Once Bitten Chapter 1 2 July 1983

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29 July 1983
Detective Kurt Magnusson, age 59, put his phone back in its cradle. He’d just finished speaking with the medical examiner, Dr. Persson, about the preliminary autopsy findings. He had asked Persson to call him with the results as soon as the autopsy was concluded.
They had easily identified the body with the driver’s license in the man’s wallet, which had been lying next to the man in a shallow grave. John Christensen—white male, former resident of Vancouver, British Columbia; age 49; 190 centimeters tall, 90 kilos. According to Persson, he had been dead approximately five days.
Cause of death: massive exsanguination from a large wound in the neck which had severed the carotid artery. Dr. Persson thought it was a bite wound, although he doubted that this would hold up in court due to the severe trauma to the skin, subcutaneous tissue, fascia, and all of the supporting structures and vessels in the neck as a result of torsion applied to the head, which had been turned 360 degrees, severing the spinal cord.
Persson had also found fractures of the sternum and the third, fourth, and fifth ribs bilaterally, with bruising of the surrounding muscle wall. The pattern was unusual and suggested a constriction injury, not blunt trauma. “It’s called a ‘bear hug’ fracture,” he had explained. “You know—big boyfriend squeezes his little girlfriend a bit too hard and breaks her ribs. Never seen it on a man, though, especially one this big, and it’s almost never fatal.”
Magnusson shook his head. Three hundred and sixty degrees—in thirty-five years of police work, he had never seen anything like it. And having spent the last twenty in Homicide, he’d seen his fair share.

He rubbed his temples with one hand as he stared at his penciled notes, made at the scene. Who could have cranked a man’s head around like that? He had seen necks broken, but never like this.

He picked up the resin cast sitting on his desk next to the already substantial case file and turned it over. A child’s footprint; age range 10 to 12 years according to the tables. Because of the rain, it was the only footprint they had been able to recover. But its depth did not match the weight of the average 11-year-old. A rail-thin preadolescent, then? But no kid like that would have had the strength to inflict that kind of damage to a grown man who weighed 200 pounds and was in good shape like Christensen. No way. So another person—a big person--must have been involved.
But where were his tracks, then? Of course, there could have been more tracks that were no longer recognizable by the time the body had been discovered. But then, why would the heavier person’s tracks become obscured, but a lighter one remain?
Had Christensen threatened the assailant’s child in some way? Precipitated a fight? But he had no defensive wounds, and they had found no weapons at the scene. So he had been surprised and incapacitated. How?
A bite. Now that was damn strange.
He leaned back in his old leather chair and studied a diagram of the scene. The chair’s springs creaked softly as he removed his rimless glasses and polished them with his tie, which still hung from a tidy knot over his white shirt despite a 14-hour work day. His feet were tired from having stood around at the crime scene for most of the day, overseeing the investigation and making sure none of the uniformed men messed things up.

It was Friday night, and he knew he would be working over the weekend. Hell, he’d be lucky to see Flora at all, what with all the pressure that was being put on the Stockholm Police Department to find a suspect. The Chief had called him around three o’clock, a few hours after the family had been notified, to tell him that the Canadian Embassy had contacted them, asking for an update as soon as possible. A big weight, hanging over his head. Well, it wasn’t the first time.

He sighed. If he missed Gabe’s baptism on Sunday, Flora would never forgive him.
A grown man, camping by himself in Tyresta. Last seen alive by some hikers in the afternoon, doing a sketch. His campsite was not disturbed, so for some reason he had gone out into the dark woods with his flashlight. Why? To investigate something, probably. Something he thought was important, given how scratched his arms had been from the bushes. Then, squeezed in a bear hug by some big fella, bitten and suffered massive blood loss, then had his head nearly twisted off. A child’s footprint. And whatever money had been in his wallet had been taken. Sure seemed like a bizarre way to rob someone.
He ran his hand through his thinning, gray hair and wished that his lower back would stop aching. Flora was right: he needed to go on a diet. That would help. He opened his desk drawer, pulled out an aspirin bottle, and swallowed three of them with a swig of cold coffee.
Neck bitten. Head twisted. A child. A mental image formed in his mind: a corpse being cut out of the ice; a photo of a child’s bloodstained, white shirt.
He turned his head and glanced out through his half-open door. “Martin.”
Lieutenant Lundgren’s voice, sounding just as tired as Magnusson felt, drifted in from the adjacent office. “Yeah, Kurt. What is it?”
“Who’s that cop over in Vällingby who worked those homicides in Blackeberg last year?”
“Which ones? You mean the—”
“That drunk they found in the lake, and the other one in that apartment.”
“Oh yeah. The pistol champ . . . Staffan Rydberg, I think.”
“They never solved those cases, did they?”
“Nope.”
“Dial him up and let’s get those files. I want to see ’em. And start another pot of coffee, will you?”
He glanced at his watch—8:15 p.m. He picked up the phone to call Flora and let her know that he wouldn’t be home anytime soon.

1 August 1983

“Because I think it’s dangerous to have them, that’s why.” Eli sat at the kitchen table, across from Oskar. They had been talking for the last five minutes about what to do with John Christensen’s belongings.
“I don’t want to keep them, Eli. I just want to give them to someone who can use them. It would make me feel better.” Oskar picked up Epictetus’ Discourses and flipped through the pages; then quietly remarked, “Look, it’s written in English and Greek.”
When Eli replied, her tone was firm. “Put the book down, Oskar. You’re getting your fingerprints all over it.”
Oskar looked up at Eli and paused. He started to speak, but then stopped. The corner of his mouth twitched a little; then he slowly put the book back on the table.
“Oskar, please. I know you mean well. I understand how you feel about that guy--I really do. But we need to be careful. We really shouldn’t have his stuff in our apartment. I don’t know why I told you it was okay to bring them home.”
“Well, who says you’re in charge of everything? I can bring them back if I want to—and I did. I mean, look at the picture he was making. What would’ve happened to it if we’d just left it out there?”
Eli heard the resentment in Oskar’s voice, and tried to control her temper. “It would’ve been just fine inside the tent. Eventually, someone would’ve found it. The police would probably have it now, and sooner or later, it would’ve been returned to his family. Now we’re stuck with it.”
“So what’re you’re saying? That we should just dump all of it into the river?”
“I think that would be best.”
There was a pause. Oskar frowned at her; finally he said, “You
go do it, then. I don’t want to. I just don’t think it’s right.”

Eli gave him an exasperated look. Finally she said, “Okay, fine. I will.” She stood abruptly and angrily scooped the items off the table, then stalked out of the kitchen. After a few minutes, Oskar heard a thump, and then he saw her leave the apartment with a box under her arm. The door slammed shut behind her.

Oskar sighed unhappily and stared at the now-empty table. Then he leaned over to the kitchen window, lifted a corner of the cardboard, and peeked out, trying to see her leave. He had a half-hearted notion of going after her, but when he realized that he would not be able to see her, he gave up the idea. He didn’t really want to be with her right now anyway. She was being crabby.
At last he got up, said “This is crap” to himself, and wandered back into the living room. He was irritated because he knew she was probably right, but he didn’t want to admit it. Why did she have to be so cold-hearted about everything? The guy’s sketch had been nice—somebody might’ve wanted it. Same with the box of pastels.
With Eli gone, Oskar quickly grew bored inside the apartment. There was nothing to do. Couldn’t they at least get a TV, for God’s sake? Finally he found the Rubik’s cube, plopped down on the couch, and started working on it. He tried to think about how much fun they’d had with it, but couldn’t; he was too upset. For awhile he waited for Eli to return, but when she didn’t, he got up and went out.

Eli crossed the courtyard of their apartment and passed into the trees that lined a small park adjacent to their complex. It was a dark, moonless night. She chose a spot between two big old oaks, and when she was certain that she was not being watched, she rose rapidly up into the air. The buildings quickly grew smaller, and she headed east toward the nearest river, Edsviken, a few kilometers away.
She was frustrated and upset with Oskar. Why did he have to be so stubborn? Didn’t he have any common sense?

But if it had been such a bad idea, why had she agreed to take them in the first place? They had seen the flickering light from the dying batteries of the man’s lonely little lantern, and had decided to poke around his tent. Oskar had discovered the sketch and had announced how much he liked it, then discovered the box of pastels and the book.

She knew why she hadn’t argued with him—because Oskar felt guilty; wanted to do something nice for the man’s family, or someone; and had gotten the notion of finding a home for Christensen’s stuff. And she hadn’t tried to dissuade him because she didn’t want to hurt him; didn't want to . . . destroy his compassion. She just couldn’t bear the thought of doing that to him, especially after what they had done.
It all boiled down to the fact that Oskar was sweet and good-natured; he had a tender heart. Wasn’t that, after all, one of the reasons she’d come to love him? His heart had been big enough to make a home even for the likes of her. And now, because of her, he had been forced to do awful things, and he was struggling to find some way to compensate. Their attack had obviously effected him; his horrible dream had been a testament to that.
She hadn’t told him about her feelings as he had related his nightmare. She had kept her thoughts to herself, because she had been trying to comfort him; trying to reassure him that everything would be okay. But his dream had made her feel terrible inside. That maybe some part of him was afraid she would abandon him, would not be there when he needed her most. That she had led him to a place of extreme bloodshed and cruelty; a place where he would be forced to kill countless numbers of people, all lined up in a queue.
But wasn’t that true? And all those things she’d told him about the cycle of life, about trying to hold onto some core of goodness despite years, decades, centuries of killing—did she still believe it, in her heart of hearts?

As she silently landed on a tiny island in the middle of the river, she was suddenly filled with self-loathing. Why did she always have to do these things? Why did she have to harden her heart and be so . . . inhumane? And what was so wrong with Oskar’s idea, after all? Was it really all that risky to try to give this stuff to someone? Just drop it off somewhere?

She approached the water’s edge and looked out across the muddy river. It was very quiet, and no one was around. She pulled the little green book out of the box and flipped through the pages. The print was tiny and indecipherable to her, but the underlining, highlighting, and the stars and notes on the margins were not. They told their own story about the person who had owned the book. They told her that the person had found things on these pages that had been very important to his life; had found some kind of wisdom here.
She gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, and tossed the book out into the river. It made a desolate little splash. Then she pulled the box of pastels out. It was unquestionably lovely, just as Oskar had said. She held it in one arm and released the clasps with her other hand; lifted the lid and marveled at the spectacular array of colors. She thought about how much fun it would be to sit down in a field somewhere, on a bright, sunny day
(like the day Oskar turned eleven)
and just draw something with Oskar, without a care in the world.
Then her vision blurred, she sobbed loudly, and she hurled the set into the water. The pastel sticks, suddenly released from their neat and orderly tray, followed the box into the water, making small patters on the surface like a handful of dirty pebbles.
Now she was left with the hardest thing. She bent down and retrieved the pastel sketch that the man had made. The woodland scene, with its deep green pines and azure sky, had been rendered with loving care. She stared at it for a long time, wiping her eyes as the tears ran down her cheeks.

She knew he had been a good man. Good, just like Oskar, and trying to help her, just as Oskar had. And she had killed him—just like she was killing Oskar. And now, here she was with something that he had made. Something that Oskar had found beautiful. Destroying his picture would be like . . . like . . .

. . .
I can’t. I just
can’t.
Carefully she rolled it up and tucked it under one arm. She sniffed, wiped her nose, and then kicked the cardboard box into the river. Then she wiped her eyes angrily, and ascended into the night sky.
What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone? Don’t know. . . . like a bullet, maybe?
Yes: now she felt like a bullet—so she would fly like one. Fly so fast that she would disappear; disappear inside herself so that no one would ever have to see her again.
Somehow, it felt good to focus her anger. She reached Stråisjön Lake in less than a minute.
She had no difficulty finding the campsite. But to her surprise and disappointment, the tent had been taken down. It was gone. Now there was no place to leave the picture.
Eli hovered thirty meters above the deserted little clearing, staring at the yellow police tape flapping forlornly in the wind. Then she turned and headed home.
They would just have to keep the picture.
Chapter 10
Oskar looked around for Eli, but didn’t see her anywhere. So he wandered down to a little play area beyond the next apartment building. It was around 9:30 and the August air had dropped down into the 60’s, but he wore no jacket. He picked out a swing that was about the right height for him, sat down, and began to swing.
It felt good just to swing; it took his mind off things, and made him feel like he was just a kid again. He was careful not to swing so hard that he’d jerk the chain at the top of the arc. After awhile he leaned backwards so that he was looking behind himself, upside down. He was happy that he could still feel slightly nauseous as he swung back and forth in this way, and he wondered why doing this always made him laugh. He considered flying off at the top of the arc, but realized it would be a bad idea.

Soon he grew tired of being all alone on the swings, so he decided to go down to Tensta Centrum and check out some of the shops. He only had to go southeast for four or five blocks to get to the downtown area. He strolled down the main boulevard, gazing into the store windows, his fight with Eli long forgotten.

Out of habit, he stopped at a kiosk and looked in at all of the food and candy. He thought about how he used to steal Dajms, Japps and Bountys, then go home and eat them with a Coke. Bountys had been his favorite, but the thought of eating one now made him feel kind of sick.
At least he didn’t feel very hungry. Without his stomach distracting him, he had a chance to simply relax and wander around. He went a little further down, then saw a record store on the opposite side of the street. “Radar Love” by Golden Earring was playing inside, and the thumping music escaped out onto the street. He thought it would be fun to see if they had his favorite Vikings album, so he picked up his pace and crossed over to the other side.
He approached the door and was about to open it when a feeling of forboding overtook him: he couldn’t go in. He had been thinking about so many ordinary things that he had almost forgotten what he was. So he stepped back, trying to be nonchalant, as if something in the front window had just caught his attention. A few customers came and went as he pretended to study the flyers for some local bands stuck to the glass and thought about what to do. Finally, he just decided to knock.
At first, nothing happened, so he knocked again, more loudly this time. He was about ready to head down the street when a young girl in her early 20’s with a red bandana in her hair and a button with a tiny picture of the ABBA band cracked open the door and looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“What?”
Oskar tried to look like a young, ignorant kid. It wasn’t hard. “Can I come in?”
She looked confused for a few more seconds, but then gave him a bright smile, as if to say, What are you—some kind of goof?—and said, “of course you can.”
He gave her a smile in return, said thanks, and went on in.
Easy as pie.

He winced a little at the music as he entered the store--it sure was loud. He went down one of the aisles to the pop/rock section, and began to flip through the records. Soon he found the album, with the band members in their shiny suits in the skeletal hull of a Viking ship. Pleased with himself, he pulled the album out. Now if he could only find someplace to buy a portable record player than played 33s. Maybe there was a pawn shop nearby.

He thought about finding an album for Eli, but realized that he had no idea what her musical tastes might be. It occurred to him, for the first time, that given how old she was, she might enjoy a vast range of music, and he really didn’t know where to begin. Classical? Folk? Rock? He decided it would be best to come back with her, so he wouldn’t buy something that she didn’t like.
He began to flip through the albums, looking at the cover art. “Gloria” by Laura Branigan began playing, and he started bopping a bit to the music as he stood in front of the rack, fascinated by all of the different designs, logos and artwork. He casually flipped his way backwards to the “T” section. The records were arranged alphabetically, and he soon found an album that was out of place. He frowned slightly, pulled it out, and them moved it a few albums back to where it belonged. Then he kept flipping.
Without really realizing what he was doing, he continued the same process, steadily working backward through the alphabet, pulling out albums and reordering them correctly. When he reached a new letter divider, he felt a kind of inner satisfaction that he had brought order to a whole section. He started working faster, his actions becoming more machinelike as he moved steadily down the aisle. He tuned into the rhythm of each new song that was being played as he worked, and completely lost track of time.

When he reached the end of the aisle, he paused and looked up. He was now in the “E” section. He looked down the aisle and saw his Vikings album four or five meters up the aisle where he’d left it. He frowned and realized that he had probably just spent at least fifteen minutes messing around with the albums. None of the other customers had noticed, it seemed, but when he glanced at the clerk he saw that she was standing behind the register, chewing bubblegum and watching him. He blushed and went to collect his album.

Oskar came to the register and the girl asked him whether he’d found everything he needed. Then she added, in a teasing voice, “You’re very good at that. Maybe you’ll have to come work for us.” He blushed again and smiled self-consciously, then mumbled something about how much he liked looking at albums.
As he dug into his pocket for some Kronor he smelled her perfume. It was different from the stuff his mom used to wear—sweeter, somehow; not as subtle. Beneath the perfume he smelled soap and a trace of sweat. An faint odor of incense drifted in from the back room.
He studied her face as she put the price into the register. She had brown eyes and a small nose that turned up slightly at the end, and acne scars on her cheeks. Her hair was pulled back in her bandana, and his eyes traced her hairline from her forehead back past her ear and down her neck. A small, purple butterfly was tattooed on her neck behind her ear that he hadn’t noticed before; it seemed to move as she chewed her gum.
He pulled his gaze back and took her in all at once: the thin face; the ABBA button with the band members in their blue and purple outfits; the tie-dyed T-shirt that was pulled tightly across her smallish breasts, not quite long enough to cover her belly button; the sequined jeans.
Smile.
A smile broke across her face as she put the album in a bag. She didn’t even look at him; didn’t seem to notice that he had put the thought into her head.
Oskar smiled, too, but then his eyes were drawn once more to her butterfly, and as he focused on it, a thought entered, unbidden, into his mind: what would it be like to kill her and drink her blood? There was no moral connotation nor emotional response to the thought; he remained calm as he continued to stare at her. It was no different from wondering whether he would be able to find a pawn shop before all the stores closed.
We need blood to live. Could we have a little of yours?

An image of Eli like a viper, her sharp teeth snatching away the patch of skin and tissue; the blood bursting forth, its quantity shocking, freed to slacken their thirst. Their heads rapidly dropping down; the wound disappearing beneath their feasting mouths as the man’s legs jerked.

He trembled, his body suddenly a live wire. He thought he saw a pulse beneath the tattoo. What he wanted—so close, yet so far away. Why did it have to be so hard?
He found himself licking his lips as he took the bag from her and at last felt ashamed and scared of himself. The tension left him. He firmly banished the thought, said thanks, and left. He was greatly relieved to feel the cool night air on his face.

When he got back to their apartment, he found Eli sitting on the floor of the living room, playing with her cards. She was wearing a freshly washed pair of pajamas, and her hair was still a little damp from the shower she had just taken.
She had moved their low, rectangular coffee table over against the wall, and had, at last, taken out all of her toys and treasures and arrayed them upon it. The forest picture was taped to the wall, prominently displayed immediately above the egg, which she had placed squarely in the middle.
He saw the picture, and gave her a puzzled but happy grin as he put his record player and album down. “Hey! You decided to keep it! But how come?”
She paused and looked up at him with a small, restrained smile. “I don’t know. I just decided that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, after all. And I really didn’t want to upset you, I guess.”
“Did you get rid of the rest of—”
“Yes--it’s gone. Sorry.” Her smile faded. Then she looked down at the floor and said softly, “Oskar . . . am I killing you?”
Oskar didn’t know what to say. “Killing me? What do you mean?”
She looked up at him, her eyes shiny. Then she quickly looked away, turning her attention to what he’d brought. “Never mind. What do you have there?”

Oskar hesitated, wondering about the abrupt change of subject. Then he offered her an uncertain smile. “I got another copy of my Vikings album. You remember—the one we listened to that day you came over when my mom was away? And then I found this record player at a pawn shop downtown.” His tone became concerned as he looked down at his new purchase. “I hope it works.”

“Did a little shopping, mmm?”
“Yes. It was fun. We’ll have to go back to the record shop together some time. I was going to get you an album, too, but I had no idea what kind of music you like.”
“I liked that one song you played for me. Is it on there?”
Oskar smiled. “Yeah, but let me get it set up first.” He plugged it in, unfastened some snaps and pulled the speakers free from one end of the brown and tan box; then strung them out a short distance from the player. Then he removed the lid, exposing a plastic turntable and stylus. After ensuring that the right side of his LP was up, he threaded it onto the spindle, turned it on, and manually moved the stylus over to the third track.
There was a scratchy sound as the needle found its groove, and then the song began, now familiar to both of them. Somehow, it seemed different— more special, more private—now that they were listening to it together in their own apartment. When they had first listened to it, they had not known each other as well as they did now; they had been hesitant and uncertain about themselves and their relationship. But now . . .
Unconsciously they turned to face each other as they sat on the floor, the knees of their crossed legs nearly touching. Oskar reached over and adjusted the volume.
Why are you smiling, the boy asks then when they meet by chance at the gate . . .
I'm thinking of the one who will be mine, says the girl with eyes so blue
The one that I love so.
Eli slipped her hands into Oskar’s.
. . . down to the lake, where they draw in the sand they quietly say to each other:
You my friend, it is you I want
La – lala – lalala . . .
“That’s why I like it, Oskar,” Eli murmured as she looked into Oskar’s eyes. “It says everything that I feel. About you.”

Oskar squeezed her hands. “I’m sorry, Eli. That I acted that way. It was my fault.”

Shhh. No, it wasn’t—but that’s enough talk. Please.” Eli took Oskar’s head into her hands.
As her lips touched his, the memory came to Oskar, brought back by the song and Eli’s fresh, soapy smell: the towel dropping to the floor to reveal . . . nothing. Just a smoothness between the legs.
Elias.
Yes--Elias. He had almost forgotten that Eli had been a boy. Was a boy.
He closed his eyes to the soft, moist warmth, drinking in the love that Elias was offering, the beauty of its boundlessness. The love Elias felt for him had no strings attached. Oskar didn’t need to be someone else for him. It was total; it enfolded all of his bad and all of his good. It was amazing; it filled a hole in the center of Oskar’s being. It was—
. . . perfect.
And as Oskar’s heart leapt in his chest and he kissed Elias back, he felt a transcendent joy that his love, too, was unconditional. He did not think of it as such, but he experienced it as such. Eli, Elias . . . it was just a name—a name for this person that he loved. This person.

Later, they listened to the songs on the album’s other side as Eli continued with her card game, and Oskar unlocked the egg and tried to reassemble it.
“Eli.”
“Yes?”
He spoke without looking at her as he continued to fit the pieces together. “Would you rather I call you ‘Eli,’ or ‘Elias’?”
“What do you like better?”
“Well, I guess I’ve gotten used to thinking of you as a girl—even though I know that’s not really true. But I wasn’t sure if maybe . . . if maybe that might bother you. I mean—deep down inside.”
“It doesn’t upset me, Oskar—not at all. I’ve . . . well, I’ve sort of grown used to thinking of myself as a girl, actually. Even though I’m really not—physically, I mean. I’m not actually a boy or a girl anymore. And sometimes it bothers me, but not too often. I try not to think about it.”

“Does it bother you that you’ll always be the same? That you’ll never grow up?”

Eli thought for a moment; then said, “It used to bother me a lot more when I was younger. I mean, when I . . . hadn’t been what I am now for very long. And sometimes I’d see someone I used to know, but they’d be older. Sometimes, a lot older. And then I would think about how I hadn’t really changed. But it doesn’t really bother me as much any more, because-- . . . well, because I guess I just don’t know that many people. So I don’t have too many folks to compare myself to. But still, sometimes when I wake up, I . . . why are you asking me this, Oskar?”
Oskar put down the egg pieces and turned toward her. Then he looked down at his lap. “Well this is kinda hard to talk about, Eli. I don’t really know if—but I guess, if I can’t tell you this, then there’s no one in the whole world I could tell. So—”
“You know you can tell me anything, Oskar. I mean, as long as you’re comfortable.”
“Okay.” Oskar sighed. “Well . . . yesterday I was taking a shower, and I just . . . I was, you know, looking at myself, and I just realized that I haven’t—well, I just got to thinking about how people make babies, I mean . . . actually, I thought about how my mom and dad had me. And as I was getting out the tub I saw myself in the mirror, and it really hit me how I . . . how I haven’t changed at all since all of this happened. And how, from what you’ve told me, that I’m . . . I’m never going to change. Never going to grow up, and look like my dad. I’m never gonna—”
“. . . have children.”
Oskar looked at her. “Yeah.”
Eli’s eyes met his; then she looked down. “You’re right, Oskar. As far as I know, that’s not going to happen for you. And I wish there was something I could do about it, because I’ve thought about it a lot myself, like I said. But I’m, I mean, we—we’re stuck the way we are. We aren’t going to change, we’re not going to grow up. At least not physically.”

Oskar nodded glumly.

Then Eli’s tone lightened a little. “But you know what? You can grow in other ways. Maybe in ways that are more important than your body.”
“What do you mean, like—”
“Mentally. Up here.” She tapped her temple. “You have a chance to learn all kinds of things. Some are things that no people know about; others are just—well, it sort of builds up in your mind. You kind of . . . learn how to live in the world. How to exist, I guess.
“And whenever I get upset about my body—about how I always look the same—I think about how much I’ve learned over the time I’ve been alive. About how much I’ve come to understand the things around me, the meaning of things. And that has really helped me . . . helped me not to get really, really mad about myself.”
Oskar’s countenance brightened a little. “I guess that’s a good way to look at it. And I do feel smarter, somehow, since you bit me. Although sometimes I’m not sure if it’s really helping me.” He smiled sheepishly. “Like tonight at the record shop. I went down the aisle and organized all of these records. I think the girl working there must’ve thought I was crazy.”
Eli laughed. “Got a little carried away, hmm? Lose track of time?”
Oskar’s cheeks turned red as he looked up at her. “Uh huh.”
Eli giggled. “Well don’t worry, Oskar. Sometimes that happens to the best of us. And it’s certainly happened to me.”
“Thanks; I feel better.” Then he looked at the table and picked up an old brown shoe; turned it over in his hand. The leather was stiff and collapsed. “Is this your shoe?”
Eli turned her eyes to it briefly. “Mmm hmm. From a long time ago.”
“How long ago?”
Eli’s eyes looked up briefly as she thought about it. “Oh, about 75 years ago, I guess. More or less.” She gave him a knowing smile.

Oskar smirked. “More or less.” Then he said, “I’d love to see the house you grew up in. See how things were back then. Does it still exist?”
“No, it’s gone now. There’s a road where it used to be.”
“Oh.” Oskar was disappointed.
“But I know a place we can go that’s kinda like it. If you want.”
“Really? Where?”
Eli smiled mysteriously, then stood. “Do you really want to see?”
“Yes.”
“Then let me get something else on. Something dark. Then we’ll go.”
Oskar gave her a happy smile. “Great!”


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