Us Against You (Beartown #2)

Us Against You (Beartown #2)

Fredrik Backman



For Neda. I’m still trying to impress you. Just so you know.





1


It’s Going to Be Someone’s Fault

Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We’ll end up saying that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy that it seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else.



* * *



We’re a small community in the forest; people say that no roads lead here, just past. The economy coughs every time it takes a deep breath; the factory cuts its workforce each year like a child that thinks no one will notice the cake in the fridge getting smaller if you take a little bit from each side. If you lay a current map of the town over an old one, the main shopping street and the little strip known as “the center” seem to shrink like bacon in a hot pan. We have an ice rink but not much else. But on the other hand, as people usually say here: What the hell else do you need?

People driving through say that Beartown doesn’t live for anything but hockey, and some days they may be right. Sometimes people have to be allowed to have something to live for in order to survive everything else. We’re not mad, we’re not greedy; say what you like about Beartown, but the people here are tough and hardworking. So we built a hockey team that was like us, that we could be proud of, because we weren’t like you. When people from the big cities thought something seemed too hard, we just grinned and said, “It’s supposed to be hard.” Growing up here wasn’t easy; that’s why we did it, not you. We stood tall, no matter the weather. But then something happened, and we fell.

There’s a story about us before this one, and we’re always going to carry the guilt of that. Sometimes good people do terrible things in the belief that they’re trying to protect what they love. A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl. And we lost our way. A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him. Because that was easier, because if the girl was lying our lives could carry on as usual. When we found out the truth, we fell apart, taking the town with us. It’s easy to say that we should have done everything differently, but perhaps you wouldn’t have acted differently, either. If you’d been afraid, if you’d been forced to pick a side, if you’d known what you had to sacrifice. Perhaps you wouldn’t be as brave as you think. Perhaps you’re not as different from us as you hope.

This is the story of what happened afterward, from one summer to the following winter. It is about Beartown and the neighboring town of Hed, and how the rivalry between two hockey teams can grow into a mad struggle for money and power and survival. It is a story about hockey rinks and all the hearts that beat around them, about people and sports and how they sometimes take turns carrying each other. About us, people who dream and fight. Some of us will fall in love, others will be crushed; we’ll have good days and some very bad days. This town will rejoice, but it will also start to burn. There’s going to be a terrible bang.

Some girls will make us proud; some boys will make us great. Young men dressed in different colors will fight to the death in a dark forest. A car will drive too fast through the night. We will say that it was a traffic accident, but accidents happen by chance, and we will know that we could have prevented this one. This one will be someone’s fault.



* * *



People we love will die. We will bury our children beneath our most beautiful trees.





2


There Are Three Types of People

Bangbang-bangbang-bang.

The highest point in Beartown is a hill to the south of the last buildings in town. From there you can see all the way from the big villas on the Heights, past the factory and the ice rink and the smaller row houses near the center, right over to the blocks of rental apartments in the Hollow. Two girls are standing on the hill looking out across their town. Maya and Ana. They’ll soon be sixteen, and it’s hard to say if they became friends in spite of their differences or because of them. One of them likes musical instruments; the other likes guns. Their mutual loathing of each other’s taste in music is almost as recurrent a topic of argument as their ten-year-long fight about pets. Last winter they got thrown out of a history class at school because Maya muttered, “You know who was a dog person, Ana? Hitler!” whereupon Ana retorted, “You know who was a cat person, then? Josef Mengele!”

They squabble constantly and love each other unquestioningly, and ever since they were little they have had days when they’ve felt it was just the two of them against the whole world. Ever since what happened to Maya earlier in the spring, every day has felt like that.

It’s the very start of June. For three-quarters of the year this place is encapsulated in winter, but now, for a few enchanted weeks, it’s summer. The forest around them is getting drunk on sunlight, the trees sway happily beside the lakes, but the girls’ eyes are restless. This time of year used to be a time of endless adventure for them; they would spend all day out in nature and come home late in the evening with torn clothes and dirty faces, childhood in their eyes. That’s all gone. They’re adults now. For some girls that isn’t something you choose, it’s something that gets forced upon you.

Bang. Bang. Bangbang-bang.

A mother is standing outside a house. She’s packing her child’s things into a car. How many times does that happen while they’re growing up? How many toys do you pick up from the floor, how many stuffed animals do you have to form search parties for at bedtime, how many mittens do you give up on at preschool? How many times do you think that if nature really does want people to reproduce, then perhaps evolution should have let all parents grow extra sets of arms so they can reach under all the wretched sofas and fridges? How many hours do we spend waiting in hallways for our kids? How many gray hairs do they give us? How many lifetimes do we devote to their single one? What does it take to be a good parent? Not much. Just everything. Absolutely everything.

Bang. Bang.

Up on the hill Ana turns to her best friend and asks, “Do you remember when we were little? When you always wanted to pretend that we had kids?”

Maya nods without taking her eyes from the town.

“Do you still want kids?” Ana asks.

Maya’s mouth barely opens when she replies. “Don’t know. Do you?”

Ana shrugs her shoulders slightly, halfway between anger and sorrow. “Maybe when I’m old.”

“How old?”

“Dunno. Thirty, maybe.”

Maya is silent for a long time, then asks, “Do you want boys or girls?”

Ana replies as if she’s spent her whole life thinking about this, “Boys.”

“Why?”

“Because the world is kind of shitty toward them sometimes. But it treats us like that nearly all the time.”

Bang.

The mother closes the trunk, holding back tears because she knows that if she lets out so much as a single one, they will never stop. No matter how old they get, we never want to cry in front of our children. We’d do anything for them; they never know because they don’t understand the immensity of something that is unconditional. A parent’s love is unbearable, reckless, irresponsible. They’re so small when they sleep in their beds and we sit beside them, shattered to pieces inside. It’s a lifetime of shortcomings, and, feeling guilty, we stick happy pictures up everywhere, but we never show the gaps in the photograph album, where everything that hurts is hidden away. The silent tears in darkened rooms. We lie awake, terrified of all the things that can happen to them, everything they might be subjected to, all the situations in which they could end up victims.

The mother goes around the car and opens the door. She’s not much different from any other mother. She loves, she gets frightened, falls apart, is filled with shame, isn’t enough. She sat awake beside her son’s bed when he was three years old, watching him sleep and fearing all the terrible things that could happen to him, just like every parent does. It never occurred to her that she might need to fear the exact opposite.

Bang.

It’s dawn, the town is asleep; the main road out of Beartown is empty, but the girls’ eyes are still fixed on it from up on the hilltop. They wait patiently.

Maya no longer dreams about the rape. About Kevin’s hand over her mouth, the weight of his body stifling her screams, his room with all the hockey trophies on the shelves, the floor the button of her blouse bounced across. She just dreams about the running track behind the Heights now; she can see it from up here. When Kevin was running on his own and she stepped out of the darkness with a shotgun. Held it to his head as he shook and sobbed and begged for mercy. In her dreams she kills him, every night.

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