Part I: God Only Knows

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Let the Long Night End
Part I
God Only Knows

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
‘Cause God only knows what I’d be without you

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” – Og Mandino

1983, New Year’s Eve: Michigan.

Snow crunches beneath the heels of worn, thick boots on a frosty winter evening. It is dark, save for the scant sliver of light against the crescent moon and the handful of stars glittering stubbornly in the sky. A boy, warmly dressed in a silver parka, and dark pants, pushes branches away with gloved hands. A faint clanking and jittering comes from something inside his backpack, fastened securely to his shoulders. Just a little further now…

He liked to make this trip at least twice a week, when the weather allowed. But Michigan was notorious for its blizzards, and despite his consternation he could not in good conscience justify wading through five or six feet of snow, in a forest no less, for all of a few precious minutes of solace. Not because he was unwilling – quite the contrary. But each time the boy prepared to step outside and brave the harshness of the wilderness, a pair of large, brown eyes would appear in his mind’s eye, followed by the face he adored so much. Please, those eyes would say. Don’t be foolish. I’m okay. Take care of yourself. Please.

Today, though, he pushed the warnings aside – painful though it was to push any thought of his friend away. His companion. Today was too special to let cold or snow stop him. So, he took a bus past the city limits of Detroit and rode for several hours in silence, toying with an old Rubik’s Cube well worn by time and use, as he liked to do. He was very proud, because he finally discovered the right method to get three sides to be solid colors – once he had almost made it to four, but was dismayed when he discovered a single line of green running along the end of an otherwise yellow square. He imagined that his partner (wasn’t that a better word than ‘friend?’) was proud of him, too, and rubbed a spot on his cheek where he thought might’ve been kissed if he were there.

The hike had been hard, and the wind was against him, stinging his nose and cheeks. He had to squint his eyes and wipe them free of tears every few minutes. But the warmth that grew in his chest kept the cold of the outside from driving him back. Today, tonight, he would see Eli, and neither nature, man, or God above would keep them apart. His pace quickens when he finally spies his destination; a small hide-away cave, lit by a beam of moonlight as if to guide him. God, perhaps, had no interest in keeping these two of His children apart this night, and for that Oskar was thankful. Hurrying his steps as he became increasingly aware of the numbness in his fingers and toes, Oskar scurried to the cave’s mouth, ducking his head to avoid hitting it against the low ceiling.

Shaking snow from his gloves, he knelt down to the mostly bare stone ground and slipped out a torch from his pack, clicking it alight. The beam shone bright and true, and he stepped confidently, if slowly, deeper into the mouth of shadow before him. The shrill shrieking of the wind outside faded the further he crept, and he listened intently, ears alert for a sound of a different timbre…there!

Soft rumbling from the farthest corner of the cave, where the sun couldn’t reach at any time of day. His torch-light fell on the curled shape of a young child, wrapped in blankets and head rested gently on a pillow, a stuffed black cat held tightly in the child’s arms. A purring child. Even now, Oskar never ceased to feel a surge of excitement and fulfillment at the very sight of him – his Eli, sound asleep. Away from the bite of the freezing winds, Oskar could feel himself warming again. Or maybe it’s just Eli, making me warm inside.

Setting his torch to the floor, pointed up so as to illuminate his surroundings somewhat, Oskar slipped off his pack and set it down, resting his back against the call adjacent to Eli and letting himself slip onto his rear. He checks his watch, bought cheaply from an odds-and-ends shop because it was broken, but fixed thanks to a little teamwork and Eli’s surprising depth of knowledge about the strangest subjects. A sigh he didn’t realize he’d been holding in slips out suddenly, leaving cool relief in its absence.

“Just in time,” he smiles, glancing at the sleeper coyly – more for his benefit than Eli’s, given his state. “Five minutes to midnight. Thought you should know.”

He busies himself with chewing on a small piece of bread and cheese, and grabs a handful of snow from outside to stuff into his mouth, enjoying the taste of melting snow. The clock ticks down, and Oskar imagines that somewhere close by a bell is chiming and a man with a great and booming voice declares tonight to be a Happy New Year. Confetti flies into the air, people dance, and the world is together and at peace. It was a pretty thought.

He crawls over to Eli, careful not to disturb him from his spot, and plants a single, long kiss against his cheek, feeling his lips lose their warmth as they meet cold flesh. For some reason, the idea that he is giving his warmth to Eli is pleasant enough that he gives him a second kiss, then retreats. He lets the tips of his fingers rest for a moment against the spot, then moves back. “Happy New Year, Eli.”

1982: Karlstad, Sweden.

The flight from Blackeberg had happened like a film played in fast-forward, all blurred colors and indistinct events that zipped by so quickly one could scarcely grasp their existence or meaning. The Swedish authorities had been on the lookout for a missing blond boy, twelve years old and pale – certainly distinct enough a description that the possibility of discovery had been very, very real. The entire train ride, despite his transcendent joy that banished fear and worry from his heart, had also held audience to some very serious thoughts about what would happen if he stepped off the train to find police waiting for him. What would he do? What could he do?

What, exactly, was he prepared to do? He thought about the pool, about Jonny and his other tormenters, how he had been powerless once again when confronted with them. He had all but let them murder him, before Eli intervened. Why? Was he truly so spineless – just a little Piggy, oink oink oinking in fear and stinking of piss?

No. He had hit back, out on the ice. He gave Jonny a mark to remember him by. But that was different. That was…for Eli. Not for him. Because he wanted to be the version of himself that he thought Eli wanted. Perhaps that was his answer. If things went wrong, he would trust his instinct to do what he needed to, to keep Eli with him. That was all that mattered anymore. When the decision was first made, it bubbled and frothed inside him like a pot of boiling water, warming him and filling his hands with restless, jittery energy. Then, as the train charged further and further onwards, the water went tepid, then cold, then froze like a ball of ice around his heart: fixed, and immutable.

It made the next few months easier. When the train reached Karlstad, Eli took charge of their direction and led them to and from several sanctuaries he had once visited, years ago. Sometimes they slept inside run-down, all but condemned apartment complexes with rooms earned through the enlistment of a vagrant in need of money to pose as their guardian. Other times, fortune was less favorable and they slept in trainyards or beneath canals, Oskar ever alert and wound tightly as Eli slept, knowing that even a single overly inquisitive soul passing by could mean a death. One way, or another.

Death. That other, quiet companion that trailed at a distance but never let them escape its sight. Oskar knew, intellectually, what Eli was capable of, and foggy or no he could still recall with ease the muted screams of Jonny, Tomas, and the others as a howling reaper fell upon them like a scythe through wheat, and blood mixed with water. He knew what Eli had to do, had to do, to stay alive. To survive, as he put it. And he thought he had been comfortable with it. Until, three days after reaching Karlstad, Eli flatly announced that he needed to go “out” for a while and left their apartment with a resigned air about him.

Oskar tried not to think about it – tried so hard he inevitably spent the hour Eli was away doing seldom else but thinking about it. Then Eli had come home, spotless and yet invigorated in complexion and energy, and for a moment the clouds around Oskar’s heart lifted. He hadn’t killed – he had gotten the blood some other way, paid for it. Oskar had smiled widely and Eli had smiled tentatively back, hope glittering in his eyes…then his gaze trailed downward, and he discovered the tiniest smidgen of red against Eli’s blue and grey sweater, just at the collar. His smile faltered, and Eli had realized in an instant that Oskar hadn’t been smiling despite his deed, but in ignorance of it. Eli’s shoulders trembled, just a little, and his eyes turned to stare at his feet.

“…Are you sure,” he asked, almost too softly to be heard.

Oskar knew what he meant. It was the same question Eli always asked him, every day since their flight from Blackeberg, whenever they encountered some new hardship. Are you sure you still want to be with me? It’s hard and ugly and I don’t want you to feel like you should stay just for my sake. And he had always answered that yes, he was absolutely certain, this was what he wanted and he knew what he was getting into. His mind had been made up at the pool…no. Before the pool. His mind was made up the moment he turned away from the scene of Eli gorging himself on that stranger in her apartment, the moment he threw the Rubik’s Cube, the moment he decided whose life he truly valued.

But. He hesitated in answering, that time. Somehow that tiny drop of blood pierced him in a way that seeing a man die right before his eyes had not. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t be certain whether the person had, in some way, brought their fate upon themselves. Maybe they were walking their dog and stopped to have conversation with a nice, polite young girl (boy, though they couldn’t know that) in an alley. Maybe that person whose blood now ran through Eli’s veins and belly was a mother or a father, a brother or sister who loved their family deeply and was loved. Maybe their only mistake in life was being out on a night that a vampire was hungry. They hadn’t asked for it – they hadn’t broken into the apartment, begun to peel back the layers of cardboard in the bathroom and made it a question of Eli’s death or theirs.

They had just…been…unlucky.

That was the reality Eli lived with every night. And now it would have to be Oskar’s reality, too. He couldn’t bear the thought of his friend facing that weight, that grief, alone in the night with nobody and nothing but toys and puzzles to comfort him. Couldn’t bear the ghosts of pain he felt just at the sheer notion that they could be separated and alone again. So, his opinion would have to simply…adjust.

For ten seconds, a storm raged inside Oskar as all of his thoughts, counter-thoughts, rationalizations and resolutions flashed through his brain like a shutter film projector set to maximum. When he became aware that Eli’s tears were dripping onto the floor, it was startling. He stiffened suddenly as if awoken from a deeply unpleasant dream and was himself again. He quickly strode over to Eli, who tensed as in anticipation of assault or rejection, then relaxed when Oskar firmly but lovingly wrapped arms around his shoulders.

“Sure, I’m sure. Don’t be stupid,” he murmured, head resting against Eli’s forehead. “Stop thinking I’m just going to run away screaming. That’s stupid. Crazy. Okay?”

Eli nodded against him mechanically and said okay, obviously less certain than he was. Oskar flicked him on the nose. The boy blinked, looking up with plain confusion. Oskar smiled. “If I was scared of you so bad, would I have done that? If you were so scary?” He flicked Eli’s nose again. “Silly Eli,” he adopted a firm tone, as if scolding a puppy. “Bad, bad Eli!”

Eli giggled, then sniffled a little. “…Thank you.”

1984, New Year’s Day: Michigan.

Oskar returned to his new home just a little after 5am, blearily climbing the single flight of stairs that led to his floor and sliding the key into the doorknob – another of those tiny differences he’d had to adjust to since crossing the ocean. He turned the key, but did not hear the telltale sliding of a latch; he must’ve forgotten to lock up before he left. Stupid, he scolded himself, entering. What if someone came in and took everything? Huh? No more rings to pawn or money to pay rent. What would you have done then? Idiot. After a quick search of the premises to ensure that nothing had in fact been taken, Oskar locked up and pried his boots off from his feet, followed by his gloves, snow pants, and parka, leaving them at the door. He left his socks, sweaters, and jeans on, as it was still quite cool inside the apartment and he wanted to keep warm.

He went to the kitchen and rummaged through the cupboard, pulling out two slices of bread and setting about the process of making himself a sandwich. A little ham and cheese later he held a pleasingly constructed breakfast in his hands. Humming softly, he chewed down the meal and walked to the calendar pinned above his mattress, fingers trailing across the red lines marked by pen across each date of December, 1983. He held his sandwich in his mouth and used both hands to pull out the thumb-tack pinning the sheets of paper to the wall, flipping it upward to expose the next page: January, 1984.

Fifty-two days since Eli had went into hibernation. This was the second cycle since they had left Blackeberg.

1982: Arvika, Sweden.

Even a year and some months after he and Eli had run away together, he still couldn’t help but count the days spent apart and watch the clock tick down to some invisible threshold. Eli hadn’t been able to explain it very well when he asked about it: “It’s just how it is,” he would say, as he had when pressed for other details about his condition. His curse. It was frustratingly vague and short, and sometimes it was difficult for him to remember that Eli, for all his intelligence, was not entirely aware of the details behind the mechanisms of his affliction either – “It’s just how it is,” was his way of saying that he didn’t know.

All Eli could tell him was that when he slept, it was usually for five to six months at a time, give or take a month. He would be awake for roughly the same amount of time not counting daylight sleep – once again, “give or take a month.” Seasons didn’t seem to factor into it; one night he would feel perfectly lucid and strong, the next he would start to wane in vigor and sleep longer and longer into the evening before rising. Within three days, he had to be somewhere safe and isolated to stay until his long sleep ended and he rose again, weak and “foggy” in the head. When he woke, it would be dangerous for anyone to be near him until he was fed and aware of himself again.

Oskar had let himself dare to hope when, after almost four months past Blackeberg, Eli failed to show any sign of fatigue or malaise.

“I don’t understand,” Eli looked down at himself, examining his hands. “I should be asleep by now. But I’m not. It’s been longer now that I’ve been awake than the last time I went to sleep.” His confusion lingered, but eventually broadened into a grin. Although Oskar couldn’t hear the words, he could read them in Eli’s face as the pale boy bowed his head, clasped his hands together, and murmured something beneath his breath. Thank you, God, for this small mercy.

He should’ve known better. Before it knew it, six weeks after Eli’s estimated ‘due date’, that time had come calling again: his first, Eli’s god-knows-what.

That the sleep came on so suddenly had been the hardest thing for him to come to terms with. One night he and Eli would be wandering the streets of whatever city or neighborhood they happened to be lurking around, laughing, making up stories about the people they watched pass by. Playing games and listening to the radio. Then the next day, Eli would become sluggish and slothful. The day after, hardly able to pull himself out of bed and looking downcast, defeated.

They had to say their farewells, temporary though they were, and as Oskar watched Eli settle into the makeshift bed he had put together (insisting that it was better than sleeping on the ground, that Eli deserved better) the two of them lit only by the ray of torch-light squeezing through his clenched fingers, his throat squeezed inward and his eyes stung bitterly. Clicking off his light, he tentatively stepped close and kneeled down, wrapping his arms around Eli’s ice-cold form and exhaling into his black hair.

“Oskar…” Eli had slurred, eyes half-lidded. “You should get home. I’ll…be away soon. I can feel it.”

Oskar shook his head. “I don’t want you to go to sleep alone.”

“Oskar…” Eli’s voice trailed off, and finally he relaxed and settled back with a contented sigh, head resting beneath Oskar’s chin. Oskar tapped fingers along the vampire’s back, murmuring. “Bulleri, bulleribock. How many fingers are…up?”

“Mmm…three.”

“Three you say and three there are. Bulleri bulleribock.”

Eli hummed, head sinking into his pillow. “One more time...”

Oskar smiled. “Okay. Bulleri, bulleribock. How many fingers are…up?”

He paused, waiting for the guess. “Eli?”

Eli rumbled softly, a smile frozen against his face. Oskar listened to the undulations for a long, long time, and his heart caught in his throat as he realized they were growing softer and softer until he had to strain to hear them. Eli had gone away, whisked into a torpor of dreams and shadow.

Oskar waited several more minutes to be certain. Then, he rolled away onto his back and let the tears slide down his cheeks. He was alone again.

He couldn’t find the strength to leave for several hours, and the bus ride back into Arvika had been long and unbearably silent without the familiarity of Eli’s voice or the comfort of a hand in his. When he finally came back to a home that didn’t feel like home, he wandered the apartment in a daze, staring around at the empty spaces and felt them move inside his chest, hollowing him out. And a loneliness like he had never experienced crashed over him in a dark, freezing wave that threw him to his knees.

Oskar had once read that it was better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Whoever said that didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, he thought bitterly. Loneliness was a familiar sting to Oskar, and one he had developed a callus to over time. He could deal with being alone and lonely. Being alone after tasting the sweetness of companionship, though…that was a fresh pain that slipped right beneath the skin, seeped into the fibers of his muscles, and set his nerves afire. That first hibernation had been the hardest thing he had ever had to endure. Harder than his father’s drunken episodes. Harder than Jonny, Micke, and Tomas’ regularly scheduled torments. Harder than coming to grips with Eli being a blood drinking creature of the night. Suddenly all he had was time, and himself (his least favorite person, though he liked to pretend otherwise for Eli’s sake), with no guarantee that the next day would be any different from the one that came before.

He held it together until the third week without Eli. Then he had woken, crawled out of bed – a bed that only supported one, now – and surveyed the empty apartment, the emptiness like a fire lit beneath a glass of noxious acid in his belly, boiling it into steam. A low moan crawled up his throat and out his lips, but somewhere between it transformed into a high, furious scream. His hands moved on their own, mouth still screaming that terrible cry, and he wrapped his hands around anything and everything he could get a hold of, slamming and throwing it all with every ounce of strength he had.

He raged. He raged at the world for not caring about him, at Eli for drawing him in and then leaving him in the cold, at his parents for not loving him enough to stay together, at himself for being so weak and stupid to think his life was going to be so easy after running away, at every ‘fucking person in this goddamn shitheap slum’ for existing, for leaving him alone yet again, for snatching away his sun just as he began to appreciate the warmth all the more.

Then, in a moment of red-tinged malice, the devil in his heart took his hands, cupped Eli’s prized golden-banded puzzle egg and – before he could stop himself – cast it down with all his strength to scatter it in all its infinitesimal pieces across the floor.

The egg cracked apart and crumbled into dust-like flakes. Watching it, his heart too disintegrated into a pile and was left shapeless, smoking, and infirm. His mouth was suddenly dry. …What have I done? The egg. I’ll never find all the pieces. Eli, Eli oh no I’m so sorry. He ran his hands through the pile of pieces, until he found and plucked out the golden yolk that had been at the center. There was a small tarnish on its surface now where there had been none before. “…oh.” He whispered numbly. “Oops.”

He spent the next hour painstakingly recovering every last shard of the puzzle egg he could find, using his knife to dig open spaces between the floorboards where a piece or three had slipped through. If it had been a more reputable establishment, he might’ve been worried about leaving his apartment in such a state when it inevitably came time to leave. Oh well. He could leave some kronor for the damages, and it wasn’t like his renovations were such a downgrade anyway. He double-checked and triple-checked every possible location a shard could’ve fallen into, and found several more, before putting all the pieces together into a plastic bag and sealing it tightly.

The yolk, he decided to keep beneath his pillow. Each night before bed, he would withdraw it from its hiding place to stare at his reflection, face slightly warped by the tarnishing. This is who you let yourself be, the other Oskar leered. Like what you see?

He didn’t.

The face in the reflection changed, looked like the old man he’d thought was Eli’s father. Threat glittered in his eyes. Maybe I was just like you, once. Maybe you’ll be the one on the news someday: a ‘ritual killer.’ What will your mother think? Your father?

The face changed again – now it was Jonny, face covered in blood and throat torn open. He gurgled through the rip in his jugular, his head perched unsteadily on the stump of his neck. You scared, piggy? Huh?

He was. And he wondered, more than ever, what person Eli would see when he awoke from sleep in... god help him, too long from where Oskar was now.

Who will I have become?

He squeezed the yolk in his hands, and pressed his lips against its surface. “Let me be better,” he prayed, eyes squeezed shut. To whom he prayed, he didn’t much think about. Anyone who will listen. “Help me be better. Please. Help me be strong.”

Strong. Strong. The word repeated in his thoughts, each repetition changing the tone, the pitch of the voice that was once his. It grew older, deeper, accented. Strong.

He thought of Mr. Ávila. And the answer was plain.

January 1st, 1984: Michigan.

Oskar lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling in near total darkness, windows sealed with cardboard throughout the abode. He’d contemplated taking them down, with Eli no longer in need of them for the time being, but ultimately decided against it – eventually he would need to put it all up again anyway and it kept the place a little warmer besides. Funny, in a way. He’d chosen against mixing blood with Eli and sacrificing the sun forever, yet he still for a long time he had hidden from the light and skulked in the shadows, seldom daring to wander out in the day. He wondered, not for the first time, if that had been the right decision…

Oskar imagined faces in the dark, looking down at him from above. They were blurry, indistinct, and ever-shifting: blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes. Black hair. Grey hair. Smooth skin or time-weathered flesh. There was only one unifying trait between them all: a small, relieved smile. Gratitude.

Thank you, they whispered to him from on high. Thank you for letting us live.

“…you’re welcome,” Oskar replied. “But it wasn’t just for you.”

Eli’s surprise, then relief. A quick nod. “Yes. I think that’s for the best. It would hurt you. Even if you took it on willingly. It would always be there, in everything you did…forever. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

He knew that Eli hated what he was, even if he was resigned to it if only because the other choice was death. That Oskar could think he would weather it any better, even if the embrace of night was taken by choice, would have been a lie. He wasn’t strong enough to do what Eli did: to kill, to hunt, so that he could survive. If it were someone he thought deserved it, someone he could hate with all his being and think to himself that this, this is better for the world that they’re gone, maybe. But it wasn’t as easy as that. Eventually, try though he might to delay it, someone innocent would have to die for him to live…and something inside him would die with them.

He knew Eli better than his friend sometimes thought. Killing that part of him, the part that couldn’t bear the thought of taking life so impersonally, would change them both. He wouldn’t still be the Oskar that Eli had met, that night among the trees. And if he changed too much, if they drew too far apart from each other…they would both be alone again. Only he, too, would be facing eternity forsaken and alone.

Of course, with his decision there were consequences. Costs. Eli flatly refused to bring in “helpers” to supply him with blood, access, and shelter the way he had done in the past, despite Oskar’s half-hearted attempts to persuade him otherwise. He recalled their first – and only – real discussion of the issue, when they had been forced to first take shelter in the cold of the outdoors for lack of safe ways to get entry into a home. The only other recourse to them, Eli said, was to get someone to invite them into their home, posing as lost children. What would have to follow didn’t need saying.

Oskar refused. Why couldn’t they just find another adult to pose as their father and go with them from place to place?

“It’s too dangerous,” Eli said. “The kinds of people we’d have to turn to…I wouldn’t trust them with you. We’ll make due without.”

“Eli, you don’t have to worry about me. If it helps us – “

“Oskar,” Eli locked eyes with him, and for a moment he saw that other person inside his friend. The ancient, weary, tired boy who might’ve once been named Elias, who looked through him with the piercing conviction of someone who had lived for centuries. An anxious worm slithered in Oskar’s belly, killing his protests mid-breath.

“This won’t be my first time. Going it alone,” Eli’s pupils thinned. “I made it then, and we’ll make it now. We don’t need help.”

Oskar swallowed. Found the strength to say: “You’re not alone, Eli.”

Eli’s eyes softened, became human once more. A receptive gratitude clashed with wistful resignation, mixing and sliding across his porcelain features. He reaches out, brushes a cool hand against Oskar’s hair, and pulls back. He said, not unkindly, “Sometimes I have to be.”

And so they ventured on alone, but alone together. Bribing who they could to sign leases and pose as their parents just long enough to get them into an apartment or motel before kicking them to the curb with a dose of Eli’s unsettlingly calm threats, Eli departing every third night to hunt, most of which he would spend selecting a target and subsequently disposing of the body. Sometimes they got unlucky, and Oskar had to sleep in alleyways, crouched behind dumpsters, and left otherwise exposed while Eli retreated into their suitcase – his mobile container – until the sun was safely hidden beneath the horizon.

I had bad dreams a lot, then. Oskar recalled, unwrapping a small piece of cherry-flavored hard candy, popping it into his mouth and rolling it with his tongue. I always woke up thinking someone had stolen the suitcase, and Eli with it. Or that there was damage in the case somewhere, just enough to let the light in, and I’d pull it open and find ashes staring back at me.

Sucking thoughtfully on the candy, Oskar sits himself up in bed, putting his feet to the floor. He slapped himself lightly on the cheeks, blowing out through his nose. “You’re doing it again,” he scolded himself, slipping out of bed and moving out into the wider living area.

The ‘it’ in question, being a lay-about shut-in, was the first enemy he realized he needed to confront without Eli to help him through it. When he lived in Blackeberg, the outside had been a shelter for him – when it wasn’t occupied by Jonny or Tomas, anyways – somewhere to escape to for a while. Eat candy, play with his cube, meet strange not-girls in the night, glimpsed as a blurry figure in the reflection of a knife. But in his new life, without Eli, he’d spent more than half of Eli’s first hibernation, a five-month affair, exclusively indoors…and suffered for it.

His inspiration, first glimpsed that night he had let himself feel in its entirety the weight of his isolation without Eli, had come in the form of a familiar voice. One that, he wasn’t ashamed to admit, he missed.

“Because Oskar, you cannot sit like caracole, how do you say…the snail. In the shell. If you aren’t sick you will get sick.”

The words of Mr. Ávila, who Oskar had been relieved to learn was still alive and more or less unhurt. He and Eli had fled in a hurry from the pool, flown right out the window the vampire had shattered, and before he knew it they were nearing the edge of town. In Karlstad, whilst watching the news, it had been confirmed that his old gym teacher hadn’t been killed, and was likely to be back to teaching soon. He could hear the words of stern encouragement in his ears, telling him to get up, move around, keep himself strong. Not for anyone else – for himself.

For myself, Oskar affirmed, wrapping himself up in his parka, gloves, and ensuring his face was appropriately covered. It was still early morning, and he’d gotten a few winks of sleep in since returning to Detroit – as good a time as any to go for a run. Being certain to lock the door behind himself this time, checking twice, he slipped on a worn pair of Walkman earpieces and clicked on the pleasant tunes of a recent release by The Korgis, a British pop band he had found himself a fan of since arriving in America. He let the steady repetition of Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime guide him into an easy gait, breath visible in the early morning air as he jogged down the pavement, headed for a local park.

“Everybody’s gotta learn sometime…”

He would do a few circuits, then enjoy a walk around the inner-city for a while before returning home. Perhaps he’d pick up a video or two to share with Eli – they were both fond of science fiction and fantasy films. He’d resisted watching their video tape copy of Return of the Jedi through an act of supreme effort, as Eli was asleep by the time he obtained it and they were both excited to see how it all turned out in the end. Eli hadn’t been a fan of Star Wars when they had met, despite wearing a shirt emblazoned with the title, but he’d discovered an appreciation for the films after Oskar had obtained a copy of the first entry and they had sat down to watch together. It was a good memory: Oskar’s favorite character had been Han Solo ever since he had seen the first film; Eli found himself admiring the bold Leia Organa.

Oskar’s stride and steady pace, legs longer than they had been at twelve, brought him to the park. He passed by a few other morning joggers, waved at them – smiled when they waved back. They’d never spoken, but he knew that they recognized his coat and height, even if they’d never seen his face. It made him feel like he was, in his own quiet way, a part of the community.

He might’ve never done this kind of outdoor routine if he was still in Sweden, motivated to do so or not. Familiarity bred boredom, and there were only so many places you could go before they all started to bleed together. For nomads like him, everywhere started to look the same after a while, and they left too quickly to ever really notice the little idiosyncrasies that gave a community its character.

America was different, though, in big and small ways: they had door knobs instead of door handles, and every now and then he caught himself reaching to grasp for a handle to his small apartment despite himself. The buildings were different, oddly compressed and individually isolated yet packed closely together: a bunch of islands that happened to exist in the same space. There were new kinds of food (and sweets) to try, music and films he had never been exposed to before.

And the oddest thing was the prominence of spirituality: here, it seemed like religion was as common to daily life as eating and sleeping. People congregated in churches regularly for community meetings and prayer, being non-denominational was seen as unusual. It was fascinating, and it made him a little more eager to step out the door each day: for a change, everything was new.

Eli had been of a dimmer opinion. “People here are superstitious. Distrusting of outsiders. We’ll still need to be very careful.”

Maybe, Oskar tentatively agreed, crossing a stone bridge over a frozen stream. But they can be wrapped up in themselves, too. Nobody really looks twice at each other if you don’t give them a reason to. A young man he recognized from previous runs passed him by, following his own route – green eyes, short dark hair. A bit of mixed ancestry, too. They passed each other, giving nods as they went on their ways. Oskar almost admired the stranger for his endurance: no hat, no gloves, and a rather thin-looking coat in dead winter weather, yet he didn’t look in the least perturbed as he continued on. Even as heavily bundled as he was, Oskar knew he’d have to keep moving and keep his blood flowing if he didn’t want a deep chill to set in.

Maybe he’s poor, the boy mused. I should bring some extra money with me next time, give him a little if I see him.

Poverty and crime went hand-in-hand in Detroit, which served as reason enough for Eli to decide it was the right place for them to stay. Murders didn’t stir up concern the way they did in Blackeberg or Karlstad or Arvika, particularly if isolated to certain regions of the city. Eli had no shortage of targets to pick from, and the simple fact of it was that if he picked selectively, the police just wouldn’t look as hard for the perpetrator even if a body was discovered. Oskar wasn’t sure he was comforted by that notion, but it was what it was.

The tape clicked, and paused, having reached the end. He’d forgotten to rewind it all the way back to the beginning during his last run, and paused on the bridge to catch his breath and let his Walkman track back to the start. His heart pumped wildly, sweat sticking to his clothes beneath his layers, and for a change the cold air felt refreshing instead of ravaging.

The mix began with a cover of an old song, sung in a barbershop quartet variation. He wasn’t entirely certain who the artist was, as the tape had been a gift from Eli, but it was always his favorite to listen to. He’d felt his eyes stinging as Eli watched him solemnly while he listened, and the song had started to play. But he hadn’t cried then. Not then. Later, after Eli was away in his long sleep, when he had lain in bed for hours listening to the mixtape. Play. Click. Rewind. Click. Play. When he looked into his reflection in the yolk, and saw a picture of himself as he might have been – might yet be – without someone to hold in his heart and hands, and to be held by.

A movie sounds good, Oskar decided. And maybe I’ll go swim at that community place – YMCA, or whatever. Run those drills Mr. Ávila liked to have us do. Make it a day worth writing to mom about. He hadn’t had the will to do it during the night in Eli’s cave, so there would be a missing date. That was fine. Would make for a longer entry. He’d have to get another folder to hold more papers, soon. His first one was all but filled to the bursting point.

Today, Mum, I went for a run in the early morning, through a forest, with my ears covered and only strangers for company. He thought of the explosion of protective panic she would fly into if she ever caught wind of him doing such a thing, and smiled wistfully. Don’t worry, though. I can run faster than anyone now, if I have to. And I still have a knife.

Click – rewind complete. He pressed “Play” and continued on, headed for the waterfront.

Oskar lets the words carry him into memory, into a place of warmth and shadow where the cold can’t reach and the hammering of his heart is drowned by the collective sounds of music.

“I may not always love you…
But – long as there are stars above you…
You never need to doubt it.
I’ll make you so sure about it…
‘Cause God only knows what I’d be without you…”

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