Authors: Salla Simukka
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Teen & Young Adult, #Mysteries & Thrillers, #Crime Fiction, #Noir, #Thrillers
Once upon a time, there was a key.
The key was metal, perfectly palm sized. On its head was a skillfully cast image of a heart. The key was forged in 1898. The same year a small chest was made, with a lock that fit the key. Over the decades, the surface of the key was burnished by the touch of human hands. The first person who held it was the metal smith who forged it. Then it made its way to the hands of the chest’s first owner. He had seven children, all of whom held the key in turn. At that point, the key had been touched so many times already that identifying individual fingerprints was impossible.
The last time the key had been touched was more than fifteen years ago. Then, two people had held it, several times in turn. In their hands, the key had felt much heavier than it really was. And when they turned the key in the lock of the chest, they felt as if someone had twisted a sharp, serrated knife in their hearts. The last time the key had been touched, salty droplets fell on it.
Then the key was hidden. And it lay hidden, alone, abandoned year after year.
But not forgotten. There were two people in the world who thought of the key every day. It was forged into their minds and still burned like glowing iron. If their thoughts could have made the key shine, its scintillating light would have revealed its hiding place from miles away.
Once upon a time, there was a key that was hidden.
In stories, like in real life, everything hidden wants eventually to be found.
The key waited to be touched again and to open the chest. The key waited patiently, immobile and mute.
Its time would soon come.
This was Lumikki’s forest. The branches were black shadows; the black shadows were branches. Tree roots coiled along the ground like snakes before diving underground to form a wide, thick network curling around each other, the veins of different trees uniting beneath the soil, drinking from the same life force. The branches up above traced their own map between the trees and toward the sky with so many lines that light struggled to find a route through. The branches were arms, brush strokes, and hair. Some thin, some delicate. Some thick, some strong. All beautiful.
The forest was a game of shadows, a dance of dim light and mist, hushed whispers and sighs, passing currents of air that gave her goose bumps. All of the shadow creatures, dream animals, sneaking beasts, and darkness dwellers bade Lumikki welcome. She was with her kind again.
The blackness settled around and inside Lumikki, at once familiar and foreign. She ran more freely in the forest. She breathed deeper. The ribbons holding her hair came undone and her braids fell out with the sylvan wind seizing her hair and doing with it what it would. Twigs and leaves clung to her locks. The fabric of Lumikki’s silk dress ripped. Branches scratched her arms. She smelled the soil and decomposing leaves. Lumikki’s eyes focused, and she saw the smallest movements of the shadows. There was blood on her hands, drying quickly and turning black like the soil. Trying to wash it away would be futile. It would stay on her hands always, because Lumikki was a killer, a predator.
This was Lumikki’s forest. In its darkness was room for passion and fear, despair and joy. The air that filled her lungs was heady. In the embrace of the forest, she grew into something whole. She became more than herself, more free. Lumikki settled down to lie on the roots, pressing her palm against the damp earth and wishing that she could become part of the roots, merging with them and penetrating the earth to find the heart spring.
The forest sighed and throbbed around Lumikki as if it had one single pulse. Her pulse.
“Okay, good! That bit about the heart is a perfect way to end the scene.”
Tinka’s voice snapped Lumikki out of whatever state she had been in and she sat up on the stage. She felt like she had just woken up from a deep sleep. This scene in the play always affected her that way. She got so into it that, for a moment, she forgot that she was in the high school’s small auditorium rehearsing a play. They were calling it
The Black Apple
Lumikki still wasn’t sure whether agreeing to act in the play had been a good idea. Sampsa was the one who talked her into it.
“Hey, it’s a new take on ‘Snow White.’ With a name like yours, how could you pass that up? The Snow White role was practically written for you,” Sampsa had said, smiling that happy, encouraging smile that Lumikki’d do just about anything to see.
She had been ready to take part in a play, although the thought of playing her kinda-sorta namesake felt a bit self-aggrandizing. It was bad enough that half the people she met felt compelled to make dumb jokes about her fairy-tale first name. Tinka, who had written the play and was also directing it, only needed a couple of rehearsals to convince Lumikki that the script was actually pretty great and the production was going to be fantastic. Tinka had just started at the arts high school that fall, but she had enough chutzpah to direct students two years older than her.
On the outside, Tinka was a stereotypical artsy student with her eclectic, constantly changing clothing and hairstyles. One day she might come to school in a tutu with her red hair braided in a bun; the next day in boots, ripped jeans, and an oversized hoodie with her hair in a rat’s nest; then a third day in a three-piece suit and a bowler hat. Variety and fickleness weren’t an attempt to get attention for Tinka, though, and she wasn’t putting on an act. She was direct, down-to-earth, and determined in a way that Lumikki admired.
The Black Apple
opened with the prince gazing at Snow White lying in her glass casket, burning with love for the beautiful, motionless maid. Then they began transporting the casket to the prince’s castle and, on the way, one of the bearers tripped, jostling the casket, which made the piece of poisoned apple dislodge from Snow White’s throat, allowing her to wake up. So, up to this point, the plot followed the classic fairy tale. However, in Tinka’s play, when Snow White awoke from her poison coma, she wasn’t thrilled about her role as the prince’s bride-to-be. She was used to the forest, to its shadows and beasts. She didn’t want to move to a golden castle to have servants wait on her hand and foot. A queen had too little freedom to do as she pleased. Besides, the prince only worshiped Snow White’s beauty and wasn’t interested in her mind.
Tinka’s play had strong feminist overtones, but it wasn’t preachy or didactic. It was just intense and disturbing. None of the characters in
The Black Apple
was purely virtuous. Not even the Huntsman, who did try to save Snow White, but was motivated by his own desires and aspirations too.
Sense by sense, Lumikki returned to the ordinary, real world surrounding her. Recovering from the last act always took some time. It was a powerful, hypnotic scene: Lumikki lay on the ground. The lights went dark. For a moment, the stage and house were in perfect blackness with the sound a heartbeat echoing louder and louder. Just before this, Lumikki had learned of the Huntsman’s death and killed the prince with a sharp silver hair comb. Then she fled the castle back to her beloved forest, to the company of the darkness and shadows and beasts.
When they’d rehearsed the scene for the first time with all of the props, sound effects, and lighting, no one had been able to say a word for a long time afterward. They just glanced at each other as if asking, “Did you feel that too? Were we just somewhere else?”
“Next run-through on Monday night. Same time, same place!” Tinka reminded them.
“Aren’t we about ready now? How about we take a night off?” suggested Aleksi, who was playing the prince.
Tinka cast him a scornful glance.
“We have two weeks until opening night and a ton of work left to do. And some people still need to learn their lines all the way through.”
Aleksi shrugged and started trudging out of the auditorium.
Sampsa came over to Lumikki and stroked her back.
“You were really good. Again.”
“Thanks,” Lumikki replied as she tied the laces of her combat boots.
Her hands were still trembling slightly from the intensity of the scene.
“See you tomorrow. I gotta run. I’m already late and my mom’s gonna kill me.”
Sampsa kissed Lumikki’s forehead, threw his backpack over his shoulder, and left. The last couple of scenes had given him time to change out of his huntsman costume already. Every Friday night, his whole family got together for dinner, including Sampsa’s grandparents and an aunt who lived in Tampere. They had been doing it for years, so Sampsa didn’t feel like he could skip out. He’d invited Lumikki a couple of times, but so far she had declined. The thought of the way everyone would stare as they sized her up was unpleasant. Lumikki had promised to come for coffee on Sunday though, when only Sampsa’s parents and little sister would be home. That sounded like more than enough for her.
The dark, deserted school lay in a drowsy silence as Lumikki and Tinka walked down the stairs to the mirrored front lobby. The halls looked strange empty, and their steps echoed. During the day, they were crammed with students and the decibel level exceeded industrial safety limits.
Tinka was analyzing the problems with each scene of the play, but Lumikki couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. Had agreeing to act in the play been a mistake? She didn’t like how much she lost herself in her role and how the real world disappeared around her. She wasn’t pretending to be Snow White running through the forest. She was Snow White running through the forest, feeling and smelling blood on her hands. Snow White’s pulse was Lumikki’s pulse. Lumikki wasn’t used to that kind of loss of self-control, and it frightened her.
Eventually, Tinka noticed Lumikki’s distance, and they donned their coats in silence. Around her neck, Lumikki wrapped the heavy, red wool scarf her former classmate Elisa had made for her and sent in the mail. They still kept in touch. Last winter, Lumikki never could have guessed Elisa would become a true friend.
Outside, it was snowing large, fluffy flakes that melted the instant they touched the black ground. No hope yet that December would turn out white.
“Some of the cast might be a little checked out still, but at least you aren’t. You’re killing it,” Tinka said as they walked through the schoolyard gates.
Then she waved and headed in the opposite direction from Lumikki, who didn’t manage to get out anything sensible in reply. Mud squelched under Lumikki’s boots as she turned toward downtown. Farther along the path, she saw the school psychology teacher and one of the math teachers, who had apparently been working late too. This time of year, the teachers tended to work long hours grading tests and essays. Some of them preferred not to take their work home, staying at school late into the evening instead. In a way, it was nice seeing them outside of school, chatting and laughing together. Even so, Lumikki was happy to be far enough behind them not to be able to make out any of their words. She thought it was best to know as little as possible about her teachers’ private lives.
The illuminated red brick tower of the Alexander Church rose into the sky, stately and familiar. It was so dark that the few old gravestones in the churchyard were invisible from the path. The large snowflakes looked like feathers against the black branches of the trees. Fallen from the wings of angels. Lumikki pushed her hands deeper into her coat pockets and walked faster.
In her left pocket, she felt the rustle of something strange, something that didn’t belong there. Lumikki pulled it out. It was a white sheet of paper, folded four times. Lumikki opened it fold by fold to find a short letter typed on a computer. She stopped under a street lamp to read it.
Your prince doesn’t know you. Not in the play and not in real life. He only sees your outer shell. He only sees a part of you. I see deeper, into your soul.
You have blood on your hands, Lumikki. You know it. I know it.
I see every move you make.
You will hear from me again soon. But know this: If you tell anyone about my messages, one single person, there will soon be much more blood. Then no one will survive the opening night of your play.
Your admirer, your Shadow
Lumikki gasped and she looked up from the letter. Something flickered at the edge of her field of vision. Something black.
But when she looked toward it, she saw nothing but the long, dreary shadows of the trees.