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Omar was meant to be here five days ago.
He’s never late. Every month, on the same day, at the same time, I’ll hear the noise of his motorbike down in the valley. I’ll see the cloud of dust as he starts up the pass. When I come out to meet him, he’ll wave me away and take the boxes to the kitchen with a soft smile. Even in deep winter, when the snow falls, and the pass turns to slush, he’ll be here.
Come to think of it, I haven’t seen anyone for at least two weeks. The last person to knock at my door wanted to know who I planned to vote for, of all things. I turned him away with a swift not interested. Crazy old man, he muttered as he left. Democracy is dead.
I wouldn’t mind that no-one has come. After all, I did move to the top of a mountain to get away from people. The trouble is, rice and lentils are all I have left.
So now I must walk down the mountain in search of food. Though years of living remotely help me to pick a sure path, my steps send the odd stone skittering down the hill before shooting over the side. When I stop to drink from my flask and look across the valley, nothing moves except a sea of fluttering flags strung across the distant village square.
Omar’s been riding up and down the hills and mountains that surround the valley ever since I sold the shop to his parents after the break-in. One day, he says, he’ll ride over the top of the western peak and never come back. Sweden, he tells me when I ask where he’ll go. Same idiots as here, I say.
It’s already dark when I reach the village. My head throbs. The streetlights are out, and so are the lights of the houses that overhang the narrow alleys. There must have been another power cut.
The door to the shop is ajar. I push it open and the moonlight floods in, revealing cans and boxes and loose fruit strewn across the floor. Hello, I call into the chaos. When no-one answers, I move forwards through the darkness. I push aside the sense of déjà vu. I reach the foot of the stairs in the back room and call out again. Nothing.
At the top of the landing, I turn into the room that used to be mine. There’s destruction in here, too. A desk overturned; the door cracked down the middle. I begin to tidy up, just as I did on the last night I slept here. I pick up a frame and can just make out Omar and his parents standing in front of the shop, proud of the life they’d built.
On the wall, I see the small shadows of what I imagine to be pins in a map plotting a path from east to west. I imagine the biggest pin, its end a bright blue, towering above Stockholm. I run a hand along the trail, picturing the journey.
Then a creak on the landing and a light shines in my face through the open door.
What are you doing in here?
The figure strides towards me, heavy boots resounding on the worn floorboards. He grabs my arm. Everyone should have been evacuated.
The President’s buffer zone, of course. Don’t you read the news?
A buffer zone for what?
He stares. I don’t need him to call me crazy old man to know what he’s thinking. The country is full, is all he says.
So where are the shopkeepers now? I ask.
That depends. Are they local?
They’ve lived in the village for at least a decade.
You know what I mean, he says curtly.
No, they’re not from here.
Then they’re at the barracks. And that’s where I need to take you too, isn’t it?
This lone soldier stares down, thick bag slung over one shoulder. One toe taps the floor, the only sign of his impatience to get what he came for.
Beyond that, I see indifference in his face, in his slouched stance. It’s the same indifference I saw in the face of the police officer who came to collect evidence, of the insurance agent who came to survey the damage, of the customers I’d served for years. I see the mild distaste of those who told me there was nothing racist in the graffiti sprayed on my walls. I fight the same urge to flee.
How will you explain where you found me? I ask. We both know no-one would send you out from the barracks in the middle of the night.
Now–, he starts to reply.
Listen, I’m old. Let me return to my home. I live quietly outside of town. No-one will know.
He looks me up and down. You know these people, don’t you? He says. Where do they keep the money? Show me and I’ll let you go.
I try to look passed him to the stairs, but he stands up straight and blocks the doorway with his bulk. My eyes fall back to the frame I still hold in one hand, happy faces smiling out.
You don’t need to worry, he tries to reassure me. Your friends will not be coming back. Show me where it is.
None of this is okay, I say impotently as I place the frame on the unmade bed. In the other room, on the near wall, there’s a safe. It’ll be behind something.
He pulls me roughly by the arm and drags me to the room. There, I point towards a watercolour of the valley. He removes the painting and considers the safe for a moment before dropping his bag to the floor and taking out his tools.
Go, he says without looking my way.
I cross the room and turn down the stairs. The thin light of early morning reaches through the shop windows. Above me, I hear the whir of a drill. I take two empty bags from behind the counter and gather what I can from the floor.
Outside, I gaze up at my little house.
I know there’s nothing I can do for Omar or the others. My small betrayal will make no difference. But that doesn’t stop guilt from pushing down a small sense of triumph.
Before I begin the long walk home, I look to the western peak and imagine a cloud of dust wind slowly up the slope. It lingers just a moment at the summit before disappearing over the top.