Unleashed – Chapter One

Vanessa’s bedroom was bigger than the common room of the house a grew up in. Hera never had her own room, or even her own bed. She shared a bed with one of her sisters until the day she married, then she shared with her husband. The closest thing she had to a room was an alcove in one of the outbuildings, where she sometimes hid to escape work on the farm.

Despite this observation—that modern people possessed a ridiculous amount of space—Hera’s disbelief and irritation was drowned out by the blubbering inside her head. Vanessa was having a panic attack.

It doesn’t look anything like it used to!

The only furniture was a stripped-down bed in one corner and a huge vanity with a mirror. Peeling stickers framed the edges of the mirror—logos of bands, celebrities, and fashion labels. Across the top, equally old and faded, pictures were taped. These were from magazines and the internet, pictures of exotic locations around the world. Ironically, there was a picture of Iceland.

Ironically? Vanessa was using her crazy, high-pitched voice. It’s not ironic. It was some horrible omen mocking my fate!

“Shut up,” Hera muttered to the still air. “Stop freaking out.”

How can I not freak out? It’s my childhood bedroom. Look at it!

Vanessa dissolved into sobs.

The room was filled with cardboard boxes and plastic bins. They were stacked in haphazard piles, and judging by their dusty state, they hadn’t been moved in a while. These were Vanessa’s belongings, brought from her apartment after she “died.” Modern people had an absurd amount of possessions, too. How did they keep track of everything? It was like a troll’s hoard.

Shut up. You don’t get it. It’s not even that much stuff!

Hera scanned the blank walls. Cobwebs gathered in the corners. The air was stale, and the curtains across the window were dusty as well. It had been some time since the room was aired out.

They won’t come in here. Vanessa continued to sob. They just left it and they can’t bear to look at it.

“If you’d like to take anything, you can.”

The voice, coming from outside Hera’s head this time, made her start. She turned to the doorway. A middle-aged woman stood there. She was pretty and well put-together, but her eyes were sad. They were Vanessa’s eyes.

“Thank you, Mrs. Evanston.” Hera still struggled to speak proper English and had to tap into Vanessa from time to time. They didn’t use forms of address like Mr. and Mrs. in Iceland. “I don’t know what I’d take, though. As I said, I only knew her a short time.”

Vanessa’s mother gazed at a stack of boxes. “We’ve meant to sort through it all and donate things, but … it just gets put off, month after month. We keep the door closed and pretend it’s not here. I don’t even remember what’s in half these boxes.”

Vanessa wailed.

Hera forced a blank face and hoped her eyes didn’t look too crazy. She’d been warned madness might take her, being of two minds. But the madness, it turned out, wasn’t from her brain being cleaved in two. It was the madness one acquired from carrying a fussy, despondent, hysterical child around on their hip all the time.

Hera spoke internally this time. Shut. The hell. Up. She feared her forehead might be visibly throbbing.

Vanessa retreated for a moment. It wasn’t always bad, toting around the memory of a dead woman. Two years on, Vanessa even sometimes fell into silence for weeks at a time, making Hera wonder if she was gone for good. But then, when Hera needed to figure out something in the modern world, Vanessa would spark back up like the last ember in a fire. Most often, Hera just dreamt about her and watched the scenes of Vanessa’s life play out in her sleep.

However, right now, Vanessa was a raging bonfire. Here, in the house where she grew up, seeing her mother again, she burst so violently to life Hera thought she might turn and see her standing next to her.

“I just wanted to see it,” Hera said. “She told me all about her home. Being from the Icelandic countryside, I was curious.” She put a false smile on.

In truth, Hera didn’t care one whit to see it, but Vanessa wouldn’t let her leave America without visiting this place first.

Mrs. Evanston’s sad eyes turned questioning. “How did you say you knew her again?”

“She visited my town on a tour. We got on well, and I went to Reykjavik to hang out with her and her friends.” She dropped her smile, putting on a sad face too. “It was so shocking, when they found her. I was stunned. I never forgot about her. She’s been in my thoughts for so long.”

Very funny.

Mrs. Evanston cast her gaze down. “She was a clumsy girl. It wasn’t the first time she injured herself on a trip. I just—wish she’d been so lucky as before.”

She was referring to the skiing accident in Newfoundland three years before Vanessa visited Iceland. It left Vanessa comatose, and brain dead. It was in that hospital room Hera took on Vanessa’s memories—and her appearance, for a time—and lived as her afterward. Vanessa actually died years before they found her body on Esjan.

But that was a story her mother would never know.

“I remember she was cheerful,” Hera said. “A free spirit. She wanted to try everything.”

Her mother laughed. “Yes, that was my Vanessa. Curiosity always got the best of her. She wanted to travel and see things, and I’m glad she at least got to do that.” She paused. “I suppose she died happy, doing something that gave her joy.”

Hera was silent. Vanessa was crying again.

Mrs. Evanston gestured to the boxes and bins. “It’s time to clean this up. It serves no purpose anymore, and we could use the room. My husband’s office downstairs is so small.” She took a breath. “I’ve made coffee, would you like some?”

Hera didn’t like modern coffee. Most of it was too weak, and now people were fond of putting all sorts of flavors and sugar in it, and sometimes making it foamy with milk. She couldn’t stomach too much sugar and stuck to her Icelandic diet of mostly meat and fish. Bizarrely, such a diet was taboo to some people now. There was a movement all over the world to not use animals for food. People like this wouldn’t have survived an Icelandic winter in the countryside in her day.

Stop worrying about vegetarians! Vanessa came shrieking forward. Will you please just talk to my mother?

“I would like some coffee, yes.”

The house was big, and clean, and decorated the way wealthy people decorated their houses when Hera was younger, with rugs and flowers and objects that served no purpose but to please the eye. However, this was just how normal people lived in this time and it boggled her mind.

After they entered the kitchen, Hera looked back through the doorway, into the living room.

Aedan stood in front of the fireplace, staring at a row of pictures on the mantle. She’d decided not to drag him upstairs with her, as he was kind enough to come along and keep her company and that was enough to put him through.

“Would your … boyfriend, like a cup as well?” Mrs. Evanston inquired.

Aedan wasn’t her “boyfriend,” though they were close in physical age—but she couldn’t exactly explain to this woman that he was the half-huldufólk child her husband raised while she was being held captive for a hundred years.

“I think he’s fine.” She took her cup from Mrs. Evanston and lifted it in gratitude. “We don’t want to take too much of your time. It’s just, we’re leaving America soon and I wanted to tell you how sorry I am about Vanessa. I wish I’d known her longer.”

“I’m sorry you can’t meet my husband, he’s away on business. But I’ll let him know you visited.”

They joined Aedan in the living room and Mrs. Evanston described the pictures. Many were of Vanessa. She was an only child. Vanessa squirmed and scratched at Hera’s insides, while Hera sipped her coffee and struggled not to shriek at the air.

Aedan watched her from the corner of his eye.

“This is one of the last pictures we have of her.” Mrs. Evanston picked up a picture of Vanessa, wearing a white dress, her hair pulled up in a crown of curls. “It was her cousin’s graduation, not too long before she left for Iceland.” She put it back. “She was so beautiful.”

“She was,” Hera murmured. She’d spent time in Vanessa’s body, and though it was an odd few days, Vanessa was indeed a lovely woman and it was nice to be pretty like her for a while.

Hera gazed at the pictures, Vanessa yammering away in her head about them.

Mrs. Evanston sighed. “You know, my husband took it very hard, and very strangely. I worried about him for a long time.”

Hera arched an eyebrow.

She shook her head. “I think the grief drove him mad. He kept insisting Vanessa’s body—he identified her, I couldn’t bear to see it—that it was really … her, finally.”

Hera blinked.

“This is going to sound crazy. When Vanessa got hurt on our ski trip in Newfoundland—she had a grievous head injury, and despite what the doctors said, I always thought there was some brain damage. It altered her personality. But I was just grateful to have her alive, I didn’t care if it changed her. I mean, it was a horrible accident, of course it changed her.”

Hera glanced at the pictures.

“But my husband, it made him uneasy. He said she wasn’t herself. And then when he went to identify her” —she paused— “he said what he saw was his daughter. The daughter he remembered. He said she even looked the same as she had before the accident. I saw her in the casket of course, but she was so made up for the funeral it looked like a doll to me.”

Vanessa was weeping again.

Mrs. Evanston wiped her eyes. “I was so angry at him, hearing him insist his daughter was ‘herself’ again now that she was dead.” She sniffed. “But I’m sure the grief made him think that way. I’ve tried not to hold it against him.”

“I’m sure it did,” Hera said. “Grief makes people act strangely.”

Mrs. Evanston stroked one of the pictures. “She was always my Vanessa, no matter what.” She looked at Hera. “I’m glad he’s not here today. I’m glad you came, but it might have set him off again. Things have almost gotten back to normal.”

Hera gave her a tiny smile. “Time heals all wounds.”

They left shortly after. The air was crisp, the winter sun stark. Vanessa was clamoring about everything: how the outside of the house looked, the fact her own car still sat in the garage, that they hadn’t sold it. Her mother had also planted new flower gardens, currently brown and barren. A sapling in the front yard was much bigger.

“Well,” Aedan said, “did it make her happy?”

“I wouldn’t say she’s happy.” Hera squinted at the house. “But maybe this will give her some closure.”

Aedan was a tall, willowy, and handsome man. He’d adjusted to life in America much better than Hera had. His long dark hair was pulled up in a knot at the back of his head. She’d seen many men with long hair who wore it this way. He was fashionable: leather jacket, sneakers, jeans that sagged in the seat—she had no idea why men wore their pants that way—and a body-hugging t-shirt. He fit in. Also, he was a much different person than he’d been two years ago when they first left Iceland. He’d been grim and quiet then, burdened by his own existence. Now he was confident, spoke with certainty and self-assurance, and laughed often. Women constantly noticed him and tried to get his attention.

Hera, on the other hand, preferred clothes that reminded her of the ones she wore in her time. “Old fashioned” things with long sleeves and skirts, blouses with bodices, thick dark fabrics, boots. She hadn’t done much with her hair and usually wore it pulled up in a messy bun. She never wore makeup, because it irritated her skin and she never did it right anyway.

Vanessa informed her on more than one occasion this look made her a “hipster” and was actually fashionable. Hera found it frumpy and dull. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone.

They climbed in the car. She let Aedan drive, though she knew how, thanks to Vanessa. The car was small and old, and they hadn’t paid much for it.

Hera pulled her phone out.

“Anything?” Aedan asked.

She peered at the screen. “No. You?”

He shook his head. “No.”

She shoved her phone back in her pocket and gazed out the window, at the piles of slushy snow pushed up on the side of the driveway. “What if he doesn’t call?”

“He’ll call.” Aedan started the car.

“What if he doesn’t? What if he’s dead?”

Aedan looked over his shoulder as they backed out. “He’s not dead. They can’t kill him.”

“No, but what if he immediately ages and dies, and—”

“We said we would stop speculating.” He spoke firmly, and stopped the car in the street, looking at her. “He’s alive, and he’s going to call. We’re going home. That’s that.”

She looked at the house one last time.

Goodbye, Vanessa whispered. Goodbye forever.

Aedan jammed the gear shift in drive. “And then our work can begin.”

Vanessa was a sad, deep drone inside her.

Hera nodded. “She wants to go see her grave. It’ll pass the time while we wait.”

* * * *

One hundred years ago, Hera Ívarsdóttir murdered one of the huldufólk in the kitchen of the ramshackle house she and her new husband shared. She stabbed the creature in the neck with an iron knife, the only substance that seared their flesh and stilled their blood. Her husband didn’t know she had the knife, and he’d begged her not to fight them when they came. But these things—these hidden people of Iceland, monsters who tormented humans and hid in the shadows of every rock—had come to carry her husband away for an innocent mistake and she refused to let it happen.

On that icy winter night, they chased her and carried her away instead, for her crime. She’d fallen from a cliff, and death might have been preferable, but one of them caught her. In the following decades, this same huldufólk man, tender and kind unlike the others, would be her only friend while she spent her time secreted away, underground, punished and in their toil.

She and her husband would live nearly a hundred years apart, suffering without each other—she in darkness, he in the world, a loner on the fringes of life.

Her only friend, Yngvi was his name, snuck her out of Iceland as the others were becoming suspicious of his fondness for her. That was when they found Vanessa. Yngvi stole her memories and put them in Hera’s head. He made Hera look like Vanessa and took Vanessa’s body away with him. But it would be only a few years before Hera, erased of her own memories and living as Vanessa, was inexorably drawn back to her homeland, witless, and there all was revealed.

She then again left Iceland with ninety-eight years of her sentence served, in order to keep the huldufólk from learning she walked in her own body, restored of her own mind. She’d taken Aedan with her, for he was half huldufólk and they made him hunt down his own kind, those half-children they called “abominations.”

Today, her original hundred-year sentence ended. Today, her husband would be released from his as well. And he would call, and they would come home.

She hoped.

“Is this it?” Aedan strode toward a flat stone in the earth. “Her mother said fourth row, third grave.” He counted as he approached it.

Hera followed him. The cold wind whipped at her face.

They stopped in front of it. The words VANESSA ARIEL EVANSTON were carved in the stone, followed by her birth and death dates. It was simple, elegant. Some dead, dried flowers sat in a stone vase next to it.

God, Vanessa breathed. I can’t believe it. I’m looking at my own grave.

Hera knelt and brushed snow off the stone. “Well, there it is.”

I can’t believe I’m under the ground right here. And yet, I’m also here, standing in front of it. I’m still here.

“You’re not,” Hera informed her. “You aren’t really here. You’re only a copy of something that once existed. All of you is dead.” She stood up.

Vanessa had a hard time with this, no matter how often Hera reminded her. She wasn’t even a ghost.

“You really need to work on not talking out loud to her.” Aedan jammed his hands in his jacket pockets. “You’re doing it more often these days.”

“Yes, well Yngvi did say I’d go mad if I kept her inside me.” And yet, she insisted on it, because without Vanessa, she couldn’t function in this time. “Should we say a prayer?”

I’m an atheist.

“Well I’m not, blasphemer.”

Hera said a prayer over the grave, and Aedan was silent, though she didn’t know if he was actually praying with her or not. She didn’t think the huldufólk believed in God.

“Maybe one day you’ll finally rest in peace,” Hera said. “You’ll leave me for good.”

Maybe I will. Vanessa’s voice was tiny and faint.

They didn’t stay long, as it was cold, and morbid, and Hera didn’t want to linger. They walked back across the snowy ground, through muddy piles of slush, to their car sitting on the lonesome pathway.

They both checked their phones when they got in. Nothing. They drove back to the hotel, silent.

The room they rented was small and dingy, with two twin beds. It was cheap, as they needed their money for the plane tickets home. All the money they’d managed to save over the past two years sat in a bank account that she planned to close as soon as they returned. Their passports waited in a bag in the corner. Hera Ívarsdóttir and Aedan Gunnarsson. They’d never assumed names, as they didn’t exist prior to this this anyway.

She sat on one of the beds and watched TV as the afternoon faded to night. She still didn’t much care for TV. In her day, she’d seen a play in Vík and thought it was awkward people were pretending to be other people to tell a story. This was just a more advanced form of it.

Never a patron of the arts, Vanessa quipped. Always with the sass.

Aedan got food. She ate, and then dozed. They spoke little. The tension was high and so many of those speculations she wasn’t supposed to mention hung on the air. Aedan paced, and sometimes went outside, and came back in. She tried to figure out what time it was in Iceland. Would it have to be after midnight for it to happen?

At least Vanessa calmed down. She lay curled in a tight ball in the back of Hera’s head, silent.

Hera dozed off again and dreamt one of Vanessa’s memories. She was wearing a short pink dress, and she was in a bar, laughing and drinking with her friends. They were taking pictures of themselves and putting them on Facebook.

A sharp sound jerked her out of sleep.

She blinked, still disoriented and half in the dream. Then, she quickly sat up.

Aedan stood by the window and he turned. He stared wide-eyed at her phone, lying on the end of the bed, the screen lit with the incoming call.

She snatched it up. Her breath caught. One word was there on the screen: Gunnar.

She answered, her heart in her throat. “Husband.”

That deep, sweet voice she hadn’t heard in two years spoke lovingly in her ear. “Wife. How are you?” And in an instant, it was like he was there, wrapping his arms around her.

Tears slipped down her cheeks. “I’m fine. How are … you?”

A pause. “Alive.” She heard the smile in his voice. “And free.”

She pressed a hand over her mouth and looked at Aedan.

“Come home, Hera. Come back to Iceland. It’s time.”