The Night GuestHildur Knútsdóttir

Read an Excerpt From Hildur Knútsdóttir’s The Night Guest


We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Hildur Knútsdóttir’s The Night Guest, a horror novel translated from Icelandic by Mary Robinette Kowal—publishing with Nightfire on September 3rd.

Iðunn is in yet another doctor’s office. She knows her constant fatigue is a sign that something’s not right, but practitioners dismiss her symptoms and blood tests haven’t revealed any cause.

When she talks to friends and family about it, the refrain is the same—have you tried eating better? exercising more? establishing a nighttime routine? She tries to follow their advice, buying everything from vitamins to sleeping pills to a step-counting watch. Nothing helps.

Until one night Iðunn falls asleep with the watch on, and wakes up to find she’s walked over 40,000 steps in the night…

What is happening when she’s asleep? Why is she waking up with increasingly disturbing injuries? And why won’t anyone believe her?


1

“Can you describe your symptoms?”

I clear my throat. “I’m just so… tired all the time.”

“Not sleeping well?”

“No, no. I fall asleep and even sleep through the night. But when I wake up, I feel exhausted. My legs, my arms…”

As if they were evidence, I extend both arms. My hands dangle limply, and I have the bizarre impulse to shake them in the doctor’s face. But she nods. When I lower them, they drop into my lap like dead pieces of meat.

“I don’t feel like I’m waking up rested but more like I’ve been out on a rampage all night. My muscles are worn out. Not soreness like after working out, but sort of like when you’ve been slogging away at something and can tell that the next day you’re going to really feel it, you know?”

“And it’s only in the arms and legs?”

“Not only, but mostly there. I’m tired all over. Even my jaw.”

The doctor nods again.

I like her. She’s probably ten years younger than I am. If I had to guess, I’d say she probably hasn’t finished her residency yet. Which means she’s being very thorough. She will not let acute lymphocytic leukemia or some horrific neurological disease slip past her. She’s going to check out every possibility. Which is precisely what I want and what the previous doctor the health center assigned me to—some old, gray-haired prick— refused to do.

That guy had clearly had enough of women with unexplained symptoms. Hysterical women. I seriously wanted to lecture him about all the diseases women have had that have been misdiagnosed over the years— and how medication (not to mention everything else in this world) is designed for the male body—but I just didn’t have the energy for it. Or maybe I was chicken. Or maybe that’s the same thing because it’s a lot easier to gather your courage when you’re not dead tired.

When I left the prick’s office with orders to go home and “take it easy” for two weeks (he didn’t even suggest seeing a therapist, probably because he’s too old to believe in psychology), I made a beeline for the health center’s reception desk and asked for an appointment with a female doctor.

“Someone young,” I said. The receptionist looked at me like I was off my rocker but still gave me an appointment with this new doctor.

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The Night GuestHildur Knútsdóttir
The Night GuestHildur Knútsdóttir

The Night GuestHildur Knútsdóttir

Hildur Knútsdóttir

Her name is Ásdís, and she has blond hair and two pimples on her chin that she’s done her best to cover with concealer. “Has this been going on for a long time?”

“A while, yeah. And getting worse.”

“Have you had the flu recently? Any kind of cold?”

“No.”

“Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”

I think about Stefán and how he had hissed at me that I was a bitch right before slamming the door in my face. How I had trembled like a twig in the wind and hadn’t been able to bring myself to move for over an hour after he left.

“No.” Stefán is a lousy guy, but I’d be giving him way too much credit if I blamed this on him.

“Do you eat a variety of foods?”

“Yes. I’m a vegetarian, but that’s not new. And I take B12, omega-3, and iron.”

She glances at the computer screen. “I see you had blood work done six months ago. Everything looks good there. But we’ll run it again.” Ásdís turns back to me with her full attention. She wears an expression that is at once concerned and kind. “With what I have here, I don’t see anything to indicate a serious condition. Not based on your history or my examination. So, tell me, what are you concerned about?”

A sensation begins to stir in my belly. Warm and soft. And I realize that I’m weirdly proud of her. Ásdís is going to be a truly wonderful doctor. For a moment, I feel as though I am her mother (Christ), or maybe a grandma (Christ! ), who watched her grow up through childhood and then become an unbearable teenager who blossomed into an intelligent woman who attended medical school and now speaks to her patients with respect and genuine concern. I almost tear up.

And then, I remember the fear that had overcome me as I sat and googled my symptoms.

“Myasthenia gravis,” I blurt. “Or…” I hesitate. Then I speak the acronym that’s been haunting me over the past few days. “ALS.”

Ásdís nods. I begin to sweat. Recently, I’ve been almost entirely convinced that I’m doomed to this future: experiencing my nervous system’s gradual failure. I’ve wondered how it might feel when parts of my body stop working, one after the other. Maybe it starts with numbness in my fingertips. Then I lose control of my hands, followed by my arms. Then my feet. Then I’ll lose all sensation below the waist. Stop being able to turn my head, speak, smile, blink my eyes. Maybe I’ll learn to hold a brush with my mouth and paint a few pictures. Then my respiratory system will stop working, and I’ll die.

Ásdís cocks her head. “I don’t want to sound dismissive of your experience, but I have to say that it strikes me as… an extremely unlikely diagnosis.”

Relief washes over me like the sea. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“So, you don’t think I’ve got some terrifying neurological disease?” I ask, just to hear her say it one more time.

“No. Of course, I can’t rule it out, but I don’t see anything to indicate it.”

Another wave of elation.

Then I remember what I was going to show her. “What about leukemia?” I stand up and tug my

pants down, showing her the large bruise on my hip that had appeared overnight. “Don’t you think it looks a little like spotting?”

Ásdís puts on gloves. She aims the tabletop lamp at me and leans over my hip. She runs her fingers over the bruise, so close that I can feel her warm breath moving the fine hairs on my skin. My god, she’s doing a thorough job. It crosses my mind that I might be in love with her, which is a little ridiculous.

“Did you bump into something?” she asks.

“No, I woke up like this.”

The bruise is the size of a little pancake.

Ásdís sits up and points the lamp back at the desk. I pull up my pants and take a seat.

“This appears to be a standard hematoma. But I’ll add a white blood cell count to your blood work. And we’ll look at your iron levels, of course.”

Ásdís stands up. The examination has come to an end. She extends her hand, her grasp firm and professional. She’s taller than I am, and yet I have this urge to pat her on the head or the cheek. I restrain myself.

Instead, I thank her and leave.

When I get home, Mávur is curled up on the porch in front of the door. The cat stands when he spots me, his tail rising with pleasure. I scratch him behind the ears, and he responds with a loud purr. He often tries to sneak in, but I know his tricks and am quick to shut the door behind me. By the time the latch catches, he has already lain back down, his eyelids drooping in the sunshine.

I know that the world’s sorrows are both abundant and profound and that a cat allergy is perhaps insignificant in the larger scheme of things. But there is something so unfair about loving cats and being relegated to do so from a distance.


2

Three days later, I receive a text saying that I have a message from the health center waiting for me. I open the medical portal and am asked to log in with my electronic ID. Like every Icelander, I have my kennitala, of course, but I’d never linked my national ID number with an online account. So I don’t have an electronic ID. Someone—I don’t remember who—told me they were just a plot to force all Icelanders into a monopoly with a cousin of some Progressive Party big shot in perpetuity. Or was it the Independence Party?

And the banks seem to be in on it, too, because they provide the ID numbers. When you think about it, it’s a little odd that banks generate our government IDs, but that’s commonplace Icelandic corruption for you.

I call the health center and request the results by phone. The woman who answers at the front desk says it’s not available. She says it in an offensively cheerful tone. I grumble at her, but she just gets cheerier.

During my lunch break, I go to the bank. All the muscles in my thighs ache when I walk up the stairs. I feel like I’ve been on a treadmill all night. (For the record, I have never used a treadmill.)

Two women are standing in the lobby of the bank and welcome me. I notice that there is only one cashier but at least four employees who seem to be working on linking kennitalas with electronic ID accounts.

It’s easier to get one than I expected. The man who helps me makes me sign some papers that I’m too tired to bother reading. He’s the officious sort who wants to cover his ass by making it “quite clear” that page three states that the service is free now but that he cannot rule out the possibility that it will have a fee later.

“Yes, I know everything about the Progressive Party,” I say, though, of course that’s not true.

He gives me a weird look. Maybe it was the Independence Party, after all. But I mean, really, what’s the difference?

The first thing I do when I get back to work is to log into the health center. There’s a message from Ásdís María Ómarsdóttir waiting for me. I feel warm inside just seeing her name. Then I take a deep breath and open the mail from her.

All the blood tests came out well. All results normal.

I stare at the message for a long time. When the letters start to blur, I realize that I’m—damn it—crying.

I sniff, wipe my cheeks, and glance around me. Fortunately, almost everyone is still at lunch, and no one seems to have noticed anything.

I get to my feet, go to the toilet, and clean myself up.

The lump in my throat swells. Staring at my reflection above the sink, I tell myself not to cry.

It’s not that I was hoping I was sick.

Except maybe I was just hoping for  something. Not ALS—never ALS—and not myasthenia gravis. But maybe something innocent. Iron deficiency, iodine deficiency, arthritis, some manageable metabolic disease, B12 deficiency—or perhaps a little hypoactive thyroid. Was that too much to ask?

Because there is nothing worse than having unexplained symptoms. Feeling like there’s something terribly wrong—but nothing that can be measured in exams, and you know the doctor thinks it’s all in your head.

I stare at my reflection, reminding myself, of course, that it could be much worse. The tests came out well. I should not be disappointed. I should feel relieved.

“You should be happy,” I hiss at the mirror.

And to my surprise, the trace of a malicious grin twists the side of my mouth.

“I’m not hysterical,” I tell my reflection.

She nods.


3

I increase my vitamin dose. Also, buy vitamin D. And calcium and something called spirulina that the girl in the pharmacy recommends. Then I google and read that spirulina can contain large amounts of heavy metals, so I throw it in the trash. My conscience twinges about throwing it in the trash (The heavy metals, where do they go? Landfills? Maybe into the groundwater?), but I don’t do anything about it.

I go to the bar with my friends after work. They say I need to be more active.

“That’s how you get energy! Not by lounging on the couch! I could explode after I ran ten kilometers! I felt like I could conquer the world,” says Ásta. She’s the CEO of a large company and has three children. She probably often feels like she can conquer the world.

“Go to yoga,” says Linda. “You just have to relax. Don’t you have too much to do at work? And you have tried essential oils?”

“Why don’t you just go eat some meat? We’re not meant to live on vegetables alone, you know,” says María, and takes a sip of white wine.

Looking grave, they all nod.

“But we don’t have true canines,” I point out.

They stare at me over their wineglasses.

“Carnivores all have canines.”

They glance at each other, not sure what to do with me, and an embarrassing silence stretches between us.

This always happens. Everyone will be having a good chat until I say something wrong and feel as though I’ve been exposed as the alien in the group. Ta-da! Did you think I was one of you? Hahaha!

I don’t know if it’s because they’re all the same age— two years older than I am—or because I joined their group late. Maybe it’s something different and more profound. I don’t remember whether I’ve always felt this way or if the feeling has gradually worsened.

“I know it sounds like the name of a cartoon character,” says Helga. “But Zumba literally saved my life after pregnancy.”

I take a big sip of red wine (rich in iron).

“Try walking more,” says Sigrún. “I read somewhere that walking is—by far—the healthiest exercise. You just need to walk ten thousand steps a day!”

“What happened there?” Ásta points to the bruise on my chest.

I had specifically chosen a shirt that would cover it.

But now I look down and see that as I bend forward, my neckline is gaping, and the bruise is visible. It’s a tiger stripe of dark purple.

I straighten and pull my collar up.

“Nothing.” Which is technically true.

They look at each other with worry wrinkles between their eyebrows. Ta-da! Unmasked again!

Helga places a palm over my hand. “Was that Stefán?”

“No.” I laugh.

“You know you can tell us anything,” she says understandingly.

Their nods are full of grave disbelief.

I take another sip of red wine.

Two minutes of “happy hour” are left when I finish my drink. At the bar, I see a man. He’s wearing a pale pink shirt (confident about his masculinity) and a blue, well-fitting jacket, and he’s staring at me like he’s seen a ghost.

I get embarrassed and look down at the drink list. When I look up again, he has half-turned away from me and is waving a credit card over a beer that the waiter is handing to him.

Then he looks back at me.

I’m trying to decide if I should smile politely or pretend not to see him, but I haven’t figured out what to do when he turns away and walks with his beer to a nearby table. Around it, well-dressed men sit, stretched out in low chairs (why do men always have to take up so much space?) and laughing.

Excerpted from The Night Guest, copyright © 2024 by Hildur Knútsdóttir.



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