The Other Half

By Johanna Jellback 

The dead boy's been missing for three days when his brother texts me.

Emmy. I'm in town (for obvious reasons). Heard you had to talk to the police. I'm sorry. I don't know why this is happening. A bunch of us are going out to look for him tomorrow, and the police are bringing in a helicopter. This is crazy. Hope this is still your number. If not, I guess I just confused the hell out of some random person. Sorry about that. - Tobias.

I don't go on his Instagram. I don't scroll through years of pictures of him and a parade of girls who are all blonder and happier than I ever was. I go to bed.  

~o~ 

Victor Carlson, alias "the dead boy," was reported missing by his family after he failed to show up to a hearing on June 15th. Sixteen-year-old Carlson is accused of sending hundreds of threatening and obscene messages to over thirty women, one of them noted journalist Sara Hemming. His family told reporters that Carlson "lives a very isolated life and didn't understand the severity of his online behavior. They were just words to him."

~o~  

I was the last person to see the dead boy.

I work at Ingrid's Canoe and Kayak Rental. Our sprawling but sparsely populated community sits somewhere in the middle of Sweden, in that forested part of the countryside where rivers and creeks stretch like webs between deep lakes and almost everyone can watch the water go by from their kitchen window. June is a busy time for us. The dead boy had booked a kayak online and came to collect it during the rush right before lunch. The only reason I even remembered him when the police came around was his bright red down jacket, which must have been sweltering on such a beautiful day. If I noticed the ghost of his brother underneath the dead boy's scowl, it wasn't until later, when the flyers for the search were passed out: his school picture over the words PLEASE HELP US FIND VICTOR.  

~o~  

I'm supposed to tell you a story. The story is about the body they found fifty years ago in the old bog. I say body, but they only ever found the bottom half of him. A pelvis and two legs, presumed late Middle Ages. They've found bodies like this in peat bogs all over northern Europe and the British Isles, some so perfectly mummified that you can count the callouses on their fingers, prod at the remnants of their last meal. Ours is on display in a museum in a town a few hours down the river, if you're interested. Isn't it fascinating how the biochemical composition of the bog will preserve the flesh, while the acid in the peat dissolves the bones?

"He must have been a real outcast for people to cut him in half before dumping him in that bog," you'll say, aghast.

"Well, some locals were harvesting peat when they found him," I'll explain. I have this little speech down by now. "In the old days, people would do the work manually, but for the past sixty-or-so years they've been using machines. Most likely the body was ripped in half by the machine, and by the time someone noticed the legs, the torso had already been lost."

"But you don't know for sure," you'll press, still hopeful.

I give you a small conspiratorial smile. "No, we don't."

And if you're ever out in the bog alone and hear a wet sound behind you, like something just heaved itself out of the black water, you should probably run. The other half is still there, you know. It says so right here in this brochure.

Kayak or canoe? 

~o~ 

My brother hasn't gone outside for three months. I stop by his room on my way out and listen to the steady click-click-click of his computer. I nudge the door open. Sam's pale face is intent on the screen, his mouth set in a thin line.

"Good morning," I say. "I'm joining the search party. Do you want to come?"

He shakes his head.

"Well, call Mum if you feel like going for a walk, all right? She's off work today."

"I'm twenty years old. If I want to go for a walk I know where the door is. I can even tie my own shoes."

"Okay. Lunch is in the fridge." 

~o~

The following was obtained from a now purged thread on the forum known as "X4U." All comments were made between the 6th and 7th of February this year.

Fuckkkit22 said:

Just read Sara Hemming's editorial on "Women in media." Boo-fucking-hoo, some network guy asked you to get your tits out when you were nineteen and still had something worth seeing. Bet she'd stop whining about discrimination if we got her a one-way ticket to Iran, preferably passing over ISIS territory. 

thedeadboy replied:

nah, don't waste money on a flight. just buy me a ticket to stockholm and i'll fix the problem. i already know where she lives. happy to give the address to anyone who wants to fuck with her. just pm me. lol what happened to that guy who posted here saying he used to date her?? u got any nudes we could spread around, since she thinks everyone wants to see her tits? what does her pussy look like? does she have a clenis??? :) :)

~o~ 

It's going to be another hot day. The sun slants through the tall trees as we make our way into the woods. Victor! Victor! Answer us if you can hear us! Victor!

Tobias finds me an hour into the search.

"Hey," he says.

"Hello, City Boy."

Maybe this is the part where we're supposed to hug, but the concrete weight of six years sits between us. We begin to walk side by side, occasionally calling out his brother's name. There's an edge to his voice that I've felt sawing at my own insides a few times this past year.

"I'm sorry," I say. "It's awful, what's happened."

"Yeah." He makes a face. "I had no idea, Emmy. I mean, he mostly lived with Dad up until a year ago, so we didn't . . . . I knew he could be a self-righteous little shit about things, but I never thought he would do something like this. Mum's gone to pieces. The worst of it isn't even in the news. He called child protective services and told them that that Sara woman's husband had offered to sell him naked pictures of their kid. When I find him, I'm going to wring his idiot neck."

I keep quiet under his torrent of words, glancing at him as we walk. He still has the same profile, but more grown-up somehow, and I want to say, I can't believe you're back. But he's not back for me, after all.

"Shit," he says finally. "And it's nice to see you, by the way."

I bump his shoulder with mine. "Gothenburg treating you well?"

He ducks his head. That's a yes. "I do okay. I work for an IT company now, and I'm thinking of buying a place. Renting just isn't worth it anymore."

"That's great."

The police helicopter passes overhead, following the main river. We tip our heads back and watch it go by.

"You were the last person to see him, right?" The unspoken alive dangles between us for a moment before he sweeps on, "at work? So you still live in the area?"

"Yeah, the house is in my name now," I say. "It's just me and Sam. Mum moved in with her boyfriend two years ago."

"Wow, you're a homeowner at twenty-four."

I give a snort of laughter. "I guess I am."   

"How's Sam?"

I feel the old Oh, he's fine fraying on the tip of my tongue. Tobias looks at me, and for a moment we're seventeen again, taking the long way to school on a sultry spring morning, our hands brushing deliciously while we pass secrets back and forth like pilfered booze. The other searchers are just shapes and noise in the green distance. I take a breath. I can taste the approach of high summer in the back of my throat, all those familiar scents of moss and water and resin baking in the heat. "He's not great."

Tobias extends his hand to help me over a tree that has come down across our path. After we've scrambled over, he doesn't let go.

"Is it serious?" he says. All around us the woods echo with calls of Victor! Victor! Victor."

"He's depressed.'' I can feel the truth rising hot and urgent behind my eyes, and I blink it back. "It started last fall."

"Is he getting help?"

"I'm helping him."

Tobias shoots me a too-familiar smile. "I meant: has he seen a doctor?"

"They put him on anti-depressants around Christmas, but it's difficult to know if it's helping. Doctors don't get it. They see the word autism in his file and just assume everything is down to his diagnosis. Oh, feeling down? Must be because of your autism!" I kicked a fat pinecone out of my way. "Developed a sudden fear of social interaction? Hmm, sounds like autism!" I feel Tobias's hand tightening around mine. "Ah, I see you've been impaled on the tusks of an escaped lab-bred woolly mammoth -- must be autism!"

Tobias stops in the middle of the path. Victor! Victor! I can feel the heat coming off of his body. His skin has already begun to tan.

"I should have made you come with me," he says. And I can't look at him.

"Victor!" I shout. "VICTOR!"

There's no reply. 

~o~ 

Copied from twitter-user thedeadboy on May 3rd: 

@sarahemming it's such a beautiful day, i think i'll go to stockholm and ram a fist into ur ugly whore face. 

~o~ 

My brother comes into my room a little after midnight. I've left a window ajar and the warm summer night seems to fill the whole room.

"I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier."

"Sam," I say, hoisting myself onto my elbows and blinking sleep out of my eyes. "It's okay."

"Today was a bad day." He sits on the edge of my bed and lets me put my arm around his shoulders. "I keep thinking. I was doing okay last week, but then yesterday I remembered how some girls broke into the boys' locker room once when I was there alone."

I feel my muscles tighten. "You never told me that."

"They took pictures of me."

"Sam! Did you tell a teacher?"

He nods. "I told Mrs Peterson."

"What did she do?"

He looks down at his hands. "She said, retards can't be choosy."

Sam has told me a lot of these stories in the past year, but the weight of my anger shocks me every time. "Jesus, Sam. She's supposed to be a special-ed teacher!"

Sam just gnaws at his lower lip. "And Isabel texted me today. She wants me to come to her family's Midsummer party. So now I'm a bad friend, in addition to an autistic shut-in. Why couldn't I get the cool, crime-solving kind of autism?"

I rub his arm. "You could go to the party."

"Mrs Peterson will be there. She's friends with Isabel's parents. I can't."

"I could go with you and punch Peterson's lights out," I suggest. "Oops, sorry Isabel, I thought she was the piñata. Hard to tell one gaudy lump from another, you know?"

Sam takes my hand in the dark.

"I can't," he says.

~o~ 

The Dead Boy @thedeadboy:

@sarahemming i'm outside your building. third floor, green curtains, right? i brought some lighter fluid and matches.

@sarahemming maybe ur ugly baby will survive if u throw it out the window.  

~o~ 

I'm in my car, about to head to work, when Tobias calls.

"They've cancelled today's search."

I don't say anything at first. The sun's in my eyes and I can feel the heat building inside my tiny vehicle. The cheap fabric of my seat is giving off a weird smell, like cough syrup. I hear Tobias swallow on the other end of the line.

"It's been a week," I say. "It's Midsummer's Eve. Maybe people just need a break?"

Tobias's hard exhale rumbles through the connection. "My friends have all gone back to Gothenburg, and Mum's been crying all morning. What the fuck do I do now?"

I tell him I'll come by after work. Midsummer's always slow. I'll be able to sneak off early.

"Don't worry, we'll figure this out."

I've only just finished the call when a text comes through from my boss.

Our intrepid Americans have returned safe and soaked. I've directed them to the local Midsummer festivities with instructions to try the liquorice-lavender herring! Also, the police found that missing boy's kayak on the edge of the bog. Do you think we'll get it back, or is it evidence now?

~o~ 

The Dead Boy @thedeadboy:

@sarahemming hey ur dumb neighbour just let me into the building.

@sarahemming this is what happens when u don't shut the fuck up when i tell u to.

@sarahemming lolol call the police, i'm not even in stockholm. just giving u a taste of what's to come. :) 

~o~ 

I pick Tobias up and we drive out to the bog. I haven't been here for years, not since we were teenagers and would go looking for the other half, poking long sticks into the black water between the mounds of floating vegetation.

There's a tiny parking lot next to a jumble of ancient picnic tables, and I put the car in the shadiest place I can find. The air hums with the sound of insects. Mosquitoes, horseflies, wasps, hornets. It's been a hot and wet June. My legs are bare.

We follow a worn path through a short stretch of woods. The smell of the bog is getting stronger. Tobias strides ahead, and I have to jog to keep up with him.

"Why would he come here?" he mutters, slapping at a mosquito on his left arm. "He'll be eaten alive."

The obvious answer is probably the least comforting, so I keep my mouth shut.

The trees begin to thin and we emerge onto a small patch of grass lined with brambles. Crickets saw out their song over our laboured breathing. The bog stretches out before us, a landscape of still water dotted with shaggy islands clumped around shrubs or thin young birch trees. Reeds rustle in an otherwise imperceptible stir of wind. A path of silvered old planks snakes off into the distance, showing the safe route through.

"Victor!" Tobias shouts.

My phone rings. It's Sam, and I let Tobias walk a stretch ahead before I answer.

"Emmy, I want to go to the party," Sam says, breathless.

"Isabel's party?" I ask. "But isn't Peterson going to be there?"

There's a pause, and then my brother says, "I know. But I want to go. I want to see Isabel and eat disgusting fish and dance."

It's like someone hits a long forgotten switch inside of me.

 That's so great!"

"I hope so! Can you pick me up?"

My heart gives a little stutter. I glance up and see Tobias standing on his tiptoes, peering into the distance. "What do you mean?"

 The party's on Isabel's grandparents' farm this year."

"Can't she pick you up? Or maybe we can call Mum?"

I can hear him breathing softly before he says, "I don't want to go alone. I mean, I'm not saying you need to punch Peterson or anything, but I think I need you there."

I make a small, yes-like sound.

"I'm going to shower and shave," Sam says. "See you soon."

I don't know what to do, so I just tuck my phone into my pocket and run to catch up to Tobias. There's some vague notion in my head that he'll know what to do (he was always so, so sure), and I'm right, in a way. He turns and catches me.

"I wanted to thank you," he says over my stunned silence. "Everyone else fucked off -- all my friends, our neighbours -- but you're here."

He's gazing down at me and I'm staring up at him, and then his mouth is warm and real on mine. When he smiles into the kiss I can feel it all the way to my bones. He pulls back and I want to drag him closer, fuse him to me. He's running a strand of my hair through his fingers and I'm glad I wore it loose, despite the heat. He tucks it behind my ear, and I remember the steps of this dance, but before I can speak, his eyes fix on something over my shoulder.

"Oh God," he says.

His arm bumps mine as he pushes past me. I turn and look where he's pointing. There's a grassy island maybe two hundred meters away, overgrown with brambles and a stunted birch, hunkering low in the muck. Adrenaline surges through me, needling through my nerves. Something red is peeking out from behind the tree. Bright red, like a down jacket much too warm for June.

"It's him!" Tobias surges forward, shouting, "Victor! VICTOR!"

I can't tell if the red dot moves, just a little, or if it's just my own body trembling.

"Tobias," I say.

He's already got one foot on the nearest clump of vegetation, testing to see if it will take his weight. I grab his arm.

"Stop, you can't go out there."

"I can see him!"

"You can see a red dot."

He turns and stares at me. "It's my brother."

"Just wait," I say. "Please. You can't go charging out there. It's not safe. We'll call the police; they'll bring Search and Rescue. Just wait."

He's not listening to me. He's following the path of worn planks, trying to get closer to the island, trying to find somewhere he can start scrambling across. The black water glints up at me as I follow.

"Tobias!" I shout at his back. "At least let me go get some rope out of the car."

He turns toward me.

"You've got rope?"

"Yes! Yes, just let me go get it. Please?"

He hesitates for a moment, then nods.

I can hear him shouting for his brother as I run through the trees. Something makes a splash not far to my right, a sort of squelching, heaving sound that pops over the constant baseline hum of the bugs. A deer, maybe? I fumble in my pocket for my phone. I need to get Search and Rescue here. I need rope. I need Tobias to stay put. I need someone else to go out onto that island and find whatever there is to find there. My fingers close around my phone and I feel it buzz with an incoming message. I've reached my car now and I slump against it, breathing hard as I bring up the text.

Isabel wants me to match my top hat to her dress. Do we have any purple glitter left?

The rope is underneath my raincoat in the back, a few pale coils poking out. Something is fumbling through the undergrowth on the edge of the parking lot, and all around me the mosquitoes are singing as loud as a freeway, and I know Tobias is alone and frantic on the edge of that hungry water. I unlock the driver's side and get in. My fingers are cold as they grip the steering wheel.

On the way home I call emergency services and tell them to get to the bog, but I don't look back.