cover

Author

Charlotte Link, who was born in Frankfurt am Main, is one of today’s most successful German writers. Her psychological thrillers are international bestsellers, and in Germany alone more than 24 million copies of her books have been sold.

“Charlotte Link … has the eerie insight peculiar to writers of psychological suspense. While most of us look at our neighbors and see ordinary people living humdrum lives, they see something dark and menacing beneath the surface.” New York Times

Also by Charlotte Link

The Rose Gardener

The Other Child

The Watcher

Charlotte Link

The Unknown Guest

Translated from the German
by Marshall Yarbrough

The original edition was published under the title
“Der fremde Gast” by Blanvalet Verlag, an imprint of the
Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, Munich.

English e-book edition 2015

© of the original German edition 2005 by
Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, Munich

© of the English edition 2015 by Blanvalet Verlag, an imprint of the
Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, Munich

Cover art: www.buerosued.de

Cover photo: plainpicture/Arcangel

eISBN: 978-3-641-17296-1

www.blanvalet.de

For Kenzo
with love

PROLOGUE

ANONYMOUS LETTER TO SABRINA BALDINI

May has come … My, but how pretty and green your yard is, Sabrina! Everything’s in bloom! I saw you yesterday; you were sitting outside late into the evening. Where was your husband? He’s not home much, is he? Does he know that you’re not at all the faithful wife he sees in you? Have you confessed to him, told him everything about your life, all that’s hidden in its murky depths? Or do you keep the really big things to yourself? I’d be interested to see whether you manage to grow old with him and still keep him in the dark about your adultery.

Whatever the case, you’re alone a lot of the time. It got dark and you were still outside. Later you went into the house, but you left the back door open. How incautious of you, Sabrina! Haven’t you ever heard that that can be dangerous? The world is full of evil people … full of people hungry for revenge. It’s an evil thing, this hunger for vengeance, but sometimes it’s all too understandable, don’t you think? Everybody gets what they deserve. The world is only bearable if you believe in the kind of justice that evens things out. Sometimes justice keeps you waiting for too long, and that’s when you’ve got to give it a little push.

You understand that you deserve to die, right, Sabrina? It should have been clear to you ever since those days so long ago, when you failed so miserably. They call it failure to render assistance, what you did back then. Or better yet: what you didn’t do. What was the reason, Sabrina? Laziness? Indifference? You didn’t want to pick a fight with anybody? Didn’t want to put yourself on the line? Ruffle any feathers? Oh, it’s always the same story! You were so committed to helping other people. But only so long as you didn’t have to catch any flak yourself. All talk, no action. It’s so easy to look the other way! And nothing but trouble comes from getting involved.

But somebody, sometime, has to pay. Somebody always has to pay. I’m sure you were hoping this cup would pass from you, right, Sabrina? So many years … the memories fade, and maybe you repressed your own memories of those days long ago, glossed over them in your mind, and slowly you started thinking to yourself that you’d gotten lucky . That you’d gotten away without having to pay up.

Did you actually believe that? Really, to me you seem too intelligent for that. And too shrewd.

Now the time has come. It had to come sometime, and the way I see it, at this point, there’s no good in waiting any longer. It’s all clear from where I’m standing. The verdict against you has been handed down, and very soon I’ll be carrying out the sentence. Yours and Rebecca’s. She’s just as guilty as you are, and it wouldn’t do for it to be only your head on the block.

I’m going to take my time with each of you. Quick, easy, not a lot of fuss — that’s not how it’s going to play out. You’re going to suffer, both of you. Your deaths will be difficult. They’ll drag on long enough that you’ll have the opportunity to think nice and hard about yourselves and your lives.

Are you excited to meet me already, Sabrina? So excited that you’ll no longer be sitting in your pretty yard for so long in the evenings? That you’ll make sure to always keep the back door closed? That you’ll carefully look left and right when you leave the house? That you’ll jump when the doorbell rings? That you’ll lie awake in bed at night, when yet again your husband isn’t home, and fearfully listen into the darkness and keep asking yourself again and again if you’ve really locked all the doors good and tight? Or will you leave the light on all the time, because you just can’t bear the blackness all around you anymore? But you know that this won’t make you safe either, right? I’ll come exactly when I’ve planned to. You won’t be able to protect yourself.

And deep down, you know it, too.

You’ll hear from me again soon, Sabrina. It’s nice to know that until then you’ll be thinking of me day and night. And that you’ll be looking grayer and grayer and more and more miserable. It makes me happy to watch that happen.

With you as always!

SUNDAY, JULY 18

She dreamed that a little boy had rung their doorbell. She turned him away, just as she always turned away anyone who stood before her uninvited and wanted something from her. This attack-style begging had always been a thorn in her side; she felt harassed and intruded upon whenever someone suddenly showed up on their doorstep with hand outstretched. Most of the time it was for a good cause, of course, but then again, who knew if these people were always honest? And even if they flashed some credential that showed them to be authorized to collect for charitable organizations, it was still simply impossible to tell that quickly if you weren’t looking at a more or less well made counterfeit. Especially when you were sixty-seven years old and were having more and more trouble with your eyes.

No sooner had she shut the door than the doorbell rang again.

She sat up in bed with a jolt, confused, because this time the ringing in the dream had actually torn her from her sleep. She still had the image of the boy in front of her: a gaunt, pale, almost translucent face with giant eyes. He wasn’t asking for money, he was asking for something to eat.

“I’m so hungry,” he had said, softly and yet almost with a note of accusation. She had slammed the door shut, terrified, horror-struck, confronted with an aspect of the world that she didn’t want to see. Had turned around and tried to get the image out of her head, and right at that moment the doorbell rang and she thought: Now here he is again!

Why had she woken up just now? Had the doorbell actually rung? One did like to incorporate noises like that into one’s dreams. But in that case it could only have been an alarm clock, and they didn’t even have one. They didn’t work anymore, after all, and in the morning they were both awake rather early anyway, purely of their own accord.

It was very dark, but through the cracks in the roll-down shutters a little light from the streetlamps made its way inside. She could see her husband asleep next to her. He lay there completely motionless, same as always, and his breathing was so soft and steady that you had to listen very closely to know if he was even breathing at all. She had read once about how older couples would fall asleep together at night, and then in the morning one of them would wake up and the other would be dead. She had thought then that if Fred were to die in this manner it would take a good long time before she noticed.

Her heart beat hard and fast. A look at the digital clock, its digits shining bright green, told her that it was almost two o’clock in the morning. Not a good time to wake up. You were so defenseless. She was at least. She had had the feeling many times that were anything bad ever to happen to her — were she to die, for example — then it would occur between one and four in the morning.

A depressing dream, she told herself, nothing more. You can just go back to sleep.

She lay back down on her pillow, and right at that moment the doorbell rang again, and she realized that it hadn’t been a dream.

Someone was ringing their front doorbell at two o’clock in the morning.

She sat up again and heard her own hectic breath in the oppressive silence that followed the shrill ringing.

It’s completely harmless, she thought. I don’t have to answer.

It couldn’t mean anything good. Not even salesmen came to call at this hour. Anyone who would scare people out of bed at this hour was either up to no good or was in serious need of help. And wasn’t the latter much more likely? A burglar or a murderer wouldn’t very well ring the doorbell, would he?

She switched on the light and bent over her husband, who was still sound asleep. He couldn’t hear a thing; he had put in earplugs. Fred was so sensitive to noises, even the whisper of the wind through the trees by their bedroom window disturbed him. Or the creak of a wooden floorboard, or the withered leaf of a houseplant detaching itself and floating down to the floor. It woke him up, and for him that was the absolute worst. To have to wake up when he had in fact decided to sleep. It plunged him into a nameless rage. His mood was ruined for days. It was because of this that he had eventually started using the earplugs. And his wife had been able to breathe again.

She was therefore hesitant to wake him. He could be so upset with her for it that for a week he would barely speak to her. At least if he later concluded that it hadn’t been necessary to tear him from sleep. If it turned out that he really ought to have been woken up, and she hadn’t done so, the result for her could be the same. She had been married to this man for forty-three years now, and her life with him had consisted overwhelmingly of moments like this: Torn between two options, nervously weighing which path might be the right one, the top priority in this always being not to stoke his rage. God knew it wasn’t an easy life with him.

The doorbell rang a third time, ringing longer this time, more demanding, more insistent. She decided that given such an unusual occurrence, Fred’s night’s sleep could be sacrificed. She shook him by the shoulder.

“Fred,” she whispered, even though he couldn’t hear her, “wake up! Please, wake up! There’s someone at the front door!”

Fred rolled reluctantly on his side, grumbling. Then, in an instant, he was suddenly wide awake and sitting up in bed as well. He stared at his wife.

“What the hell …,” he began.

“There’s someone at the door!”

He could only see her lips moving and he grudgingly took the plugs out of his ears. “What’s wrong? What are you doing waking me up?”

“The doorbell’s ringing. Three times already.”

He kept on staring at her, as if she weren’t quite sane. “What? The doorbell’s ringing? At this hour?”

“Yes, I think it’s very unsettling, too.” She hoped the doorbell would ring again, since she could tell that Fred didn’t believe her, but for the moment everything remained calm.

“You were dreaming. And on account of a stupid dream you think you’ve got to wake me up?” His eyes flashed angrily at her. His white hair stood up in all directions.

A moody, surly old man, she thought, and at this point not even attractive anymore, either. I might live twenty more years. If he doesn’t die before me, then I’ll end up having lived with him for sixty-three years. Sixty-three years!

All at once the thought made her feel so sad that she could have cried.

“Greta, if you do this again …,” Fred began, full of scorn, but just at that moment the doorbell rang again, somewhat longer still and more persistent than before.

“You see!” It sounded almost triumphant. “There is someone at the door.”

“It’s true,” Fred said, bewildered. “But it’s … it’s two o’clock in the morning!”

“I know. But an intruder …”

“. . . would hardly ring the doorbell. Although theoretically it would be the only chance he’d have to make it inside the house!”

That was true. Back when they had bought the house and moved in four years ago, Fred had put a lot of time and effort into turning it into a fortress. A retreat for their later years, as he called it. Quiet suburb on the outskirts of Munich, a rather well-to-do neighborhood. They had also lived in Munich before then, in a completely different part of town, but then it too had been a so-called better area. They had been younger, however. With old age Fred had developed a pronounced paranoia when it came to intruders, and so by this point all the windows on the first floor had bars on them, all the shutters in the house were outfitted with padlocks, and there was of course an alarm system on the roof.

“Maybe we should just ignore the sound.”

“Ignore someone who deliberately pulls us out of bed?” Fred swung both legs over the edge of the bed. His movements were still rather agile for his age. But he had gotten very thin recently. His blue-and-black-striped silk pajamas hung on him like an empty sack. “I’m going to call the police!”

“But you can’t do that! Maybe it’s a neighbor who needs help! Or it’s …” She said nothing further.

Fred knew whom she meant. “Why should he come to us if there’s something wrong? He hasn’t shown himself in ages.”

“Still. It could be him. We should …” The truth was she was completely at a loss and out of her depth. “We have to do something!”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying! We’ll call the police!”

“And what if it really is just … him, though?” Why, she thought, do I always have this fear of even just saying his name in front of Fred?

By now Fred was tired of this back and forth.

“I’m just going to go see right now,” he said with resolve and left the room.

She heard his steps on the stairs. Then she heard his voice down in the foyer. “Hello? Who’s there?”

Later — when she no longer had any opportunity to discuss it with Fred, and when she understood that she wouldn’t be living twenty more years, but rather just hours or at best days — she asked herself what answer her husband had received from the other side of the door to make him open it so quickly and readily. She heard that the various locks and bolts were undone. Then she heard a dull blow; she couldn’t tell what it was, but it set her entire body on alert. The little hairs on her forearms stood up. Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding.

“Fred?” she called, full of fear.

Something downstairs fell crashing to the ground. Then she heard Fred’s voice. “Call the police! Call the police right now! Quick! Hurry!”

It was the wrong instruction. There was no telephone on the second floor of the house. She could have managed to reach her bedroom door, to close it and to lock it, and then she could have opened the window, leaned out into the night and screamed for help. If he had only told her to do this … or if she had had the thought herself … But as it was she jumped out of bed in a panic, slipped into her dressing gown — her whole body shaking like a leaf — and hurried to the staircase. Obedient wife to the end. Call the police, he’d said. The phone was in the living room. Besides that Fred also had a cell phone, but where that was lying around, she didn’t know right then.

Only on the stairs did it hit her that she had made a fatal mistake.

But by then it was already too late.

TUESDAY, JULY 20

At half past four in the morning, Karen gave up trying to get any more sleep, deciding that it would be better to get up and do something useful than to continue to roll around in bed and eventually end up completely wiped out.

But what is useful, anyway, she thought, what, in my life, is useful?

Wolf, her husband, was still asleep; he hadn’t picked up on his wife’s sleeplessness at all. It was better that way, too, since he would have reacted to it with either mockery or reproaches, and either would have made Karen — yet again — burst into tears. For sure he would have pointed out how she went to bed too early at night, and so by necessity woke up too early the next morning, too, and ended up making everyone crazy with the big fuss she made about lying awake at night.

Maybe he was right. After all, what he said did sound logical. And unfortunately there was never much use in trying to get him to be open to other arguments and explanations. For Wolf there was only one way of looking at things, and that was his, period. Karen was herself aware that she went to sleep too early at night, but she was so exhausted, so drained, that she just couldn’t keep her eyes open, no matter what she did. She crawled into bed like a sick person whose body has given out on her, and she fell almost instantly into a near-narcotic sleep. Which she would be startled out of just as immediately at around half past three in the morning, from then on wide awake, tormented by fearful thoughts concerning her future and that of her family.

She slipped into jeans and a T-shirt, put her sneakers on, and crept out of the bedroom. She had read in a book that exercising in the open air was supposed to help with depression. She didn’t exactly know whether or not she was suffering from depression, but some of the symptoms described in the book she certainly found occurring in herself.

No sound came from the kids’ rooms. It was clear she had managed not to wake up anyone in the family.

When she came down the stairs, Kenzo, the boxer, was already standing in the hall below and vigorously wagging his short tail. Although he had been asleep in the living room — the sofa was his favorite bed just then — it of course hadn’t escaped his notice that Mommy was up and dressed. He read her sneakers right at once too: This looked just like an early morning walk. Excited, he hopped into the air a few times, ran to the front door, and looked at Karen full of expectation.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she whispered to him and reached for his collar and leash. “But be nice and quiet, now!”

The midsummer morning was already quite bright, the air still cool, but in a pleasant, refreshing way. The day would get sunny and hot. Dew glittered on the grass. Karen took in a deep breath of fresh air.

How peaceful it is, she thought. How quiet. Everything is still sleeping. It’s like Kenzo and I are the only living things in the world.

She decided to walk over to the woods and to make a big loop once she got there. Just a few neighborhood streets to go down, and she’d be there. Proximity to the woods — with regard to the dog — had been one of the reasons why she and Wolf had decided on this house in a subdivision on the outskirts of Munich.

Ever since they had moved into the new house, things had been getting worse for Karen. She had already been suffering from all kinds of problems and worries before then, although she had never been able to define the exact nature of her difficulties. A friend had suggested that she wasn’t happy in her marriage, but Karen had denied this. Had very forcefully denied it. She and Wolf had known each other for fifteen years, had been married for eleven years, and had two healthy, beautiful children. Not counting the common quarrels that by necessity take place between two adult people who live under the same roof, everything between them was, for the most part, all right. Maybe they didn’t see quite enough of each other, since Wolf was building a career at the bank where he’d worked since he’d finished school and was rarely home. Karen had given up her work as a dental hygienist when the second child came, and it had seemed a reasonable solution to both of them.

“I make enough money,” Wolf had said, “and this way you can focus on looking after the kids and won’t have to be running yourself ragged all the time.”

At times Karen suspected that Wolf didn’t have the slightest clue of the extent to which caring for two kids in itself forced you to run yourself ragged, especially since on top of this there was also of course the matter of keeping the house in order, looking after the yard, taking Kenzo out, getting all the shopping done, doing all the laundry, and ironing Wolf’s shirts. And it was — and here, as she sometimes thought she recognized in a kind of subconscious insight, here she perhaps came close to the core of her frustration and melancholy — a life of stress for which no one would grant her even an ounce of recognition. On the other hand, it wasn’t any different for just about any other housewife, if Karen could believe the letters sent in by readers of women’s magazines. So why, then, did she cling to this well-worn cliché, adding her voice to the collective whining of her fellow women instead of seeing the good in her life? The healthy kids, the lovable dog, her husband’s steady career, the nice house?

Yes, because they had had the nice new house for three months now, and in her puzzling over the cause of her growing malaise the thought came to her now and again that maybe she wasn’t able to handle the move, the new surroundings, the new neighbors. Without question her symptoms had gotten more pronounced. The insomnia had gotten to be more of a torment, but paradoxically, so had her weariness. The hours of the day stretched out into an endless void, and often she wasn’t capable of finding something useful to fill the minutes that were ticking away, even though there would have been enough to do. Sometimes she sat on the sofa, interminable grocery list in one hand, billfold in the other, stared outside at the blossoming yard, and couldn’t find the strength to get up and go to the supermarket.

Was she lonely? Was she, in the middle of a four-person family, so lonely that the will to live was slowly but incessantly seeping out of her soul and trickling away somewhere where she’d never find it again?

A week after the move she had screwed up her courage and gone to visit the neighbors in the hopes of being able to find a few nice acquaintances here. The visits had depressed her. The old lady on one side was rather senile and embittered; she had been rude and unfriendly toward Karen, as if she were personally responsible for some misery or another in the old lady’s life. On the other side lived a married couple, likewise very old. Karen didn’t like the two of them, at least she couldn’t imagine entering into a friendly relationship with them. He liked to hear himself talk and never stopped boasting about career achievements from the time when he, as a highly sought-after attorney — if you chose to take his word for it — had celebrated sensational achievements. His wife hardly spoke at all, but still was constantly staring at Karen from the corner of her eyes, and Karen had the uneasy feeling that she would mercilessly drag her through the dirt just as soon as she had left the house. She sat, rather beaten down and as usual also thoroughly depressed, on the tasteless brocade sofa, nipped at a glass of cognac, and tried to smile in admiration at the right moment or to summon an amazed “Oh!”

And fervently wished herself back in the security of her own home.

“I find them unpleasant,” she had told her husband that evening. “He’s totally full of himself, and she won’t even open her mouth and is full of pent-up aggression. I felt really uncomfortable.”

Wolf laughed, and as she so often did Karen thought that his laugh had a measure of condescension in it. “My, but you are really quick with this analysis of yours, Karen. I thought you were over there for barely half an hour? And already you can pin these complete strangers down so precisely? Hats off to you, that’s all I can say!”

Of course he was mocking her, but why did it hurt her so badly? It hadn’t been like this before. What had made her so sensitive? Or had his mockery gotten more pointed? Or was it that both were happening at the same time and each was dependent on the other? Wolf had gotten more caustic, and that had made her more sensitive, and her sensitivity in turn provoked him to be rougher in the way he treated her. Which wasn’t perhaps what a loving husband should do, but human nature followed its own laws.

And the new neighbors were certainly not worth fighting about.

The new neighbors …

Kenzo had discovered an interesting scent on the asphalt and noticeably quickened his pace. Karen just about had to jog to be able to keep in step with him. She noticed that jogging in the early morning like this was really much better than tossing and turning in bed, but unfortunately she still couldn’t quite manage to banish all the ugly thoughts from her head. For example, by no means did she actually want to think about the neighbors, and now it was precisely they who had snuck back in. It was because she had been having problems because of them for days, and having problems for her meant: looking for solutions incessantly, finding none, feeling ever more miserable, getting on the nerves of everyone around her with her complaining. Or anyway, that’s how Wolf had described it in a very long lecture that he’d given her recently.

The problem with the neighbors was that she hadn’t been able to reach them for two days. And she urgently needed to reach them, because she wanted to ask them to keep a bit of an eye on the yard and above all collect their mail while she was in Turkey with Wolf and the kids. There were now just about one and a half weeks left till the beginning of the kids’ summer vacation from school; a week after that and they were supposed to be off. Karen had already set it up that Kenzo would stay at her mother’s, and she felt it was important to have everything else settled as soon as possible beforehand. She had gone over to the neighbors’ house and rung the doorbell yesterday and the day before, in the morning, at midday, and in the evening, but there’d been no response at all. What seemed odd to her was that at times on Sunday the shutters on some of the windows had still been down, and then again on some windows they were rolled up, and nevertheless nobody seemed to be home.

“I could swear they’re home,” she said to Wolf, “but I haven’t seen them in the yard, and nobody answers the door!”

Wolf had looked a little put upon, like he always did when Karen pestered him with things he thought she should take care of on her own — and should please leave him out of. “Then they must have gone off on a trip! Such things have been known to happen!”

“But the shutters …”

“They’ve probably got one of those automatic security systems. It controls the shutters on its own. Precisely so that nobody will notice that the house is empty.”

“But last night …” She had observed something peculiar sometime late Sunday night or early in the morning on Monday. She had once again been unable to sleep and had gone to the bathroom to get a glass of water. As she did so she had looked out the window and noticed that the lights were on in some of the rooms next door. She had thought with relief that the neighbors, wherever they might have been, had now obviously returned, but the next day it had been the same story: No one responded when she went to ring the doorbell.

“Okay, so then the lights going on and off is part of the security system too,” Wolf said, annoyed, when she spoke to him about it. “Dear God, Karen, don’t make such a big deal out of it! There are still over two weeks till we leave. They’ll turn back up again by then! Besides — wasn’t it just last Saturday that he called you?”

That was true. The neighbor had called and complained because Karen had parked her car so poorly outside their garage that allegedly the neighboring garage was partially blocked as well. Karen had then moved her car and afterward retreated to her bedroom, crying, because she felt that this way of treating her was unfriendly and mean.

“So why didn’t you go ahead and ask about the vacation right then?” Wolf wanted to know.

“Because he was so unfriendly and I …”

“Because he was so unfriendly! Does it ever occur to you that at this point you say that about almost all the people you’ve come into contact with in any way? They’re all unfriendly toward you! They’re all ugly to you! Nobody loves you! Why, for example, don’t you just ask the old lady on the other side if she can get our mail for us? I can tell you why: because during your first visit she was so unfriendly to you!” The last words he had said in a theatrical, affected way. “You walk around all the time with this look on your face, Karen, like a weepy martyr, and maybe that’s just what it is that provokes people to treat you badly!”

Could it be that he was right?

She and Kenzo had turned onto a street at the end of which there was a short patch of field that you could cross to reach the woods. Kenzo stopped at the fence in front of someone’s yard and sniffed, interested; Karen’s opportunity to stop for a second and catch her breath. Even though the walking did her good, she had already come back to her agonizing thoughts, almost all of which were apt to cause her to lower her opinion of herself. Was being a victim not a matter of chance? Did one bring it on oneself? Did she carry herself in such a way that it invited others to treat her badly?

Obsequious, fearful, dependent on others’ opinions, no self-confidence.

At this point Wolf would say: Change it, she thought. But did he have any idea how hard it was to pull yourself out of the mire?

No, a man like Wolf couldn’t remotely imagine the troubles and hardships Karen was almost constantly steeped in. He just went his own way, unswerving and steadfast and not constantly questioning himself. He didn’t know the condition of being permanently dissatisfied with yourself. And unfortunately it was really in all likelihood an unholy spiral: she criticized herself, therefore the people around her did so as well, which in turn reinforced her bad view of herself. Where was a path like that supposed to lead?

Most certainly not to a strong, independent, self-assured woman, she thought meekly, more likely to one that grows ever more fearful and ever more neurotic and is afraid of everything and everyone.

Kenzo could already see the trail in the woods in front of him and pulled heavily on the leash. Karen let him go and he trotted cheerily away. A few meters before he had reached the small path, however, he stopped and lifted his leg by the back tire of a parked car.

Oh, shoot, Karen thought, I hope no one saw that! My goodness, couldn’t he have waited another ten meters?

She looked around guiltily, thankful that no one was awake at this early hour. Naturally the car Kenzo had picked out for himself was the nicest of all the cars parked here: a dark blue, spotless BMW. And suddenly, to Karen’s horror, the driver’s door opened and a man got out. A very respectable-looking man in suit and tie. He seemed exceptionally furious.

“What the hell does your dog think he’s doing?” he barked at Karen.

She immediately called Kenzo to her — so that he couldn’t give the stranger a friendly greeting as well and slobber all over his suit in the process — and grabbed his leash again. If only she’d just let him loose at the edge of the woods! But who could have guessed that he’d mistake a car for a tree trunk all of a sudden? And that there’d be someone sitting in it this early, before the break of dawn?

What could this man be doing up at this hour? she thought unhappily. But that didn’t really matter. In any case he was good and angry at her, and she once again started trembling because someone — she could just hear Wolf’s smug voice — was unfriendly to her.

“I’m … I’m sorry about that,” she stammered. She knew that she came across like a schoolgirl, her face going from red to pale in quick succession, and not like a grown thirty-five-year-old woman. “He … he’s never done anything like that before … and I just don’t understand how …”

The man’s eyes flashed menacingly at her. “No, I don’t understand it either! If a person can’t control their dog, then they should stick to keeping goldfish!”

“Like I said, he hasn’t ever …”

“Hasn’t ever! Hasn’t ever! Some good that does me. What do I care what your dog allegedly hasn’t ever done before! Either way he’s soiled my car in a disgusting way!”

Karen couldn’t help but think of something she’d read once, that men thought of their cars as a part of themselves — as extensions, in a certain way, of their most important part — and to look at it like that, it was as if Kenzo had pissed on the stranger’s penis … no wonder he was so worked up.

“If he’s damaged anything … we have insurance, and I’d gladly take on the costs …” If only she wouldn’t stammer like that! If only she weren’t so close to tears yet again!

The man kicked the abused tire in a rage, snarled something unintelligible — it sounded a bit like “stupid cow!” — got back in his car, and slammed the door shut behind him. Karen felt positively hollowed out by his angry look, as she went on down the street in order to finally reach the path and a hundred meters farther on to disappear in the safety of the woods. Her eyes were burning.

No reason to start bawling, she scolded herself, but she knew that in a few minutes she’d be crying her eyes out. Her hands were trembling, and her knees were shaky. Just what was it that was wrong with her? Why did she start bawling at the most trivial instances? But also, why did things like that keep happening to her? The neighbor who chewed her out because she’d parked her car poorly. The stranger who called her a stupid cow because her dog had desecrated his car? Or was it not like that at all? Did things like this happen to other people, too, but they knew how to better defend themselves against them?

Other people have a stronger sense of self-worth, she thought, as the first tears trickled down her cheeks, and therefore it doesn’t shake them to the core when they’re treated like trash. It rolls right off them.

But she would never get a handle on it. Never, it was hopeless.

She crouched down, threw both arms around Kenzo, pressed her nose in his somewhat bristly, dark brown fur, with its familiar smell, and cried. Shed rivers of tears once again and was just thankful for the dog’s warm, firm body, which gave her a bit of consolation and support.

Because Wolf would only roll his eyes again when she sat weepy-eyed at breakfast later. The children would look awkwardly off to the side.

As a wife and mother she was no doubt on the verge of becoming a disaster.