Illustrated by EMILY HUANG
Annika Tjäder was not happy.
She had sailed down the escalators of Stockholm’s Akalla metro station and galloped like a thoroughbred towards Platform One. The train was there, waiting for her, but when she was mere feet from the doors, they slammed in her face and the train took off .
Watching the train speed off, she felt an unsettling sense of dread. She had already fought with her parents once today over her grades and “lack of focus” in school, and now she was going to break her curfew. Surely, Mom and Dad were going to kill her.
She checked her watch and glanced about the dim, desolate station. It was quarter to twelve at night. The next metro was scheduled to arrive in eight minutes, and she was all alone.
Well, not completely alone.
A bedraggled homeless man sat on the illuminated bench directly behind her, watching. Perfectly annoyed, she let her eyes narrow upon him, hoping he would get the message and cease his staring.
He looked like any other hobo in Stockholm: long grey beard, tangled hair the colour of smoke, a ragged coat, and a floppy hat in hand ready to collect the charity of generous passer-bys. However, this man had something she had never seen anyone wear before: an eye patch.
With my luck, he probably thinks he’s a pirate.
After a moment of staring, the man gave a small smile and scooted over on the bench.
“No need to scowl,” he said. “If you want to sit, there is plenty of room on the bench for both of us.”
His voice came as a surprise. She expected to hear a raspy, coarse tone mangled by swear words and half-crazed ramblings. Instead, this man’s voice was deep, rich, and strong. Still, a nice set of sounds would not seduce her into sitting beside him.
“No, I’m fine, thanks,” Annika replied curtly, planting her feet on the ground.
The man shrugged.
“As you wish,” he murmured.
Annika nodded and turned around. She stared at the shadows on the tan stucco wall.
“If you won’t sit with me, will you spare some change for a poor old man?”
She kept her back to the beggar and scoffed. “What, so you can feed your drug addiction? I don’t think so.”
The hobo chuckled. “Poor girl. Is your mind so closed, Annika?”
She felt her stomach drop into her toes. Whirling around, she stared at the old man. He sat there, holding his hat, grinning at her. Trying to speak, no words coming out, Annika breathed, “How... the hell do you know my name?”
“I know many things,” the one-eyed beggar muttered with a shrug.
“Stop playing games,” Annika snapped. “I want to know how you know my name, you creep.”
A distant rumble sounded from the tunnel. Annika wished desperately for the metro train to arrive before something happened to her, though the hobo did not appear to be poised for an attack. He leaned back on the bench and surveyed her calmly.
“Let me ask you this, Annika,” he said. “How does one acquire knowledge?”
She stared. “What? Why are you asking-”
Annika checked her watch. Three minutes until the metro could rescue her. To bide her time, she decided to play along with this crazy bum. Drawing in a deep breath, she considered the question.
“I think you acquire knowledge through school. Through books, and studying, and stuff.”
The beggar nodded, weighing her words for a moment. “Indeed, that is one form of knowledge. But it is not the only path, and it certainly is not open to all branches of knowledge. How else, would you say, do we learn?”
She stared. Never in her eighteen years did she ever think she would be having a philosophical discussion with a one-eyed homeless man in the Akalla metro station.
“Um...” she hesitated. “I guess we learn from our parents, too... And from other people around us, friends and teachers...”
The man nodded. “Yes, yes, very good. But, you’re missing a vital part of the knowledge spectrum: You’re forgetting the learning that comes from within- This is the most fundamental and spiritual of all knowledge, Annika. Every human, every beast, every living thing in this world and the next must seek this type of knowledge. That is how I know your name. That is how I know all that I know. It does not come easy- Oh, no, not easy at all- You must give up a part of yourself, devote yourself to the pursuit of enlightenment. In fact...” He tapped his eye patch “... I have given up things precious to me for this kind of knowledge. But, I would not take it back, Annika. Not for any of the Nine Worlds.
“Listen to me," he said, leaning forward, folding his hands on his knees somberly. "You are a young woman growing up in a modern, fast-paced world. You have opportunities and chances that many in the past never had. It’s a beautiful thing, Annika, and you must seize the day and consume all the knowledge that you can and pursue happiness in your life. But, you must take care not to lose yourself along the way. It is very easy to lose your essence, your sense of being, in this world. The way to keep yourself”- He placed a hand on his chest- “is to know yourself.”
The station fell silent. Annika did not move. His words had paralysed her, yet she was shaken to her core. She heard his speech echo in her head, as if he had spoken them with some sort of irreversible spell. The girl opened her mouth to speak, but the words would not come. In fact, she did not even know how to reply to the man.
The rumbling in the tunnel grew louder. The bearded beggar glanced down the track.
Ah, here comes your train,” he noted. Turning back to Annika, he murmured, “Remember what I said. Do not be frightened, do not cower before the obstacles that await you- Stay true to yourself, to your heart, and seek knowledge, my girl. All knowledge and wisdom are yours for the taking, and I am confident that you will take it all.”
The great silver and blue train roared into the station, jarring the surreal dream. Annika nodded to the man and turned her back on him to get into the metro.
What an oddball, she thought, stepping into the train. Talk of knowledge? Sacrifices? Nine Worlds? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was Odin himself!
Suddenly, she froze, mere inches away from the open door. The hat, the beard, the eye patch, the insistence of knowledge, and the fact that he knew her name.
Annika turned around, her breath caught in her throat, but the old man was no longer there. An empty bench and an empty metro station stared back at her.
Before Annika had time to think, the doors snapped close, and the train began to roll out of Akalla.