5 July 1983 “Just try again.”
“It’s not working. This is stupid.”
“Just picture it in your mind, and it’ll happen.”
Oskar sighed. “Eli, we’ve been at this for half an hour. I’m no good at this. I can’t.”
“You don’t know what you can do and what you can’t.”
“Okay. I’ll try again.”
Oskar closed his eyes, leaned back on the couch, and tried to concentrate.
. . . My teeth are fangs. Sharp, pointy teeth. Fangs, fangs, fangs . . . He groaned in frustration. “I don’t get it!”
Eli touched his forearm. “Oskar, just settle down. You’ll never be able to do it when you’re all upset like this. Here, just watch me for a second. Maybe that’ll help.”
“You already tried this,” he said dejectedly.
“I know, I know. But just try one more time. Here. Now watch. You need to learn to do this, Oskar. If you can’t, well . . . .”
Eli closed her eyes, opened her mouth halfway, and then tilted her head back. After a second or two, a set of sharp teeth lowered themselves into view behind her upper lip. She opened her mouth a little wider and her upper and lower set became clearly visible.
“There. Just like that. It’s that easy.”
Oskar looked at her face in disgust. “Ugh. I don’t want to see them, Eli. They’re so . . . .” He turned his face away, wrinkled his nose and shivered. “Yuck. Can you please—”
Eli rolled her eyes; then she closed her mouth, put her forehead down into her hands, and talked into her lap. “I never thought this was going to be so hard.” Then she looked up. “Maybe it would help if you watched yourself in the mirror. Come on.” He reluctantly followed her into the bathroom and they stood in front of the vanity.
Oskar looked at the mirror, then at her. “Gee—it might be easier to use the mirror if it wasn’t busted all to hell, Eli,” he said playfully. He poked her in the side.
She crossed her arms and frowned at him. “I was angry--I couldn’t help it. You were being mean.”
“Me? You were the meanie. You started all this, not me. I don’t go around biting people. Especially not my best friend.” His voice dripped with pretend sarcasm, and he was surprised to find that he was grinning. He had never thought he could find what she had done amusing.
Eli saw that he was teasing and shot back a grin. “Well, if you weren’t so darn cute, maybe I wouldn’t have. I couldn’t help myself. It was all that long hair. I told you you should cut it—but no, you wouldn’t listen. ‘I like it long’ was all you could say. La dee da.”
For a moment, they just looked at each other, smiling. Then Oskar stepped to one side of the sink where the mirror wasn’t so cracked, leaned forward, and looked at his face.
“Now please, give it a try.”
“This is gonna make me sick. I just know it.”
Eli stamped her foot. “Ooo . . . you are sostubborn! You have to learn this!”
Oskar raised his lips and studied his teeth as he responded. “But I don’t want to learn it. I told you, I don’t want to hurt anyone. Why do I have to?”
“Because . . . because, you’re going to get—aren’t you already hungry? It’s been three days!”
“Nope—not really.” Actually, Oskar was feeling quite hungry; he simply did not want to admit it to himself, nor especially to Eli. It would give her just the opening she wanted; the leverage to make him do what he didn’t want to do.
“Well, you’re going to be hungry soon, if you aren’t already.” She looked at him suspiciously. “And I’ve been there before, and trust me, it’s not pretty. I don’t want to see you suffer, Oskar, so please—try to cooperate!”
Then a thought occurred to Oskar. He knew it was unfair, but Eli was pressuring him, and he therefore felt justified in saying it. “I just really don’t want to go out and do this, Eli. Maybe you should get it for me. After all, you’re so good at it, right?”
Eli opened her mouth to reply, but then stopped. Her arms hung limply at her sides. Then she glowered at him and looked away angrily. Silence ensued as she appeared to be thinking it over. Then she simply said, “All right, Oskar.” Her little shoulders sagged, and she turned and walked out of the bathroom.
Oskar stood for a few moments in front of the mirror. He knew she was disappointed in him, but he didn’t care. Better that than the other.
He looked at the toilet, and thought how bizarre it was that he hadn’t needed to use it for almost half a week. No urge to pee, like he used to have every morning. None of the other, either. Because there was . . . nothing down there now. Just thinking about himself, all . . . hollow and empty, was repulsive. From now on, whenever he looked at the toilet, he was going to think of that terrible night when--
“Oskar, will you please come into the kitchen?”
He looked toward the doorway, puzzled. “What for?”
“Please just come in.”
He wandered into the kitchen. She was standing at the sink with her back turned to him. Without looking at him, she told him to sit down. He was puzzled, but did as she asked.
He heard a clinking sound as she dropped something into the sink. Then she turned and brought a small bowl over to the table and placed it before him.
A bowl of her blood.
Oskar inhaled sharply in surprise and scooted abruptly back from the table in his chair. His eyes grew wide and he stared at the bowl with alarm. A sensation immediately arose in the pit of his stomach: hunger. He closed his eyes and shook his head. NO. His chair squealed loudly on the linoleum, then toppled back onto the floor as he fled the room.
Eli slumped down into the other kitchen chair, put her head down, and began to cry. My fault, she thought through her tears. My fault that we’re having to do this—not his. She looked up at the stupid little bowl sitting on the table. What did you expect?—that he was just going to lap it up like a dog? Why are you doing this to him?
Because he has to learn, or he’ll die. That’s why. He wouldn’t have to learn if you hadn’t been so weak. He’d be fine now, and you’d be happy, playing some game with him. If only you— Despair at her pathetic failure to control herself suddenly overcame her and she cried out loudly, unable to contain the dejection and anguish she felt. For what she’d done. She knew she had no right to cry, but she couldn’t help it, and with her head down on the table she bawled like a baby into her arms.
She was still crying when she heard Oskar pick up his chair. She looked up through her tear-stained eyes and saw him sit down, completely composed, across from her.
Without looking at her, he looked down at the bowl. Slowly, hesitantly, he lowered his face to it until his mouth was less than an inch from the dark red fluid. Only then, with deadly earnest, did he look up at her through his long, blond hair.
He extended his tongue and lapped it slowly. Then lapped it faster. Then he picked up the bowl, craned back his head, and drained it. And when he lowered the bowl away from his bloody lips and looked at her again with unsmiling eyes, his freshly minted fangs were stark, nearly glowing, in his mouth.
Eli spoke not a word as she stood and came around the table. His eyes never left her, and he breathed heavily through his mouth.
He turned in his chair and she stood before him. Raised her arm and offered him her bloody wrist.
He drank and drank. Eli closed her eyes, curled her toes, and the tears rolled down her cheeks.
17 July 1983 Eli and Oskar lay on the floor of their darkened apartment with the living room window uncovered, looking up at the full moon. Eli laid on her side; Oskar, on his back, with his head propped up against Eli’s stomach.
“Oh Mr. Moon, Moon, lovely Mr. Moon, won’t you please shine down on me . . . .”
Eli smiled. “You know that old song? I didn’t know you knew that.”
“Yeah . . . that’s an oldie. My mom used to sing it to me.”
Eli gazed thoughtfully at the pale white disk and smiled. “I love the moon.” She ran her hands through Oskar’s hair, then added, “and its light.”
“It’s almost as bright as day,” Oskar remarked. “Or maybe it’s just because of how I can see now.”
Eli smiled. “Whenever I see the moonlight, I like to remember that it’s reflected sunlight. Then I can imagine that the moon is my special mirror, showing me what I could never see during the day.”
Oskar suddenly realized that he hadn’t seen the sun for more than two weeks; and, upon realizing this, he felt a little sad. He missed the sunlight. But he liked what Eli had said, and he turned his head to look up at Eli’s face. “Can it be my mirror, too?”
Eli laughed softly. “Of course. It’s plenty big for both of us, I think.”
They were silent for awhile; the sounds of the city life around them drifted in through the window. Then Oskar spoke. “Eli . . . I think I’m getting hungry again.”
“Oskar, I am not a walking blood bank. I’m tired of this.”
“And I told you, I don’t want to do it. I just don’t.”
“Do you think it really matters, Oskar, whether you do it or not? It just makes it harder for me. I have to find twice as much as I usually would, just so I can take care of you. We aren’t avoiding anything this way.”
Oskar looked at her, surprised—he hadn’t thought of this. “You have been? Oh . . . I didn’t realize that.”
“What did you think, Oskar? Look at me—I’m little. Smaller than you. Do you think I can just let you drain me every few days without doing something like that? I’d shrivel up.”
Oskar sighed and turned around and onto his side to face her. “I’m sorry, Eli. I know I haven’t been very fair to you. It’s just . . . I can’t stand the thought of hurting someone. Of . . . inflicting pain on someone. Because I know how it felt when you . . . well, I know it’s gotta be painful.”
Eli pulled her legs up, laid her head down on her arm, and stroked Oskar’s face. “Oskar . . . it doesn’t always have to be painful.”
“What do you mean? You’re not saying that they’re just going to hand it over, are you? Let you put a needle in their arm?”
“No, not like that. It’s more complicated.”
“Well, explain it to me, then. Because I’m confused.”
“Let me ask you: back on that night that we were playing Mikado . . . you said that after you got over your pain and fear, you began to enjoy what I was doing, right?”
“What do you think made the pain go away? Because that happened first—didn’t it?”
Oskar squinted his eyes, trying to think. “I . . . I don’t remember, exactly. It just—it seemed like it just, at some point, that what you were doing to my neck stopped hurting and became . . . well, it—I guess it felt good.”
“That’s right. It did.”
Oskar looked up at the ceiling for a moment, and then said wonderingly to himself, “That’s so weird.” Then he looked back at her, puzzled. “Okay . . . what are you talking about, Eli? What’s this all about?”
Eli’s tone grew serious. “There’s an erotic nature to what we do, Oskar.”
“Erotic.” He drew back a little and looked even more puzzled than before. “What do you mean?”
“Do you know what ‘erotic’ means?”
“Mmm . . . no, I guess I don’t. Sort of like . . . sex?”
“It means desire. And yes, there is a physical aspect to it. A bodily desire, you might say.”
“Someone tearing my throat open causes desire. I don’t think so, Eli. That was way too painful.”
“At first, yes. But it didn’t stay that way, did it?”
Oskar pursed his lips and thought. “No, I guess not.”
“Would you say that at some point, you . . . desired me, Oskar?”
Oskar looked at her for what seemed like a long time. He was clearly extremely uncomfortable with her question. Then he sighed, exhaled heavily, and said, “Yes. It’s true.” He rolled over onto his back, unable to look at her.
“Look at me.”
He turned his head slowly to look at her.
“It’s all right, Oskar--to admit that. It happens all the time. It’s almost—unavoidable. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a man or a woman.”
Oskar fidgeted on the floor, then rolled over to face away from her. “This is so weird, Eli. This is not making me want to go out and do this sort of thing. It’s . . . ugh.”
“Oskar, think of it as an anesthetic. You know what that is, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Doctors give it to you when you need surgery. So it doesn’t hurt, and you won’t remember.”
“That’s right. And what I’m talking about is a natural anesthetic. It makes it easier for you and your victim. And you need to understand that, because Oskar, I can’t keep doing this for you. You’re not making the effort to learn anything. Now just hold still and let me show you.”
Eli slid over so she was lying directly behind him, like two spoons in a drawer. She wrapped her arm around him and raised herself up so her head was over his neck. Then she brushed his hair aside to expose its tender curve.
Oskar flinched at her touch and grew tense. “Eli, that tickles. Come on. Please stop. There’s no way I’m going to do this to—”
“Shhh! You be quiet and relax. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Oskar sighed and tried to relax.
After a few seconds, when he really had become relaxed, she again placed her arm around him. This time she took his hand into hers. Then he began to feel her warm breath on his neck. It grew steadily warmer and more intense until it became a soft, warm spot just below his ear. He found himself growing even more relaxed, almost sleepy; if she had not been holding his hand, he would have lifted up his arm and run his hand through her hair. Then he was surprised to feel a gentle sucking sensation and realized that his blood was flowing from his neck and into her; but yet, there was no pain. He began to breath through his mouth without realizing it, and quickly became completely limp. He had no energy to do anything, not even wriggle his toes. All he could manage was to weakly squeeze her hand. And, as before, he did not want her to stop, and was disappointed when her heat withdrew, replaced by the cool air.
Slowly, his body returned to normal. He felt more awake and his breathing sped up. He rolled over to look at her in amazement, and as he did so, he touched his neck. There were only two tiny spots, nothing more, and hardly any blood.
“Oh my God,” was all he could say at first. Then, “how did you do that?”
“It’s just a power, Oskar. You have it now, too. All you have to do is be gentle, and it will happen. And the person won’t feel a thing . . . or a least, they’ll willingly tolerate what they do feel. Now you try it.”
Oskar was very reluctant at the thought of doing what Eli had just done to her. But then he remembered that he’d been biting her regularly for a few weeks now with much less gentleness that she had just exhibited. He began to feel sorry for her, for the pain that he had inflicted, because he hadn’t known how to do it earlier. Why hadn’t she told him?
As he had done, Eli rolled over to face away from him. He sidled up to her, pulled her hair out of the way, and brought his open mouth down on her neck.
Now it was Eli’s turn to flinch. “Wait!” She turned her head to look at him sternly. “You’re going too fast! You need to go slower--be gentle. Jeesh.” She shot him one more warning look, and then turned away again.
Oskar rolled his eyes at her, but then he did make a deliberate effort to slow down. As he lowered his face to her neck, he said softly, “do you want me to actually bite you?”
Eli whispered, “It’ll be okay if you’ll just be gentle. You’re such a caveman.”
Oskar tried to mimic what she had done. He put his arm around her and gently held her hand. She gave it a squeeze, and he squeezed back, smiling a little as he did it and knowing that she was probably smiling, too. At this moment, it dawned on him that perhaps this could be fun, could be . . . delightful. And this thought, for the first time, overcame the deeply rooted feeling of disgust about what he was about to do. He opened his mouth and breathed softly on her neck as he slowly lowered his lips to her. He was not surprised to realize that all by themselves, his teeth had become sharp. Then he gently transformed his breath into a kiss; his kiss into a bite; his bite into . . .
Her blood flowed into him.
He would never be able to tell her how much he had come to enjoy its flavor, its sweetness.
As he had been, she was completely relaxed and vulnerable; he could have done anything with her that he wished, and she would not have stopped him. Her damp grip on his hand loosened, her breathing became deep and regular, and she seemed to fall into a trance-like sleep.
She was beautiful, lying there in the soft moonlight. And as her blood flowed across his tongue it came to him like a lightning bolt:
My Eli. How much I love you. In that instant, Oskar realized just how great Eli’s sacrifices for him had been. Offering herself for him, in so many ways, since the first time they’d met. Offering herself, her very blood, for him now, so that he might learn. Might learn, and therefore live. Her turning of him, which he knew in his heart she had not intended, suddenly seemed a very small failure in comparison. And with these thoughts he realized how selfishly he had been behaving since the night all of this had happened. And he resolved in his heart to be the best vampire he could be—for her.
Oskar reluctantly withdrew his fangs from Eli. She did not move; only made a soft, semi-purposeful noise that people make when they are drifting off to sleep. But her grip on his hand tightened, and she pulled his arm more closely around herself. He curled up around her and held her close; cherished her in his heart.
19 July 1983 “Oww, Eli! It hurts! It hurts! It—it . . . oh—look at that.”
Eli and Oskar lay side by side on Oskar’s mattress. Oskar was holding his hand up in front of him, watching as it transformed itself before their eyes into a claw.
“I know it hurts! But don’t worry, Oskar—it won’t feel like that forever! The more you do it, the less pain you’ll feel.”
“It felt like I had my hand in a light socket or something,” Oskar replied as the tingling dissipated down his arm. His mouth gaped and he stared, wide-eyed, at his transformed hand. Eli held her hand up to his, and within the space of a few seconds, her fingers melted like plastic held over an open flame, stretched out, and became long and thin.
“Wow. You’re so good at it!”
Eli offered a wistful smile. “I’ve had a lot of practice, Oskar.”
Oskar wriggled his fingers and turned his hand around to look at it from all sides. Then he brought his other claw up and looked at both of them, side by side. “Eli, this is so freaky. They feel so weird.”
Eli took one of his claws into hers. “You need to remember to be careful, Oskar. They’re sharp at the tips.”
“Sure are. But there’s not much feeling in the ends, is there?”
“No. But watch this.”
“Just watch my hand.”
Oskar stared with anticipation at Eli’s hand, clasped in his. At first he saw nothing, and was puzzled. Then he noticed that her skin was changing color. Eli was usually pale, but now he saw that her hand and wrist were becoming flushed. The color gradually shifted from a pale ivory to a pinkish hue, then slowly darkened into a grayish purple. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from it; the contrast was all the more noticeable against the constant flesh tone of his own hand. Then he realized that the change was not limited to her hand and wrist, but included her arm, and—
He looked over at her face. His eyes grew wide and, startled, he flinched away from her. “Eli!”
She smiled, and for once he was not pleased to see it, surrounded by all of that dusky-gray skin. She looked monstrous. As soon as she saw his reaction, though, her smile faltered.
Oskar’s heart thudded rapidly in his chest. He panicked, and for a second he felt like fleeing from her; running away and hiding in the bathroom. Then she touched him, and he was relieved that it was her ordinary hand on his forearm. Her color returned to its normal hue.
“Sorry, Oskar. Kinda forgot how that could look.”
Oskar relaxed. “It’s . . . it’s okay. For a moment there you just looked really creepy.”
“You can do it, too. Want to try?”
“Uh . . . not right now, no thanks.”
“Want to try your feet?”
“Watch.” Eli rolled back onto her shoulders and nimbly swung her legs up by her hips so that her toes were pointed at the ceiling. “Don’t do this with your shoes on. I’ve forgot and done it a few times, and it really hurts.” She chuckled.
After they had compared their transformed feet for awhile, Oskar asked, “Can you change other parts of your body, Eli? I mean, could I maybe—I don’t know, grow a tail, or something?”
Eli laughed and shook her head. “Only you, Oskar, could dream up an idea like that. I don’t really think—well, go ahead and try it. See what happens. Maybe—who knows?”
Oskar turned onto his side to face her, smiled at her excitedly, then said, “Okay, here goes!” He shut his eyes and concentrated.
Eli watched him, evidently fascinated, for several seconds. Soon he said, with his eyes still squeezed shut, “I think I feel something. Is anything happening?”
Eli got up and peeked over his side to look. “Oh, Oskar! I can’t believe it! It’s . . . it’s . . .”
Oskar’s eyes flew open. “What? What?! Is it there?”
“Yeah—it’s right here!” She mischievously grabbed the waistband of his underwear and yanked it up.
“Oww! . . . Why you . . . ! I’ll give you a wedgie you won’t forget!” But Eli had already fled the room. “You’ll have to catch me, first!”
Oskar stood up to give chase, but then discovered that it wasn’t easy to adjust his underwear with claws. Doggone her! He laughed to himself. Then he ran into the living room and looked around, but did not see her. He went into the kitchen, but it also was empty.
“Where’d you go? Eli? Where are you?”
A lilting voice drifted in from the living room. “In here.” And as he spun around and came back in, her voice floated down from the ceiling. “You should learn to look harder,” she teased.
Eli was hovering immediately over the doorway leading to the back bedroom. He had walked directly underneath her when he’d come in.
He tried to jump up and grab her, but every time he lunged, she would flit away, always staying near the ceiling. “Gee, Oskar,” she taunted. “You’re awfully slow. Maybe you’ll need to come up here to catch me.”
Oskar stopped and looked at her. Eli stopped, too, watching him with anticipation.
“How do you do it?”
“Like everything else. You just think it, and it will happen.”
Oskar started to close his eyes, but Eli said, “No. Focus with your eyes open. Closing your eyes is a bad habit.”
He stood perfectly still, his arms relaxed at his sides, legs slightly spread apart. Then he looked down at his feet.
He began to leave the floor. Immediately he snapped his head up in shock to look at Eli, and the instant he did so, he fell down. “Dang it! I almost had it!”
“Don’t look at me. Just focus on what you’re doing. Later it will become second nature, trust me.”
After several false starts and brief hops, Oskar was able to float slowly around the middle of the room. He kept pinwheeling his arms like a man on a tightrope without a pole, and each time he thought about what he was doing, he fell.
“You need to do it without thinking, Oskar. You didn’t think about your hand every second that it was a claw, did you?”
“No, but this is different. I’m . . . I’m flying, not just changing part of my body.”
“No it’s not, Oskar. It’s no different. If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, then you can do it. Keep trying.”
The smile on Oskar’s face grew broader with each passing minute that he hovered about. “This . . . is so . . . incredibly . . . bizarre, Eli I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
Eli watched Oskar, bemused. He looked like he was walking on air.
“Oskar, you’re not on the ground anymore. Think of yourself as a bird in the air, or a fish in the water. Something like that.” She left her corner of the room and gracefully circled him, turning her head to smile at him as she did. Then she came alongside him and took his hand. He hesitated for half a second, unsure of himself, and then allowed her to tug him along. He looked at her and smiled as they slowly began to circle around their tiny living room.
Soon, Oskar was not even thinking about how he was flying. His mind wandered, soaking up the strange new sensation of being freed from gravity as he drifted over and over past each of the four walls. Round and ‘round they went. He felt every movement of his body, and every change in hers; a slight pull here, a little slowing there. He found that he could alter his course with very small movements of his limbs, yet knew that it wasn’t just his arms and legs making the change.
“How fast can I go?”
She glanced at him and smiled. “I don’t know. It’s all up here, Oskar.” She tapped the side of her head with the forefinger of her free hand.
“What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone?”
“Don’t know. Never measured myself. Like a bullet, maybe? How fast is that?”
Oskar grinned. “I have no idea!”
“You’re a natural, Oskar. I’m amazed.”
“How long did it take you to learn?”
There was a pause and Eli’s hand left his. “Umm—about ten seconds, I guess.”
“Wow! You’re—” Then Oskar saw that Eli was no longer smiling. Their happy spell had inexplicably been broken. He stopped flying, landing on all fours on the couch, then turned and sat down. It was only then that he noticed a slight fatigue in his arms and legs and a tenseness in his neck. Eli came to rest in the middle of the floor and sat, cross-legged, facing him.
He stretched his neck from side to side. “It was bad, wasn’t it?”
Eli reflected for a moment, staring into space, before answering. She did not look at him as she talked. “Yes, it was. Terrifying.”
She looked him in the eye. “He dropped me. From very high up. Told me to ‘fly away’—and that was it. I either had to fly, or . . . or else. So I guess you could say that I had learn quick or die. Well—maybe not actually die, just . . . have a very painful experience when I hit the ground.”
A disturbing thought suddenly occurred to Oskar that so far, had escaped him: that he was now related to the vampire that had made Eli. A blood connection between him and that awful creature that he knew only from what Eli had shown him in her memories. He felt a chill, and suddenly felt that he was ensnared in cold, dead hands from the distant past; ghastly white, reaching for him from a dark, moldering sepulchre.
Silence descended in the room, the perfect companion for the gloomy mood that had engulfed them.
He looked at the window, covered with an old, threadworn blanket to keep out the sun. “It’s no good, is it?”
“What’s no good?”
“This.” He held up his claw hand. “The feet. The fangs. The flying. It’s all . . . to help us do bad things. To kill people. Like we’re . . . evil angels. And evil angels are—what—devils, right? We’re devils.”
“Oskar. Come on—no, we’re not devils. It’s a disease. A disease that forces us to live off something that’s forbidden, that’s all.”
“Eli, diseases don’t enable you to fly around or change your shape. They make you sick and weak, not superstrong with fantastic powers. That’s . . . magic. Black magic.”
“I think it all depends on how you use your powers, Oskar. People are born with all different kinds of abilities. Some people are really smart; some are very strong. Some are very fast and agile; others are slow and clumsy, but could be very good with their hands. People choose how to use their abilities in different ways. Some choose to do good; others, evil. It’s no different for us. The vampire who made me hated the world and wanted only to spread his evil, his poison, to everything he could. I see things differently.”
“But Eli, what we can do goes way beyond ordinary human abilities like strength or intelligence. I mean, come on—name me the last person you saw who flew around like we just did.”
“But we’re not really all that powerful, Oskar. Not really—not compared to what people can do to each other nowadays. I could pick up a gun and cause much more harm in a few seconds than you or I could inflict. Or fly off in an airplane and bomb whole cities with the push of a button. So I still think it all depends on what you’re doing up here, with your mind.”
“Yes, but Eli . . . now I am the ‘gun.’ It’s . . . a part of me. And while I understand what you’re saying about trying to avoid as much evil—death—whatever you want to call it, as possible, I still know that at some point I’m going to be putting my teeth into someone I don’t know and . . . killing him—or her.”
Eli was quiet for a moment; then she crawled over to Oskar, put her arms on his thigh, and looked up at him. “Okay, Oskar. I’m going to make a commitment to you—because I love you, and I don’t ever want to see you suffer. I take back what I said earlier, about stopping what we were doing before. For the rest of my life, I’ll do everything I can to take care of you, so that you’ll never have to go out and hurt anyone. You’ll never need to grow fangs or claws, never have to run around in the dark and attack anyone. If that will make you happy, then that’s how it will be.”
He took her hands into his. “No, Eli. That wouldn’t be fair.”
“Yes it would, Oskar. You didn’t ask for this.”
“Well, neither did you!”
“True. But I did want to be with you.” She squeezed his hand. “That makes me responsible.”
Oskar made a dismissive gesture, then spoke in a tired, matter-of-fact way. “Oh come on. I wanted to be with you, too, Eli. I knew what you were. I didn’t expect what happened, but still . . . I understood that there were risks. So, in a way . . . I chose this.
“Look, you and I both know that what you’re saying just wouldn’t work. You’d get mad after awhile, maybe even hate me, for having to wait on me hand and foot. Besides, we really wouldn’t be together much, would we? I’d probably just get bored and lonely, sitting around here. I’d rather be with you—by your side, wherever you are. Even if that means we’re out, doing those things together. And while I know that’s going to be hard, it’s . . . what I want.” Then he offered her a small, secretive smile and blushed. “Even though I’ve sorta come to enjoy your—” he looked away--“flavor.”
Eli tsked him. “We never should have started that. Now you’re addicted.” She laughed softly. “You’re an Eli addict.” Then she looked at him with grave seriousness. “But you know I would give that to you anytime you ask.
Oskar lay down behind Eli in the tub and embraced her. They murmured good night to each other; then Eli grew still and quickly fell asleep.
Oskar was exhausted, and the urge to sleep rushed in as soon as he closed his eyes. But he couldn’t sleep.
He replayed the night’s events in his mind. He’d never had a night like it before, and knew he would never forget it. Because he would never see the world in the same way again.
The whole night had been . . . he searched for a word to encapsulate it—tactical. Yes: a study in tactics. The closest thing to it in his experience had been playing army with his friend Johan, when he was younger. But running around with a plastic gun seemed very childish and a million miles removed from what they’d done tonight. Because tonight’s work had been deadly serious, through and through.
They hadn’t done anything to anyone. In fact, the whole point had been to not be seen by anyone. That’s how Eli had explained it—to move about the city undetected. And she had shown him so many things that his head was spinning.
He had learned to use all of his senses, but mostly his eyes and ears. He had vision like he never could’ve believed, and his hearing?—incredible. The tiniest details, the smallest sounds, did not escape him for hundreds of yards. And movement! With all his excitement over flying, he had overlooked just how fast he could run. He had known she was fleet-footed from his former life. But now he realized that she had been going deliberately slow, probably just to give him a chance to keep up. Tonight he had never seen her run so fast, but not once had he fallen behind.
It had all been darkly exhilarating. There was nothing they couldn’t conquer. Crawling up the sheer faces of buildings with their claws, leaping across rooftops; swinging from pipes and fire escapes; with him amazed not by his abilities, but because he hadn’t even been afraid. And his energy had seemed bottomless, a font of strength that was continuously renewed. He had felt as though Eli and he were the masters of Stockholm.
The darkness had been their friend; the light, their enemy. She had taught him to see everything in terms of cover. He had evaluated the quality of shadows over and over; had learned to make judgments on the ability of individual patches of darkness to cloak them.
He realized very quickly that it wasn’t only his eyes’ ability to see in the dark that had changed. His perception, in the most literal sense—his ability to see and understand what he saw, had been keenly altered. The smallest things seemed to acquire some hidden meaning, some inner significance, that was tantalizingly close to his grasp. The way the wind blew through the leaves of a tree, for example. He had never noticed before that there was a pattern to the movement of the leaves; a rhythm that was synchronized with the snapping of a flag atop an adjacent building, and with the fluttering of a dark lock of Eli’s hair. It seemed as if nothing happened without a reason, or without some relationship to something else.
Everything seemed to capture his attention. He now found completely captivating things that he would have been blind to a month ago. He had watched, fascinated, at some leaves and pieces of trash in the corner of a building entrance that had blown around in an endless circle: lifting, swirling, lowering; their pathways restlessly expanding, then contracting. He suspected that he would have been staring at the little whirlwind still, had Eli not nudged him with a smile. “Hey . . . Oskar—you there?” He had looked at her with a blank expression. “Huh? Oh—sorry.” She knew what was happening to him.
Most fascinating of all had been reading people. Perched on a rooftop overlooking the train station, they had spent the better part of an hour just observing folks come and go as Eli offered her comments and insights. He couldn’t believe how much she picked up just by watching.
“See that man over there by the taxi stand?” she asked. “You can tell by how he’s acting that he’s waiting for someone. Watch how he looks around.”
“Those two are married. See how they walk together?”
“That kid is lost, looking for his mother. She’s on the other side of the plaza, talking to that police officer. See how worried she is? Watch how she moves her arms as she talks.”
“That man is selling drugs or something. Watch his hands when that other guy gets close. There. Did you see the exchange?”
“The woman who just came out is drunk. The one right there with the pink top and jean jacket. Watch her move—she’s trying to act like she’s not, but watch her feet and you’ll see it. See? She just staggered a little in spite of herself.”
“That couple there are fighting over something. She’s mad at him for some reason. See how they won’t look at each other? And they’re walking single file, even though they’re moving together.”
“That guy standing over by the phone booth is probably a cop, even though he’s not wearing a uniform. Notice how he observes everything. He’s watching everyone very carefully, even though he’s pretending to use the phone.”
“That old guy there would be good, if we were hunting tonight. He’s got his face in a book as he walks down the street--oblivious to everything around him. Plus, you can tell he’s out of shape. Look at his stomach.”
Oskar chimed in, eager to participate. “That lady over there is kinda fat, too. How about her?”
Eli gave him a look. “She’s pregnant, Oskar.”
“Oh. How can you tell?”
“You just can. It’s like it hangs lower; that’s all.”
“So, would she be—”
“No, Oskar. Not pregnant women. Or little kids--or mothers.”
“Can you always tell if someone’s pregnant?”
“Usually I can, yeah.”
“What if she’s only a little pregnant?”
“You’re either pregnant or you’re not, Oskar. There’s no in between.”
“I can just tell. You’ll be able to, too. Don’t worry.”
“Well, how do you know if some lady is a mom?”
“She’s got kids with her. Simple.”
“What if the kids are at home or something?”
“You know what a wedding ring is, Oskar?”
“Well look for that. If she’s got one, then there’s a good chance she’s got kids.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry.
“But what if . . . she’s not married any more? Like I mean, my mom and dad split up when I was little, and my mom never wore her wedding ring. But she had me.”
Eli began to grow agitated. “Oskar, sometimes you just have to make judgments. I can’t explain it to you. You just learn.”
“Have you ever . . . made a bad call about someone? Like a woman who turned out to be . . . .”
Eli stopped looking out at the street below them. A gust of wind caught her hair as she turned, sat slowly down with her back to the building edge they’d been hiding behind, and drew her legs up with her arms. She said nothing; just stared at the ground dejectedly.
Her reaction made Oskar regret his question. He squatted down beside her, thought about apologizing, but then decided to just remain silent. His question hung in the air for what seemed like quite awhile; then Eli said very quietly, almost to herself, “I don’t know if I want to go on like this.”
Her statement deeply frightened him. She had always been his source of strength; her firmly held views about who she was and what she did had formed a kind of bedrock to their relationship. He hadn't realized how deeply what she did affected her, and how emotionally fragile she was. Because he was learning from her, it had become easy to think of Eli as an older, mature person, but he had to remember that she was perpetually twelve.
She looked up at him and said, “Yes, Oskar, I have. Are you happy now? I admit it—I’ve made mistakes. You do your best, but sometimes things go wrong, and they don’t turn out like you planned.”
Thoughtlessly he blurted out, “like me?”
She looked away and the tears started. She sobbed loudly, stood up, and walked rapidly away from him.
“Wait, Eli, wait! I’m sorry!”
She didn’t look back; just shook her head and put up a hand, waving him away. “Don’t—don’t. I . . . I can’t.”
She didn’t want him to be near her, but she didn’t go too far away, either. He understood why—because she still thought of him as her responsibility. She wouldn’t leave him up here by himself, a fledgling. Even though he’d hurt her.
When it had started to rain, he had gone to her and told her he was sorry. She had crawled out from behind the electrical box, sullenly said “It’s all right,” and then they had headed home. After they had gotten back and dried off, he had thought that she would go off to sleep in the closet by herself, but the chill between them seemed to have thawed, and they had clambered into the tub together.
He squeezed Eli a little closer to himself, wishing that it would somehow banish the unease he felt about the whole night. But it didn’t work. It just made him more aware of the fact that she wasn’t breathing, and that her heart had slowed to almost nothing. She was cold, like a corpse—and he had no heat to warm her.
He loosened his hold on her and without understanding why, rose and got out of the tub. He quietly left the bathroom and as he moved through the living room toward the window, he realized why he was reaching to lift the blanket and let in the dim rays of the morning sun.
They weren’t people anymore, those shapes down there at the train station that he had seen so well. They were . . . objects. Things to be studied and . . . selected. He felt the pangs in his stomach, and knew what was coming. What would be required. He wished mightily that he could just eat some regular food. The crepes that his mom used to make; elder duck; the candy he used to buy . . . anything. Then everything would be easy. But that was now impossible.
He began to raise the corner of the ratty green fabric. A thin sliver of sickly gray light pierced the shadows. It was terrifying. A little further, he knew, and it would fall across his legs and burn him deeply. Did he want to raise it further? And what would Eli do if he suddenly yanked the blanket down and exposed himself fully to the sun?
He dropped the blanket and stood there in the silence. He could never do that to her. Never. His love for her was too hard, too deep for that.
He felt incredibly tired and unhappy. If he didn’t move, he would fall asleep on the spot. So he trudged back into the bathroom, crawled in behind her, and welcomed the oblivion of sleep.