Part III: Strangers in the Night

0

Let the Long Night End
Part III
Strangers in the Night

Strangers in the night,
Exchanging glances
Wondering in the night;
What were the chances?

“Jesus looked around at them with anger and sorrow at their hardness of heart. Then He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out, and it was restored.” – The Bible, Mark 3:5

OSKAR
1982, July 2nd (Evening)
Letters to Mom, Entry # 32

Dear mom,

I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last letter. Guess I let time slip away from me a little. But that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Not worrying over every second of every day, counting the hours, every one. I think that’s made these waits easier for me. Almost three months have gone by – only three more to go. Maybe a little longer, if Eli decides to be lazy. You’d think there would be some kind of consistency to these hibernations, but he says they never quite line up. Sometimes it’s a month early, sometimes it’s a month late.

But that’s the past. Here’s the now: spent New Year’s with Eli. I’ve gained a little of my weight back, started eating regularly again, getting out more. The treasury is getting low, though. Paying to get over here to America without getting caught took a lot of Eli’s wealth. We almost had to sell the egg. Pretty soon, I think I’ll need to try getting some kind of employment here. But that needs papers and history I don’t have. It’s a puzzle, but I’m getting better at solving puzzles. I almost beat the Rubik’s Cube this morning!

It’s still very hard sometimes to get out of bed, but I have to do it. For me, and for Eli. Every time Eli wakes up, I want him to see an even better Oskar than the one he knew before. And I want to see that better Oskar, too. Tried to give some money to a homeless guy, but he wouldn’t take it because he wasn’t homeless. At least, he said so. I guess that was wrong of me to just assume – maybe it was because he’s a little dark skinned and we spent too long in Detroit. I shouldn’t be so quick to judge like that.

Something scared me, though. For a minute I thought he was dead. He was breathing lightly, and I was too confused by the whole situation to really notice it. And I thought…I started thinking to myself, ‘how fresh is his blood?’ Could I have time to bleed him a little, fill up my coffee mug with it and keep it warm somehow until Eli woke up? That’s the trick. It has to stay warm, or it spoils.

I was about to reach for my knife when he woke up. And I felt so…ashamed. Embarrassed, even. He looked at me like somehow, he knew what I was thinking. Or maybe I just thought he did. I don’t know.

I told him my name. Even said I lived in the area. Stupid. I’m not supposed to do that. It leaves a trail, leaves witnesses who could make our lives harder if we ever caught too much attention again. But it was like…I don’t know. I just wanted someone to know I existed. I’m so alone now.

Tomorrow night I’ll visit Eli again. Maybe sleep over. I can’t stand the emptiness of this place. Wish I could hear your voice again.

Love,
Oskar

LEVI
1982, July 3rd (Dawn)
Waynesboro, Virginia

Levi’s eyes gently fluttered open to greet the first rays of morning shining through his open window. Cold air drafted in and wafted over his sweaty body, tattered rags of bed sheet and blanket sticking to his seething skin. He swallowed, rolled over so that he faced the wall, and let the hot tears slip down his cheeks.

Again. Always again.

The same dream; yet not. A memory, wrapped in a dream. He was whittling wood with his father, working to coax the shape of a butterfly out of the blank canvas of the block. The wood was resistant, but Levi’s hands were strong and the gentle encouragement of Papa helped him when his confidence in his work faltered. Butterflies were the symbol of transformation – from banal to beautiful.

‘Anything can become beautiful,’ Papa always said. ‘As long as you’re willing to commit to seeing it reach its beauty. It takes time and patience above all else. Focus on what you want to see, and then make it a reality.’

And it was beautiful – the most beautiful carving Levi had ever made. It was so real, so life-like, he held it carefully for fear it would flutter its wings and fly from his hands. He felt so proud.

And then he woke up. In that moment between sleep and wakefulness, before the weight of the day came for him, he didn’t think about his father’s death.

‘Blessed are the forgetful, for they shall get the better even of their blunders.’ Levi wants to laugh at the thought.

Blessed, indeed, so long as they remain forgetful.

He shudders, and wipes his eyes. Rising from the ruins of his bed, the young man examines the steadily darkening nails of his fingers, grown three inches from the night before and beginning to curve into an arc. Running the barest edges of his fingers against the wall, he is unsurprised when they push easily through the wallpaper and plaster, leaving five puncture marks in the once pristine surface.

The sight ignites a hideous hatred in him, and he screams, slamming his fist into the plaster of his bedroom wall, his arm driven up to its elbow into his personal addition to his home’s Mise-en-scéne. Storming forth with heavy steps – heavier with each day – into his lightless bathroom, he finds the medicine cabinet above the sink and rips its door off, throwing the obstruction into the bathtub.

Claiming his prize, he holds the pair of scissors in his right hand while stretching out the fingers of his left.

A moment’s hesitation.

‘Focus on what you want to see, and then make it a reality.’

Gritting his teeth, Levi puts two black nails between the edges of the blades, and applies pressure. The thick keratin resists him, but he growls and forces the scissors to snap shut. The tool slips between his suddenly open fingers to clatter against the tiled floor, his growl transformed into a scream as he clutches the bleeding stumps at the tip of his fingers, where the quick had been cut and dark blood seeped from the wounds.

Levi hisses between his teeth, and rises to let his fingers drip into the sink while he rummages through the cabinet once more, until he comes away with a roll of steel wool. Shoving the roll into his jaw without any care for discomfort, he retrieves the blood-slicked scissors and rests the edge of his palm over the sink, letting the cool relief of water run down between his fingers to drip pink-tinged down the drain.

This isn’t me. It doesn’t hurt. It can’t hurt because it’s not part of me. I’m not-

Not.

With trembling hands, Levi continues his work. Blood and onyx chips of nail circle the sink drain and slip into the abyss.

- - - - - - -

Preamble (Afternoon)

Gauze-wrapped fingertips tap the buttons of an arcade machine, flashes of red and green slicing across its digital screen to strike true against the squealing frames of TIE-fighters. The first wave completed, Levi’s X-wing moves into the trenches of the Death Star for an attack run. He is the only one in the venue, and thus can fully enjoy the impossible sounds of starfighters screaming through space without distraction. Each press and pull of his hands stains the button inputs and joy stick, droplets of rust-colored blood seeping through his bandages.

He defeats the second wave with ease – as he should, having mastered Atari’s contribution to the Star Wars video game enterprise long ago. The third and final wave begins, the tip of the spear driven into the heart of evil. A heroic hunt, to slay the ultimate beast of destruction.

Hunting with his father had been the best time of his life, once. Now he hunted alone.

In older times, when civilization’s war with the savage heartlands of nature were not yet won, hunting was the axis point around which life and death rotated. Men would scour the land, reaping when they could not sow enough to provide for their families, and would return home to share the life they had taken with the life they hoped to preserve.

When you did not hunt, you were the hunted, and thus always in some small measure never entirely unguarded. Life was a flash of flame sparking off the edge of flintstone; tiny, bright, startling, and beautiful. Fleeting.

“Stay on target!”

Levi centers on his target - the exhaust port that would blow the whole Death Star to nothingness. He lets it expand in his vision, until the small port is a wide, cruel mouth where dark water churns and something paces in filth. The spindly outline of the abomination stands just out of tone with the otherwise featureless darkness, as if even the shadows themselves abhorred its presence and were repelled.

The mouth of the well beckons. “Come and see.”

The TIE-fighters destroy his remaining shields, bringing his play time to an abrupt end.

“Game Over,” the screen flashes. “Insert coin to try again.”

Cursing, Levi digs into his pockets for a fistful of change, slips a dime into the machine and resumes.

As the centuries passed, hunting grew to accommodate new definitions. To hunt was to kill for sport and thrill, to test wills against nature and imagine oneself its master. A betrayal of the baser human nature lurking buried under clothes, lights, and time – the need for stimulation. Puzzled to be put together. Problem-solving. Human life revolved around the hunt for the puzzle pieces needed to make one whole.

Maslow put it best: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Hunt for yourself. Hunt for safety. Hunt for your family. Hunt for fulfillment. Hunt for completion. Stalk your problem through the underbrush, take aim, pull the trigger, put your solution through its brain. Most people only ever hunted for one problem at a time, solving them sequentially throughout their lives.

When the sun set, the boy with the bloody fingers would go on a hunt of his own. And with one solution, each of his problems, his needs, would be met with an answer.

The mouth of the draws near once more, open wide and hungry. Levi can see two pale circles of light staring with mindless hunger in the blackness. He readies himself to fire. “Use the Force, Luke,” says the old master. Another way of saying ‘have faith, and the wrong will be made right.’

Have faith. Make the wrong right. Push the button, pull the trigger; destroy evil.

He pushes the button. The torpedo enters the exhaust, and a flash of white light is all that precedes the detonation of the space station.

Levi wonders if Milton is aware yet that the priest’s gun cabinet had been broken into, and that a handful of cartridges had been swiped along with his Remington. Probably not; there was still an hour yet before Milton would be home – and by then, Levi would be away. Off to scratch an itch.

All humans need to sate basic needs. The needs of the body. The needs of security. The needs of love. The needs of the mind. The needs of the soul.

Needs are problems. Hunt your problems. Stalk your problem through the underbrush. Take aim. Pull the trigger. Destroy evil.

Tonight.

- - - - - - -

The Stalk (Dusk)

Levi left the arcade at a brisk pace, duffle bag in hand and an increasing chill running up the curve of his spine. The numbness only deepened as he caught a cab and was shuttled down the US-250 E toward Shenandoah. He was well familiar with the mechanisms of border-crossing, and his passport bought him all the credibility he needed.

He walked the distance to the forest until he reached the outer edges, where a chain-link fence posted with a warning sign was all that stood between him and his destination. Throwing his bag over the obstacle, he easily climbs up and over, dropping to the ground in a crouch. The sun had set, and the waxing moon was beginning its rise into the canvas of the night sky. His sensitive ears picked up no noise of pedestrians or park patrol nearby, and the night air was cool and clean.

The hunter finds his eyes stinging incessantly as he takes in the view – the last view he would ever enjoy. The oak trees that had stood for a dozen times over his own lifespan, and would continue to persist as beautiful titans of majesty long after his passing. The swaying of the ferns, the yellow-gold circles of daisies that peppered the landscape. Distance and dark held no meaning for him, and he spied across the vista the shape of a coyote, its own eyes glinting green against the moonlight.

Inevitably, he drew his eyes to the sky…and something marvelous and forgotten bloomed inside as he looked on the face of the Earth’s celestial companion, only a few shavings of light short of a full moon. It took him a moment to recognize the balloon of freedom that swelled in his heart, the same way it took one a moment to recognize a long-separated friend or a sibling grown many years in your absence.

Awe. The stark appreciation of the beauty of the universe. The sight of the moon, always the predecessor to pain, held no fear for him this night. And so…it was beautiful.

A memory slipped between his legs, climbed his arms to rest on his shoulders, greeting him with friendly voice. It was a faint recollection, so unfamiliar to his reflection that he couldn’t help but let the vision come. Milton, asking him to make up a story about the moon and the stars as they lay out among nature, hands folded behind their heads. It was a game they liked to play, and Levi always regaled with tales of somber grief, tragedy, and loss.

Once, the priest had asked him why. “Why are the stars and the moon so sad, Levi?”

Levi remembered his answer. “Because that’s the way it is.”

Milton had laughed, shaken his head, and drawn the startled boy into a sudden embrace.

“No, kid,” the elder spirit murmured with a funny hitch to his voice, something warm dripping into Levi’s hair. “It’s because you’re sad.”

Now here he was, looking up at the lovely moon, without fear or regret. And in that instant, another miracle happened.

Levi smiled. Smiled so widely his face hurt and his teeth shone in the night.

For a heavenly minute, he was free.

OSKAR
1982, July 3rd (Dusk)
Shenandoah Park, West Virginia

It was good, Oskar mused, that Skyline Drive always remained open. True, he got a few strange looks from whomever happened to occupy the toll booth that particular evening, but his appearances were regular enough that none questioned him very much anymore. Particularly when he offered triple the $5 free as an incentive to let him wander unchaperoned – that made everyone friendlier, in his experience. Clearly, he was just some rich foreign kid looking for a little time alone; nobody felt the need to make him their problem, as long as they knew what route he was taking and when to expect him back.

Picking the north-east trail that would lead him to his first “marker” that led to Eli, Oskar hummed and kept his hands in his pockets, waving away the occasional mosquito and enjoying the chatter of a forest in moonlight. Somewhere to his east, he heard the high, quavering yowls of a coyote – answered by another to the east.

Fondly, he recalled the first time that he and Eli had come to this place – ostensibly for the experience, but also to scout for a good hibernation hide-away.

- - - - - - -

Oskar had noticed a mountain lion trotting through the underbrush ahead of them, ears and stance low, teeth bared and growling. Oskar was nervous, but Eli had slowly stepped forward with absolutely no fear whatsoever, bent his knees, and hissed back, irises thinning. The tense standoff ended the moment Eli took a single extra step forward, the puma scrambling into the shadows.

“Wow,” Oskar had beamed, clapping approvingly. “Bravo! That was awesome.”

Eli looked over his shoulder, head tilted. “You think so?”

“Yeah, you scared it off. It ran away looking like it saw a ghost.”

The ageless boy made a noise in his throat, lips upturned. “Not a ghost. Just a bigger predator.”

“Apex predator,” Oskar corrected. “That’s what the top hunter is called.”

“Apex predator…” Eli echoed thoughtfully. Through the crease of his brow and the slight side-to-side movement of his eyes, Oskar could all but see the motions of Eli twisting and turning the notion in his head. Finally, he turned fully to face Oskar, baring his teeth. Left hand raised, Oskar watched as it stretched and twisted like taffy until it was tipped with curved claws that were waved threateningly in his direction.

“Rrrrh,” Eli faux-growled, waving the claw aimlessly. “Apex predator! Grrrr! On your knees!”

“You’re full of it,” Oskar laughed, but complied with the demand regardless. He adopted a pleading voice, hands clasped in his lap. “Please, I’ll do anything! Just let me live!”

“Hmm…” replied Eli, looking him over critically. “Your groveling pleases me. But I demand a sacrifice.”

“Anything!”

“Close your eyes.”

Oskar paused, and eventually obeyed, leaving one eye ever so slightly open so that he could watch Eli’s silhouette approach. Cool lips met his own, and Eli gave a pleased hum.

“Hmm…” Eli repeated doubtfully once more, though Oskar could feel that he was smiling. “I’m not certain one is enough to satisfy an apex predator. You’ll just have to give me another.”

Their lips met again, pale human fingers trailing down to entwine with the dark claws of a predator.

- - - - - - -

Broken from his reverie by crunching of twigs, Oskar’s heart found its way up into the base of his throat.

The shape of the bear was unclear in the darkness, but there was no mistaking the bulk of its frame or the low throaty rumbles that reminded him uncomfortably of the sounds Eli would make when hungry. He froze, heat racing up his legs and spine as he tried to remember what he knew about bears; brown was the bad one. Shenandoah had black bears. Black bears didn’t usually bother people.

Still, his legs burned from the constrained energy within as the bear paused in its travel, cutting directly across his trail, to slide its head in his direction.

Please let it be friendly please let it be friendly please

The bear snorted, sniffing interestedly in Oskar’s direction. The freezing dark waters of epiphany crashed down on him. The food. It smells the food.

Oskar always took some travelling snacks and water with him on his hikes, kept safely in his orange single-strap pack. It was nothing extraordinary: some wrapped sandwiches, orange slices, and of course his canteen. But the bear was still staring, with little indication of moving on and its bulk directly between him and his destination. Slowly, Oskar lifted a hand and unclipped the strap of his pack, slowly – so slowly – unzipping the contents. Regretfully, he throws his sandwich far to the right – and the bear’s gaze follows the discarded meal as it smacks into the trunk of a tree and slips down to the dirt.

Nostrils flaring, the bear follows after the tempting scent of food without so much as a sideways glance, leaving Oskar’s path unimpeded. The boy hurriedly moves further down the trail, careful not to run but nonetheless stepping quickly, and looking back only twice as he follows the dirt path downward.

Too close. Maybe Eli had a point about wandering through the woods at night. It would’ve been simpler and safer to visit during the day, if not for a strange reluctance that Oskar couldn’t explain. As if treading in on Eli during daylight was somehow wrong. Or maybe it was because he associated his time with Eli exclusively with the night, and visiting during the day would be like…having dinner for breakfast. Putting your clothes on, then stepping into the shower. Upside down.

His stomach rumbled threateningly as he grew nearer to the site of Eli’s cave – or perhaps hole was more appropriate – hidden by foliage and carefully placed rocks and logs to give the impression of an unremarkable patch of forest with nothing to be noted. Eager to slip into the comforting confines of the hideaway, Oskar put himself to work moving aside the branches, stones, and finally squeezed into the dark, open space where all was still and quiet. The stench of decay splashed against his nose, wet and ripe, and it took him a moment to refrain from taking a few pained gags into outright vomiting.

Better leave the cave open, air the place out a little. Or I’ll pass out.

Crawling until he finds his place, Oskar settles on the hard ground beside Eli and lets the light of his torch shine against the cave ceiling, illuminating the tiny space. Eli was thinner than he had been when Oskar last visited, just a touch, and his black hair slashed with stripes of grey. What would happen to Eli’s hair in the next three months, Oskar wondered. Would it eventually just turn white and fall out?

What of his body? Eli had always been very thin – but Oskar could’ve sworn the other boy looked even skinnier than when they had first met. Would that continue? Would Eli awaken as little more than a husk of bone saran-wrapped in corpse-like tissue, barely able to crawl, much less run or laugh or play? What if Oskar couldn’t obtain or lure enough blood to Eli so that he could recover?

The thought of Eli awakening, alone and incapable of moving in a dark cave is too much to dwell on. Too frightening.

If it came to that, I’d slash my own wrists and give him my blood, Oskar vows. And then…

Then his only choices would be to become infected or to die.

Not for the first time, he wondered which he would choose if only allowed one of the two. Life versus infection and an eternal night, that was a riddle he’d answered for himself. But here, laying in the dark amongst the sleeping dead, Oskar wonders if death too was preferable to hungry eternity. Eli didn’t believe so – but Oskar wasn’t as certain. It wasn’t that he wanted to die, or that he didn’t think he would be up to the test of living life under the stars and moon forever. He wanted to live. And the prospect of living forever, to be with Eli forever, Oskar wanted more than he'd ever wanted anything.

But it wouldn’t ­just­ be living. It would be hunting, hiding, hibernating. So much of his life was already dominated by those three dreaded H-words when it was only Eli who needed to act on them. Could he really, honestly believe that life would be easier if he were infected?

Your life would be divided up into fragments, Oskar thought to himself, idly toying with a slice of orange, watching the juice leak as he applied pressure with his fingers. Slices.

Open your veins, mix your blood, become infected. Cut half of your time awake off and throw it away – no more sun, no more mornings. No breakfast. No food. Six months asleep every year. Ten to twelve hours awake, seven days a week. That’s seventy to eighty-four hours a week. How many hours wasted because you’re too focused on not thinking about how hungry you are to enjoy anything else? How many hours does planning a hunt take? The stalk? The kill? Hide the body. Lose a day dealing with the remorse as the ugly necessity hits you all over again – just as it did Eli. Desperately enjoy the next several days as much as possible, as if you could live enough to balance out the life you stole. Deal with boredom unlike anything you’ve ever known as you realize that having eternity for time means little when you do not know enough to make the passage meaningful. Steadily close off as the hunger mounts.

Start thinking about hunting spots. Body disposal. The stalk.

The smell was making his head throb and his eyes water. Eli had never stunk like this before, even when starving and filthy. The stench of rot tasted sour on his tongue, even when he breathed through his nose.

“Need some air,” Oskar muttered, snatching up his light and pack, moving out to the blessedly clean and clear smell of the open forest. He walked some distance from the cave, letting his feet carry him where they may, until he stood looking out facing an open field of waving grass and pale moonlight. Milkweed dotted the landscape, beautiful tiny bursts of color suspended as ovals on a stalk.

Reaching down, he plucked one and waved the flower beneath his nose, relishing the smooth smell that banished the lingering impressions of the cave’s choking miasma. Oskar contemplated the small shoot of flora, lifting it to the moon, as if offering tribute to the night’s watchtower. Milkweed was toxic if eaten in large quantities, but it was also named Asclepias for the Greek god of healing. He wished for a cure, though for what he could not say – only knowing that in his heart there was a sickness that pained him each day.

He frowned as the wind rose for just the briefest moment, carrying the smell of the cave once more to his nose – and within the smell, the return of his dark musings.

Oskar had read once that a light that burned twice as bright would gutter out in half the time. Perhaps the opposite was also true. Twice as long – half as bright. Maybe being infected didn’t really make you live forever. Maybe it was still all the time you would’ve lived, just cut up and spread across countless lonely nights and accumulated years of hibernation so that you would never be empty of life, but never again would you be full either. Eternal half-life, a pain that was all the sharper for knowing that once you had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Can two halves really make a whole? Oskar wondered as his eyes slipped back to the cave, spying the familiar faces peeking at him from the shadows where his light couldn’t reach. “Do you have any answers,” he beseeched them, feeling strangely ill at ease. A pair of eyes glowed in the dark.

The empty faces opened their mouths, and loosed a high, keening hiss. Oskar’s blood ran cold as he realized when and where, exactly, he had heard that same sound before. Diving for his pack, he ripped open the bag without care and grasped the comfortingly familiar handle of his switchblade, frantically flicking it into full length as the hiss of the puma grew into a thrumming growl. Nostrils flaring, the great cat stalked with deadly slowness towards…the cave.

He'd left the hideout exposed. The smell of carrion – Eli – had drawn the predator in. Hungry. Perfectly capable of devouring a vampire too emaciated and drowsy to defend himself, assuming Eli awoke at all.

Oskar forced his feet to move. One step. Another. The puma’s back was to him, fixated on the cave as it was. Its neck…if he could get it in the back of the neck, right beneath the skull…

A twig snapped beneath his foot, and in a heartbeat the puma whirled on him. The dead menace in its luminescent eyes froze him in place. Oskar’s groin grew warm, a dark stain spreading in the front of his trousers. The great beast regarded him intently for a moment, and Oskar was struck by the insane notion that the puma recognized him.

The cat took a single threatening step forward, and Oskar stepped back. It feigned a sudden charge and Oskar yelped, stumbling and falling back onto his rear. Satisfied, the animal turned and began rummaging through the cave while Oskar lay in the dirt, paralyzed and numb.

There was a dragging noise, and the puma retreated from the shadow of the cave, mouth locked around a thin, pale ankle. The beast whipped its head wildly, and Oskar saw dark red blood spurt from the junction where teeth met thin, weak flesh.

Dark red blood.

Eli’s blood.

Red.

Red.

“NO!” the boy screamed, throwing his knife with all the force his arm could muster. For all his effort, his aim had gone awry and the knife barely clipped the puma’s ear, causing the cat to yelp, Eli’s leg slipping from its jaws. Once more, the beast locked its eyes on Oskar…and this time, he knew that when it charged, it would not be as a threat.

Oskar closed his eyes and waited for the end.

At least now they would die together.

The puma snarled…and something else snarled back. Oskar opened his eyes.

Someone now stood between Oskar and the mountain lion, the bulk of a shotgun clenched in two dark fists. Although the stranger’s back was turned, the red running shirt and dark hair was oddly…familiar.

The puma yowled and lunged forward – and the hunter, for what else could he be, swung his weapon by the barrel, shattering the stock across the beast’s skull. Blood and chips of wood scattered across its face, the predator crumbled to the dirt, struggling to rise. It managed to lift itself almost to a standing position, swaying drunkenly, but its legs gave way once more.

Oskar watched in disbelief as the hunter drew close to the fallen beast, blood and foam dribbling from its mouth as its eyes tried to follow the movement. Raising the shotgun, barrel pointed down, the hunter drove the entire length of the firearm through the puma’s head and into the dirt below.

Breathing heavily, the hunter screamed with a sudden fury that sent Oskar leaping to his feet, his body outracing his mind as it prepared once more to flee. Only the sight of Eli, bleeding and crumpled by the hunter’s feet, made him hold his ground. The stranger lifted a foot and stomped on the dead beast’s neck, a series of wet pops and crunches politely bringing to Oskar’s attention the fact that its neck had most assuredly been snapped.

The hunter turned…and blue eyes met the glittering emerald of a predator.

Site technical super amazingness by Ken and jprasmussen