Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else ’s forehead and pulled the trigger.
This is the story of how we got there.
It’s a Friday in early March in Beartown and nothing has happened yet. Everyone is waiting. Tomorrow, the Beartown Ice Hockey Club’s junior team is playing in the semifinal of the biggest youth tournament in the country. How important can something like that be? In most places, not so important, of course. But Beartown isn’t most places.
Bang. Bang. Bang-bang-bang.
The town wakes early, like it does every day; small towns need a head start if they’re going to have any chance in the world. The rows of cars in the parking lot outside the factory are already covered with snow, people are standing in silent lines with their eyes half-open and their minds half-closed, waiting for their electronic punch cards to verify their existence to the clocking-in machine. They stamp the slush off their boots with autopilot eyes and answering-machine voices while they wait for their drug of choice—caffeine or nicotine or sugar—to kick in and render their bodies at least tolerably functional until the first break.
Out on the road the commuters set off for bigger towns beyond the forest; their gloves slam against heating vents and their curses are the sort you only think of uttering when you’re drunk, dying, or sitting in a far too cold Peugeot far too early in the morning.
If they keep quiet they can hear it in the distance: Bang-bang-bang. Bang. Bang.
Maya wakes up and stays in bed, playing her guitar. The walls of her room are covered in a mixture of pencil drawings and tickets she ’s saved from concerts she ’s been to in cities far from here. Nowhere near as many as she would have liked, but considerably more that her parents actually consented to. She loves everything about her guitar—its weight against her body, the way the wood responds when her fingertips tap it, the strings that cut hard against her skin. The simple notes, the gentle riffs—it’s all a wonderful game to her. She’s fifteen years old and has already fallen in love many times, but her guitar will always be her first love. It’s helped her to put up with living in this town, to deal with being the daughter of the general manager of an ice hockey team in the forest.
She hates hockey but understands her father’s love for it, the sport is just a different instrument to hers. Her mom sometimes whispers in her daughter’s ear: “Never trust people who don’t have something in their lives that they love beyond all reason.” Her mom loves a man who loves a place that loves a game. This is a hockey town, and there are plenty of things you can say about those, but at least they’re predictable. You know what to expect if you live here. Day after day after day.
Beartown isn’t close to anything. Even on a map the place looks unnatural. “As if a drunk giant tried to piss his name in the snow,” some might say. “As if nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space,” more high-minded souls might suggest. Either way, the town is losing. It has been a very long time since it won at anything. More jobs disappear each year, and with them the people, and the forest devours one or two more abandoned houses each season. Back in the days when there were still things to boast about, the city council erected a sign beside the road at the entrance to the town with the sort of slogan that was popular at the time: “Beartown—Leaves You Wanting More!” The wind and snow took a few years to wipe out the word “More.” Sometimes the entire community feels like a philosophical experiment: if a town falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it matter at all?
To answer that question you need to walk a few hundred yards down toward the lake. The building you see there doesn’t look like much, but it’s an ice rink. Built by factory workers four generations ago, men who worked six days a week and needed something to look forward to on the seventh. All the love this town could thaw out was passed down and still seems to end up devoted to the game: ice and boards, red and blue lines, sticks and pucks and every ounce of determination and power in young bodies hurtling at full speed into the corners in the hunt for those pucks. The stands are packed every weekend, year after year, even though the team’s achievements have collapsed in line with the town’s economy. And perhaps that’s why—because everyone hopes that when the team’s fortunes improve again, the rest of the town will get pulled up with it.
Which is why places like this always have to pin their hopes for the future on young people. They’re the only ones who don’t remember that things actually used to be better. That can be a blessing. So they’ve coached their junior team with the same values their forebears used to construct their community: work hard, take the knocks, don’t complain, keep your mouth shut and show the bastards in the big cities where we ’re from. There ’s not much worthy of note around here. But anyone who’s been here knows that it’s a hockey town.
Amat will soon turn sixteen. His room is so tiny that if it had been in a larger apartment in a well-to-do neighborhood in a big city, it would barely have registered as a closet. The walls are completely covered with posters of NHL players, with two exceptions. One is a photograph of himself aged seven, wearing gloves that are too big for him and with his helmet halfway down his forehead, the smallest of all the boys on the ice. The other is a sheet of white paper on which his mother has written parts of a prayer. When Amat was born, she lay with him on her chest in a narrow bed in a little hospital on the other side of the planet, no one but them in the whole world. A nurse had whispered the prayer in his mother’s ear back then—it is said to have been written on the wall above Mother Teresa’s bed—and the nurse hoped it would give the solitary woman strength and hope. Almost sixteen years later, the scrap of paper is still hanging on her son’s wall, the words mixed up, but she wrote them down as well as she could remember them:
If you are honest people may deceive you. Be honest anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfishness. Be kind anyway.
All the good you do today will be forgotten by others tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Amat sleeps with his skates by his bed every night. “Must have been one hell of a birth for your poor mother, you being born with those on,” the caretaker at the rink often jokes. He ’s offered to let the boy keep them in a locker in the team’s storeroom, but Amat likes carrying them there and back. Wants to keep them close.
Amat has never been as tall as the other players, has never been as muscular as them, has never shot as hard. But no one in the town can catch him. No one on any team he ’s encountered so far has been as fast as him. He can’t explain it, he assumes it’s a bit like when people look at a violin and some of them just see a load of wood and screws where others see music. Skates have never felt odd to him. On the contrary, when he sticks his feet in a pair of normal shoes he feels like a sailor stepping ashore.
The final lines his mother wrote on the sheet of paper on his wall read as follows:
“What you create, others can destroy. Create anyway. Because in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and anyone else anyway.”
Immediately below that, written in red crayon in the determined handwriting of a primary school student, it says:
“They say Im to little to play. Become good player any way!” Bang.
Once upon a time, Beartown Ice Hockey’s A-team—one step above the juniors—was second best in the top division in the country. That was more than two decades and three divisions ago, but tomorrow Beartown will be playing against the best once more. So how important can a junior game be? How much can a town care about the semi-final a bunch of teenagers’ are playing in a minor league tournament? Not so much, of course. If it weren’t this particular dot on the map.
A couple of hundred yards south of the road sign lies “the Heights,” a small cluster of expensive houses with views across the lake. The people who live in them own supermarkets, run factories, or commute to better jobs in bigger towns where their colleagues at staff parties wonder, wide-eyed: “Beartown? How can you possibly live that far out in the forest?” They reply something about hunting and fishing, proximity to nature, but these days almost everyone is asking themselves if it is actually possible. Living here any longer. Asking themselves if there ’s anything left, apart from property values that seem to fall as rapidly as the temperature.
Then they wake up to the sound of a bang. And they smile.
From Beartown. Used with permission of Atria Books; Tra edition. Copyright © 2017 by Fredrik Backman.