By Alba Suarez & Zoe Weiner
Follow our protagonist—a college student newly arrived in Sweden for a study abroad program—as she tries to navigate some… mysterious customs in her host family’s home.
My mom always told me that going abroad would open me up to new experiences. “It will get you off of your screen and into the world!” “You’ll expand your horizons!” “You’ll get so much world experience!”
She’s a master at speaking in clichés that make you feel just guilty enough to do what she says, which is how I ended up here, in Sweden, in the midst of an “eye opening new experience” I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
When I landed in Malmo—exhausted, starving, and overwhelmed after the 30 hour travel day from Wyoming—I breathed a full-body sigh of relief when I wheeled my bags through Immigration and saw a woman holding a sign with my name on it. They were the first English words I’d seen since I boarded my connecting flight at JFK, and I had to fight every urge not to jump into her arms and hug her.
She introduced herself as Vira—short for Elvira, who my guidance counselor told me to look for at the airport—and she didn’t look like the type of person who took kindly to impromptu jump-hugs from random strangers. She had exactly zero of the mom-like qualities I would have expected from someone who had volunteered to mother an American teenager for six months.
She told me we had a 75-minute drive to her home, where I’d meet her husband, Vlad, and my twin host siblings, Bates and Bram. We rode the entire way in complete silence.
I don’t know what I was expecting to find at 17 Addams Way, but what was there when we pulled up was… not it. All of the guidebooks I’d read (okay fine—Wikipedia pages I’d perused) made Malmo seem like a sleek, modern city. This place, which was decidedly not even in Malmo, was straight out of Hansel and Gretl from hell.
The stone exterior was flanked by trees that looked like they could have been plucked from the scariest parts of an enchanted fairytale forest. I could hear my mom’s voice in my head telling me not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, she was wrong: the inside was just as creepy.
It was freezing cold, yet the air had a damp quality that made the entire place feel humid and musty. Every single thing was made from stone or grey fabric that was made to look like stone, with the exception of a worn, red velvet sofa that sat in the middle of the entryway with a box of tissues placed on a stone table beside it. This was nothing like the dorm room I had left behind in Madison.
I willed the midwestern nice-girl in me to take over. “These are nice,” I told Vira, pointing to a gallery wall covered in ornate Victorian floral paintings.
“They’re made from hair!” The voice—which came seemingly out of nowhere—startled me. I turned around to find a small, grey boy whose sallow face would have looked more at home on a 90-year-old grandfather than a second grader.
“Human hair!” declared another voice, which came from the first voice’s doppelganger.
I had barely dropped my bags in my “room”—a converted closet with no windows and a single lightbulb that even Harry Potter wouldn’t have envied in his “cupboard-under-the-stairs” days—when I heard a thud on the front steps.
“Pappas hem! Och han tog med godis!” shouted one of the twins (there was no way I was ever going to be able to tell them apart). According to the instant translate app on my phone, this meant that “daddy was home,” and that he’d “brought treats.”
“This must be Vlad,” I thought, saying a silent prayer to the universe that he would be slightly more excited to have me around than his wife and kids, all of whom looked at me about the same way that most people look at their shoes after they’ve stepped in shit.
Vlad—who loomed over the rest of his family with a bald head and two caterpillar-sized eyebrows—grunted in my direction before heaving a giant black bag through the doorway.
It was at this moment that I realized I definitely should have been paying closer attention in my Swedish intensive class. From the bits and pieces that I could pick up from Vlad and Vira’s conversation about whatever was in that bag, I learned that it was “fresh,” “had just come in this morning,” and “had gone down quickly”.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked in what I hoped was passable Swedish. Apparently, it was not, because Vira completely ignored my question and instead, picked up the other end of the bag. Together, the two of them hauled whatever “fresh” thing was inside of it down the creaky wooden stairs to the basement.
As the door opened, I was hit with the smell of something I had only ever experienced on frog dissection day in ninth grade. It was awful. Once again, I tried to ask a question, “Um, what is that smell?” And once again, I was ignored.
One of the creepy twins looked up from the creepy board game they were playing in the creepy corner (sorry, but “creepy” is really the only way to describe this scene). I think it was Bates, though it could have Bram—whose idea was it to give them the exact same haircut?—and said, “Det är en kropp. Nästan tid för lunch.”
I understood almost zero of what they were trying to tell me, except for that last part: For lunch. Must I elaborate on why I found that to be exceptionally concerning when observed in conjunction with everything else going on in this hellscape of a household?
I practically jumped off the couch and ran to my bedroom-slash-closet. I locked the door behind me—and pushed my suitcase up against it for good measure—and grabbed my phone in an attempt to contact someone (anyone!) who could help me get out of this nightmare. No signal. Which makes sense given that I was in a converted broom closet in a cursed cottage in the middle of nowhere, operating on a flimsy international SIM card I bought at the airport.
Before I managed to get a connection, I heard Vlad and Vira walking back up the stairs, and Vlad walking toward the kitchen, opening and closing some drawers and turning on the stove… for lunch.
I was running out of time.
I started frantically rummaging through my cupboard, picking up the clothes I had unpacked earlier and shoving everything back into my bags, bumping my head and elbows on the walls several times in the process. In hindsight, I probably should have been more careful about making sure they couldn’t hear me, because when I finished packing and went to open the door to make my great escape, I was faced with not just one, but both of the creepy twins standing in front of me.
“Come to kitchen. Dags for lunch” said Bates/Bram.
That was it. I made a run for it, speeding towards the door, knocking over a vase on the way out.
I didn’t get far before I heard Elvira shouting, “Stop! Where are you going???” So I turned around, and in my final act of defiance I yelled,
“I AM NOT EATING HUMAN!”
“What on earth are you talking about??” she responded.
I took another step back, and saw the creepy twins laughing in the doorway, but my eyes dwindled on a sign just under the mailbox, one I had overlooked upon my arrival, and read:
Vikander Family Funeral Home.
Our initial plan was to write a play about an American college student who was studying abroad in a comedy/horror situation. After workshopping our scenes, we realized the plot made more sense as a first-person narrative short story. At the beginning, each of us wrote different portions of the story and created different characters, and at the end we worked together to refine the piece into something we were both proud of.
Alba Suarez is a junior in high school. Having grown up in a very loud and talkative family, expression and voicing her thoughts has always been incredibly important to her. She loves debating, learning languages and having a random fact at hand to bring up in any situation. Aside from her passions for writing and debate, she loves dancing, listening to music and having impromptu concerts in front of the mirror.
Zoë Weiner is a beauty and wellness journalist based in New York City. She graduated from Columbia School of Journalism in 2016 with honors in magazine writing and her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Bustle, Glamour, Marie Claire, Allure, Brides and SELF. Currently, she works as the beauty and fitness editor at Well+Good, a women's wellness and lifestyle website.