The days went by so slowly.
Ida Joner held up her hands and counted her fingers. Her birthday was on the tenth of September. And it was only the first today. There were so many things she wanted. Most of all she wanted a pet of her own. Something warm and cuddly that would belong only to her. Ida had a sweet face with large brown eyes. Her body was slender and trim, her hair thick and curly. She was bright and happy. She was just too good to be true. Her mother often thought so, especially whenever Ida left the house and she watched her daughter’s back disappear around the corner. Too good to last.
Ida jumped up on her bicycle, her brand-new Nakamura bicycle. She was going out. The living room was a mess: she had been lying on the sofa playing with her plastic figures and several other toys, and it was chaos when she left. At first her absence would create a great void. After a while a strange mood would creep in through the walls and fill the house with a sense of unease. Her mother hated it. But she could not keep her daughter locked up forever, like some caged bird. She waved to Ida and put on a brave face. Lost herself in domestic chores. The humming of the vacuum cleaner would drown out the strange feeling in the room. When her body began to grow hot and sweaty, or started to ache from beating the rugs, it would numb the faint stabbing sensation in her chest which was always triggered by Ida going out.
She glanced out of the window. The bicycle turned left. Ida was going into town. Everything was fine; she was wearing her bicycle helmet. A hard shell that protected her head. Helga thought of it as a type of life insurance. In her pocket she had her zebra-striped purse, which contained thirty kroner about to be spent on the latest issue of Wendy. She usually spent the rest of her money on Bugg chewing gum. The ride down to Laila’s Kiosk would take her fifteen minutes. Her mother did the mental arithmetic. Ida would be back home again by 6:40 P.M. Then she factored in the possibility of Ida meeting someone and spending ten minutes chatting. While she waited, she started to clean up. Picked up toys and figures from the sofa. Helga knew that her daughter would hear her words of warning wherever she went. She had planted her own voice of authority firmly in the girl’s head and knew that from there it sent out clear and constant instructions. She felt ashamed at this, the kind of shame that overcomes you after an assault, but she did not dare do otherwise. Because it was this very voice that would one day save Ida from danger.
Ida was a well-brought-up girl who would never cross her mother or forget to keep a promise. But now the wall clock in Helga Joner’s house was approaching 7:00 P.M., and Ida had still not come home. Helga experienced the first prickling of fear. And later that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that made her stand by the window from which she would see Ida appear on her yellow bicycle any second now. The red helmet would gleam in the sun. She would hear the crunch of the tires on the pebbled drive. Perhaps even the ringing of the bell: Hi, I’m home! Followed by a thud on the wall from the handlebars. But Ida did not come.
Helga Joner floated away from everything that was safe and familiar. The floor vanished beneath her feet. Her normally heavy body became weightless; she hovered like a ghost around the rooms. Then with a thump to her chest she came back down. Stopped abruptly and looked around. Why did this feel so familiar? Because she had already, for many years now, been rehearsing this moment in her mind. Because she had always known that this beautiful child was not hers to keep. It was the very realization that she had known this day would come that terrified her. The knowledge that she could predict the future and that she had known this would happen right from the beginning made her head spin. That’s why I’m always so scared, Helga thought. I’ve been terrified every day for nearly ten years, and for good reason. Now it’s finally happened. My worst nightmare. Huge, black, and tearing my heart to pieces.
It was 7:15 P.M. when she forced herself to snap out of her apathy and find the number for Laila’s Kiosk in the phone book. She tried to keep her voice calm. The telephone rang many times before someone answered. Her phoning and thus revealing her fear made her even more convinced that Ida would turn up any minute now. The ultimate proof that she was an overprotective mother. But Ida was nowhere to be seen, and a woman answered. Helga laughed apologetically because she could hear from the other woman’s voice that she was mature and might have children of her own. She would understand.
"My daughter went out on her bicycle to get a copy of Wendy. From your shop. I told her she was to come straight back home and she ought to be here by now, but she isn’t. So I’m just calling to check that she did come to your shop and bought what she wanted," said Helga Joner. She looked out of the window as if to shield herself from the reply.
"No," the voice answered. "There was no girl here, not that I remember."
Helga was silent. This was the wrong answer. Ida had to have been there. Why would the woman say no? She demanded another reply. "She’s short, with dark hair," she went on stubbornly, "nine years old. She is wearing a blue sweatsuit and a red helmet. Her bicycle’s yellow." The bit about the bicycle was left hanging in the air. After all, Ida would not have taken it with her inside the kiosk.
Laila Heggen, the owner of the kiosk, felt anxious and scared of replying. She heard the budding panic in the voice of Ida’s mother and did not want to release it in all its horror. So she went through the last few hours in her mind. But even though she wanted to, she could find no little girl there. "Well, so many kids come here," she said. "All day long. But at that time it’s usually quiet. Most people eat between five and seven. Then it gets busy again up until ten. That’s when I close." She could think of nothing more to say. Besides, she had two burgers under the grill; they were beginning to burn, and a customer was waiting.
Helga struggled to find the right words. She could not hang up, did not want to sever the link with Ida that this woman embodied. After all, the kiosk was where Ida had been going. Once more she stared out into the road. The cars were few and far between. The afternoon rush was over.
"When she turns up," she tried, "please tell her I’m waiting."
Silence once again. The woman in the kiosk wanted to help, but did not know how. How awful, she thought, having to say no. When she needed a yes.
Helga Joner hung up. A new era had begun. A creeping, unpleasant shift that brought about a change in the light, in the temperature, in the landscape outside. Trees and bushes stood lined up like militant soldiers. Suddenly she noticed how the sky, which had not released rain for weeks, had filled with dark, dense clouds. When had that happened? Her heart was pounding hard and it hurt; she could hear the clock on the wall ticking mechanically. She had always thought of seconds as tiny metallic dots; now they turned into heavy black drops and she felt them fall one by one. She looked at her hands; they were chapped and wrinkled. No longer the hands of a young woman. She had become a mother late in life and had just turned forty-nine. Suddenly her fear turned into anger and she reached for the telephone once more. There was so much she could do: Ida had friends and family in the area. Helga had a sister, Ruth, and her sister had a twelve-year-old daughter, Marion, and an eighteen-year-old son, Tomme, Ida’s cousins. Ida’s father, who lived on his own, had two brothers i...