In Cuffs

By Joaquim Berglund


He let the cold water run over his swollen wrists. As bad as fast-food restaurant toilets could be on the stretch from Stockholm’s High Court to Umeå Penitentiary, this one wasn’t that bad. The red tile on the walls held his attention and kept him from looking down at the urine and slosh mixture on the floor. Alfred had never been much to look at: balding at thirty and shorter than average. Now he was almost sixty and shirts were tighter at the waist. His two-day stubble was dripping, and tired eyes he barely recognized peered back at him from behind the bathroom mirror. The ill-fitting grey suit was wrinkled, and the two top buttons were unbuttoned. I look horrible. A bang on the bathroom door and a muffled “Let’s go!” called him. 

“Something’s wrong with my stomach,” he shouted through the door before pulling out his government issued ink pen from the inside-pocket of his suit jacket. 

He rubbed his wrists before grabbing a tissue from the dispenser and stretching it out between his fingers on the wall. I’m strong, and so are you. He wrote it carefully to his wife, not believing the first part. All the years of writing and speaking millions of words had brought him here, but now his mind was blank. He had taught history for years before realizing that he had a will to change it and a knack for words. From an aspirational reformer, the decades molded him into a political veteran, respected by both sides of the aisle. Now it seemed like no one respected him.

Another bang.

“I’m coming in!”

He quickly pocketed his pen and stuffed the note in his back pocket. The police-officer was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. His thin, pale neck seemed unproportioned to the thick jacket and bulletproof vest he wore. Under the cap that was pulled low, two innocent blue eyes hid. Some acne still on his cheeks. For the last three hours on the highway, the sheep had been quietly listening to his colleague’s lectures about the importance of protectionism, while the Swedish national anthem had been booming on repeat from the crackly speakers. Alfred had only listened with one ear, deciding that it was a meditative challenge thrown at him from some higher being. He couldn’t figure out if the sheep was politely keeping his mouth shut or taking mental notes for future arguments. 

“Turn around, hands behind your back.”

The cold steel from the cuffs dug into his already red and swollen wrists. 

“Is this really necessary?” he said, cringing in pain. 

The officer didn’t answer and only pressed the cuffs a step tighter. I will keep my head down and I will obey. He shoved Alfred out of the bathroom and into the restaurant, where the scent of deep-fried food made his stomach growl. When he entered the bustling, starkly lit fast food joint the smell of alcohol and perfume hit him. Like many other small-town fast food restaurants, this was where the teens hung out. A cold silence spread throughout the room when their eyes locked onto him. He didn’t know where to look as he was pushed through the quiet crowd, but he was curious who these people were. A girl with glitter on her eye-lids and frizzy hair had a look of sheer repulsion, like he was the most disgusting thing she’d ever seen. A boy with a shaved head and a ring in his brow had blood-shot eyes and smiled from ear to ear. A thin, hoodied girl in her mid-teens awkwardly looked away when their eyes met. The others hid behind their phones. He wondered why they hated him. Were they right to do so? Did I ever do anything to them?

By a table at the far end of the restaurant, next to a floor to ceiling glass window overlooking the highway, sat the other officer. He was wide and tall with pebbly eyes, buzzcut hair, and square jaw that seemed to never relax, even when he spoke. The burger was small in his grip, and when he took a bite, he chewed on it like a bull would chew grass. 

“Traitor!” someone wailed, hiding behind the crowd. 

Some of them laughed. The silence thawed, and people got back to their burgers and late-night conversations. 

“Someone’s popular.” The burly officer had turned his attention to Alfred. “I ordered some fries for you.”

Alfred hadn’t eaten in close to fifteen hours and welcomed the looks, stares, and comments as long as he got something to eat. With his large hand, the bull-like officer pointed to a cardboard box that was turned on its side with soggy fries strewn on the table. Alfred sat down in front of them. 

“How am I supposed to eat them with my hands cuffed?”

He looked at the bull, who shrugged as an answer, burger filling his mouth.

“You’re smart. Figure it out,” the sheep said, sitting down next to him and opening the plastic bowl of wilted salad. 

He thought about sticking his face in the pile of fries. But although the humiliation seemed to be endless, he couldn’t let himself sink to that level. If he did it, the moment would be seen and shared millions of times. It wouldn’t be fair to the people that still supported him. If there were any left.

“You’re not hungry?” 

The bull smiled at Alfred, who’s stomach roared. 

“You mind?”

He leaned over the table and grabbed a large handful of fries and put them on his tray. He ate them one by one and started giving the sheep a new lecture about how corrupt politicians had been before the “clean-up.” Alfred looked out the window at the speeding lights on the highway.

Things had changed so quickly. Suddenly, politicians were rewarded for how angry they sounded and how much blame they could throw at their opponents. Years of what he had thought was sane discourse had been erased in a moment. An army of Armani-suited, teeth-whitened men and women screamed at him for being a liar, a weakling, and a fraud. Opinions stopped mattering, and the anger one showed defending those opinions eradicated the legitimacy of any debate. He had never been an angry man. Not even when the judge called out his sentence did he feel angry. High treason. 

The ideas he and his colleagues had stood for were not always seen as treacherous. But the national conservatives had slowly but surely politicized the judicial system. It had taken two terms and eight years before they could change the constitution. What had changed was not the punishment for the crime of high treason. It had been a part of Swedish law for centuries. Instead, the definition of what was treacherous had widened significantly. The national conservatives had argued that every idea that threatened national security could be seen as treacherous. This made the politicians spreading these ideas national security threats. “As bad as terrorists,” he remembered one loud and red-faced woman screaming on the TV. Globalism, socialism, liberalism, humanism, and environmentalism became synonymous with danger. 

His kids would be adults when he got out. Some of his colleagues had gotten more, some less. Some fled to countries where human rights were not yet regarded as “globalist propaganda.” He had thought about fleeing too, but he still had some hope in the system. He still had some hope in people. But he could feel that hope seeping out of him by the second.

Alfred leaned toward the table and grabbed a fry with his mouth. It was cold and not salted enough. Give them what they want. One after another he ate them. His teeth hitting the table every time he picked one up, leaving saliva on the glossy grey surface. The eyes and the lenses were ever present in his mind.

When he was done, he leaned back ready to meet the bull’s grin. But the bull wasn’t looking at him. At the short end of the table, the hoodied girl from before stood quietly. Her hood was down, her dark hair cut short, and her skin pale. She had a scar between her lip and nose and kind, dark brown eyes. 

“You should uncuff him, so he can eat.”

She didn’t demand it but stated it as a fact. The bull seemed annoyed that his presence didn’t terrify her, so he leaned forward and snarled: 

“Get out of here.”

That was a demand. Alfred felt an unsettling feeling in his stomach. Get out of here!

“I can stand here if I want to.” 

She stated another fact, even truer than the first one. The sheep rose, a head taller, and placed himself menacingly close to the girl. 

“Are you defying officers of the law?”

“What law?”

“The law of our proud nation.”

“Fuck our proud nation.”

He opened the handcuff pouch on his belt and took them out.

“Turn around. You’re under arrest.”

“For what?”

She stared at the sheep without flinching for a second.

“For resisting arrest.”

The bull kept eating the fries on his tray, not looking but listening to how the moment would unfold. Alfred saw his opportunity. He stood up without really knowing what to do. 

“Kid, leave her alone.”

“I’m not a kid.”

Alfred pushed the chair out of the way with his leg, walked over and put himself between the girl and the sheep. 

“You are to me.” 

Now the bull stood up, larger than all of them.

“Sit down!”

The restaurant fell silent again. But Alfred didn’t sit down and took a step closer to the sheep, who looked more childlike than ever before, hiding there under his little hat. With his lips pursed, he was trying to keep a straight face. But Alfred had children and had seen this reaction thousands of times before. He could see two scared pale-blue eyes. A heavy hand grabbed a steady and painful hold of his neck and pushed him out of the sheep’s face. He tried to wrestle with the bull’s grip, wanting to see that the girl was safe. When he caught a glimpse of the sheep following them without her in custody, his body relaxed. They left a tense silence behind them. 

The wind bit his cheeks, but he welcomed it. His ears were beet red and his head was spinning. Thick snowflakes whirled, backlit by the spotlights that illuminated the desolated parking lot. Next to an abandoned shopping cart, the van, white with yellow and blue details, was already covered in a thin layer of snow. The sheep opened the back door, but as Alfred stepped in, he felt a hand on his shoulder. A click. He closed his eyes and held his breath, knowing what was coming. The pressure of the cuffs was released. He turned around in confusion. The sheep kept his head down, avoiding his eyes. He entered his cold mobile cell and the door closed behind him. A sense of elation shot through his body. As the van’s engine roared, he buckled his seatbelt, smiling. From his back pocket he brought out the little note he had thought was worthless. I’m strong, and so are you. He read it with a firm belief that the first part was true.