When the bomb hit, I was almost inside the ladies' clothing store where I work. If I hadn't paused to check out a cute bicycle courier I would have been safe. The bomb detonated silently, coating the street with a brief yellow burst like the mother of all paintball hits. As far as I could see, everything and everybody bloomed yellow, the cars, the houses, the early shoppers. In the next eye blink, the yellow became patchy, and the passers-by, still frozen from shock, wore it like partially melted slickers. The last of the yellow goo evaporated and I was left standing in the doorway with the strangest tingling in my right hand, from the elbow down. The only sound was the scooter accelerating in the direction of the Rijksmuseum. The messenger's helmet was as yellow as the goo had been.
A knack bomb hit. I'd never been this close before. I'd been two blocks over from the balloon lady who made a mess of last King's day, filling the whole of Dam Square with orange balloons in the shape of the king's head and apparently scaring people a lot. It might seem like a fun knack to have, but she had ended up in Detox Camp. What would I get?
It looked normal. My hand. But what I knew about other knack bombs warned me that anything might happen. I closed the door with my left hand, holding the tainted one aloft like it had touched something nasty. I shouldered through to the bathroom, rinsing the evil hand twice and rubbing it dry until it turned red. One eye on the clock – only 10 minutes until the arrival of the Alpha Bitch.
Alpha Bitch, Angelique Roussignon, was the owner of the shop. She loved dressing me in purple satin party dresses to entice the customers. She says she knows I like minimalist styles and plain dark colors, and I say she just likes torturing me. I don't call slapping sequins, tassels, lace and embroidery on synthetic taffeta designing, but knowing better won't pay my bills, so I eat crow and do her bidding.
The shop door ding-donged. Angelique. She wore canary yellow fake Chanel. She sailed through to the back with a garment bag over her arm.
"Look Inge, darling, especially for you, from my Christmas line." She whipped out something red and sparkly and boned, with white fake fur trim everywhere trim was remotely possible.
I forced down the bad hand, which I was still holding up as if it was contaminated. I kept sneaking peeks at it, but it looked normal. Maybe the knack bomb had been a hallucination. Nothing might have happened, except too much to drink last night and one too many stiff espressos on the way here. Could be.
I didn't know how to check if I actually had a strange new knack. I wanted time for myself so I could experiment and freak out in peace. I could have slipped off to the bathroom again, but knack couldn’t be washed off anyway. The only thing I could do now was put the freaking-out off until six o'clock.
Angelique tapped her shoe, her red lacquered claws carefully held away from the satin fabric. She never snagged it, I have to say. I didn't like being touched by her slippery, over-moisturized hands, but I sighed and slipped out of my black sheath, into the red monstrosity. Angelique zipped me up, one hand on my shoulder.
The fabric seemed to tighten around me. I gasped for breath. Black dots danced before my eyes, like when you've stood up too fast.
Angelique looked at me oddly.
"What?" I said.
She gestured along my body. "I think this is my best work to date," she said, awe in her voice. "Incredible. You look – fabulous. Here." She stepped aside to let me look at myself in the mirrored shop wall.
Wow. I did look fabulous. I looked down at the dress. Still synthetic satin, still overdesigned and overdecorated. But my mirror image showed someone utterly magic and fabulous, like one of these pre-war actresses seen through Vaselined lenses. A glow hung around me and my suddenly hourglass shaped figure. A magic dress.
A knack dress! My eyes flicked to mirror Angelique, staring rapt at her own creation. She didn't look that different, except maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. She gave me a blood red lipstick to match the dress.
"Get some shoes, will you? I think the red sequin Jimmy Choos."
The fuzziness of her outline sharpened a bit. Hmm.
I looked back at myself. Definitely not me. Still hourglassed and fabulous, though. A slow suspicion trickled through me. Angelique had come in only minutes after me. Maybe she had been caught in the knack bomb. And her newfangled knack was glamouring her own ugly dresses into fabulous creations. When I looked at them, my critical faculties just shut up. I tried thinking about the dress with my eyes closed, and managed to muster something like, derivative. Under normal circumstances I could have written a thousand words why every fashion designer and consumer ought to hate the dress.
I tried to take a deep breath but couldn't. The dress held my waist and ribs in their unnatural wasp shape. I felt a great desire to rinse my mouth, but the tingle of the shop bell warned me about an early customer.
I turned to walk towards her, and caught a glimpse of a grace and elegance in the mirror I'd never possessed before. Sheesh. The fake satin draped like silk.. Old Hollywood meets Valentino. It would have looked right on Queen Máxima.
I waited all day for sirens and policemen in white hazmat suits to show up, but nothing happened. Had none of the good citizens reported the bomb? Maybe the Knack Bombardiers had more popular support than the papers suggested.
Finally, it turned six and I could close. Angelique had left me to clean and lock up after her. I'd taken the red dress off, naturally, but my back and ribs still ached from the posture the horrible thing had forced me into.
Angelique had worked in the shop all day, dressing one customer after another in colors that didn't suit them and styles that should have made them look like stuffed sausages – but all of them had looked wonderful. Their reflections had astounded the customers, brought color to their cheeks and made them smile. And pay, pay, pay. She'd tottered home at four.
A few customers had tried on dresses after that, inspired by my relentless fabulousness in the Christmas dress, but without Angelique's touch, the magic didn't happen.
I ached for a good soak in a nice hot bath, but my apartment only had a shower in a corner of the kitchen. And I had to think. Angelique had a new knack. I hadn't gotten one. Should I report her to the police, as one was supposed to do?
I got on the tram for the half hour ride to my humble apartment. It was jammed, so I had to stand. As the tram bumbled through the Leidsestraat, my eye fell on the fluorescent yellow helmet of a guy on a scooter. The same color as the one that had raced away so quickly from the bomb. He had a slight fuzzy aura, like Angelique. I blinked, but it stayed. The rider slowed down, and twisted his body towards the tram. I recognized him. My body gave me the same ping as earlier this morning, as if my brain had stored the way he moved. Hot guy. He looked up at me, or seemed to. Hard to tell through his visor.
He turned back and swooped off, out of sight. Why did I only ever react to guys this way when they were total strangers and I'd never see them again? My mother the psychotherapist, would have some insightful things to say on that topic.
The tram dinged for its next stop and I helped an old lady push the door button and get her down the stairs. I was a regular Good Samaritan, although my thoughts were still on my strange day and the knack bomb and I never made eye contact. Samaritan on autopilot.
The tram didn't start up straightaway and I idly followed the old lady and her walker struggling with the cobbles. There was a fuzzy glow about her that I was sure hadn't been there before. At some point her back straightened and her tentative steps seemed stronger and surer. She looked up at me, caught my eye and gave me a huge smile and a wave. Like a thank you. I waved back. Not that big of a deal, helping an old lady down the steps. Although she seemed less needy than she had in the tram.
I changed trams at Central Station and managed to claim a seat. My feet were grateful and I half-dozed the last leg of the journey. Whenever I was shaken awake out of my dreamy state it seemed I saw another yellow helmet. I really didn't need a fixation on a stranger I would never see again.
I got off the tram, swaying on my aching, swollen feet and stood for a moment, trying to decide if I was going to get the ingredients for a proper pizza-nuking or make do with bare spaghetti and moldy cheese.
"Hey," a voice said.
I startled so violently I stumbled over my own feet and would have fallen if the voice's owner hadn't grabbed me.
It was Yellow Helmet.
I gaped at him. I wanted to thank him for saving me from skinned knees, but instead something completely different came pouring out of my mouth. "Jerk. Asshole. How dare you bomb innocent citizens. You scared me to death this morning. What if I have a knack now? Huh? Did you think of that? Did you think of how I would feel for the rest of my life? What if someone saw me and reported me to the police. Do you want me to end up in the Detox Camps? Huh?"
His big blue eyes looked earnestly into mine. Wow. Amber-colored skin, blond streaked curls and blue eyes. A killer combination of Surinamese and Dutch genes. "Let's take that conversation inside," he said. "Coz I don't want you to end up in a DC."
Tears welled up in my eyes. I hadn't realized how tired and how afraid I was until I was in sight of my own front door. I allowed myself to be pushed to the door – how did he know I lived here? – and fumbled the key into the lock with shaking hands. His hand in the small of my back guided me up the three sets of stairs. I wouldn't have let him touch me but truth was, I needed the help.
One last gentle shove landed me on the couch, shivering and flinging one-syllable words at him like slaps.
He disappeared, to return with a glass of red wine which he shoved into my hands. "Drink up."
"You want me drunk?" I grumbled, still in angry mode. "I don't need this on an empty stomach."
He didn't answer, but magicked a bag of salted crisps out of his messenger bag. Sheesh, he had come prepared.
I chewed and drank furiously until I felt steadier. "Okay, you can explain while I eat."
"You sure? Your chewing sounds like a concrete mill is running at full capacity just outside."
He kept silent. I finished the chips, blew my nose and went for a pee.
"Now, answers. Did you throw that knack bomb?"
"I can't answer that."
"Still not answering."
"I'm assuming you did. And also that you know it hit me. Question: why follow me? You probably know the police haven't been checking out the bombing."
He smiled infuriatingly smugly. Jerk. Clearly, I was falling for him. I have a tendency to like guys that aren't good for me.
"Have you experienced anything strange and unusual?"
I snorted. "I sure have. My boss has gotten a knack from your stupid bombing. Not that she deserves one. Her dresses look fabulous on anyone. Which they would never have done without a knack."
"I meant you," he said, although he made a brief note on his Blackberry clone.
"Nothing," I said.
"Are you sure you were caught?" he said.
I shrugged. "My arm was outside when the yellow stuff hit. It tingled."
He chewed on his pencil thingy, which only made him cuter. "You sure? Wishing coming out? Strange feelings?"
"Nope," I said, although I flashed on the fuzzy outlines some people seemed to have. I don't know why. I just didn't want him to think I was making stuff up. "What's your knack?"
He looked shifty. "None of your business. Not that I have one."
"Of course not," I said and shifted on the couch to present myself better to this luscious terrorist. I hadn't looked in the bathroom mirror just now. In my experience, knowing just how awful you look never makes for success with flirting. Maybe guys don't even notice make-up and pretty clothes. "How do you people make knack bombs? And why?"
"Just supposing, for the fun of it, that I was the sort of person who made a knack bomb, do you think I would tell you?"
Stand-off, I guess. We stared at each other for a bit. I yawned.
He stood up abruptly. "I guess you had a hard day. I'll leave you to sleep. Let me know if you notice anything new or interesting." Sensitive of him to notice that.
He held out his hand. Very polite guy. I liked that too.
I didn't take it yet. "What's your name? How can I contact you? Wanna put your number in my mobile?"
He grimaced. "Pull up your kitchen curtain three times."
I sniggered. "Really?"
I shook his hand. It was nice and warm. Men should always have warm hands. He smiled down at me and that made me feel all tingly. He left and I went over to my window to watch him get on his scooter. He no longer had that fuzzy aura. I must have imagined it.
I couldn't decide whether I wanted to forget all about the godforsaken knack bomb or if I wanted to have a knack so I'd have an excuse to call up my new buddy. I went to bed with the rest of the wine. Tomorrow I'd have a better grip on today's events.
I woke up with the strangest feeling. An intruder in my bedroom. I tried not to move as I looked around. My two chairs and old sagging couch all had acquired humps. A squeak came out of my mouth.
"What did you do to Marko?" a rough voice said.
The next thing I knew the light was on and Yellow Helmet sat in a chair by my bed, playing with his keys and looking both angry and ashamed. My heart hammered.
A little committee of middle-aged people, two men, two women, sat on my rickety couch combination. Behind them stood younger, more muscled people. The brains and the brawn of whatever group of people this was. My guess was the knack bombardiers.
The man with the rough voice turned out to be a thickset older man with tight curly gray hair and a paunch. He looked unshaven and tired, but I suppose anybody would at five or so in the morning. The aura over his bald pate shimmered faintly. "Tell me about yesterday."
"What?" I said. Or rather wheezed, because my voice wasn't working properly. I tried to crawl away from him, but my bedroom wall wouldn’t budge.
Where was my phone? I needed to call 112.
Yellow Helmet, Marko I supposed, came closer, very warily, as if he was afraid of what I would do. He needn't have been. I was too afraid to move. "What did you do to my knack? How did you take it away?"
"Nothing," I croaked. What the hell was he thinking? I'd done nothing, he was the evil doer.
I noticed again that his little fuzzy aura was gone. Huh. Maybe auras meant people had a knack.
"What?" He must have seen something on my face.
"Huh?" Eloquent dude. I tried to wish him to hell, or at least out of my apartment, but that didn't work.
I gestured. "Fuzzy aura. You had it yesterday."
He still looked uncomprehending. The dumb look in his blue eyes didn't improve him at all. I had a brainwave. It would take hours to explain, and I could just show him if I was right. I touched his leg with my bombed left hand.
His face remained unchanged. I lifted the hand with some effort and touched one of his bare hands.
The aura was back again. His jaw sagged in surprise and his eyebrows rose. "What?"
That eloquence of his again. I wish I could have lacerated with my sarcasm, but my voice just wasn’t up to it.
My fear was leaving me. Still had the shakes, but my stomach was better.
The older man, the boss, leaned forward. "Is this the same as what happened to you yesterday evening?"
Marko still gaped, but had enough sense to scoot back. "Yes! I think she can take knacks away. We need to research her, keep her here. Help the people in lock-up."
So they kept undesirable knacks in their own prison. Made sense. The public already believed all knacks were evil or at least suspect, especially the present right wing administration, and they wouldn't want to feed that fear.
I wondered what his knack was, and how it felt to miss it. I wondered if when I touched someone without a knack, they would get one. I touched my right hand with my left. I felt nothing. Maybe it didn't work on me.
"Your name is Inge, right? Tell me what happened to you after the bombing," paunch man said.
I told him everything. I couldn't resist throwing vindictive looks at horrible Yellow Helmet Marko, who stood to the side looking very subdued and young. The middle-aged man rubbed his unshaven chin. "Interesting. So do I have an aura?"
I looked at its oily sheen, glinting festively against the colorless pre-dawn. "Yup."
"Can you tell what kind of knack I have?"
"No. Yours is kind of oily. His is fuzzy, and hers glittery." I nodded to the woman next to him.
"And you say that if you touch me, my knack will vanish?"
I shrugged. "Hey. I'm new to this. When I did it to Yellow Helmet there, the aura disappeared. He said his knack went with it." I'd wanted to sound flip, but that's hard when your voice is shaky.
"Sure. Hold out your hand."
Paunch drew back so fast it was comical, even in these circumstances. "No thanks. Marko? Come here and show us."
Marko's lovely eyes showed white around the blue, like a frightened horse. "No! Chief, please."
The chief nodded to the two big men standing behind the little committee. Marko shrank back against the couch, reminding me of myself less than half an hour ago. Sweet revenge. The brawn dragged poor Marko over to me.
The chief stopped their progress and looked down at me again. "Do you know what knack Marko has? No? Show her, boy."
Marko blushed. His skin was pale enough to show it. He looked at me, and at first I had no clue what was happening. Then I realized I was sweating and that I was licking my lips. Yes, he was a hot guy. I'd already noticed it. This was hardly the place and time to be ogling his narrow hips and his muscled forearms. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him and my hands itched to touch him.
Marko the alluring sex god receded and frightened Marko returned. My heart still hammered but my head was clear. Some knack.
The goons pushed him closer to me. He smelled of expensive aftershave. Égoiste by Chanel, I think. Appropriate.
I touched Marko. The aura went away. Touch. Aura back. Touch. Aura gone. I repeated it a few more times, with Paunch looking on, until he finally had enough and allowed Marko to retreat back to the wall.
The chief stroked his unshaven chin. "Hmm. Fascinating. I'm sure we will be able to think of a use for this at some point. Now would it work on someone who didn't have a knack?"
I thought of Angelique, suddenly displaying a new knack. I'd ascribed it to the knack bomb, but it could have been me. She'd touched me when forcing me into the ugly dress of the day. Maybe even the old lady with the walker? I wondered what knack she'd gotten, if she'd gotten one.
"I see you believe you can," the chief said.
I gathered my face was easy to read.
The chief nodded to his goons. "Jopie and Baco, get someone to test her on." The goons left.
The other people on the committee couch leaned forward, almost in sync, and looked avidly at me. Oh dear. I'd almost relaxed, feeling I wasn't in danger of my life anymore. But their desire was not to kill me, but to use me. I could feel them slurping up my potential usefulness like a delicious morsel. Not good. I sneaked a glance at Marko, and he looked at me with pity. That sealed it. I burst into tears.
Nobody came forward to console me, not even Marko and his yellow helmet.
My sobs lessened, as they do, and I sat there feeling tired and afraid and wishing someone would rescue me.
An enormous blow rang through the old house. Another one. A painfully bright light flooded in through the window, although we were on a third story and it couldn't be a car. "Police"!" an amplified voice thundered straight through the flimsy old walls. "Open up! You are surrounded."
The chief swiveled around the room, dancing on the balls of his feet. "You and you," he pointed to the younger two of the committee. "Get out over the kitchen balcony." He pointed at Marko. "Take the girl and get out over the roof. Hide during the day and meet Greet at the rendezvous point tomorrow night. I'll try to make it, but they might hold me for longer. Go."
Marko sprinted over to me, then braked and quivered in indecision. I could read his face like a book. Could he touch me without losing his knack? He compromised by hooking his shawl, the same one that had served as my blindfold, over my neck and pulling on it.
Great. "If you want me to run, choking me seems like bad idea," I croaked. "I don't want the police to see me, either. Okay? Let me grab some pants and shoes."
He hesitated, then let go of the scarf. I jumped into yesterday's jeans and sneakers, and swung a sweater around my neck. Marko grabbed me again and barreled to the back window. It opened onto a steep roof and an decrepit rain gutter, a long way above garden and shed level. I guess I wanted to get away from the Knack Police even more than from the Knack Bombardiers. So I clambered out after Marko and we stood in the cool morning, the rising sun just glinting on the rooftops to our right. Gutter reached. Now what?
An old voice sounded behind us. One of the committee members Paunch had ordered away. "Let me help you," he said.
Marko stuck out his hand at once. I waited.
"Come on," Marko hissed. "He'll fly us away."
I believed him, I don't know why. I stretched out my left hand, the safe hand, to the old man and felt his papery old palm slide into mine. The next moment we were standing on pavement in the shadow of a big old building. After a moment's strangeness, when the world turned around me until I was aligned with the universe again. I recognized it. The Westerkerk.
The old man bowed to me and walked off. That hadn't been flying, it was like being beamed down by Scotty. Fabulous.
I started walking away, Marko on my heels. The first workers passed us by on bikes or on foot.
He was so busy straining his neck, I assume for police cars, that I could just reach out with my right hand and touch his. He jerked away from me. "Turn it back on!" he hissed.
"No," I said. "Not now. I will turn it back on if you behave nicely. Tell me your address and if I'm still free in a week I'll come by and restore your knack."
"Why would I do that?"
I spelled it out for him. "You know where I live. Just so you know that if you rat me out to the cops or your bombardier friends, I'll never give it back."
He stared down at me. Still a pretty boy, but one who relied on his knack and didn't have the toughness to handle me. And no way to coerce me in the middle of the street. "You think you can just walk away? You think nobody will notice your new knack? You need us."
"No, I don't," I said. "I just learned I'm the only person anyone knows of who can see knacks. As long as I do nothing with them, I'll be safe."
He chewed his lip. Nodded and told me his address. Neither of us had a pen or paper or phone, so I'd just have to remember it.
He walked off. I went the other way. It was a long walk back home, but I needed to think. What would I do now? I waited for a red light next to a well dressed girl who was busy texting and eating at the same time. When her eating hand hung down for a few moments as she chewed, I brushed it casually with my right hand – the knacked hand. I mumbled an apology without looking at her. A rainbow colored halo appeared over her head, but she seemed to notice nothing. After I crossed the road, a gentle rain of silky rose petals fell from the sky. I caught some on my hands and inhaled their fresh, tender scent like a blessing. A good knack to have, it seemed to me.
In my heart a little warmth glowed up, like the satisfaction at a job well done. Like when I had played Good Samaritan to the old lady. I tried it again at the next traffic light. Yes, a small but unmistakable candle flame shooting up. Nice. As if the world wanted me to give people knacks. I was sure I hadn't felt this effect when I'd been on and offing Marko. Maybe it only worked on the non-knacked. I looked back to the man I'd touched. The man danced in a beam of sunshine as if he was Fred Astaire on a stage.
Behind the dancing man someone stood stock-still. He seemed to be looking straight at me.
I tried to walk past people without taking the opportunity to touch them, but it was acutely uncomfortable. It made me sweat and prickle all over my body. I had to tap someone.
I took a right into the Kalverstraat but it wasn't busy enough yet that I could brush up against people without attracting attention.
I'd been heading home but now that I felt calmer and less pursued, I wasn't sure that was a good idea. Mightn't the police know all about me and my address? There was no way to tell until I walked into their arms. I really didn't want to be in a Detox Camp. Maybe that man had been an undercover detective. Or a Knack Bombardier. I walked faster.
I'd wanted to be a fashion designer, but so far that hadn't worked out. And now that seemed unlikely ever to happen. I could try to hide, but with the whole country so on edge about knacks, how realistic was that? The thing was, I wanted to touch more people. I wanted to feel that glow become a little bigger every time I added someone to it. As if my knack wanted me to make new converts.
I snuck a peek at a woman I'd touched just as she opened her bakery shop. She looked dazed, but smiling and happy. In front of her, a heap of muffins was growing bigger and bigger. The knacks I'd created seemed to be trivial but benign so far.
My neck tickled. I turned and thought I caught someone ducking around a corner. Was I imagining this or was someone following me? Maybe it would be better to stop touching people. The moment I thought of this, my hand shot out and touched someone's arm. As if the knack had a will of its own.
The center of town was filing up with shoppers. Good. I brushed up against anybody I could possibly brush up against, touching them, mumbling sorry all the time. Behind me, snatches of music and laughter sounded. Interesting scents wafted down the street. Someone screamed. Maybe not everyone was happy with their new knack, but I couldn't stop.
Back to the Kalverstraat. I'd take it slow, then walk to the Dam and the stores there. Every time I looked back, someone or other just hid behind someone else. Was it my imagination or was someone following me?
The most unobtrusive way to knack people was touching knuckle to knuckle; nobody thought anything of that in a busy shopping area. The glow inside me bloomed from a candle to a Klieg lamp. And I knew it could become even bigger. It was an attractive but also scary thought. What would happen to me if the glow bulked up that much? How could I possibly keep it in check?
I entered a big department store because I knew they still had old-fashioned pay phones on the top floor. This time the man who followed me stayed put on the escalator when I looked back. I called my mother with the few coins I'd found in my jeans pocket, but only got her answering machine. That made my throat seize up a bit, but I persevered, funny voice or no. "Mom, it's Inge. I love you and I know I haven't said it enough. I'm okay and I'm doing something that's making me happy. Bye!" I felt sad, but still relieved. Whatever would happen, I'd called, that was the important thing.
The silent man kept his distance while I phoned, but kept his eyes trained on my back. What did he want from me?
I walked faster. The silent man accelerated as well. I retraced my steps back to Central Station, adding more people to my headcount, but he kept following at a distance. The glow grew so big.
Like a sun about to rise in my eyes, light threatening to burst out just below the horizon. It was hard to see where I was going through that light behind my eyes. I had no money to buy a ticket, but I didn't care about that. I would get caught, or not.
I took the train east. I needed to touch a lot more people.
I didn't sit down but kept walking through the carriages as the train went up to speed after Amstel Station. The silent man followed. So many hands to touch, so many people to reach. I was kind of hoping to awaken a knack similar to mine, preferably in a tourist from a far country. They could then spread it all over the world.
I touched a child and gasped. The glow surged outwards, but quieted again.
If the silent man arrested me I'd be done knacking up people. Just a bit more. A few more people. I was almost there. Just one more person. Then the glow would grow too big to contain. I guess I wouldn't see my mother again, after all. I didn't know what would happen. I might even die, but I didn't really care anymore.
The connecting doors to the next carriage opened. The silent man. I squealed.
But it wasn't him, just a conductor. I couldn't really see him that well because of the sparking in my eyes. He asked if I was okay. I held my hand out as if to show my ticket and touched him.
The dawn behind my eyes engulfed me. The flood of light beamed right through me. The last thing I saw, as from a plane, were the cities and fields below, illuminated by my expanding sun. The silent man peered up at me from a carriage window.
I didn't stop existing, like I'd kind of expected. I just got really big, and really diaphanous. Big enough to span the world.
Big enough to touch every single living person.
Originally published in in Dutch in Ganymedes 13 and in translation in The Colored Lens, Summer 2015.
[…] “The Knack Bomb” by Bo Balder, translated from the Dutch by the author (Samovar, March). (reprint) […]