The following texts originally appeared as standalone, flash fiction pieces on the back page of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
On a Monday afternoon in December Vincent leaves work an hour early to marry Katarina Borova. The magistrate asks him if he would like to please take off his black-and-blue backpack, out of respect.
Vincent looks at the chair beside him as soon as everyone has signed the document. He sees that the backpack is not there and knows what this means. His laptop had been inside the backpack—or his boss’s laptop, rather. Brand-new, too: he’d forgotten the last one on the night bus.
Instead of just giving Vincent a new laptop, the bastard had found it necessary to rub it in. He was always doing this sort of thing: always the same bullshit. But one more such slip-up and Vincent was out.
Vincent takes stock of his situation in a flash. He has just married a woman with bleached hair and pushed-up breasts. She points at glittery dresses on the Internet whenever he wants to make love. He also has two unborn daughters who will require glittery dresses in the future—but if he doesn’t find his laptop by tomorrow morning (glittery dresses jumping like pop-ups in his mind!), he will have no means to finance it all.
Vincent sprints out of City Hall. What follows is a movie montage: an hour-long search through the city’s dark and wet streets. Every man with a backpack arouses his suspicion but the backpack is never black-and-blue upon approach.
Wandering, Vincent wonders how he got himself in such a fix. That night, after dancing, when Katarina stuck her tongue into every man’s mouth but his—that night, on the night bus, he vowed to never let himself get pushed around again. Not by Katarina, who pushed him around without saying anything, not by his boss who did it in front of everyone else: not by anyone, period.
He took a solemn vow that night, and what happened since then? Three new glittery dresses have penetrated his home and he nods to his boss like a lamb.
And he’s giving them the opportunity. Something inside him screams out: come on! Push me around, you might get a laugh out of it.
But it is no laughing matter. Vincent collapses and slumps against the wall. He expects to feel cold, hard stone against his back but he feels something different. He reaches behind him and beams.
It can’t be! He isn’t who he thought he was. He stuck to his vow. Today—just this once—he has not let himself get pushed around. Not by the magistrate at city hall.
Lizette has been crushing on Colin for years, but Colin has no idea. Lizette has never spoken with Colin and hasn’t even seen him in real life, but she sees him every Friday on cable television. Lizette’s friends do not know who Lizette is crushing on but they know it is someone from television. They think she ought to send him an email, the idea being that Lizette’s pathetic love will abate once she gets a negative reply (they don’t tell Lizette this, but they think it). They have no idea that Lizette has already been emailing Colin for years.
Colin is single. He is picky because he could get anyone he wants. The problem is finding the proper balance of admiration and companionship: he likes to be admired—but he wants to be challenged at the same time. Colin also wants a hottie and frequently has one-night stands.
Once, someone told Colin the truth. He said: Colin, you love yourself and you’re looking for someone with whom to love yourself together. (Colin has since lost all contact with this person).
Colin’s fan mail thrills him. He lets his agent answer it. He has three stock replies: a polite one, a nice one, and a very nice one. Unless Colin says something his agent always forwards the polite version. To Lizette, the agent always sends the standard “very nice,” but always adds a final paragraph of his own, of which Colin has no idea. The manager (who also has a heart) believes that this is the least he can do, for Lizette’s fidelity.
Roderick is getting married and Simon is organizing the bachelor party. He and four friends surprise Roderick with a few days in Moscow. In Moscow, everything is possible as long as you can pay—and his friends are so generous that Roderick worries they are drawing too much attention to themselves. He sees the same men in black from the casino two days later, in a pub.
The group of friends opts to go to a spa just outside the city. It soon becomes apparent that they are being followed. And indeed: a half an hour later, they are driven off the road. Four men with Kalashnikovs and black coats force the boys to step out and lie belly-down on the roadside. They feel the muzzles of the Kalashnikovs against their necks. Roderick and Simon get their hands tied behind their backs. Their mouths are gagged and duct-taped. The two are thrown in the trunk but the others are free to go. As they drive on Simon pees his pants and Roderick poops.
In a basement, they are spat on and beaten with the Kalashnikovs. The men take photographs and demand their parents’ addresses; they want one and a half million dollars on the table by morning. The boys’ mouths remain duct-taped tight. Simon had ordered the kidnapping experience for Roderick a month ago on the Internet. So that they would recognize him, he had described Roderick as the “boy with the curls.” But Simon himself had not gotten around to getting a haircut. Had his hair been shorter perhaps it would have been straighter. On the website, there was a choice between a “mild” and “heavy” kidnapping, and Simon had chosen the “heavy” one (which was more expensive). Simon likes Roderick a lot and had chosen the most expensive option to surprise him in the most special way.
After his return home, Simon is surprised at how many weeks he is unable to return to work.
Important to Know
Lydia does not think it’s healthy that Govert calls her every day one year after it’s over—but she’s gotten used to it. Listening to Govert is part of her routine. Like brushing your teeth, she’d once told a friend, and that friend told another friend, Stella.
Stella also speaks with Govert regularly. In her case, she’s calling him; he never calls her.
Stella is in Paris the day Govert dies. Her phone charger is still back at home. To save battery she’d been texting Govert instead.
Stella hears about the accident once she is home. She dials his parents’ phone number and his mother picks up. Wiping back tears, Stella tells her about the bond they shared, their almost-daily contact.
Govert’s mother is pleased with the phone call. He was always talking about you.
There appears to have been a misunderstanding. Govert’s mother does not know who Stella is; she thinks she is speaking with Lydia.
Stella sighs. Speaking with Govert meant nothing to Lydia, she says. No more than tooth-brushing. I heard her say so myself. (A little white lie: she hadn’t heard it herself. But she knew it was true).
When Stella calls again, Govert’s mother wants to know if Lydia is coming to the funeral. You never know with someone who considered him akin to toothbrushing. Unless you think I’d better not, I’ll pass it on to her, Stella says.
No, of course not, the mother says, surprised.
But Stella hears no surprise. She knows enough already.
It’s up to you what you want to do, she emails Lydia. But I spoke with Govert’s parents. They would find your presence at the funeral difficult to accept. It isn’t meant unkindly, but I think it’s important for you to know.
Franca Treur won the 2010 Selexyz Debut Prize for her novel “Dorsvloer vol confetti” (“Confetti on the Threshing Floor”), later released as a feature-length film in fall 2014. Her second novel, “De woongroep” (“The Roommates”), was published in early 2014. She contributes stories, columns and essays to several Dutch magazines and newspapers and holds the record for the highest-selling debut novel in the Netherlands.
Patty Nash is a writer, translator, and installation artist in Iowa. She tweets at @pattynashdj.