The snowflakes hitting the ground was the only sound she could hear while standing in front of the cathedral. The outside was much brighter than the dark room she was enclosed herself in for the past 24 hours. The young woman looked overheard to the dimly lit clock face on the steeple. 12:26. It took her 26 minutes to walk from her home to the church. Eyes darted left then right, then left once more. No dark figure approaching her from the wooden door. No children with bleeding eyes and frostbitten faces near her feet. She took one breath in, and released it slowly, watching the vapors rise into the air. She looked down onto her hand to the scars which had appeared while she was locked in the dark.
It was clear. She began to walk around the cathedral. She focused only on the sound of her steps in the snow. She was ready to meet the Kyrkogrim. She was ready to see her future.
Maybe pulling the all-nighter the night before wasn’t the best idea. Iliana could barely keep herself still waiting in line to board her plane in New York. A cup of coffee in one hand, boarding pass crinkling under the grip of the other. She brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear. The flight attendant did not return a smile as eager as her own, but Iliana didn’t expect it. It was almost 11 o’clock at night.
“Have a good flight, there will a bedding set waiting for you in your seat,” The flight attendant practically yawned through her words. Iliana nodded and walked down the jet bridge, taking her place in the line of people waiting to sit down. She reflected on the conversation that brought her to this plane. Her acceptance to be a part of a research program on aging and human life at Linköping University came as a shock to her and her family, but it meant she could finally visit the country that her entire extended family called home. It meant her first overnight flight, first international flight, and first time traveling alone. As she entered the plane, she tossed the empty coffee cup into the waste bin before wandering down the aisle. Eventually, she found her seat and began to settle in, moving the pillows and blankets around so she could get her items underneath the seat in front of her. Her parents celebrated her opportunity and got her first class tickets, but it still meant she needed to sit next to a stranger on a seven hour flight.
About three minutes after she had taken her seat, a young man looked down at the seat next to her before sitting down. He smiled gently at her, waving. “Good evening miss. What brings you to this flight to Oslo?” Iliana stifled a laugh. The way he was speaking almost made her think he was a flight attendant in disguise. At least a more cheerful one then the lady who scanned her boarding pass.
“I’m traveling to Stockholm, so it’s just the connecting stop.” Iliana turned to face the young man. “I was offered a chance to help research the elderly through a university program. For my graduate degree. How about yourself?”
The man reached up and scratched the back of his neck. “I’m visiting my family back in Norway. I’ve been gone for a couple of years on personal business but it’ll be nice to get back home to them. Be sure to relax, this flight is long,” he smiled before yawning. He reached into his bag and pulled out his headphones before plugging in and tuning out.
The flight attendants were pacing up and down the aisle, looking for misplaced belongings and doing their final departure check. Iliana turned to look out her window, watching the pavement slowly roll by as they approached the runway. It was a clear night and if it wasn’t for the lights of the city so close by, she was certain she would be able to see all the stars. She decided it was time for her to relax and calm down for the flight. She knew that jet lag would be her reality in a few hours, and sleeping on the plane might be her only preventative measure. She looked at the landing time. 11:30 in Norway. She might become nocturnal for the first few days while trying to adjust to the time change. The plane roared, hurtling down the runway and slowly into the air. The familiar coastline of the United States grew smaller and smaller underneath her. Her eyes slowly shut, letting the constant sound of the engine eventually become white noise.
The sun blared through her small window, interrupting the blackness of sleep into a harsh, blood tinted red. Iliana groaned, cursing her own forgetfulness on not shutting the window before she dozed off during departure. She stretched and looked around. Most people were asleep, some working on laptops and other simply reading. Iliana took inventory of the ages of those asleep versus those working. It was interesting to see that there wasn’t a trend between those working and those asleep. She made eye contact with a woman sitting across from her, who made a swift downwards motion with her hand repeatedly.
Iliana quickly inhaled, before rushing to close her window. The woman rolled her eyes at her before pulling her blanket back up to her chin and closing her eyes again. Iliana looked at her phone to see the approximate time, but she ended up putting it down and ignoring it. It still believed she was in Eastern Standard Time because it’s been in airplane mode the entire flight. She returned to looking around the cabin. There was one elderly man awake, reading a novel in a language she didn’t understand. It looked to be Swedish. Two seats back from him, a young woman with messy hair and glasses angrily typed away on a laptop. Most likely a student like herself, and next to that woman was a middle-aged man doing the same. Business work it appeared for him. However, most people in the first class cabin were of Iliana’s age or older, but appeared not much older than 50.
Iliana returned to her normal sitting position, and reached under the seat for her headphone and notebook. She quickly jotted down notes on the age and demographic of her flight. Since her studies were to be on aging, maybe there was a correlation between activities of individuals when they get older. When she finished her notes, she closed her notebook on her lap and stuck her pen behind her ear.
She leaned back in her seat and sighed deeply. The realization of her future just hit her. She was to be learning with some of the brightest people in the world, on a process that isn’t fully understood. She was also going to a country that she understood very basic terms, and was to participate in research in a foreign place. It excited her, and made the butterflies in her stomach doing 15 Immelmann turns all at the same time. She took a deep breath. It was all going to be worth it in the end, she told herself over and over again. Her breath steadied out, and her eyes shut once more.
She would land in Oslo for a layover and then take a short flight from there to Stockholm. Once in Stockholm, she would need to make her way from the airport to the railway so she can make the final leg of her trip into Linköping. She would need to be well and aware for the trip, because as soon as she landed in Stockholm, the real test would begin.
The landing jolted her awake. The man who was next to her was already up and out of his seat gathering his belonging. Everyone was wide awake and talking to one another. The flight attendant droned on about the landing time. Around 11 o’clock in the morning, and the flight went just as expect. Iliana quickly opened the window and was blinded by the sunlight. So much for a cup of coffee, thanks for the wakeup call mother nature… She thought to herself. She looked at her next boarding pass, which called for her boarding her next flight in less than an hour. She gathered her things as quickly as she could, and hurried herself off the plane. She thanked her mother in convincing her that she only needed a backpack as a carry-on, because running with just that is awkward enough. Traveling is a lot like déjà vu, constantly going through the same motions as you’ve done once before. Maybe being in a foreign country will become routine and not so terrifying, Iliana kept trying to reassure herself. But those butterflies kept performing aerial tricks in her body.
Her flight from Oslo to Stockholm was incredibly short, and not as densely populated as the international flight before. About halfway through the flight, the attendant walked through with customs forms. She filled those out in silence, quickly handing them back to the flight attendant who took them with a friendly smile before turning to the next person who had completed them.
Customs at the airport was not nearly as bad as her friends back at home claimed it would be. Before she had left, they told her horror stories about how one of them was detained forever over a bottle of perfume that she insisted was under the fluid ounces limit. The ease of the process helped to settle some of her nerves. Once the process was over, a young man shook her hand and said, “Welcome to Stockholm, Miss Harlan. We hope you enjoy your time here.” His smile was warm and contagious, and Iliana couldn’t help but return it just as much as it was received. She took her checked luggage, and moved on.
She walked into the lobby of the airport, and looked for the closest coffee stand. She fumbled with ordering; accidentally asking for too much cream and not enough sugar, but it would have to do. Her turned her phone off airplane mode and let it readjust to the time change. Her mother had already sent fifteen messages to her asking if she was all right and landed safely, well before the time Iliana told her that she would be in Sweden. She clicked off a quick message to reassure her parents, before opening up Google Maps. This is going to save my skin more than once I’m pretty sure… She cynically laughed to herself. Her parents always chastised her for the dependence on technology, but she finally had the last laugh.
She looked to one of the boards in the lobby, which had a rail station called the Arlanda Express. At least it only had one stop: Stockholm Central Station. Iliana smiled to herself, she can’t mess this up. She waited at the platform with other people, the majority of which were dressed in business suits and were loudly talking on the phone. Some conversations were in English, and some were in Swedish. It was a very familiar feeling, much like waiting for any rail system in New York City. As soon as it pulled in, muscle memory took over. Doors opened and Iliana practically threw herself into the train as soon as the stream of people coming out of the doors stopped. She found a corner seat and immediately sat down. However, as soon as she looked up, she saw a few eyes looking inquisitively in her direction. Most people were calmly walking onto the train and conversing with each other.
Iliana could feel the flush in her cheeks and she quickly returned to looking at her phone. She scolded herself mentally. This isn’t New York City; people actually take the time to look at one another here. She took a deep breath and tore her eyes away from her phone for just a moment. No one was looking at her anymore, and everyone had returned to their usual lives. Ignoring the poor blonde girl in the corner of the train who was completely unfamiliar with her surroundings.
The train slowly slid to a halt, and everyone rose from their seats at the same time. Iliana filed behind the group of people waiting to disembark, and followed suit slowly. Opening her phone, she saw a notification from her maps that told her the next train she needed. Looking around, she tried to find a ticket kiosk. She cursed in her head, she didn’t want to deal with people anymore then she had to at this point. She wandered around, looking from board to board to hopefully give her a hint as to where she needed to go.
A gloved hand grabbed her shoulder. Iliana jumped, yelping loudly and dropping her now cold coffee to the ground. The security man twitched away from her, before looking at the mess on the ground. He sighed before using a rag in his pocket to wipe it up. He spoke to her in Swedish, and when Iliana struggled to respond, he quickly adjusted tone.
“I didn’t mean to scare you miss. What are you looking for?” He stood up, easily towering over Iliana in his height and stature. He had slight concern in his look as Iliana stammered over her words to try and explain why she was lost.
“I, uh… Sorry. I’m looking for a ticket kiosk. I’m trying to get to Linköping.” She didn’t want to look him directly in the eyes. She was so embarrassed for causing a scene everywhere she went. The man pat her on the shoulder, before kneeling down to look at her at her eye level.
“No need to apologize, I though you heard me call out before I tapped out on the shoulder. The closest kiosk is around the corner here and down the hall a bit. To help, you’ll be looking for the Eighteen-Thirty hours SJ Regionältag train that is headed towards Linköping. Just tell the kiosk agent that and then ask for directions. They’ll be able to point you in the right direction.” He smiled at her before standing back up, waving to her and turning around. Before he got too far away, he turned back around, “Oh, and there’s a café right near the kiosk as well. In case you need any more to spill on security officers!”
His voice was cheerful, but Iliana couldn’t help but roll her eyes. She turned around and followed his directions right to the kiosk. She ordered her tickets, and followed the agent’s instructions on how to get to the platform. On the way, she saw the café. Iliana stopped to look at it, then shook her head and ignored the cheerful location. She found the correct location, handed her tickets to the conductor, and found her way to a less populated portion of the train.
As soon as her body hit the seat of the train, Iliana couldn’t help but sigh. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. People looked at her while she wandered through the station, despite her best effort to not look like a tourist. She spilled her coffee all over someone who was just trying to help her. At that reminder, she groaned and buried her heads in her hands. She knew this was going to be tough, but did not realize just how tough. The train slowly slid forward, and began its trek south down the coast line.
Once out of the station, Iliana returned to looking out the window. She almost had the entire cabin to herself, except for a few younger couples rows in front of her. She watched the city of Stockholm grow further and further away from her, and the beauty of the Swedish landscape took over. There were so many ponds and lakes that flew by her vision, she lost count. She could see golf courses in the distance, and the coastline sometimes beyond that. The scenery filled her with joy and hope. This trip was an emotional roller coaster for sure so far. She needed to keep looking to the future and not dwell on her awkwardness when in a strange land. Anyone would act like this. She kept telling herself over and over again. When she was done with the pep talk, she returned to looking out of her window. The hour of twilight was getting closer and closer, and the toll of travel was beginning to creep into Iliana’s mind.
She set her phone alarm for an hour and a half. Plugging in her headphones, she lay out across the two seats and let the dream of her bright future take over her subconscious. Anything would be better than her anxiety.
The train made a stop at a local station. Iliana was still asleep as it continued to roll on. The landscape was even darker than before. A man paced down the train cabin in a long dark coat. Behind him was an ugly beast of a dog, with a long muzzle and golden eyes. Its dark brown fur was matted and wet. He passed the couples at the front of the train, and they didn’t give him as much as a glance. He continued his slow march to the back rows, where Iliana slept so peacefully. When he was next to her body, he stopped. Looking over his coat collar, he intently studied her body. The dog pushed his way into the floor space in front of Iliana, before sniffing her golden hair. It snarled, baring yellow and brown teeth, many broken and cracked.
The man’s neutral composure turned into a grimace. He tapped the dog, and it backed up to in front of the man. He turned back around, towards the front of the train again, and walked into the next car. The couples still did not acknowledge him or his hideous animal. Once the train door shut, he was gone.
Iliana was awake to see the train slowly pull into the station. She yawned loudly, rubbing her eyes. The sun was well below the horizon when she finally took her belongings off the train. She looked up and down the platform for someone to help her along her way, since someone mentioned that a professor would greet her on the platform. She slowly walked to the main terminal grounds, pulling out her phone to hopefully look for a call telling her where to go. But, much to her frustration, there was no guidance. She sighed angrily, yawning again. She just wanted to sleep at this point.
“Miss Harlan! Over here!” She jumped from the sudden voice calling to her. A young woman was quickly walking towards her, waving her arm in the air with her phone in her hand. Her heels were loud on the pavement. Iliana gathered her things and met the woman halfway. “I’m so sorry about being late Miss Harlan. I’m Alexandra, and I’ll be your translator for your time here with Linköping University. But please, call me Alex. I’m also on the same study project as you, so we’ll be working a lot together!” Iliana raised her eyebrow at her, before yawning for a third time since she got off the train. Alex’s face flushed. “Oh I’m so sorry; you must be exhausted right now. My car is right down the street, and I can take you to the apartment you’ll be staying at for your months here. Follow me!” Without waiting for a response, she turned around and walked away, her brunette hair almost wiping across Iliana’s face.
Iliana followed, looking around to take in her surroundings. The buildings were the same style as in Stockholm, at least what she could see from the windows of the train. Far in the distance, she could see the outline of tall tower, but she wasn’t quite sure what it was. Alex was climbing into a black vehicle, popping the trunk and walking around the back to help Iliana. She assisted her in lifting her large suitcase into the car and then put her carryon right next to it. Alex smiled at her, closing the trunk. “You can go ahead and sit in the front with me; we do pass the cathedral on the way to the apartment building. You really should see it as soon as you can!”
Iliana thought to herself, Cathedral? How big can it be? She knew Catholicism was large in Sweden, and many churches were built near the 11th century. Sitting down and buckling her seatbelt, she looked at Alex when she put the car into drive and almost sped off. It took Iliana by surprise. The buildings flew past and she couldn’t get a good read on where she was going or what direction. As quickly as the trip started, Alex slowly pressed onto the brake and pointed out the front window.
“Take a look! That’s the Linköping Cathedral.” Iliana looked down out the window, and her mouth dropped open. It was huge! In the dark, the large walls loomed over her, dwarfing the small car she was in. There were two smaller pillars in what she assumed was the back of the building, and the huge steeple was towards the front. Alex pulled around to the side of the road, and parked the car. “It was built around 1250, and is part of the church of Sweden. One of the Princesses of Sweden is buried here, along with a few Bishops and the Duke of Östergötland.” Iliana looked to her, trying to take in this information. “You should take your day off tomorrow to see it during the daytime. The interior is beautiful.”
“I’ll be sure to take the time for that…” Iliana spoke quietly back, looking back outside at the cathedral. “If you don’t mind, can we get to the apartment? I would like to get settled in and get some sleep. I’ve been up for almost 20 hours at this point.” Alex nodded quickly, before pulling away from the cathedral. The shadows from the large spires kept the car in almost complete darkness for longer than expected.
It took around a half an hour to get to the apartment building. Alex parked her car on the side of the road near a large brick building, before getting out of the car and heading to the trunk. Iliana followed suit, taking her carryon. Alex put her hand up when she tried to take her large suitcase, with a warm smile. “I’ll take this! You’ve had quite the travel day. I’ll take you to your room; luckily it’s only on the third floor.” They walked through the front door, and up a large wooden staircase that wound up through the middle of the building. “The building is really old, but the individual apartments were renovated recently. The only thing they didn’t ass was an elevator to keep the old world charm when you first visit here.” She stopped outside a wooden door, and grabbed a set of keys from her pocket. She turned the key in the door, and slowly opened it. It creaked slightly, before quietly hitting a wall behind it. “Here you go! Home sweet home for the next few months!”
Iliana took the keys from her, and looked around the room. They provided it to her fully furnished, and even some plants in the corners of the room. She looked at Alex behind her, who was smiling and already almost outside the room. “I’ll leave it to you to settle in. Tomorrow you don’t have to go to the Nursing Home and work, so take the time to walk around the area. I’ll send you a message tomorrow night about what you need to do for the next day. Goodnight!” Alex closed the door behind her.
Iliana quickly walked over and locked her door. The bolt fell in place with a satisfying clunk. She sighed deeply, placing her forehead on the door. She could fall asleep right there against the door and wouldn’t complain about it one bit. But she had to unpack and learn where everything was in the apartment. She leaned back onto her heels and turned around. The living area was covered in dark wood flooring, and the walls were a soft beige color with some areas of exposed brick. That character thing that Alex mentioned. It had a flat screen television on a small table with three windowed doors. There was a large L-shaped couch and two white armchairs in the corners. A large bay window was at the end of the room which even had a window seat. The other side of the room was the kitchen. It was of decent size, with dark cabinets that matched the flooring. Light marble countertops gave a little light back into the interior. She wandered into the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator and the pantry. They provided it fully stocked with food, and even a cook book on the counter for her to get food inspiration from. She smiled in appreciation before closing the pantry and refrigerator door. She grabbed her carry on and put it on the sofa in the living area, since it was filled with items to personalize the apartment.
Anything to warm up this place and make it feel a little more like home… She thought to herself as she placed pictures on side tables and next to the television. Once she was finished, she grabbed the handle to her suitcase and moved to the back of the apartment. The hallway went in two directions with three closet doors on one side. One door was locked shut, one was a large closet and another one was the washer and dryer. The bathroom was far away from her, and she turned and walked away from it and into the bedroom.
She turned into the doorway and flipped on a switch. The room was large, with another large window. This time there was a white satin curtain pulled over it. The faint lights of the city glowed through the sheer material. The bed was large; Iliana estimated it to be a queen size. A large desk was on the opposite wall as the bed, with a full desktop computer with two monitors already hooked up. There was a dresser under the window, and a smaller closet on the wall opposite that. She threw her large suitcase on the bed, opening it and moving all of her clothing out across the bed. She organized it, some of it going onto the hangers, some going into the dresser. Halfway through finishing, she closed her eyes and yawned. It lasted for about ten seconds, before she smacked her lips together and rubbed her eyes. She looked at the piles of clothes she still had to put away, and pushed them back into the suitcase. The rest of the clothes could be put away tomorrow. Iliana took out her toiletries bag, and went into the bathroom. The light switch was awkwardly far into the room and took her a moment to find. As soon as she managed to flick in on, she turned to the sink and began to wash her face. The warm water made her even drowsier. With her eyes closed, she turned off the water and grabbed the soft towel on the rack near her. She pat her face, and shook her wet hair out of her face. When she straightened up, she removed the towel from her face. Her vision was quite blurry, but when she looked at the mirror, a black shape was behind her.
It looked like a man.
Iliana yelped, turning around and smacking the air. The speed of her own hit threw her off balance and toppling her over onto the tile floor. She braced for the fall with her arm, but it did little to reduce the impact. Her head hit the tile floor, and she hissed and cursed. She took the wet rag and pressed it against the side of her head, pressing up off the floor chastising herself over and over again for being easily spooked. There was nothing behind her besides a plain white shower curtain. Iliana threw the towel into the sink and turned off the light before turning to her bedroom. When she reached the bedroom door, she turned back over her shoulder. The bathroom was dark, and she couldn’t tell if the shadows moving were her imagination, or something to actually be afraid of.
Closing her bedroom door, Iliana plugged in her phone, and turned off all the lights. She pulled the covers over her head, shivering. She knew she was seeing things. It was time to go to sleep.