The space under the stairs was the scariest place in the whole house, but I crawled in through the narrow passageway leading to the large space, got under an old blanket, just as Stinna had told me to do, and waited with my heart in my throat.
‘Woof!’ barked Stinna from the next room as a chuckling Grandpa Askild came down the stairs, and she instantly switched off the circuit breaker for the basement. ‘Woof, woof,’ I squeaked from the space under the stairs.
‘You little brats,’ grumbled Askild, who was inclined to go back upstairs. But instead he tottered after Stinna, who dashed back and forth between his legs, crying ‘woof, woof ’, until he was finally enticed over to the passageway next to the space under the stairs. There he could see a faint light and he heard my pitiful ‘woof’, which immediately made him smile.
‘You were supposed to blow out the candles and run off in the dark when he went in there,’ Stinna later complained. ‘He was only supposed to catch a glimpse of the skull.’
But when the big figure of Grandpa Askild came into view in the space under the stairs, I lay there, frozen in terror and unable to move. Askild was scared too. When he caught sight of that shining skull, his face went rigid and for a couple of endless seconds he didn’t look like himself. Maybe he remembered the sight of the pulverized Pork Face in a similar basement light years away. At any rate, the horror I saw painted on his face made me jump up, kick the badger skull with my foot, and run at full speed towards the wall. I would undoubtedly have run right into it if my grandfather hadn’t grabbed me by the hair.
‘Ow!’ I howled.
‘He’s pulling Asger by the hair,’ shouted Stinna when my father came downstairs to see what all the commotion was about. ‘He’s out of his mind!’
That’s how it happened that Askild, once again, was thrown out of our childhood home. ‘Your grandfather is never going to set foot in my house again,’ Dad announced, even though we knew full well what that meant. He’d spend a week on ice, just like the big toe on my left foot, which had swollen up by the next day. It turned so blue that I had to be taken to the emergency room, where my whole foot was put in a cast. When Grandpa Askild found out about the cast, he set up a canvas and painted The Liar Trips Over His Own Story, in which a frightened troll stumbles over a glowing skull while an old, disintegrating grey man looks on.
I like that painting. I like the frightened troll with the huge round eyes, and I like the old man who is falling apart. Bjørk, on the other hand, couldn’t stand it. ‘That doesn’t look like Asger,’ she said. ‘It looks like a stupid troll.’
‘What’s that?’ Mum asks when I come back to the living room and set a big glass on the table in front of Grandpa Askild.
‘Er,’ I mumble, feeling weak at the knees, ‘it’s beer.’
Mum gives the glass a strange look and starts to cough because she’s smoking a cigarette, which she’s not used to. My sister Stinna and my cousin Mia are out in the kitchen, giggling. That’s how the job was divided up: Mia peed into the glass, Stinna added some beer to disguise the taste, and then I had to do the dirty work because I’m better at lying. Mum says that the worst thing you can do is lie. Mia says that I can tell all sorts of lies without even blinking. Grandma Bjørk thinks that I just have a lively imagination, while Grandpa Askild says that I’m as full of shit as an old privy. Mum, on the other hand, never thinks I’m lying. Even so, she keeps staring at that glass. ‘What an odd colour!’ she exclaims, reaching out her hand towards it.
Excerpted from Doghead by Morten Ramsland. Copyright © 2009 by Morten Ramsland. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St Martins Press, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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