leona, where are you? I need you to come in ASAP.”
I stood up. Quickly dried my tears. Explained to Aimi that I had to go. I couldn’t bear to stay anyway. I was looking for help to find strength, not weakness. Aimi usually had a calming effect on me, but I didn’t like that I sometimes felt worse when I left than when I came. Or maybe that was exactly it; she made me feel things. It scared me. If I opened up too much, I would fall into a big, black hole and never be able to climb out.
I didn’t want to go back to that.