25 July 1983 Epictetus’ Discourses, an oil pastel sketch, and a wooden box of soft pastels rested on a table in the dim kitchen of a threadbare apartment in Stockholm. Outside the heavily draped window, the last remnant of a late afternoon shower tapered off, and the sunshine peeked through a thinning cloud layer that moved slowly to the west.
In the bathroom of the apartment, behind the closed door, under an old blanket, in the bottom of the tub, slept two children. They seemed lifeless; the child who looked like a girl lying behind the boy, holding him to her chest, her arm wrapped around him; neither of them breathing; their bodies still and cool, their hearts beating only four times a minute. The boy dreamed; the girl did not.
The boy, Oskar, dreamed that he and the girl, Eli, were running through a summer field covered with wildflowers. They ran in the sunshine toward a building that became the train station in Blackeberg. Eli said she wanted to go swimming, and that they needed to hurry before it got dark.
Then they were at the train station. They pushed through the glass doors just as the sun dipped below the horizon. They passed a newspaper stand; Oskar wanted to stop and buy some candy, but was afraid because a black, hairy gorilla was inside the kiosk, moving back and forth and peering out the windows at them. Eli seemed not to notice as he skirted wide around the kiosk.
They kept going and then they came to an escalator leading down into the ground. They entered the darkened tunnel and trotted down escalator. Oskar did not like the tunnel with the escalator either, but could not tell Eli how he felt. Eli wouldn’t stop, and seemed determined to get to the pool. All he could do was keep up.
The escalator turned into old stone stairs, and the electric lights on the ceiling became torches hanging on the walls. When they reached the bottom, they passed through some big wooden doors banded with iron, and then they were at the pool. Oskar recognized the pool, and was even more afraid. It was where Mr. Avila had given him aquatic aerobic lessons; where Conny and his older brother had tried to drown him.
Eli stripped off her clothes, then turned and encouraged Oskar to do the same. But her eyes seemed very dark, almost without any whites, and when she smiled a friendly smile, Oskar saw her sharp teeth, and had to steel himself from running away. She told Oskar to come on--the water was warm!--and then she dove in.
Oskar felt afraid, but there was no sign of Conny or his older brother, and he didn’t want to disappoint Eli. So he, too, removed his clothes and dove into the water. As he skimmed over the bottom he realized that it was warm, as Eli had said; perhaps too warm. He opened his eyes and tried to see Eli under the water, but it was dark, even with his eyes open, so he came up to look for her. He broke the surface, swiped his hair out of his eyes, and—
. . . he was swimming in a pool of dark red blood. The entire pool, from one end to the other—a vast ocean of it. And now the pool seemed much bigger, as if it had expanded while he had been under water; or as if he had suddenly grown much younger.
Oskar was terrified. The blood was everywhere; on his face and in his hair; running down his neck and shoulders. He began to kick his feet to stay afloat, searching frantically for Eli, but he could not see her anywhere.
Then he realized that the windows and pillars on either side of the room had become a forest. In the receding woodland darkness, barely visible, threatening shapes with big mouths and sharp teeth lumbered among the trees.
He looked away from the trees and again scanned the crimson surface. He began desperately calling Eli’s name, but there was no answer. Then he saw that he was not alone. Innumerable pale, white shapes were drifting soundlessly about the pool. Backs, chests, buttocks, legs and arms floated up to become visible for a few seconds before slipping back beneath the gently undulating redness.
Then Oskar heard a noise coming from the opposite end of the pool —a loud rumbling sound. He looked and saw that where the diving boards had been before, there was now a tall, wooden guillotine. When his eyes fixated upon it, the shining blade, topped by a monstrous, black mouton, completed its descent through the lunette and thudded to a stop with a boom.
A round object with long, dark hair fell away from the guillotine and into the pool with a splash. Then a teeterboard was triggered, and a headless body rolled out from behind the guillotine. It thumped down onto a ramp and then it, too, splashed into the pool. The ripples moved across the thick, dark surface toward him.
A man-like shape in a dark robe was working the guillotine. He cranked a windlass and the blade rattled back toward the top. As it rose, Oskar saw that there was a line of people standing behind the guillotine, waiting in a narrow, torch-lit passageway like the one he and Eli had just descended. Men and women wearing no clothes stood silently in line: young, old; short, tall; fat and skinny. They shuffled slowly forward.
Then a man with blond hair laid down on the guillotine and placed his neck into the blood-stained lunette. As the dark figure locked the block over his neck, the man looked up at Oskar. It was John Christensen. Terror was writ large across his face, but he did not try to escape.
The dark man put his hand on the déclic; then he turned his head and looked at Oskar with two dark eyes, set in a ghastly white face with red lips. He pulled the lever and then Oskar heard the rumble once again as the heavy blade rushed remorselessly down. He couldn’t watch and tore his eyes away from the guillotine, frantically searching, searching for Eli, but still he could not see her. The thud and the splash that followed broke his paralysis, and terror completely overtook him. He began to swim frantically back the way he’d come. As he kicked and struggled, the decapitated bodies in the water brushed against his limbs; touching him; grabbing him . . . .
Oskar woke up abruptly in the tub. In his panic-stricken mind there was only one thought: to get the blood off. Clean—must get clean.
He turned on the faucet full bore, yanked up the shower handle, and began to rub himself in the cool water. He frantically rubbed his arms, chest, groin, legs, but most particularly, his hands. He wrung his hands together, over and over.
He hadn’t removed the blanket from the tub, and once it became wet, it slid under his feet, causing him to slip and fall. When Eli opened the door to see what all the commotion was about, she found him moaning and crying in a ball, holding his elbow, as the water splashed down on his head.
“Oskar!” He didn’t respond, just continued to cry. “Oskar! What’s wrong?”
When there was no response, she grabbed a towel off the rack and shut off the water. He weakly took her outstretched hand and she helped him out of the tub. Then she put the towel around his trembling body, and together they sank to the floor by the toilet. She wrapped him closely in the towel, and he put his head in the crook of her shoulder. He shivered uncontrollably as she rubbed him briskly with the towel to dry him off.
When he continued to cry despite her questions, she carried him into the bedroom and sat down with him on the mattress. She kissed him repeatedly on the top of his wet head, and then she gave him her bunny. He took it gratefully and clutched it close to his chest as he continued to weep.
“. . . and then I woke up.”
Eli sat very quietly next to Oskar, thinking. Then she said, “You know I will never abandon you, Oskar. Never.”
He sniffled and wiped his nose. “I know, Eli. And I know it’s just a dream—not real. I guess what happened last night bothered me more than I realized.”
“Maybe so. I think dreams can tell us things—show us things that we’re really worried about, maybe too worried to admit to ourselves when we’re awake. I think your dream tells me a lot about you.”
“Like you’re afraid—you’re afraid you’re losing your . . . that you’re not human any more. That because we need to kill to live, you’re no longer a real person. That you don’t care about anyone; that maybe, you’re just like an animal. Is that it?”
Oskar looked at the floor and nodded glumly.
“Well, if that’s true, then I think maybe your dream was a good thing.”
He looked up at her with a confused expression. “What do you mean? How can that be true?”
“Because in your dream, you fought it. You resisted; you didn’t give in. And that doesn’t surprise me, Oskar. Because I knew from the moment I met you that you were a very kind and thoughtful person. You have a strong streak of . . . of humanity, I guess. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that I fell in love with you—because you did care so much. And you cared about me, even though I’m just about the most messed up person in the whole world.
“Oskar, I would have been very surprised if you weren’t going through the things you are going through right now. Surprised, and maybe even disappointed, I think. I’ve never liked doing what I have to do, and I would have found it very strange if you had been happy to do it. Because it’s not fun. It’s not pleasant. It’s awful, in fact. I know that.
“But let me ask you something: do you think I’m a monster?”
He raised an eyebrow and answered her immediately. “No--of course not. You saved me, didn’t you? You cared about me, too.”
Eli reached over and touched his cheek. “That’s right; I did. And I still do—very, very much, Oskar. So, do you think I could’ve done that, if I was like that man in your dream?”
“So what does that tell you about what it’s like to be me?”
He looked at her with a puzzled expression and spoke hesitantly. “That it’s possible . . . that . . . well, how old did you say you are, again?”
“About 220 years.”
“That maybe I can kill people and still be . . . human?”
She nodded slowly and then softly said, “Yes. It’s possible. Hard, but possible. Like I told you before, Oskar—you can still be a good person in your heart, even though you must do terrible things to survive. If you’re sorry for what you’ve done, and don’t . . . take pleasure in it; don’t revel in it.”
“Well, but I . . . I did revel in it, Eli; that’s the thing.” He looked up at her face, which was now only a few inches from his own. “When you opened his throat like that, and we were . . . eating—” he closed his eyes and turned his head away, “I enjoyed it, the taste of it, more than anything I’ve ever eaten before. I wanted it so bad, Eli!” He looked at her intently with apprehension. “And I knew it was wrong, but I had this terrible feeling of wanting to—take him, possess him; make him mine. Take his life. And then when I saw you afterwards, I had this really weird feeling, too. Like you were this . . . conquering goddess, or something. All powerful, all—”
“A what? A conquering goddess?” She surpressed a chuckle and started to give him a bemused look, but then saw how serious he was, and stopped.
“It’s crazy and it sounds stupid, I know it,” he admitted. “But you don’t understand how I felt. You were so . . . beautiful in that moment. Like you were able to do that to him without hesitation, without worrying about everything, like I was worrying. And there was something about that willpower that was so . . . so--” He shook his head, unable to explain further.
“Oskar.” She touched him; lifted his face to hers. “I feel sorry for what I have to do, too. Maybe in the moment, I do what I need to do. But I never feel good about it. I hope you understand that.”
“Yes. I know.”
Eli got up and went over to a small portable radio sitting in a corner. She turned it on and then went back to Oskar; took his hand and stood him up beside her.
“Can we dance for a little while, please?”
Oskar came out of his funk a little. “Yeah—of course. But I’m not very good, you know. I never learned a thing about dancing.”
“Me neither. But if you can hug me and walk at the same time, I think we’ll be good.”
His smile broadened. “I can do that, I think.”
They moved slowly in circles around the room with their arms around one another, their chins resting on each other’s shoulders. The radio had been tuned to a classical station, and a piano melody by Saint-Saëns, Le Carnaval des Animaux: Le Cygne, filled the room. Eli spoke softly in his ear. “This reminds me of the first time you hugged me, Oskar. That was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. I’ll never forget that.”
“I wanted to. I was afraid of what you might do, but . . . it felt right.”
“It was right.”
27 July 1983 “What am I supposed to be feeling?”
Oskar sighed in frustration. “This is so hard. I was trying to get you to scratch an itch on your back.”
Eli gave him a small smile. They sat, facing each other, on the floor.
“Oh. Well, try again. I’m trying to be receptive.”
Oskar looked at Eli. He tried to truly see her; to take in every aspect of her, every detail. He knew, from what she had explained to him, that the ability to suggest things to her without talking was tied to his newly strengthened powers of perception. It was not just seeing, but understanding, the person in front of him; much like he now saw and understood patterns and connections in nonliving things that he had never seen before. See and understand; see and understand . . . .
He carefully studied her face and noticed that some of her hair was hanging down in front and touching her eyebrow. He concentrated on it and thought, my hair is tickling my forehead.
Eli reached up and flicked her hair back. Then she smiled again, more broadly this time. “Was that it?”
“Uh huh.” He could not surpress a triumphant grin at this, his first success, after over an hour of effort.
Eli grinned back and clapped her hands excitedly. “Yeah! See—I told you you could do it! Pretty soon it’ll be easy.”
“That was really cool!” Oskar had not felt so happy for more than a week. “I just don’t see how you can do it so quickly, Eli. It’s almost ‘off the cuff’ for you.”
“Practice, practice, practice, Oskar. That’s all there is to it.”
He continued to practice with Eli, and gradually had her doing all kinds of things. Scratching herself; licking her lips; touching her nose. They did it face to face, and then with her turned away. Soon he found he could do it from across the room—as long as he could see her.
He also found that he could make Eli think things. He would think a thought, and then she would say the thought that had entered her mind. The color green; the moon; his smile.
Eventually he discovered that he could not make her follow complex commands, like “add 35 and 46” or “go clean the bathtub and then comb your hair.” He could convey the idea of “35” and “bathtub,” but couldn’t make her do things involving steps. Nor could he make her do self-destructive things, like “kill yourself.”
At one point, his suggestions stopped working; she seemed opaque. She told him that she was deliberately blocking him, and explained that some people just block naturally. Most of the time it would happen when someone was concentrating very hard on something, like a task they were performing. He wouldn’t be able to break into the thoughts of such a person. Other people, though, seemed to be more aware of their own thoughts, and could tell if something unusual was coming in from outside. She had never met someone who had realized it was her who was doing the manipulating, but these people would sense the intrusion, and block just the same.
When he was growing weary of the game, he began to get playful and carefree in his projections. They were sitting on either end of the couch, facing each other, with their legs overlapping in the middle.
Eli’s eyes grew slightly wider, and she pulled her head back almost imperceptibly as his thought seemingly hit her. Without saying a word, she slowly got up and crawled over on top of him. Solemnly she took his head into her hands, and lowered her face to his. “Your wish, sir, is my command.” Then she kissed him tenderly; and when their kiss broke, she teasingly whispered in his ear, “Actually, smarty pants, that didn’t work. I just wanted to kiss you.” They laughed together; then Oskar replied, “You’re so bad—rotten to the core.”
“You love me because I’m rotten. Now—let’s wrestle!”
When dawn approached, they lay down together on a comforter in the closet. Oskar rested his head on Eli’s chest, and put his arm across her stomach.
“Eli, I have a question about something.”
“The hibernation thing—the big sleeps you talked about. What if they happen to us at different times?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I . . . I don’t like the idea of being awake without you. I don’t want you to go to sleep for a couple of months and leave me by myself. I’m afraid I’ll get really lonely.”
Eli placed her hand over his forearm and gave him a squeeze and pulled him a little closer. “Hmm. I’m not sure what to do about that, Oskar. I’ve never had to worry about it before.”
“Can you tell when it’s going to happen?”
“Yes—usually. I just start to feel all run down, no matter if I’m full or not. I sleep longer and longer, until finally . . . I’m gone. Out, for a long time. Months.”
“Well, if that happens, maybe I could make myself sleep longer. So I could . . . I don’t know, get in sych with you.”
“We’ll have to try that, if you don’t want to be alone. I don’t know if it’ll work, but we’ll try. Okay?”
Oskar seemed satisfied and relieved. He hugged her tighter. “Okay.”
As usual, Eli fell asleep before he did. He pulled away from her a little, then propped himself up on one elbow and simply looked at her. He still thought it amazing that he could see her so well in the dark. He felt closer to her than ever after the night they’d just spent. He knew that somehow, the union between them had deepened; felt that he was becoming more and more like her.
He watched her for a long time, drinking in her features. He thought about the first time he had ever laid eyes on her, when she had caught him playing with his knife and had said that they couldn’t be friends. She had seemed so strange, then . . . and how wrong she’d been.
At what point had he fallen in love with her? Could he say that it was the night that they had worked the Rubik’s Cube together, or shared the Morse Code? The excitement of having someone take an interest in him, and of responding to his interest in her, had surely been there.
Or was it the night that she had eaten the candy to please him, and he had gotten up the courage to take her into his arms? Had, for the first time, actually felt her close to him—it had been magical; the biggest thing he’d ever experienced.
Or had it been the night she had cuddled with him in his bed and agreed to go steady? That he had felt her arms around him, holding him, and realized that she could actually be his . . . even now, it gave him a warm shiver just to think of it.
And then, of course, their first kiss—he still could not find words to describe what that had been like. Could he ever?--he did not think so. And then she had pulled him up from the water, had saved his life at the pool. He had looked into her beautiful eyes . . . and knew, for perhaps the first time, what love really meant.
All of the emotions that he had experienced at those moments had, over time, seemed to merge into one, powerful feeling for Eli in the center of his being. And it didn’t matter that Eli was really a boy, or had been a boy at one time; that, to Oskar, was like pointing out that Eli had a belly button, or had a freckle on her arm.
He bent and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Eli, Eli . . . ‘love’ isn’t a strong enough word—do you know that?
She remained asleep, but turned her head slightly away from him. Nocturne in F Major by Tchaikovsky was playing quietly on the radio that they’d left on in the living room, but he did not recognize it as such; merely thought it sounded like a lullaby. He relaxed to its soft and mellifluous tones, and felt the urge to kiss her again. He trailed kisses gently across her cheek and down to her neck. Eli made an unintelligible noise and her eyelids fluttered; then her mouth opened slightly and she took a breath.
This tiny response shifted the focus of Oskar’s thoughts. For some reason, instead of merely wanting to kiss her, he discovered that he wanted to . . .
(you know I would give that to you anytime you ask.)
He opened his mouth and breathed softly on her neck. Eli did not stir. Slowly, slowly, he brought his lips closer to the pale skin; and the closer he was, the more he wanted. Wanted what she had; wanted to experience what she was. He kissed its smoothness, then gently, gently bit through. Then tasted the warmth.
Eli inhaled sharply, turned her head slightly toward him and arched her neck. An arm fluttered limply up and over his back; then he felt her hand on his shoulder blade. It seemed to squeeze gently.
The thing inside him stirred at the unexpected stimulus, and urged him to take more. He affixed his mouth more firmly onto the wound and drew harder, savoring the taste. And when he did so, he felt Eli stir and realized that he had at last awoken her. He became afraid, fearful that she would become angry and push him away for his intrusion.
Instead, she held him. Then she turned her head, he felt the heat of her mouth just below his clavicle, and—
. . . she sunk her teeth into his flesh.
There was no pain. He realized that she had pierced a large vessel there; he felt himself flowing freely into her. The flow was such that Eli began to gulp softly to keep up, and for a moment, he felt dizzy and lightheaded. Her grip on him tightened, and the intensity of the experience made Oskar pull even harder at her neck, opening up the wound to increase the amount of blood he was taking from her.
She laid her hand upon the side of his head and touched his ear. The touch transmitted a thought which he instantly grasped: slow down. He moderated the action of his lips to take less, and then felt her do the same.
They lay trembling together in the dark, drawing from each other. They realized that their hearts were beating in tandem. Time ceased to exist as a mystical circuit opened and John Christensen’s blood, now theirs, passed through their mouths, into their bodies, and was returned moments later.
They became lost in each other.
Eli lay in the darkness, drawing Oskar’s blood from his right subclavian vein. She had been surprised to find herself suddenly awake and being bitten, but she had known immediately that it was him, and what he was doing was neither painful nor unwelcome. Without thinking, she had reciprocated; had followed an impulse, driven purely by emotion, to love him in return. What they were now doing was a new experience: in more than two hundred years, she had never done it before.
With closed eyes she saw nothing, but all of her other senses were about him. This beautiful boy, the one she had chosen to love, and who had chosen to love her in return. The feeling of him, taller than her, but thin, in her arms. His smell. The sound of their mouths as they partook of each another; the sound of his blood in her head. And most of all, the delicious taste that flowed through her mouth. There was no one’s that she enjoyed more; no one’s that gave her so much pleasure. Because it was his--Oskar’s--and because it was now freely given, not forbidden; a gift laid at her feet. And she was not merely taking, for they were sharing. As his blood flowed into her, she felt hers flowing into him in a rhythmic, surging pulse; a beautiful, sweetly constant ebb and flow.
Then something happened. The pulse merged with the darkness, and the darkness became—
(a tunnel) . . . Yes--a dark, underground river, and she was moving within it. The sound of the flowing blood became the sound of rushing water, roaring toward an opening ahead, dimly visible in the dark--a hole, a (waterfall?)
and with eager apprehension, she realized that she had discovered a secret door—a door she had never known before, could never have dreamed existed; as if she had been living in the same house all her life and had discovered it on a wall that had heretofore been blank and featureless, yet when viewed at just the right time of day, in just the right light, and at just the right angle, became visible. Visible, and thereby capable of being opened.
A secret door that could only be opened with that one, right person. Could only be opened with love.
She was rushing toward it now in the roaring river, the scary, turbulent darkness carrying her ever more rapidly forward—faster and faster, nearing the edge, the black hole expanding and mysterious, and the mystery was
(Oskar) . . . and then in a thundering, deafening, terrifying second she went
(over the edge!!) Silence.
“Yeah—it’s me.” He was standing beside her, holding her hand.
She looked around; couldn’t understand where she was, and was frightened. “Where are we?”
He gave her a happy, secretive smile and squeezed her hand. “You’ll see. Don’t be afraid.”
They were in the center of a dimly lit network of hallways. Eli turned slowly and counted: one, two, three, four, . . . seven hallways, each with vaulted ceilings; some of them had stairs that went up, some with stairs that went down, and some that stretched off into a limitless distance, as far as her eye could see. The light was uniform; it did not vary, and had no particular source. And along all of the hallways there were doors. She looked down one hall and began to count. One, two, three, four . . . seven doors. And then there was an arch with a break—an intersecting hallway? Yes. Followed by another set of seven doors. Then another break. And so on, apparently forever.
Each door looked different.
Oskar squeezed her hand. She sensed his excitement, his desire to show her. “Come on!”
She wanted to protest, to say wait, but didn’t. She trusted him. And with his gentle tug they went together down a hall to their left, toward a door that was five doors down on the right. The door had no inscription, but as they approached it the idea of
(birthday party) formed in her mind. And then Oskar opened the door, they stepped through it, and—
She was seated at a dining room table in Oskar’s apartment, a party hat in her hair. There was a chocolate birthday cake in the middle of the table. To her left was Oskar—a little younger than she remembered, his face a little rounder; not quite as defined. Across from her sat a boy she didn’t know. Oskar’s mom was standing a short distance from the table with a camera. She wore a plum-colored turtleneck and had an apron around her waist.
“. . . happy birthday, dear Oskar . . . happy birthday to you!”
The cake was lit with eleven red candles. Oskar’s mom and the boy shouted, “Make a wish!” Eli did too, but a little late.
Oskar appeared to concentrate, then stole a glance at Eli and grinned. His long, blond hair was just as she remembered. He took a deep breath, the camera flashed, and he blew out all the candles. Eli began to clap with the others, happy to be with Oskar on this, his eleventh birthday.
She glanced to her left, through the doorway and into the kitchen, and saw a calendar on the wall: May, 1980. A little less than two years before she’d ever met him.
Then she understood where she was.
Oskar’s mom began to cut the cake. “Thank you, Johan, for coming. And you too, Eli.” She placed a piece of cake in front of her and smiled. “Johan, would you care for some milk, or would you rather have ice cream?”
“Ice cream, please.”
“And you, Eli dear?”
She heard herself saying “milk” without even thinking about it.
Then she realized that it was the afternoon. The sun was shining in through the window to her right, illuminating the room, washing over the table, over her . . . but there was no pain. It was just ordinary sunlight, on an ordinary afternoon, in Blackeberg.
Oskar smiled again at Eli. “Wait ‘til you try the cake. Mom makes the best birthday cake ever.”
A glass of milk was placed before her, and without hesitating she picked it up and drank. It was cold and delicious. She removed a piece of cake with her fork and placed it into her mouth. It tasted like the mildly sweet cakes her mother had sometimes made when she was just a child, some two centuries ago. She could not taste the chocolate.
After the cake, Oskar opened his presents. A board game and new boots from his mom. A record album and a woodworking set from his dad. And a brace of die-cast metal corvettes from Johan.
Eli felt badly that she didn’t have a gift for him. But Oskar, seeming to sense her distress, put the cars down on table and said, “Don’t worry, Eli. You’ve already given me the best present anyone could ever give.”
They talked for awhile. Talked with Johan; talked about Oskar’s school, and about their plans for the summer. Johan and his family were planning a weekend trip to Copenhagen. Oskar would be spending a week at his dad’s, once school was out. The upcoming summer was like an open highway, full of endless possibilities. Eventually, Johan’s mother came and took him home.
During all of this time, Eli could not help but look at Oskar’s mom. She kept seeing little traces of Oskar’s face in hers; or little traces of him in hers, as it were. Watching her, and seeing the little things that she did that reflected her deep love of Oskar, made Eli miss her own mom. And when Oskar announced that they had to leave, Eli was disappointed. She wanted to stay.
Oskar’s mom did not seem upset that they were going. She told him to be safe, stay in the courtyard, and not to be gone too long. Then as they were about to step out of the apartment she took Eli’s hand and said, “Thank you for coming, Eli. And thanks for being such a good friend to Oskar. For looking out for him. Please come back any time.”
Eli stammered out a hasty “Thank you for having me,” felt guilty that she couldn’t think of something more to say, and then went through the door with Oskar. And then—
Her teeth left Oskar--the circle was broken. She felt extremely tired, almost unable to move. She relaxed and her head fell back, limply, onto the comforter. Oskar’s lips left her neck and then he, too, collapsed by her side, holding her softly. She turned and clung to him in the darkness, trying to understand what she had just experienced.
Her voice, nervous and child-like, in his ear. “Oskar.”
He replied in a sleepy voice that was so lacking in energy, it was almost a whisper. “Yes, Eli.”
“What did you—what did we just do? What was that all about?”
He opened his eyes a little; ran his hand sluggishly down her arm. “. . . Sorry. I just wanted to kiss you—while you were sleeping. Thinking about . . . how much I love you. And then I got a little carried away, I guess.” He swallowed, closed his eyes again, and turned his head back into the comforter. “Was glad you didn’t mind.”
Eli smiled a little and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Of course I didn’t mind. But I mean after that. After I . . . kissed you, silly.”
“I don’t remember. . . . felt nice when you did that, but then I got really sleepy. I fell asleep. So . . . I don’t know what you mean.”
“You mean you didn’t even—don’t you know what happened?”
Oskar woke up a bit more at the tone of Eli’s voice; turned his head to look at her. “No. Eli, what’re you talking about?”
“After we started doing that, I went somewhere with you. We were together. You were really happy, and . . . and you took me to your birthday party. When you turned eleven. And your mom was there, and a friend—Johan, I think . . . and you got some presents and we had cake.”
Oskar frowned. “That’s right. I think Johan did come to my birthday that year. Dad couldn’t make it, though. But how did you know that? I never told you about that, did I?”
Eli looked directly into his eyes and gently squeezed his hand. “No. No, Oskar, you haven’t.”
“So how did you—what do you mean, you were there? Sorta like a ghost, or something? Just watching?”
“No. It seemed very real. I was eating the cake and drinking a glass of milk in the sunshine, for heaven’s sake. And talking to your mom as if she knew me. When I’ve never even met her.”
“Well, maybe it was just a dream.”
“Hmm. Maybe.” Eli thought about it further. Then she said, “But Oskar, did Johan give you some toy cars for a birthday present?”
Oskar paused. “Yeah, he did.”
“Then it wasn’t just a dream. Because I saw that.”
They looked at each other. Then Oskar spoke. “So, you were in my memories.”
“Yes. Do you remember the party?”
He looked away from her and stared at the ceiling. “Yeah, not real well, now, but— . . . like I said, Johan was there, and . . .”
He looked at her with wonder. “And so were you. You were sad that you didn’t have a present for me. But how can that be?”
“It must’ve been the blood—when we shared it. Something about that did it.” She ran her hands through his fine, soft hair as she continued. “And when it happened, Oskar, it was scary. But also . . . the most beautiful thing. It was—wonderful. Because I was with you, and I wasn’t—well, I was normal. Just me.”
Oskar smiled and hugged her. “Well, Eli, I don’t know how it happened, but I’m happy that now you’re at my birthday party!” Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. “Maybe we’ll have to try it again sometime, and see what happens.”
Before drifting off to sleep again, Oskar tried to remember his birthday party without Eli. He couldn’t—even though he knew that it was impossible. She had been there, and that was that.