Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)
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“Eli . . . Eli, honey—don’t worry, I won’t be afraid. I won’t run away.” He said the words, but was not sure he believed them; yet, now there was no room for doubt. He hugged her. “I just—I didn’t understand, and I still don’t, but—what I said is true . . . I do love you.”
“I’ll leave if you want. If you can’t handle all of this.” She began to sob softly into his coat.
He hugged her tighter and stroked her hair. “No—no, you won’t. You’re gonna stay with me, you hear? And I don’t want you running away again—you got it?” His voice grew hoarse, and then the tears came to him as well, brought about by the overwhelming urge to assure her that she would not be abandoned.
“I’m sorry I left--I just couldn’t stay there. I got scared; the police were coming . . . .”
“It’s all right, it’s all right. What do you say we head back to the cabin, huh? Get you warmed up?” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and offered it to her. She took it gratefully and dabbed her eyes. When she handed it back to him, he blew his nose.
Her crying tapered off to sniffles. “Okay. But will you take me to the mountaintop sometime soon?”
After he had closed the door and hung up his coat, he added wood to the fire and they sat down in front of the stove to warm themselves. She removed her sneakers and peeled off her socks, then stretched her bare feet out toward the open stove door and flexed her toes.
“I can hardly wait to get this damn cast off,” he muttered to himself as he took off his single boot. Then he turned to her. “I reckon I owe you an apology.”
She looked at him. “For what?”
“For not believing what you said about your age.”
She shrugged. “It didn’t surprise me. I know what I am; how impossible I am.”
“How long have you been able to do the things you showed me? Were you always that way, or—I mean, what happened, Eli?”
“It happened to me when I was twelve.”
“And when was that?”
He could not say anything at first; just stared at her with dumb amazement. “1773.”
“But you look like you’re twelve.”
“Yes. I’ve been twelve now for almost two hundred and thirty years.”
Again he fell silent. Then he reached over, briefly touched her hand, and pulled away. “Eli, I . . . .”
Once again she gave him a dark, ironic smile. “You don’t know what to say to me, do you?”
He shook his head. “I wish I did.”
“So you’re . . . immortal?” He could not believe he had posed the question.
“Yes. I never get any older.”
He shook his head; then got up. “I think I need some coffee—and tonight, maybe laced with a little something. In fact, I’m sure of that. Excuse me for a second.”
After he got his pot brewing, he came back and sat down, turning his chair toward hers. He spoke again, his voice low and soft. “Eli, I know what kind of a person you’ve been to me, but obviously there’s much more to you than that. I’m here to listen and learn, if you want to tell me more. And I promise I’ll try to be a little more open-minded.” He gave her a self-deprecatory smile.
She sniffed and wiped her nose. “Thanks.” She thought for a moment before continuing. “You should know that I don’t want to be what I am. I guess that might surprise you.”
“Well, I could tell you are unhappy, but until now I thought it was only because your friend Oskar had passed away. Beyond that, I don’t really have any frame of reference for what it means to be you.”
“There’s a price to be paid for everything, Jed. And I didn’t ask to be what I am; I was taken from my family and made what I am. I haven’t seen the sun since the day that it happened. Can you understand what that’s like, Jed? To live for as long as that, and not once be out in the sunshine? To live every day knowing that a single ray of sunlight would destroy you, burn you to nothing?”
A profoundly unsettling realization of her alienness and of the depth of her suffering passed, like an electrical charge, from his head to his toes, carrying with it both dread and compassion. Her words were surreal, but he knew she wasn’t lying. “I can’t really say that I can, Eli; honestly, I can’t. I’m sorry.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and continued to hold it. “But I’m beginning to understand.
“So when did this happen to you? I mean, how did it happen?”
“It’s a curse, Jed. I call it a disease because it makes me feel better to think of it that way. But it’s really a curse. I’m not sure, but I think it may be as old as the earth itself, or—I mean, at least as old as people. And it was done to me by someone who had been cursed with it by someone else. And so on, I suppose, back to whenever it started.”
“A curse.” He could not relate to her statement, which seemed too impossible to be taken seriously. Once again he experienced an irrational wonder that perhaps she was making it all up or was mentally ill. Curses did not truly exist; they were things of fiction, or the fanciful imaginations of people who lived before the era of scientific enlightenment. The notion of curses existing in the 21st Century seemed laughable. But he wasn’t laughing; instead, her words terrified him.
“I know what you’re thinking, Jed. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t, I’m afraid. And I’m not doubting you, Eli. I’ve learned my lesson. It’s just that you’re throwing an awful lot of things at me, very fast.”
She gave him a tender smile and then squeezed his hand. “I don’t want to upset you. But you’ve been very kind to me, and you deserve to know the truth. One of the things that Oskar taught me is that you can’t love someone—I mean, really love someone—without truth.”
“I want to know the truth about you, Eli. Because I do want to help you.”
She let go of his hand and sat cross-legged in her chair. “The kind of help you’ve been talking about won’t be any help at all. I’m not going down to see the Sheriff, or be taken into custody by some county person. They wouldn’t know what to do with me, and they wouldn’t believe me when I told them about the sunlight. They’d end up killing me.”
“Eli, I’m not sure I agree. The Social Services folks always make the needs of the children they help their highest priority. But you’re right, it’s a system, a bureaucracy. And they might have a lot of trouble fitting you in. But all of that thinking was based on the notion that you’d run away from someone over here. Foster parents, or your guardian, or . . . I don’t know who.”
“I told you I don’t have foster parents.”
“I know, but you also wouldn’t exactly fess up about how you came here, either. It was logical to assume that you were brought over here from Sweden by adoptive parents.”
“I hid myself away on a freighter that sailed from Malmö to Norfolk. I came by myself, Jed.”
Once again he shook his head; trying to understand this little person was clearly going to be full of challenges. He got up and began to prepare his coffee. “Why did you leave Sweden?”
She sighed. “Because after Oskar died, it wasn’t safe for me to live there anymore.”
“Why was that?” He stirred a shot of bourbon into his coffee and resumed his chair beside her.
“Jed, I don’t eat normal food. That’s part of the curse.”
“Normal food. So that’s why you’ve always turned me down when I—”
“That’s right. Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, but as you can see, all of this is very hard to take.”
“No, no . . . I’m getting the picture.” He looked at her. “So what is it that you need to eat?”
She was quiet for a moment and would not look at him. “I’m afraid to tell you. It’s bad, it’s—”
“It’s blood, isn’t it.” He stared at her; somehow he knew.
“Yes.” Cautiously she looked up into his eyes, searching for rejection.
He said nothing for a long, long time; the only sound in the cabin was the crackling of the fire in the stove. At last she could stand it no longer.
“I’ll leave if you want. I won’t hold you to your promise.”
“The man in the car that hit us. What did you do to him?” His voice was hard.
She turned away and stared at the corner; then put her face into her hands as she replied. “I drank his blood.”
“Did you kill him, Eli?”
“I don’t know. He was already bleeding a lot when I went to him.”
“You drank my blood, too, after you kissed me—isn’t that right? From my cut?”
She did not answer.
“You don’t understand how it is.” At last she looked at him, and he heard the emotion rising in her voice. “I hate it, hate it most of all, but I can’t control it once it starts to happen. It takes over.”
She got up, stood in front of him, and stripped off her sweatshirt. Angrily she tapped the center of her bare chest. “It lives here, in my heart. It’s always with me. I wish it weren’t, but it is. And there’s only one way to get rid of it.”
“What’s that?” But he already knew.
“I have to die.” She put her arms down, locked eyes briefly with him, and then looked down. “And I want to die.”
“Oh my God, Eli.” He put his coffee down and gently pulled her to him. “Don’t say that. Don’t.”
“But it’s true—I do.” She started to cry again, her shoulders hitching in his embrace, her arms coming out and around his waist. “I can’t go on hurting people like this. I can’t, and I won’t. I just . . . I just don’t have the courage to do it myself. No matter how much I try, I can’t bring myself. That’s why I want you to help me.”
He suddenly felt completely numb, as though the world had abruptly turned sideways. “You want me to help—what are you saying, for God’s sake?”
“You know how to do it so I won’t suffer, right? Like you said about the deer.”
“Now just hold your horses, Eli. Just—just settle down for a moment and let’s talk this over, for pity’s sake.” He continued to hold her while her crying wound down. She did not stop right away, and he found himself saying “shh, shh” in her ear and rocking her gently. As he had when she was asleep, he could not help but notice the silky smoothness of her skin. Eventually she stopped and broke away from him.
“Why don’t you come lie down for a bit and let’s talk, okay?”
Almost too softly to be heard she agreed, and allowed him to lead her to his bed. He handed the sweatshirt to her, which she put back on before she laid down. Her face was puffy and tear-stained. He pulled his chair up to the edge of the bed and got his coffee.
“Now look, Eli. You’re not a deer. I’ve never killed anyone, and I’m not starting with you. Surely there must be a way to help you that doesn’t involve a mercy killing. So let’s just put on our thinking caps for a moment. The blood you need—does it have to be human?”
“Okay. So animals are out, right?”
“Yes. If it were that easy, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”
He nodded. “So you’ve tried animal blood. And what happened?”
“It just makes me sick.”
“All right. So what about, say, blood from a hospital or a blood bank?”
She sighed. “Jed, I’ve been through all of this so many times . . . .”
“Well, just humor me, willya? I mean, come on.” He took a drink of his coffee. “Tell me what happens with donated blood.”
“It makes me sick, too. It has to be fresh. From a living person.”
“I don’t know. Like I said, it’s a curse.”
“Calling it a curse isn’t helpful.”
“Maybe not, but that’s what it is.”
“So are you saying that . . . you’re a vampire?”
She rolled her eyes, turned onto her back, and stared at the ceiling. “No—I’m not.”
“Well what’s the difference, then? I mean, help me out here.”
“Vampires enjoy hurting people. I don’t.”
“So it’s your attitude, not your biology. Is that it?”
Somehow she found his remark humorous, and she glanced at him and smiled. “Yes. You could say that.”
“So you need to get blood from a living person. Let’s take that as a given. Does that mean—”
“It is a given. I’ve been around long enough to know.”
“All right, all right--don’t get testy. I’m trying to help you, dammit.”
“Sorry.” She smiled again as he shook his head impatiently.
“Do you have to kill the person you get it from?”
“Well, tell me how that works, then.”
“It all depends. It’s an infection in my blood. If I . . . if I bite the person, I could infect them and they could get my disease. But if I don’t bite, then it’s okay.”
“So is that how you do it? You bite people?” He thought about how she had appeared after the car crash and felt a chill run down his spine. The other guy’s blood; she’d been drinking it. And then she’d kissed him. Jesus.
She couldn’t bring herself to say yes, so she slowly nodded.
“So you’ve got what—fangs?”
She sighed once again and looked at him. “Yes. But I don’t want you to see them. When I get hungry, they come. Like my hands and feet—they change, too.”
He frowned as he tried to imagine the changes she was describing. Again he shook his head. “You know, Eli, if I hadn’t seen you come down from that tree, I’d never have believed any of this.”
“Well, it’s true—trust me. You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry.”
“I do trust you. But if you don’t need to kill to get blood, then it seems to me there’s some room for hope here.”
She made a scoffing sound, and when she spoke again, her voice was hard and cynical. “Oh yeah, people are just lining up to be my victims. It’s so easy. They just love donating their blood to me.”
“No, you come on. It’s not like asking someone for spare change. Tell me—when I beat you at arm wrestling, or jumped up into that tree, did I scare you?”
“Well, how do you think you’d feel if I came up to you and asked if I could cut open your vein and suck out your blood, huh? Think you’d be a little repulsed?”
“I’d do it, if I thought it would help you.”
She stared at him, her features forbidding; her eyes huge and dark. “Are you so sure?”
He felt the tension as what she had been saying seized his emotions. He summoned his courage and looked into her eyes. “I guess I’d like to think I would.”
Her face softened and the moment passed. “I know you would—because you have feelings for me, and maybe you understand me a little. But that’s not what usually happens. People are afraid of the supernatural, Jed—of things they don’t understand. And that’s what I am.”
“Yeah, but surely there must be some way to . . . you know, to bring you into society. I mean, you’re a very lovely and engaging young woman; at least, I think so. Most people would be happy to have you as a friend.”
“I’m not really a girl.”
He was halfway through another swig of coffee, and hearing her words, he stopped and slowly lowered his mug. “What do you mean?”
“Just what I said: I’m not a girl. I’m not female.”
His frown deepened. “So you’re . . . a boy?” In his mind he recalled the moment he had first seen her out in the woods, and about his judgment to think of her as a she. Could it have gone the other way? His disquiet deepened.
Eli turned her back to him and stared at the wall. For a long time she did not speak.
“I used to be.” The words were soft, barely above a whisper.
Jed was suddenly at a loss for words. He wanted to know more, but was afraid to ask. Finally he got up quietly, sat on the edge of the bed, and hesitantly touched Eli’s shoulder.
“Eli . . . tell me what happened.”
“I used to be a boy, okay?” The anger in his voice was unmistakable. “Now, I’m nothing. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too painful.”
“So was it the person who did this to you when you were twelve? I mean, was it the same person?”
Eli jerked his body away from Jed’s touch. “I said I don’t want to talk about it!”
“All right, all right. I’m sorry.” Reluctantly he returned to his chair. Eli remained turned to the wall, but soon looked over his shoulder at Jed. “It’s okay. I’m sorry; it’s just—I can’t talk about it right now.”
“Well, should I call you a boy or a—”
“I’m just Eli. That’s all.”
To his surprise, Jed found himself smiling again, this time at Eli’s pluck. “Just Eli. Got it.”
He took a moment to gather his thoughts. “So how often do you need to eat? Or I mean, drink?”
“Every week or so.”
“So are you hungry now?”
“No. Because . . .” Eli stopped, rolled back over to face Jed, and crossed his arms over his chest. His face was gravely serious. “Jed, this thing lives inside of me. I’m never completely free of it. Sometimes if I’m full, I hardly notice it. But the longer I go without eating, the stronger it gets, until finally I can’t think of anything else. And because I don’t like to do what I do, a lot of the time I have to work hard to control it. This is just part of what it means to be me. But it changes everything I do. How I see people. What I smell; how I think. So if, say, you were to accidentally cut yourself with your whittling knife right now, I might . . . do something to you that I don’t want to do.”
“I see.” He suddenly felt cold despite the bourbon.
“Or if, say, I was really hungry, and you gave me a hug. I might smell your blood, or feel it inside of you, even if you weren’t bleeding. Something bad could happen then, too.
“And this is what I’m ready to be free of. I don’t want to have to go on experiencing these things every day, day after day, with no end in sight. Even when I don’t really feel hungry. So you saying, ‘we’ll just find a bunch of volunteers’ will never really remove this from me; it’s still going to be there. In fact, the more it’s fed, the stronger it becomes. It’s . . . it’s greedy, Jed. You feed it, and it wants more. It’s evil. And it’s alive, inside of me. I can’t escape it. I’m a . . . I’m a slave to it. Do you understand?”
Jed sat in silence, his coffee forgotten. Eli could not tell what he was thinking. At last he stood and came once again to the side of the bed. They looked at each other, neither speaking; then Jed touched Eli’s cheek and ran his fingers through his hair. His hand moved around and under Eli’s head, lifting it as he lowered his; and with this, Eli understood. For a moment, it seemed as though he would kiss Eli’s forehead; but as his lips neared Eli’s brow, Eli lifted his face slightly, offering his mouth. Softly, they kissed. Eli uncrossed his arms and then they were around Jed’s torso, pulling himself up from the bed as Jed’s free hand encircled him. After a few seconds, their kiss broke, and Jed lowered him back to the bed.
“I’m so sorry, Eli. Now I understand.”
The cabin grew dim as the embers from the fire slowly died and the flame in the hurricane lantern diminished, the last of the oil flowing up the wick and transforming into uncertain heat and light. On the table by the bed, the coffee grew cold. In his easy chair Jed held Eli in his arms, Eli’s head resting on his shoulder, comforting him. His lost and forlorn child.
December 17, 2002 – 10:07 a.m.
Jed was startled from his sleep by a knocking sound. He groaned and looked groggily around the darkened cabin. Someone was at his door.
He rolled out of his bed; pulled the covers back up over Eli. “Hang, on, hang on. I’m comin’.”
In a fog he clumped to his table, once again cursing his broken leg under his breath. What time was it? He had no idea. As he was fumbling for his pants he heard Katie’s voice, muted through the wood. “Jed? You home?” Then he remembered—he had promised to go with her to the hardware store in Leesburg this morning, but he’d forgot—damn.
“Yeah. Lemme get my pants on.” It occurred to him as he fumbled on his jeans that he he’d been so tired, he hadn’t even heard Katie’s car pull up.
He cracked open the door and blinked out at her in the gray light of an overcast day. She stood on his porch wearing a red winter parka, thin and elegant in her usual rustic way. She was clearly a bit surprised to see him still undressed.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s all right. Com’on in.” Without saying more he turned away and went to the kitchen area to find something to eat. He was hungry, and his head hurt.
She stepped inside and he asked her to hold the door open for a moment while he got his lantern going. Realizing that it was empty, he swore and lit a candle instead. The room was cold because the stove had gone out, so he shoveled out the ashes and started a new fire.
She sat down quietly at his table, looking around. For several minutes they said nothing while he got the fire going. Once he was finished, she asked him how he was feeling.
“I’ve felt better. This staying up at night stuff is starting to catch up with me.”
“Do you want me to come back this afternoon?”
“No, it’s all right. Just take me a little bit to get goin here.”
“How’s the leg?”
“About the same, I guess. You want some tea?”
“That’d be lovely.”
“Okay.” He shuffled over to his water jug and began to fill the teapot.
She looked at Eli sleeping in his bed and then up the ladder at the loft, but she was too polite to ask any questions. No doubt he’d slept in his chair. “How’s Eli?”
He sighed. “About the same. Sleeping like a rock, I reckon.” He put the teapot on the stove and then set about to refill his lantern.
“Did you ever find out more from her about what sort of disease she has? This business about being allergic to sunlight . . .” she nodded toward Jed’s draped windows. “Surely it must have a medical name--I can’t imagine that no one’s heard of it.”
“Nope. She doesn’t know what it’s called.”
Eli’s words came back to him: It’s a curse, Jed. But there was no way he could tell Katie that, or anything else he’d learned last night, for that matter. She’d start telling him he needed mental help—or call the police.
“Hmm. Well, she certainly seems to be between a rock and a hard place, poor thing. Did you make any progress with the other issues?”
“A little. She’s from a town called Malmö. Says she stole away on a ship that came into Norfolk.”
“What do you mean? That she—”
“—came by herself. Yep.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Jed. Surely you don’t believe that.”
He said nothing; just continued to prepare his oatmeal.
“Katie, she told me what she told me. I don’t think she’s lyin and I ain’t gonna push her.”
“It’s obviously a lie. You really ought to call Social Services. I know one of the clerks who works down there—Bernadette Peters. She went to school with Irene Keller—remember her? I’m sure she could help you.”
“I believe her, Katie. And I don’t want any help. The poor kid is scared to death of being dragged in there.”
She frowned. “So what’re you going to do—just let her live here with you? She’s an illegal alien. Can’t you get into trouble for harboring an illegal alien?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t rightly care. She needs my help and she doesn’t have anyone else. I can’t see how I’m worse than any other foster parent she’d wind up with.”
“But Jed, what if she gets even more sick and needs a doctor? She’s strange enough as it is, what with almost no breathing or heartbeat. Or what if she has to go to the hospital? Are you just going to pass her off as your own kid?”
“I dunno, Kate. I haven’t thought my way through all this stuff yet.”
She shook her head. “I’m so worried about you.” She looked around. “Your cabin is starting to feel like a cave.”
“What does it matter, Katie? Tell me: how many people out there would be genuinely eager to adopt a kid with problems like hers? I mean, seriously. She needs my help, and by God, I’m gonna give it to her. It’s the right thing to do.”
He brought the tea and oatmeal over to the table and poured her a cup; then he sat down and began to eat his breakfast.
“Does she ever wake up during the day?”
“Too bad—I’d love to talk with her. Did you do anything about her backpack?”
“Katie, I told you I wasn’t going to do that.”
“Jed, you’re letting this girl snow you.”
“No, I’m not.”
“How can you be so sure?”
He looked up from his bowl and into Katie’s eyes. “I just am.”
For the first time, Katie heard a note of animosity in his voice. The signal was clear: her questions were threatening their friendship. It was time to back down, even if she thought he was on the wrong track.
“Well, I’m sure everything will turn out all right.”
“Yeah—I think it will.” He scraped the bottom of his bowl and then stood up. “Let me get my shirt on, and then we’ll go. Did you figure out how many square feet of tile you’re gonna need for that bathroom?”
Jed turned and waved goodbye to Katie as she pulled away and headed back down the mountain in the light drizzle that had begun a few minutes earlier. He had been impatient to get back to the cabin, and although he hated to say it, he was glad that she was gone.
Because he had rebuffed Katie before leaving, their sojourn into Leesburg was not as pleasant as it should have been. Their conversation had been much more circumscribed that it usually was, and had focused on the work she wanted done in her bathrom. His mind had been on Eli and all of the things she had told him. About her predicament—and his.
Two things, in particular, kept returning to him: Eli needed to eat about once a week, and she wasn’t hungry right now. It had been three weeks since the accident; three weeks since she’d last fed. So . . .
I’m living with a murderer.
As he opened the cabin door the thought once again came to him. It had been rolling around in the back of his head all day. It was the single thought that had most compelled him to shut down Katie when it came to discussing what to do about Eli. And it was this decision that had made the whole day with her tense and uncomfortable, even though Eli’s name had not come up once during their time shopping together.
How many people had she killed since she had entered the States? She said she had been in the U.S. less than a year; there were 52 weeks in a year; so . . .
He shook his head as he shut the door behind himself and hung up his coat. Then he went to the bed and looked at her. Him. Eli.
How many since Eli had come to live with him? Excluding Finch, there had to have been about three, unless he’d figured out a way to get it without hurting them, or was starving himself. But how could he possibly get blood from someone without raising a ruckus? If Eli had approached him out of the blue and asked for blood, he would have called the cops. Some people might not, he supposed. Maybe there were desperate people out there who needed . . . what?
What did Eli have to offer in exchange for blood?
He looked around the shadowy confines of his cabin and his eyes came to rest on the backpack, now sitting on the floor by the side of his easy chair. He sighed and shook his head.
Katie was right: it was time to take a look. Goddamn it. He hated it, but that was just the way it was. At this point, it was not just a question of invading someone’s privacy. He sat down on the footstool, pulled the bag up into his lap, unzipped the top, and reached in.
The first three things were not new to him: her toys. The Cube, the wire knots, and most easily discernable in his hand, the wooden box with her fabulous egg. He pulled each out and put them down on the chair. Beneath these there was something bigger, something soft and bulky. He reached in and pulled it out.
A stuffed bunny.
It was very old and worn. Clearly when it had been new, it had been much fuzzier than it was now, but it had been fondled for so long that most of its brown fur had been worn off. It was missing an eye, and the seams were torn where an arm and a leg were sewn to the body. It still had the stub of a tail, now gray; he imagined that it had probably been white and three times as big at one time. A line of black thread made a little bunny smile under the pink button that was its nose, but it had come loose at one corner, and only half a smile remained.
He turned the bunny over in his hands; then looked at Eli, asleep in his bed.
Twelve years old for two hundred and thirty years. It was unimaginable.
He began to cry. He cried for Eli; for what had happened to him. An innocent child, attacked and bitten by some kind of monster, and made to live by a simple but horrific rule: kill or starve to death. He held his head in one hand and the bunny in the other as he made the terrifying calculation: two hundred and thirty times fifty-two made . . . almost twelve thousand people. How could that possibly be? Or was it less because she slept sometimes? But even so . . . .
The true depth of Eli’s pathos hit home for the first time; somehow, seeing the bunny had done it. He tried to imagine being forced to kill someone once a week to stay alive, but his imagination failed him--he couldn’t. Was it any wonder that Eli wanted to die? He would have killed himself a long time ago.
He pulled himself together as best he could and put the bunny down next to the egg box. There was nothing else inside the main pouch of the backpack, so he unzipped the smaller pouch on the front and dumped the contents out beside him on the ottoman. A box of band-aids and several articles of jewelry fell out, including the locket Jed had bought her
before the accident; mostly rings with precious stones, but also a few gold watches and some pendants. With the jewelry also came three big wads of money, each wrapped with a rubber band. And last was an envelope.
Jed didn’t count the bundles, but flipped through the exposed ends of the bills. There had to be several thousand dollars. He frowned. Where had Eli gotten all this cash?
He picked up the band-aid box and noticed that it seemed somewhat heavy. He shook it and felt something hard moving around; then opened it and saw several razor blades and cotton balls in addition to the band-aids. He nodded to himself--so this was how he did it. His anxiety lessened somewhat; maybe the body count wasn’t as bad as he’d thought. And it proved what Eli had said: that he didn’t like hurting people.
He picked up the locket and held it in his hand. He must have washed it, because there was no trace of the blood Jed had remembered the night of the accident. Carefully he popped it open. There was a tiny, color photograph of a smiling young man with blond hair inside; he looked to be about 18 years old.
He closed the locket and put it down with the rest of the jewelry. Then he picked up the envelope. It wasn’t sealed.
He glanced over at Eli to make sure he was still asleep.
Feeling very uneasy, but compelled to learn more, Jed opened the envelope and removed its contents. The first thing that caught his attention was a wallet-sized photograph with a heart-shaped hole cut into it. Oskar, he presumed, sans head; sitting at a kitchen table with a birthday cake in front of him.
Another, this one a black-and-white, showed four snapshots of both of them in a photo booth; it was a bit more dog-eared than the last, and Oskar looked even younger than he had in the birthday photo. He was a good-looking youngster and his face had an open, innocent quality that made him very endearing. Eli looked exactly the same as he did right now in Jed’s cabin. In the photographs they had been acting silly and making faces at the camera, but the last one captured a kiss. It seemed strange to see what appeared to be a preadolescent girl kissing an older boy so tenderly; it was not just a playful peck on the cheek.
In addition to the photographs, there were a handful of notes, but they were written in Swedish and Jed could not decipher them. Carefully he placed the photos and the notes back into the envelope, and then returned everything to the backpack.
So that was Oskar. Now the carving Eli had been working on made sense. He made a mental note to speak with Eli about him; perhaps he could help assuage the grief Eli was experiencing from his loss. If he could, maybe it would make tackling the bigger problems easier.
But was the bigger problem surmountable? It seemed not, but Eli needed help, and the best thing Jed had to offer was his brains. Letting Eli live with him and doing what he could to be a source of comfort were all very well and good, but they would never solve Eli’s main difficulty.
He suddenly felt the urge to go outside. He enjoyed being outdoors, and had always felt that he did his best thinking when he was outside. And right now, he needed to think very clearly, because he had a window of opportunity to take some action before the child got hungry again. So he put on his coat and went out.
It was still raining lightly. He looked at his watch; it was 3:47 p.m. There was about an hour of daylight remaining. When would Eli wake up? At sunset, of course; hadn’t he seen the pattern before Eli had revealed his true nature? Now it was obvious: vampires woke up when the sun went down. This was true even, he supposed, for a vampire who didn’t think he should fairly be labeled a vampire. Jed shook his head and smiled ironically.
His shiny new truck sat in the driveway. To look at it should have given him some modicum of pleasure, but it didn’t. The looming problems were too great to allow him to dwell on such small matters as taking pleasure in owning a new truck.
He didn’t want to walk in the rain, and he didn’t want to stand around on his porch, so instead, he climbed into the truck, shut the door, and tried to think as he listened to the raindrops on the metal roof and watched them run down the windshield in the dying gray light.
The kid needed a doctor--some kind of specialist who could examine his blood and try to find an antidote or cure. That was really, as far as Jed could determine, Eli’s only hope; the only thing that offered the possibility of a life free of death and bloodshed. He knew there had to be plenty of excellent physicians in D.C. A hematologist would be the place to start, since Eli had said that her blood carried the infection. But how could he possibly get a hematologist to examine Eli without revealing his horrifying past?
He wasn’t afraid of passing Eli off as his own child. Although he might ultimately get into serious trouble for it, it was a risk he was willing to take if it would mean a shot at beating his disease; at killing whatever lived inside him that made him thirst for blood.
He thought about how he could get Eli in front of a doctor. He didn’t have a telephone, but maybe he could use Katie’s. Who would he call? He felt strongly that the initial contact needed to be private, like an old-fashioned house call. He did not think he would ever be able to persuade Eli to just show up at a hospital. But private doctor’s offices were not open at night, were they? Could he figure out where a doctor’s home address was, and simply take Eli straight to the doctor, even if it was the evening? It would be highly unusual, but doctors took an oath to heal the sick. Maybe Katie had a Yellow Pages and a White Pages that he could cross-reference.
Assuming that he found the home address of a hematologist and took Eli to him or her, what would they tell the doctor about Eli’s disease? Somehow they would have to say enough to get the doctor to take a blood sample for testing. But they couldn’t just say anything, because unless it was extraordinary, the doc would just tell them to go to the nearest hospital and get checked out. On the other hand, if whatever they said was too wacky, they’d just have a door slammed in their face, or worse, have the cops called on them.
Perhaps the key was Eli’s unusually slow breathing and heartbeat. That was something highly demonstrable and very unusual, but it didn’t necessarily bespeak of the supernatural. It was sure to get any doctor’s attention, and it wasn’t something that would require them to start talking about needing human blood to live. But could he persuade Eli to go along? It was hugely risky, but Jed felt strongly that they would have to try. And if Eli refused? Jed didn’t know what he would do. He certainly couldn’t force Eli to do anything; he understood that much.
He sighed and sat back in his seat, trying to imagine what it would be like, driving around in Northwest D.C. or Potomac, Maryland, looking for some doctor’s home in the middle of the night in the rain. Coming up and knocking on the door of some beautiful house owned by a perfect stranger, hat in hand, humbly asking for help. He thought about how Eli would react if they were turned away out of hand, and if they weren’t, about the lies he’d have to tell about Eli. He thought about the questions that any self-respecting doctor would ask. What is your child’s date of birth and social security number? Is he covered by health insurance? How long has he been like this? Are there any other symptoms? I need to perform a physical exam—what would that reveal? Your child needs to be registered at a hospital before any lab testing can be performed.
Well you see, doc, he was born in the 1700’s. And, uh, he’s immortal. Yeah, that’d go over big. No, Eli would have to be born in 1990; they’d just agree on a date, that’s all. And as for a Social? Jed had no idea.
Just thinking about the plan made him realize how far-fetched it was. Maybe it would be better to find an old-fashioned family physician out here; some kind old guy who was used to dealing with patients informally. Perhaps Katie would know someone.
He closed his eyes and thought about last night. The barriers were breaking down; he knew that. He hadn’t really meant to spend the night in bed with Eli again; in fact, before Eli had revealed all of the awful things about what it meant to be him, he had planned to sleep in his easy chair and let Eli have his bed all to himself, given that he couldn’t very well climb up into the loft with his broken leg. They had spent a long time together in the chair while Eli cried and clung to him. It had been heartbreaking, and Jed had done everything in his power to comfort him; to tell him that he would be there for him no matter what. Eventually Jed had drifted into a fitful sleep with Eli still in his arms, resting quietly under a blanket Jed had pulled over them. And at some point Jed knew not when, Eli had gotten up and gone to the bed. He had stirred a little when Eli had left him, and was drifting off to sleep again when Eli spoke from across the room, asking him if he could please come and keep him warm as he had the night before. Jed had hesitated only a moment before getting up and going to the bed to join him. And as they had the previous evening, Eli had curled up beside him.
He had told Eli that he was a bit uncomfortable doing what they were doing, but Eli had replied that he didn’t mind, and knew that he could trust Jed. He said that he had grown used to sleeping with Oskar after Oskar had grown up, and that it helped him feel less alone. When Jed had replied that he still wasn’t sure, Eli reminded him that although he was twelve, he was a really old twelve, so maybe that didn’t count. Jed had been too tired and sleepy to argue much further, so he’d capitulated, and that had been that. Later, as the dawn had approached and Jed had begun to experience periods of wakefulness, he had once again been happy to have Eli with him; had been pleased to hold the child in his arms, even though Eli had said that he was really a boy. Or had been a boy, whatever in God’s name that meant.
But in the cold light of day, having spent the afternoon with Katie, he felt uneasy again about the whole thing. Was he doing it for Eli, or for himself? Or for both of them? The whole thing was so strange—he really felt as though he’d lost his bearings. He would have to talk about it some more with Eli, when the time was right.
12/17/02 – 4:40 p.m.
Don’t know what to write tonight.
I thought I knew what life was all about, but now I’m not so sure. Right now things seem very complicated.
“Do you need a little more hot water in there?” Jed puttered around by his chest of drawers, putting away some of his clothes as Eli took a bath in the tub behind the curtain he’d rigged up to give Eli some privacy.
“No, I’m fine, thanks.”
“Okay. I know it can be kinda drafty in here.”
He had finished putting his socks away when Eli spoke again. “Thanks for talking with me last night about my problems, Jed. I feel better, now that you know. I don’t really like keeping secrets.”
“Not a problem--that’s what friends are for.”
“I know, but I realize how much trouble I’ve caused you. I’m still wondering if you would be better off if I left. You’d tell me the truth if that’s how you really felt, wouldn’t you?”
Jed paused with the half-open shirt drawer in his hands. He suddenly felt very self-conscious, and wondered how Eli had managed to key in on what had gone through his mind the day before. He listened to the splashing from behind the sheet; then he shut the drawer and came over beside the makeshift curtain.
“Eli, listen. I don’t want you to keep talking like that. I told you that I want you to stay, and I meant it.”
The water sounds stopped. “I know, but I’m going to get hungry again, and I don’t want to be around you when that happens. And I meant what I said about not wanting to go through it again, too.”
“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, okay?” How, exactly, they would ‘cross the bridge’ Jed didn’t know, but once again he felt the importance of trying to be positive. “Listen, Eli--I’ve been thinking, and I really want you to reconsider your position about not wanting to go see a doctor. I think doing that might be the best bet for curing your problem.”
Eli was quiet for a moment; then Jed heard a soft thump as he got out of the tub. The rack behind the tub shook a little as a towel was taken down. After a few seconds, Eli pushed the curtain aside and stepped out.
Seeing him, Jed was impressed, not for the first time, by how skinny he was. His arms were very long and lanky, and his chest was bony and narrow, with almost no fat at all.
Thinking that he might want to dress in private, Jed stepped back and motioned toward Eli’s clothes on one of the kitchen chairs a short distance from the tub. “I’ll get those for you, if you'd like.”
Eli glanced at him and stepped over to the chair before Jed could act. “It’s all right,” he said softly. “You know everything about me anyway. Besides, what does it matter at this point whether you see how I look?”
There was an ominous tone of resignation in Eli’s voice that Jed didn’t like. Somehow, he needed to pull the kid out of his terminal attitude. Yet, he found it difficult to fault Eli for feeling the way he did. Some people, he supposed, might become depressed over things that would seem trivial to him, but Eli’s problems clearly didn’t fit into that category. But still, he had to try.
“Don’t talk like that, Eli. It won’t help us deal with your problems.”
Eli laughed. “Don’t you get it? They can’t be ‘dealt with.’” He held the towel wrapped at his waist and began to pick up his underwear, but then paused. “In case you’re still wondering about how I’m not a boy anymore, you can see if you want. Maybe it’ll help you do the right thing, like I want you to.”
“Well, I’m not sure that’s—”
Eli removed the towel, threw it over the back of the chair, and stood perfectly still in front of Jed.
Jed’s heart lurched in his chest; he felt as if someone had punched him, taking away his wind. After a second or two, he realized his mouth was hanging open and felt like an idiot. “Oh my God.”
Eli looked up at him and tried to put on a cynical smile, but the effort faltered when he saw the expression on Jed’s face. He looked down at the floor, wishing that he had not been so callous; he knew what he had done was cruel. “I’m sorry.” Quickly he began to step into the panties Jed had bought for him at Wal-Mart.
Eli bit his lip to keep the tears at bay as he fumbled with the underwear. Somehow, he couldn’t get one of his feet into the hole. “It’s okay, Jed--I shouldn’t have done that.”
Jed stepped closer. “Eli, please. Hold on.”
Eli paused. “What?”
“Tell me what happened.”
He straightened, turned, and stood naked before Jed with the panties around his ankles.
“It was cut off.”
His face darkened. “Why?”
“Yes,” Jed replied. Eli could see the fear in his eyes.
Eli looked down at himself. “Because there is no God. That’s why.”
“That’s a damn lie.”
Eli’s body tensed and he balled his hands into fists. Then he kicked off the panties, which flew in a small arc, hit Jed’s good leg, and fell to the floor by his feet. “Prove it!”
Jed hesitated; when he spoke his voice was weak and hesitant. “I ain’t smart enough to prove it, but it’s what I believe. And I don’t like what you said.”
Eli laughed angrily, longer this time. Then he looked around, as if uncertain of what to do next; reached to put on some clothes, but stopped. “You people . . . you’re all the same. Blind faith. Well that’s not something I’m buying any more--no way. I learned my lesson about putting trust in God.”
“Eli, God didn’t intend all of this to happen to you.” Feeling an urge to console him, Jed stepped closer, but Eli backed away.
“It doesn’t matter what He intended--He let it happen. That was enough. Never again—never ever. I can’t exist in a world where there’s a God. It’s impossible.”
“You’re not the only person who’s suffered.”
Eli glared at him, and when he replied there was a hard, dangerous edge to his voice. “Don’t you dare compare what I’ve been through to someone else. You don’t know anything about what it means to be me.”
“I want to.”
“No you don’t. You couldn’t handle it, trust me.”
“That’s bullshit. If you want to wallow in self-pity, do it somewhere else. If you want help, then talk to me.”
Eli stared quietly at Jed, and when he replied his voice was venomous. “I don’t need you.” He turned to look at the guns on the wall. “I’ll do it myself.” Quickly he went to the rack.
“You keep away from them guns.”
Eli did not stop. He went to the cabinet and pulled on the handle of the wood-framed glass door. Realizing it was locked, he pulled harder. There was a cracking sound as the wood around the lock gave way and he swung the door open. Quickly he reached inside and pulled Jed’s hunting rifle out of its rack.
“Put that down.” Jed began limping toward Eli.
Eli ignored him. He looked over the gun and seeing the bolt handle, began tugging on it. After a second he pulled on it the right way and the bold slid up and back. Without looking further, he snapped the bolt shut, turned it, and swung the barrel up toward his head. Then Jed tackled him.
They hit the floor hard. The gun clattered out of Eli’s hands and landed by the wall next to the cabinet. Jed ended up on top of Eli and tried to restrain him, but only briefly had the advantage. Although he was much larger and heavier, Eli easily broke his grip and shoved him sprawling onto the bearskin rug. He sprung to his feet, saw the gun on the floor, and again picked it up. As Jed pulled himself to his feet, Eli once again pointed the barrel at himself and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He pulled again; still nothing. Jed stepped over and grabbed it away from him.
“It ain’t even loaded. Jesus.” His hands were shaking.
Eli turned to him, trembling with rage, and for a second Jed was certain he was going to pounce upon him. In that instant he realized that Eli’s eyes had changed and were now slit-like, and that something was happening with his hands; for a moment, they had appeared . . . indistinct. Then Eli saw the fear and concern in Jed’s eyes. He blinked, and his eyes were normal, and then the anger and hatred left his face like a departing ghost.
“Please . . . please, Jed. Shoot me.”
Jed backed away, the fear of what he had seen settling deep into his bones. “Goddamn it, Eli—that’s no way. It ain’t right.”
Eli stepped toward him. “I want to be free! It’s the only way!”
“If there isn’t any God, you won’t be anything if I shoot ya. Don’t you want to see Oskar again someday?”
Eli’s features changed from anguish to confusion. “Oskar’s dead! I’ll never see him again!”
“You don’t know that.”
“Really? So you know what happens after death, huh? Seems to me that’s the one big thing you don’t know.” Jed felt his heart begin to beat slower in his chest; suddenly he felt weak, and he looked around for his chair. “Now come on and . . . and stop all this foolishness. Let me help you in some way that makes sense.” He tottered to his easy chair and sat down, then ran a shaking hand over his sweaty face.
Eli stared at him quietly for a moment; then picked his underwear up and put it on. As he pulled on his pants, he apologized for breaking the gun cabinet.
“I don’t care about that--it’s not important.” Jed put the gun down on the chair next to him.
After he had dressed, Eli came over and sat beside him. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, Eli. I guess you warned me, didn’t you.” Eli nodded as Jed put his arm around his narrow shoulders and gave him a squeeze. “Look, I understand you’ve got a lot of problems, but beggin’ me to blow you away is no solution. I know you’re despairing ‘cause Oskar isn’t around any more, but lots of people struggle with the loss of a loved one every day. Do you really think Oskar would want me to kill you if he were here right now?”
Eli looked down and shook her head. “No.”
“Look, I’m not cut out for this sorta thing. I was a medic in Vietnam—you know, I ran around trying to save guys, mostly. I know you think I’m some kinda big-time hunter, and I won’t deny that I enjoy that, but there’s a big difference between killing an animal and killin’ a person. Especially one as nice as you, for Pete’s sake.”
Eli looked up at him. “But that’s just the thing, Jed. I am an animal—or at least, I can turn into one sometimes. I become a monster. And I don’t want to be that any more. It’s too hard.” He sniffed and wiped his nose with his shirtsleeve. “It’s just too hard. Especially without Oskar. I miss him so much.”
The photographs of Eli and Oskar in the photo booth came to Jed’s mind. “How did the two of you manage to fall in love?”
Eli chuckled softly. “We just . . . became friends, I guess.” He frowned. “Although it wasn’t easy at first. One of the first times we met, I was really hungry, and I almost . . .” He looked up at Jed. “Oh God. I’d almost forgotten about that.”
Jed sighed and shook his head; then put down his arm and squeezed Eli’s hand. “I’m beginning to see how hard things really are for you. When you have to start worryin about biting someone you like, things must really be tough.”
“Well, it didn’t happen, so that was good. And then he showed me his Rubik’s Cube, which I thought was really cool because I had never seen one before. And he loaned it to me, and I solved it for him. Then he thought I was awesome.”
Jed chuckled. “Not far off base there.” Eli gave him a small, embarrassed smile. “Go on.”
Eli stared down at the floor. “So we just started hanging out together. He didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t really have any, so we . . . you know. It was like we were made for each other. And he was very smart, but it was as if no one appreciated how bright he really was. His mom and dad had split up, and he lived with his mom, but he wasn’t happy. Things were going on at school, like I said the other night, but he wouldn’t tell his mom about it. So he was really struggling.”
“So you were by yourself back then?”
“No—I was living with a man named Håkan.”
“Yeah—you know, like ‘hoe.’”
“Got it.” Jed stood and put his rifle away. “So who was he?”
“Just some guy I met on the street. He was a drunk at the time. We agreed that he could live with me if he stopped drinking.”
“Just some stranger?”
“That’s right. He had a lot of problems.”
Jed frowned and shook his head as he closed the cabinet. “That ain’t right.”
“Little kid like you taking up residence with a strange man.”
Eli shrugged. “You were a stranger, but now I’m living with you.”
Jed paused. “Well yeah, but . . . well, go on.”
“Where was I? So, we just became friends. And then Håkan died, and I was all alone.”
Jed sat down in his chair again and motioned to Eli. “Com’ ere.” Eli looked at him and after a few seconds, crawled into his lap. Jed put his arms around him.
“You said Håkan died? How’d that happen?”
Eli paused. “Are you really sure you want to know all the details?”
“Yeah, I guess. If you think it will help me understand you better.”
“I’m not sure, but—”
“Go ahead, if you want. It’s up to you.”
Eli thought for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain. Then he simply said, “Håkan found people for me, Jed.”
“Found people for you? You mean, like—”
“Yes. For the blood. Only, he wasn’t very good.”
Jed was quiet; Eli felt him stiffen behind him; no doubt, he was beginning to get the picture. When he spoke again, Eli could tell he was trying to control his voice.
“So did someone kill him while he was trying to do that?”
“No. The police caught him and he ended up in the hospital.”
“Musta been roughed up pretty bad by the cops to end up dying.”
“The police didn’t rough him up, Jed.”
“Oh. Well then, I don’t understand.”
Eli briefly turned his head over his shoulder to look at Jed. “I killed him, Jed--it was me. Although at that point, he wanted me to.”
“You killed him.” Jed frowned deeply.
“Jed . . . Håkan was very devoted to me. Very. But in the wrong sort of way. What he really wanted was to have sex with me. And when the police caught him, he disfigured himself so they wouldn’t be able to identify him. He did it to protect me. But we both knew it would only be a matter of time before they figured out who he was, and there was no way he was going to escape—not the way he was. So I came to him at the hospital . . . and he offered himself to me.”
Jed didn’t know what to say. Finally, he spoke. “That’s just about the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Are you still so sure I’m a nice person?”
Jed wanted to say yes, but knew he would lose all credibility with Eli if he did, so instead, he changed the subject.
“Tell me more about Oskar. You said you helped him with those bullies? How’d you do that?”
“They tried to kill Oskar one night at the pool. An older brother of one of them, he had Oskar by his hair and was holding him under water. Drowning him. So I saved him.”
“Jesus. Why were they trying to kill him?”
“Because he’d finally stood up to the leader and hit him on the head with a stick. And they didn’t like that.”
“Well where were the adults when all of this was going on? I don’t understand. Weren’t any teachers looking out for him at school, or something?”
“On the night at the pool, they set a fire outside and the teacher left to see what was going on.”
Jed shook his head. “Sounds like things got outta hand.”
“Yes—there was no one to help him. So I acted. I protected him, like I promised I would. He almost died as it was.”
“How’d you know what was going on? Where you there?”
“I’d left town, but I just couldn’t stay away--he meant that much to me. So I came back. He wasn’t home, and I knew he was exercising down at the gym, so I went there. It was just luck.”
“Good luck for the two of you, I reckon.”
“So how did Oskar deal with your issues? I would imagine that must’ve been hard for him, even more than it is for me.”
“Oskar never judged me. That’s actually what surprised me the most about him, and I guess what made me fall in love with him. Even after he finally figured out what I was, he wanted to be with me. He was the one person, after all those years, who just wanted a friend—even a friend as screwed up as me.”
“I can imagine that finding a true friend might be a real challenge for someone with problems like yours. Although that’s kinda sad, really. It doesn’t reflect very positively on the human condition.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that we like to think of ourselves as living in an enlightened age. You know, we have all of this technology—electricity, jet planes, cell phones, computers, the internet. We’re very advanced in many ways. With all this progress, you’d think there’d be room for helping out one person with unique needs like yours. But maybe we’re really not as far away from the Dark Ages as we like to believe.”
“That’s what scares me about going to a hospital, Jed. People wouldn’t know how to deal with me. And also, once they understood what I was, I think I’d end up locked away somewhere so they could study me.”
Jed grunted; then sighed. “I wish I could honestly say that you’re wrong about that, Eli--but you might be right. Or at least, it’s not a concern to be dismissed out of hand, I’d say. But maybe we could just find one doctor to help us—someone we could trust, huh?”
“Maybe. But I don’t think it will do any good.”
“Well, we’ll see, okay? But for now, let’s just talk a little more.”
“Okay.” Eli relaxed, leaning his head back on Jed’s chest; then he ran a hand over the rounded arm of Jed’s big leather chair, tracing his fingers across the brass nail heads at the end. “I like your chair. It’s really comfortable.”
Jed smiled. “I’ve had this old thing for quite awhile. It was one of the first pieces I moved in here. I like to sit in it sometimes when I do my journal.”
“How long have you been keeping a journal?”
“Oh, ever since my second divorce. When I moved out here more or less permanently.”
“Don’t you ever get bored? Living by yourself?”
“Sometimes, sure. But then again, you can get bored just about anywhere. I enjoy being outside. I almost always see something new, something that interests me, although I reckon most folks wouldn’t think much of it.”
Eli turned in Jed’s arms so that he could see him a little better. “What kind of things?”
Jed glaced at Eli, then stared across the room at nothing in particular as he thought about how to answer. “Oh I don’t know . . . you know, sometimes the smallest things. The birds in the trees, calling to each other--each species has their own song. The squirrels and the chipmunks running around. The bees working on the flowers. Hell, I remember one day I became engrossed in a colony of little bitty ants doin’ their work. Musta sat and watched them for a good twenty to thirty minutes. Or if you go down to a creek, walk along the bank—there are all kinds of things going on if you look. The world’s teeming with life. It’s all around us, big and small. I like nothing better than a walk in the woods in May, when the winter is gone and everything has come to life again.”
Eli nodded. “Animals have secret lives—I know it.”
Jed looked at him with interest. “What do you mean?”
“I can’t explain it, exactly. But after I became what I am, I found out that I can do things with just my mind. I can change how you think. And with the same power, sometimes I can tune in to animals, too. It’s a little harder, because—well, because they’re animals, I guess—but I can do it.”
Jed frowned. “You’re tellin me you can tell what a deer thinks?”
“It’s more basic than that. They’re not thoughts, more like just how they’re . . .” he looked down, searching for the right word. “Their state of being, their—”
“Their mental state.”
“Like fear, or . . . ?”
“Happiness, too. Animals know what it means to be happy. I’m sure of that.”
Jed straightened a little and his voice became animated. “Tell me more about that. I mean—you’re tellin me that you met a particular animal that you knew was happy?”
“Uh huh.” He looked at Jed, who could tell by the look on Eli’s face that he was very serious.
“Well tell me.”
“Oh. You mean like—”
“Tell me about the first animal you ever met who you knew was happy.”
“Okay. Let me think . . .” Eli looked down for a moment, and when she looked up her face had brightened. “Okay. About four years after this happened to me, I lived for awhile with a woman in Oxelösund, which is a little town on the Baltic south of Sweden. Her name was Teresia. She was pretty old, like you, and—”
“I’m not that old. Fifty-two ain’t ‘old.’”
“Well, um--sometimes you seem a little crotchety.” Eli gave him a small smile.
“Shit--look who’s talkin.” They both laughed. Then Jed got up to tend to the stove.
“Go on,” he said from across the room. “Didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
“So Teresia—her husband had died years before, and he’d owned this mining company, so she was very rich. And they bred horses, and she had a whole bunch of them on her farm. She had a big stable and a field out back where they could run around. She rode them all the time.”
“Sounds like my kinda lady.” Jed got out his whittling project and sat down in front of the stove, and Eli got up and came to join him.
“Uh huh. You would’ve liked her.”
“Mmm. Here’s your Oskar thing, by the way. He handed her the stick and a knife. “So—”
“So when I could, I started hanging out with her horses. Because you see, some animals are really afraid of me—like cats. Cats hate me. But horses—they don’t care what I am. And Teresia let me help take care of her horses—you know, feed them, groom them, clean their stalls. ’Cause that’s a lot of work. And in exchange, she let me live there.”
“So you could talk to her horses?”
“Not really talk, but I could tell that they liked it when I brushed them. All I had to do was touch them, especially like . . . around their face. Then I’d know. And then one time I was taking care of a boy horse named Smörmutter, and I could tell he wasn’t happy. I told Teresia he seemed upset and as it turned out, he had a rock stuck in one hoof.”
“That’s amazing. So you can do this to people, too.”
“Yes. Actually, it works much better on people.”
“So you could tell what I’m thinking?”
“I already have.”
“What?” Jed put his carving down and stared at him.
“It was the first thing I did when I woke up.”
Jed looked at him quietly for a few seconds, his consternation slowly softening. “Well I guess I have to ask: what’d you learn about me?”
Eli spoke softly, hesitantly. “That you’re nice, but you like being alone. That you have an open mind--you aren’t real critical of people all the time, but yet you also have a strong sense of right and wrong. And that you’re fearless in some ways, but not in others.”
“Huh. And you knew all of this how?”
“I can do it without touching, but it’s better if I touch.” He turned in his chair to face Jed; reached toward Jed’s cheek. But Jed pulled back.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “It won’t hurt.”
The apprehension receded from Jed’s face. He relaxed; then Eli extended his hand once again and caressed, his fingertips running over the stubble on Jed’s jaw and ending with his chin.
Jed experienced a presence which he knew to be Eli’s mind. Later, when he tried to put what he had felt into a context that he could understand, he thought about a science program he’d seen once about how objects that appeared solid actually were not all that solid at the atomic level, thereby allowing the passage of all kinds of things, such as x-rays. The program had indicated that humans tend to think of themselves as much more impervious to invasion than they actually are. And for a few seconds when Eli had touched him, he had felt open and vulnerable, as if some sort of guard had been temporarily thrown down, thereby allowing Eli to enter all of that empty space inside him and . . . look around. It had been terrifyingly intimate, but also exhilarating, and when Eli removed himself Jed was both relieved and disappointed.
Eli looked into Jed’s eyes. “That’s what I’m afraid of too, Jed.” He looked down. “I know God exists—I just don’t want to hope. Because I’m afraid.”
At first Jed was not sure he would be able to speak, but somehow, he found his voice. “But we still have to try, right?”
Eli sighed. “I guess that’s only fair. And maybe what I asked you to do isn’t very fair to you. Maybe I’m just being selfish.”
“I don’t think it’s useful to think of it in terms of fairness. I know you have alot of pain and anger bottled up inside. It has to find an outlet.”
Eli nodded quietly; then spoke. “By the way--you don’t need to worry about taking those pieces out of your guns after I go to sleep. I promise I won’t do that again.”
Jed was going to say something to express his surprise, but changed his mind. What was the point? So he simply nodded and said, “Good.”
He was quiet for a time, then spoke again. “So can I do the same thing to you?”
“No. But I can share my thoughts and memories with you.”
“What do you mean? How?”
Eli put his carving of Oskar aside. “What do you want to see?”
Jed frowned, trying to think. “I’m not sure. Something that made you happy?”
Eli put his head down as he thought. “Okay.” Then he looked back up at Jed; scooted closer and brought his face to Jed’s.
Jed didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t help pulling back a little. “What? More touching?”
“No. Touching isn’t enough for this.” Jed looked into Eli’s eyes and was no longer afraid. The darkness there seemed to swell, growing larger to pull him in and envelope him like a soft glove, and he could not move; he was frozen, immobile in anticipation of he knew not what—just that it would be . . .
this little girl
was going to do something amazing to him
. . . and then Eli’s lips touched his, softly enclosing, and his hands had found their way to either side of Jed’s head, holding him gently, and Jed’s eyes fluttered closed, and then—
--he was standing in a subway station somewhere, surrounded by people and noise, the hustle and bustle of travelers coming and going. He knew, somehow, that he was Eli
now, not himself, and there was a boy standing in front of him, he was familiar, he knew him from the photographs he’d seen; yes, it was Oskar, looking very young with a band-aid on his cheek; and Oskar was holding a paper bag out and smiling; he was happy because he wanted to share something, something in the bag, and he had just agreed to try some, even though it—
(not good will make me sick)
and he reached into the bag and felt, and yes, it was candy, and he pulled a piece out, held it between his fingers apprehensively; it was a small dark wafer of some kind, maybe chocolate?
(shouldn’t make me sick but oh yes it will can’t eat this but I must try I can’t disappoint Oskar)
and he looked up at Oskar, but there was no understanding, only hopeful expectation, Oskar was sure he would like it, he didn’t know, did not understand that he could not eat normal food, couldn’t eat that little piece of candy because he wasn’t human any more, but he wasn’t going to let Oskar down. And so he put the candy in his mouth, broke it against his palate with his tongue and swallowed the fragments, ignoring the revolting taste and trying to hold it down; and for a few seconds, it worked. But then—
He turned away from Oskar and ran, ran out of the station as fast as he could to get away, get away before it happened; get away before Oskar could see. Around the corner, behind the building, yes, Oskar wasn’t here yet, he hadn’t caught up, it was safe now, so he could--
Jed grunted; flinched in his chair. Eli held him more tightly.
leaning against the cold building with one hand, looking down at the smelly yellowish patch he’d just made in the snow under his feet; wiping his mouth as he heard Oskar’s footsteps behind him, circling around. Yes, Oskar, I just threw up your candy.
And then suddenly he was full of humiliation and despair. I’m sorry, Oskar; I wanted to do it for you, but I couldn’t. I’m a failure; a freak. I turn but I can’t look at him, only at the ground. If he sees my eyes, he’ll know.
And he waited for Oskar to laugh, to make fun of him, because he couldn’t even eat a piece of candy. Stupid little wretch; he should crawl back to his hole and vanish from Oskar and the whole world. Disappear so that nothing horrible like this could ever happen again.
Oskar’s arms around him
(what? I freeze, I don’t know what to do)
and Oskar is squeezing me, holding me, he’s
(a hug he’s hugging me)
and the warmth spreads through my cold body, starting in my chest, because I’m
(Oskar . . . do you like me? Yeah—a lot.)
. . . happy
(If I wasn’t a girl . . . would you like me anyway? I suppose so . . .)
so happy . . .
The kiss broke.
Jed stared at Eli, slack-faced; blinked. He felt drained.
“You . . . don’t get many breaks, do you?”
Eli shook his head.
“But when they do come along, they mean a lot, don’t they?”
Eli smiled a little and nodded.
“Yes—that’s my real name.”
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime hug.”
In one motion Jed stood and swept Elias off his feet and into his arms, embracing his small, thin frame and marveling at its coolness. He wished it were otherwise; wished that he could, by sheer strength of will, impart his own warmth to Elias so he would never be cold again.
“I’m not Oskar; can never be Oskar, but—”
“—I know, Jed, it’s—”
“. . . if you ever need a hug, don’t hesitate to ask, okay?”
Elias sniffed. “Yes. I will.” Jed heard the boy’s voice waver, then break as his tears began and then he closed his eyes tightly, forcing his own stinging tears out and onto his cheeks. In the blackness behind his eyelids, he cherished the person in his arms and thought about what Oskar’s hug had meant. When he spoke again, his voice was just as broken as Elias’.
“I’m gonna do everything in my power to give you back your life. Do you understand that?”
Elias could not answer; Jed could only feel the small head nodding on his shoulder.
“Good. ’Cause you ain’t no wretch--never were and never will be. You’re beautiful and amazing. Got that?”
Elias nodded again as Jed relaxed his hold. “Tell me you got it.”
He put him down on the floor and saw a small, brave smile appear through the tears. “I got it.”
Jed let out a long, shuddering sigh and sat back down in his chair; after a few seconds, Elias sat down, too. Jed took out his hankie and dried his eyes while Elias pulled up his sweatshirt and used it on his own. After they had gotten themselves under control, Jed spoke. “Now, let’s . . . let’s pull ourselves together here, and talk about this doctor business.”
Continued next week