Set Me as a Seal upon Your Heart Part 4
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SET ME AS A SEAL UPON YOUR HEART PART 4
Mr. Ávila pads into the kitchen in his pajamas and slippers. He starts coffee and turns on the radio. The weather forecast calls for rain and high winds in the afternoon followed by strong thunderstorms in the evening. Looking west from the windows in the big front room, the overcast sky appears especially threatening over the Öresund, the straight between Sweden and Denmark.
Mr. Ávila pours himself a cup of coffee and thinks about Oskar and Eli asleep in their attic darkroom. "The kids will be disappointed about the rain. I know they want to get in one or two more photo shoots in Malmö, but with the summer solstice only two weeks off…"
Before he takes his coffee into the dining room, he studies the astronomical calendar taped to the refrigerator. The calendar shows that the sun is already setting after 9:45.
"Since they start their shoots so late," he thinks, "they are just about the only kids on the street at that time of night. I'm sure lugging their cameras and equipment around Malmö also draws attention. I should ask them to hang it up until mid-August, when the sun sets at around an hour earlier. But they're so excited about photography."
He thinks about his day and decides to ring his friend. He goes back to the kitchen and dials his number.
"Good morning, Professor Grigore, how are you?"
"I am well, Señor Ávila. I was just about to ring you."
"About the weather? It looks as though we are in for some rain. Should we skip coffee? I would like to run a couple of errands before it starts."
"Good, then, Señor Ávila. I have similar misgivings. I do not like dealing with Malmö traffic in the rain, either. I'll curl up with a few good books and just hang out here."
"A few good books! You are rather playful today.”
Professor Grigore chuckles. Mr. Ávila smiles and says, “I'll get going. If I can negotiate a fair price, I want to sell a few of Miss Eli's old banknotes to the hobby shop. I imagine I'll be back here by noon."
"Call me if we want to have a phone chat in lieu of our usual tête-à-tête," Professor Grigore says and rings off.
Mr. Ávila finishes his coffee, dresses, and drives into Malmö to the hobby shop where he negotiates a price for a few of Eli's old banknotes. It's enough money to permit him to make the first payment on the loan he took out to buy the kids' cameras and darkroom equipment.
He drives from the hobby shop to his bank. He takes a few minutes to chat with Edina, the bank manager who arranged the loan. He's ready to start playing racquetball again and considers making a third stop to take out a membership at a 24-hour fitness center, but the wind has picked up and the sky has darkened. He points his old Fiat toward Järavallsgatan and makes it home as a few large drops splatter against his windshield.
He spends the afternoon tidying the house and washing clothes. Laundry piles up quickly because he encourages the kids to wear fresh clothes each day. After he vacuums, he feels he’s done enough, so he goes to the easy chair in his bedroom and reads.
Evening approaches and the rain becomes heavier. He takes out leftovers from the fridge, including the last of the paella he prepared earlier in the week. He puts the paella and some garlic bread in the oven to warm. He smiles as he remembers an awkward scene during his first week with the children, when he shyly asked them if, you know, it was okay to cook with garlic. They laughed at him, and Oskar ribbed him mercilessly about all the nonsense in his head about their condition – mirrors, crucifixes, and other lore.
As Mr. Ávila enjoys his dinner, he notes that the storm has become scary. The rain is coming down hard, and the wind has begun to howl outside the large old house. He hears the first rumble of thunder.
He finishes his meal, and as he puts his dishes in the sink, Eli wanders in half-dressed. That startles him because he didn't know she could be awake during daylight hours, but he’s more alarmed at the frightened look on her face, which makes her appear even younger than her 12 years.
A close rumble of thunder sends Eli running to him. She throws her arms around his waist and looks up at him. "I'm scared, Mr. Ávila."
"You're afraid of thunder?"
"No, Mr. Ávila, the storm.”
“I’m sorry, little one. Do storms always scare you?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t think so. Not until I started living in the forest.”
Which was more than 200 years ago, Mr. Ávila thinks. I'll have to be more careful about using the word "always."
Mr. Ávila sits down in a dining room chair to be more at Eli's level. Wind-driven rain lashes the house. A nearby strike lights up the front room, and a loud boom follows a few seconds later. Eli scrambles into his lap and puts her arms around his neck.
Her voice trembles as she says, “In the forest, storms made me feel little. Lightning can break big trees in pieces like they are nothing. I figure getting hit by lightning would be like if I was in sunlight – I would burn up. Whenever a storm started, I ran to my hideout and stayed underground till it was over. That's where I feel safe."
"You're safe here, little one."
"I know, Mr. Ávila, and I..."
Eli doesn't finish before a very bright flash of lightning and a sharp crack of thunder rattles the windows and sends her running down the hall to her bedroom. Mr. Ávila follows and looks in but doesn’t see her. She isn't under the bed. He finds her curled up and trembling on the floor of her closet. He gently picks her up and carries her to his room, where he sits in his easy chair and holds her, rocking her and murmuring reassuring words.
Oskar finds them a minute later. He kneels beside the easy chair and puts a protective arm around Eli. "You see how scared Eli is of storms. That’s because she's seen how scary they are in a forest. Nature is right in your face. Just you and the storm."
Mr. Ávila says, "We can get through this together, right Miss Eli?"
He looks at Oskar and asks, “How is it you two are awake before sunset? I thought you had a kind of switch that automatically turns on.”
“I sort of had that idea, too, Mr. Ávila, although I wondered how Eli was able to stay awake when we were on the train to Karlstad. But it turns out it's just direct sunlight we have to worry about. We can handle indirect sunlight, like in a house, as long as we stay away from the windows.”
“Okay, Oskar, but I’m still really surprised.”
“Well,” Oskar says, “since we just about never wake up till dusk, I guess we didn't think to say anything about it. Sorry. Anyway, it may be the infection's way of keeping us from getting careless. You know, so we won’t make a mistake and burn up.”
Mr. Ávila turns his attention to Eli. “Are you and Oskar usually this alert when you wake up early?”
“I guess,” she answers. “I mean, I don’t really know. It might depend on how urgent it is, like if we’re in danger. Or maybe how excited we are. But, really, I haven’t ever thought about it.”
The conversation helps to calm Eli, but a blast of wind and rain shakes the house, another strike lights up the neighborhood, and the power shuts off as thunder echoes all around them.
“Oskar, would you please get the candles and matches from the utility drawer in the kitchen?”
Oskar hops to it. In the dark, the sound of the wind and rain beating against the house is oppressive, but Oskar lights the candles, and they bathe the room in a warm and reassuring glow. Mr. Ávila carries Eli in his arms to the bookcase and takes down a slender volume of Winnie the Pooh stories. Seated again with Eli in his lap and Oskar sitting on the rug in front of him, he translates as he reads.
Enthralled by the story, Eli forgets to be afraid. “You mean like a bear can talk?” she asks, encountering a children's tale for the first time since the infection cut her childhood short. Perhaps someday she will remember the stories and fairytales she heard as a child, but that was a long time ago.
Oskar has the presence of mind to keep his thoughts to himself. Although they are both 12, he feels he’s too old for Winnie the Pooh.
“Are there more stories like that one, Mr. Ávila?” Eli asks.
“Indeed there are more stories, Miss Eli. This collection is in English, and now that I know you can start your day before sunset, this could be your first English book when Professor Grigore and I start tutoring you and Oskar.”
"Really?" she asks, "I can have it?"
The candles have burned down a third of the way by the time Mr. Ávila finishes the last story. The storm moves off to the east, and the power comes back on. They still hear distant rumbles, so Eli isn't ready to go back to the attic. Oskar suggests they hang out in one of their downstairs bedrooms. He goes up to get some of their games and puzzles, and he brings a top for Eli to put on. Mr. Ávila’s rule is they have to wear clothes when they’re not asleep.
They take their stuff down the hall to Oskar’s bedroom where they will play until dawn, when they have to go upstairs to the pallet they share, safe from the sun.
As Mr. Ávila prepares for bed, he thinks about the evening's revelations – Eli's fear of storms and the surprising way Oskar and Eli's infection expresses itself. He falls asleep wondering how Professor Grigore will greet the news that tutoring can begin soon.
When Mr. Ávila wakes, the first thing he does is check the downstairs bedrooms to make sure Oskar and Eli moved to the attic darkroom before sunup. After he dresses and starts coffee, he goes into the backyard to survey the aftermath of the storm. The new day is bright and the air is clear. He spends a few minutes picking up debris – small tree limbs along with wet scraps of paper the storm blew into the yard.
He goes back in and rings his friend. "Hello, Professor Grigore. Are you up for coffee this morning?"
"That would be lovely, Señor Ávila. How did you and the children fare during the storm?"
"Well, thank you, and thereby hangs a tale."
"I look forward to hearing it! Ten?"
"Yes. I'll have a pot of coffee ready for us."
Mr. Ávila collects writing tablets, pens, and, from his utility drawer, a tape measure. He arranges the items on the dining room table.
When Professor Grigore arrives, he lets himself in and joins Mr. Ávila. After exchanging their usual Old World courtesies, Mr. Ávila pours coffee.
Professor Grigore gestures toward the writing materials. “I trust this will be a working session.”
“Yes,” Mr. Ávila responds, “but you will want to hear about the storm first. Miss Eli was so frightened that she came downstairs from the attic around 6:00 last night.”
“Six! How is that possible?”
“And not just Miss Eli. Oskar came down a little later. It turns out the infection wants them to sleep during the day, but the kids can override it.”
“Then we can start the tutoring sessions sooner than we had planned.”
“You are quick, Professor Grigore. I told the kids last night that we’ll start right away. I have yet to work out how long before sunset I can wake them, but you and I can get busy in the meantime.”
“I am relieved, Señor Ávila. I am concerned at how Eli's long sojourn in forests and on the periphery of towns puts her at a disadvantage in a modern setting.”
“Yes, Miss Eli is a challenge. Her greatest strength lies in her intelligence and quick wit, and she has another strength – she reads well. She was born at a time when reading was mandated by church law. However, writing was not mandated."
"How curious," Professor Grigore says.
"The disconnect between reading and writing was common in Protestant countries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Miss Eli writes by printing all capital letters, formed in a style long out of use. As for her weaknesses, I would say they are lack of English and lack of general knowledge. She has arithmetic, but Oskar has already started Algebra."
"To take Eli's mind off the storm," Mr. Ávila continues, "I read Winnie the Poo stories to her, and she was enthralled.”
"It sounds, Señor Ávila, as though we have a good start on her curriculum – Swedish and English literature, and conversational English.”
Mr. Ávila goes to his room and brings back the volume of Winnie the Poo stories.
"What do you think of this as Miss Eli's first English text?"
The Professor Grigore takes the volume from him and smiles warmly.
"I think it's a great text for her."
"Good then. This will be her own book. Her first book, I guess. Oskar has a couple of volumes he's been toting around in his backpack. Shakespeare plays and Sherlock Holmes. As for Oskar's curriculum," Mr. Ávila continues, "he was performing well at his grade level when I was his history and gym teacher in Blackeberg, and I believe he was doing well in math and English.”
“I imagine we will include history and geography in both of their curricula."
"I agree, Professor Grigore. Both subjects are a way to increase their store of general knowledge."
"A store of general knowledge is not an obvious deficit in Oskar's case," Professor Grigore suggests.
"Not as long as the children have us as their guardians, Professor Grigore, but let’s look ahead. Barring death by misadventure, they are immortal. To thrive beyond whatever years are left to you and me, the children will have to become as cosmopolitan as we are."
"Which implies that you are not drawn to the mystery of immortality for yourself. That is deep, Señor Ávila."
"The children accepted my offer to serve as their adult agent in the world. That requires me to move freely during daylight to take care of their needs."
"You are of course right about the children becoming sophisticated enough to move freely and safely without having you or me in their lives..."
"Yes, but I have a feeling there is something on your mind."
"There is, but before we discuss it, may I ask you to put the Lilja School for International Students on hold? Let's attend to getting the kids into the classrooms here. I'll bring up the question again after our tutoring is under way."
"You've got a revelation in store for me, haven't you?"
"Several, Señor Ávila!"
"Oh my. Then let's turn our attention to configuring the classrooms." They each take a pen and a writing pad. "They will need desks and blackboards, won't they? And I imagine each classroom will need a TV and a VHS player so they can pursue their studies separately.”
"And independently, since their 'day' extends well past our bedtimes."
They get up and walk down the hall to a shorter hall that runs behind the kitchen area. It leads to the big house's inner rooms, and they go about measuring the first room and configuring the best arrangement for the desks and other gear. Professor Grigore adds globes and low bookcases to the list. The second room is of similar dimensions, so they make short work of it.
When they return to the dining room table, Mr. Ávila refills their cups and sits down.
"Señor Ávila, about furnishing the classrooms – I am reluctant to make assumptions, but will you permit me to share these expenses?"
"Of course. And Professor Grigore, we need to acknowledge the obvious – You became a member of the family the night we disclosed to the kids that you know about their condition. If Miss Eli had not accepted you, she and Oskar would have left that night. Either that or Miss Eli would have killed you."
"How easy it is to forget that such deadly power resides in the child's body! Being part of this family is a high adventure."
"A high adventure indeed, Professor Grigore."
They smile at how fate has led two old bachelors to become the guardians of these beautiful children.
They work on lesson plans until mid-afternoon, when Mr. Ávila says, "Professor Grigore, this will be the last night of their photography excursions into Malmö. I'll work out a way of waking them early for when their classes begin."
"Good. Until we're ready to start tutoring them, they can catch up on their backlog of undeveloped film. Plus I have more to teach them about darkroom work."
Professor Grigore gathers the sketches and measurements and leaves to begin the first of several shopping trips.
Oskar and Eli wake at sundown to shower and dress for their photo shoot. They find Mr. Ávila waiting for them at the dining room table.
"When are our classes going to start?" Eli asks enthusiastically.
"In two days, Miss Eli, maybe three. It will take that long to get your classrooms ready. About your shoot tonight," he says, "you usually take the No. 4 and get off at the City Library, don't you?"
Oskar inclines his head toward Eli.
"Lately, we've been taking it to Gustav Adolfs torg," she says. "But we want to shoot the façade of Victoria Teatern tonight, so we'll take the 33 and transfer to the 1."
Oskar smiles. Because of Eli's confusing experience getting from Örebro to Blackeberg on her own, she insists on taking charge of their bus schedules, quickly learning the times and routes. It also registers with Oskar that she picked up a new word – façade.
"Would it be okay if I drive you?" Mr. Ávila asks. "I can drop you and bring you home when you're done."
"Sure," Oskar says. "That would save us having to wait at two bus stops."
"And a few minutes of walking to the first bus stop," Eli adds. "If you drive us to Davidshallsgatan, we can walk to the theater from there."
"Okay then. As we drive, I want to work out how early I can wake you for your lessons."
"You're going to tell us you want this to be our last shoot, aren't you?" Eli says.
"Well, Miss Eli, I want to see if you and Oskar are okay with that. Professor Grigore wants to do more darkroom work with you until we get your classrooms set up."
"Works for me," Oskar says. "Anyway, Eli and I talked about how it's pretty late for a couple of kids to be walking around."
They take their camera bags and tripods and pile into the old Fiat, Eli in the front seat so she can give directions. "Is it okay if we go the way the bus goes?" she asks.
On the way into Malmö, Eli asks, "Mr. Ávila, how are we going to be safe from the sun when we start waking up early?"
"Well, Miss Eli, the two classrooms are inner rooms. No windows. The short hall behind the pantry leads to them. The sun will be shining through the windows of the big front room, so I'll close the door to the long hallway before you get up."
"What about the bathroom so we can shower?" she asks.
"Yeah," Oskar says, "And our bedrooms so we can dress."
"Well, those windows have blinds, and Professor Grigore is buying pull-down shades. Those rooms don't get direct light. You can check out how a combination of shades and blinds works."
Eli asks, "How early are we supposed to get up?"
"And how will you wake us?" Oskar wonders.
"What if you get up around six and be ready for class as soon as you shower and dress?"
"We could do that," Eli says. "How will we know it's six?"
"Until we work that out, I can try knocking on your door."
"Professor Grigore and I roughed out some lesson plans this afternoon," he continues. "I think we need four nights a week. You'll have homework, which you can do after Professor Grigore leaves. He isn't a night owl, and neither am I, really. We're thinking two hours for classes, then maybe two more for your homework."
"Wow, that sounds like a lot," Oskar says, "but it's still way less time than regular school."
Eli smiles to herself as she thinks – I'll be in school. I'll really be going to school. I'll be just like Oskar – and her eyes glisten.
As Mr. Ávila drives, Eli points out the turns and soon says, "Here's the bus stop."
"I'll park nearby and walk back here to wait for you. How will that be?"
Oskar and Eli take their camera equipment and walk the short distance to Södra Förstadsgatan. They set up their tripods across the brick street from the theater and choose lenses that will let them fill the frame with the theater's Art Nouveau façade. The lights of the theater and Sweden's bright summer twilight ensure reasonably good depth of field, which their light meters confirm.
With their enhanced hearing, they're aware of comments couples make as they stroll by.
"How cute. Those kids are so serious looking, you'd think they were on a movie set."
"Yeah, they only need berets, like Ingmar Bergman."
The kids get a few shots before the play ends and people unexpectedly begin pouring out of the theater. "Durn. Keep shooting, Eli. It might be a good effect to have people's blurred images as they leave."
"Okay, Oskar, I'll stop down and use a longer exposure."
"Good, then bracket by just changing exposure times."
One couple comes out of the theater and stops. Although they whisper, the kids hear them clearly. "Hey, it's the 'Spooky Limhamn Shutterbugs'. Here's a chance to find out who they are."
The couple takes a step toward them, but they halt when Oskar yells, "Stop! Hold still while I change lenses!"
He selects a moderately long lens and starts snapping pictures of them.
"Move back all the way...almost to the doors...okay freeze! One more! Got it. Thanks!" He turns to Eli. "I think we got some good shots. Let's blow."
But as they stow their cameras and light meters in their bags and collapse the legs of their tripods, the couple crosses the street to say hello. "Hi, kids, we've seen you shooting in Limhamn. Is that where you live?" the young man asks.
"Yeah, but we thought we'd come to Malmö tonight to try out our Halloween costumes," Oskar says.
"Oops! You heard us," the woman says and looks embarrassed. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Eli says to her. "We're just self-conscious about how we look."
The young man quickly changes the subject. "Are you shooting the Victoria because of the architecture, or are you interested in theater?"
"Um, the architecture, I guess," Oskar says, "but really just because it looks cool."
"I asked because Denise and I are members of an amateur theater group, the Limhamn Players. I'm John. You're welcome to come by sometime."
"We're out of action with schoolwork until the end of August," Oskar says, "but give us the address and we'll come by then."
"Okay, but I should add," John says, "our theater isn't the Victoria. It's a store front with a low stage and 50 folding chairs."
"That's cool," Oskar says.
"We only do Shakespeare," Denise says. "Sometimes we do productions in English, sometimes in Swedish."
"Oh that's way cool," Oskar says, and he declaims, "Att fly är livet, att dröja döden."
The couple laughs and honors Oskar with a theatrical bow.
They get the address, say goodnight to the couple, and walk back to the bus stop where Mr. Ávila is waiting to walk them to the car. On the way home, Mr. Ávila says, "Since you have more film to process, tomorrow might be a good time for Professor Grigore to work with you in the darkroom."
"Okay," Oskar replies.
"We may not have the shades up yet, so I'll knock, and he can come up to the attic to work with you."
"We won't be able to shower and change clothes, Mr. Ávila," Eli protests.
"I know, Miss Eli. It may take another day for the downstairs to be safe for you. Let's wing it until then. Will that be okay?"
"Sure, that will be okay," Eli says, and Oskar adds, "Okay by me. Anyway, Professor Grigore is family, right?"
"Yes, he's family, Oskar. Right, Miss Eli?"
Eli beams at being asked. "He's family and we really, really like him."
Mr. Ávila notices how happy his question makes her and thinks – Since we had our father-daughter talk, she knows she's a member of a family now. Bless her heart – How long before she gets comfortable with it? She's been alone for so long.
After they get back to the house and put their stuff away in their downstairs bedrooms, they join Mr. Ávila at the dining room table. He shows them their course outlines and lesson plans.
"Professor Grigore and I have the idea that you can concentrate on these subjects first. I know we're leaving out math and science for now. I hope you're okay with that, Oskar. We want Miss Eli to bring her arithmetic up to speed so you can both work on algebra problems together, maybe by early fall."
"That makes sense," Oskar says, as he and Eli look over the lesson plans. "Mr. Ávila, it looks like we're going to concentrate on language and reading, with a big dose of history and geography, right?"
"Yes, but even the history and geography lessons will include language. In a few weeks, we want to switch to English for all of your classes."
Eli struggles to keep her confidence up as she reads the lesson plans, but she lights up when she sees her Winnie the Pooh book listed with the other textbooks.
After the kids say good night to Mr. Ávila, they go upstairs to the attic and take off their clothes. Oskar starts to pull on his dark sweats, but he stops when Eli says, "Oskar, I'm too excited to roam around tonight. Can we just cuddle and talk?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty wired, too. We didn't burn through a lot of film, but I bet we got some really good shots."
"I bet, too. Isn't it funny how that couple didn't know we could hear them? I wish we could go see their theater now. They seem really nice. But Oskar, those classes – I don't know anything about history and geography."
"Don't worry, Eli – I've got your back. I'll make sure you understand everything."
"Really? That's great."
They continue to cuddle and talk until their dreamless sleep overtakes them at dawn.
Mr. Ávila knocks on the darkroom door at 6:00 on the first evening of Oskar and Eli’s new schedule. Sunset at close to 10:00 shuts down their photo excursions into Malmö, leaving the kids to focus on darkroom work, classes, and midnight rambles. They pull on their tops and bottoms, and Professor Grigore soon joins them in the attic. They greet him with hugs, eager to develop their last rolls of film, eager to see the results.
In the red glow of the darkroom light, Professor Grigore watches the kids develop the rolls and hang up the strips of negatives to dry.
"I'm glad you've been keeping the darkroom clean,” he says. “Dust doesn't make negatives better."
"That's what you taught us, Professor Grigore," Oskar says.
And Eli adds, "We vacuum every week."
"Good that you're willing to drag that heavy vacuum cleaner up here so often."
The kids giggle.
"Er, I guess it's not that heavy for someone who's 'strong like an elephant,'" the professor says.
Oskar laughs. "Eli, that's how you said it to Mr. Ávila!"
"So you talk funny, like it was 200 hundred years ago."
Eli shoves Oskar's chest with one hand. He flies backward and smacks hard against the wall. His backside hits the floor with a thump and he jumps up laughing. "Case in point – You're as strong as an elephant.”
“Hey, it's okay," he quickly adds as Eli's anger looks as though it might turn into tears. He moves fast and wraps his arms around her so she can't shove him again. "I'm sorry I teased you," he says and holds her until she relaxes and hugs him back.
"As, like..." Professor Grigore says. "I'm not going to argue with a kid who could throw a ponderous body like mine across a room." The image of the large man flying through the air gets the kids laughing.
"While those strips dry, you have other negatives you haven't printed."
"Yeah, Eli went wild and took pictures of a whole lot of old buildings."
"It's true," Eli says, "but it's because looking at them gives me a funny feeling." She pulls out a drawer, selects several photo sleeves, and arranges the negatives on the light box.
"Specially this shot."
Professor Grigore picks up a loupe and examines the negative. "City Hall with the spire of Sankt Petri Kyrka behind it," he says.
"Yes, and I'm...I'm remembering it, but it was different. The façade of the City Hall didn’t have the red bricks, and the spire of the church is different. But I know I've been here before."
"What else do you remember?"
"More like what I don't remember. When we're walking around the harbor area, there's nothing familiar at all. I'm starting to picture bars, and I hear seamen talking loud and laughing. But Malmö's harbor isn't like that. There aren't any big boats with sails, and no smoky, stinky boats that smell like burning coal."
"Malmö Harbor must have been like that a very long time ago," Professor Grigore suggests.
"I guess so," she says.
But just chatting about it stirs the long buried memories that have been eluding her.
She suddenly takes Oskar's arm and turns him to face her.
"Oskar! Malmö is where that woman tried to grab me! Remember when Mr. Ávila asked me if there were others like us?"
"I remember. We were in his apartment in Vällingby."
"She was in an alley near the harbor! She had a man pushed against a wall, holding him up while she fed!"
Oskar and Professor Grigore listen wide-eyed.
"She let him slip to the ground and started talking to me. I could see the way her body was tensed she was going to grab me when she got close enough. When she tried, I was already leaning away from her, ready to move. I didn't hang around after that, and I never saw her again. I guess I never saw Malmö much after that, either."
After a moment, Professor Grigore says, "And I don't suppose you ever will see her again," but he says it with his fingers crossed behind his back. He wonders – Is she is the vampire I was after near Lund? A vampire who could overpower Eli, even though Eli is "strong like an elephant?" Lucky for me I didn't find her.
Oskar has been holding his breath. He lets the air out and says, "Eli, you said it was a hundred years ago, right?"
Professor Grigore answers, "Maybe a little longer, Oskar. The key may be the coal-burning ships. We can check with Señor Ávila, since he'll be teaching you Swedish and European history.”
That doesn't sound very interesting to Eli. "Professor Grigore," she asks, "are the negatives dry enough to look at?"
"Let's give them a while longer. I'm dying to see them, too, but there are good reasons to focus on technical matters in darkroom work. The artistry follows. Speaking of techniques, pick out a few negatives you wish had come out better than they did. I have tricks to show you."
Because they always shoot in low light, they bracket shots, just as Professor Grigore taught them to do on their first night. There are plenty of over and underexposed negatives. He selects a few of those and one negative that's ruined because it has high contrast areas – some areas too dark and some too light. With the red light on again, he demonstrates how to use a simple dodging tool during printing to lighten the overexposed areas and to bring out more detail in underexposed areas.
"These are really simple techniques, aren't they? But we learn by doing."
The kids take turns at the enlarger using the techniques. After they develop the prints, they turn on the overhead light to examine and discuss the results.
"Okay kids, last night's shots are dry but they will still scratch easily, so handle the strips carefully."
On the light box, Professor Grigore notes the effects they were going for. "I can see by the depth of field that you used long exposures. And I like the motion effects as people streamed out of the theater. How did you get that one couple to stand still? Oh, very nice close up of them in these shots."
"I just yelled at them," Oskar replies. "Turns out they're actors in a group called the Limhamn Players. They invited us to visit their theater, and we said we'd come by later this summer."
They select a few negatives to print. Time flies by. The sun has set, and it's soon time for Professor Grigore to go back to his place. They tidy up the darkroom and go downstairs. He and Mr. Ávila show them how their classrooms are starting to take shape after just one day.
The professor leaves, and before they say goodnight to Mr. Ávila, Oskar tells him about how Eli remembered the vampire that tried to grab her, "but that was a hundred years ago, right?"
Mr. Ávila thinks for a moment. He remembers what Professor Grigore said about his first case assisting the Malmö police.
"Yes, but a hundred years later, Eli's still here. I'm not saying that the woman is, but I hope you will be extra alert while you're out."
They say goodnight, and when the house grows quiet, they change into their black sweats and go out for one of their rambles.
The sky is clear. They sit at the end of an old dock in Limhamn and watch the stars blazing above the Öresund.
"I'm sorry I got mad at you," Eli says.
"Nah," Oskar replies. "I asked for it. I shouldn't have teased you like that in front of Professor Grigore."
"Oskar, do I talk funny?"
"No, it just sounds cute sometimes."
"Think that will change when our classes start?"
"Not the cute part, but I think we'll both change a lot."
"Yeah, but probably not real fast. That's one thing every teacher wants – for kids to learn to talk like they do."
“As they do?”
Eli lays her head on Oskar's shoulder. I was alone for so long. I don't want to wake up and this just be a dream.
She snuggles closer to Oskar. But Mr. Ávila won't ever let that happen. He just won't.
One morning in July as they enjoy coffee at the dining room table, Professor Grigore asks, "How is racquetball coming?"
"Not bad. I'm getting my chops back. In fact, I'm thinking of introducing the children to the game."
"Why not? Our little students have three nights with no classes," the professor replies. “When do you think you’ll do it?”
“Even though it’s a 24-hour fitness center, I want to wait until dusk occurs a little earlier. Probably at the start of August, when the sun will set at 9:15.”
"Speaking of classes, Señor Ávila, Oskar is a big help in geography. He uses what he taught Eli about map reading to give her a way of grasping distances on a globe."
"As for me," Mr. Ávila says, "using her old banknotes gives us markers to hang events on. But like many students, she has doubts about the value of studying history."
"I should imagine so!" Professor Grigore exclaims, and as teachers of long experience, they share a laugh.
"How is she doing in your English literature class?" Mr. Ávila asks.
"Your idea of using the Winnie the Poo volume works like a charm. She, Oskar, and I voice the different characters. Her writing is improving quickly, too, as I introduce her to more complex texts.”
“Yes, I see the improvement in her writing in the Swedish lit class,” Mr. Ávila says.
Professor Grigore continues, “As for her conversational English, I really like the idea of our weekly roundtable. It's a good way for the children to practice English and for us to review their progress in each class."
Mr. Ávila gets up to refill their cups. When he returns from the kitchen, Professor Grigore asks, "Señor Ávila, is this a good time to revisit your plan to enroll the children in the Lilja International School?"
"Of course, Professor Grigore. You said a few weeks ago that you would bring up the subject again."
"Good. Here are my objections – First, it would only satisfy a single agency in one out-of-the-way country. Second, it would leave a paper footprint. A Javert could use records like that to track the movements of the children. Have you contacted anyone at the school?”
"No, I put that on hold at your request."
"Good, then. Recall something I said to you earlier. You are set up in Malmö for a long stay, which is at odds with the option of leaving quickly if the need were to arise."
"Yes, that has come to mind more than once since that afternoon. I replied then that I’m out of my league when it comes to police matters."
"Then consider, Señor Ávila – Since Malmö works well for us, only the children would need to disappear should a contingency arise. What would it take for them to seem to be out of the country? They could be anywhere but here."
"You’re implying that we present the children as temporary visitors to Sweden, not as residents.”
“Yes, which would make it irrelevant for most state agencies to be concerned about why Oskar and Eli are not enrolled in school. I favor that kind of smoke-and-mirrors solution – Now you see them, now you don’t."
"Do you have a place in mind?"
"Yes and no. There is my darkroom, and it would be easy to bundle the kids into my apartment building without other residents seeing them. However, they would not have the ease of access for their late night rambles that they have here. But there are options relatively nearby that would be less confining."
"In Copenhagen. I'm thinking specifically of a safe room in Christiania, so-called Freetown. I have a couple who would do that for me and ask no questions. Their names emerged during an investigation I was conducting for the Malmö police. One trail led to Copenhagen. Like many residents of Freetown, they are small-time marijuana dealers, but they also dabble in moving stolen goods between Malmö and Copenhagen. Since those activities had no bearing on the case I was pursuing, I promised to keep their names out of my report in exchange for information. They are good people, and from time-to-time, they have continued to be helpful."
"Well, you said you have some surprises for me!"
"I have a few more. Your long-term goal of changing countries periodically is solid, Señor Ávila, inasmuch as the kids will never age. So let’s talk about additional mobility and flexibility."
"You’re going to pull more rabbits out of the hat, aren’t you?"
"Count on it, Señor Ávila. As a forensic expert and part-time criminal investigator, I have cultivated contacts with individuals whose activities are sometimes outside the law, like the Danish couple."
"Is there no end to your perfidy?"
Professor Grigore smiles modestly. "Nor to your puckish wit. The children will need passports, and we must choose a nationality for them. You have maintained your Spanish citizenship as I recall."
"Yes. Following the 1978 vote that established Spain as a democracy, I went back briefly and applied for a new passport."
"Excellent. Except for the children's lack of Spanish, it would be convenient if they could present as Spanish citizens."
“Then I don't see why our move next year could not be to Barcelona. I am still close to my family there. You know the children would learn Spanish quickly.”
“That would be the easiest course. They will also need new names."
"Which I have for them – the names I was going to enroll them under at the Lilja School – Óscar McKay and Elena Ruiz."
"Why these names?"
"Óscar and Elena are so they will know they are being addressed. McKay and Ruiz because these are names of family members."
"Señor Ávila, you are starting to show a good instinct for subterfuge. Now, my favorite forger is Zaki. He fled from Cairo to Genoa a number of years ago to avoid wars and the burgeoning ill will in Egypt toward certain minorities. I suspect he may have been fleeing for other reasons, as well. I'll contact him, and he'll tell us what he needs. Oh, and when I pick up the passports, I'll ask him to make a package for us of the corned beef he prepares.”
“You are a pearl of great price, Professor Grigore."
“Thank you, Señor Ávila. In that we agree on a nationality for the children, I can work on other documents that will help us – for example, legal documents establishing you as their guardian, and a clinical diagnosis of their skin condition.”
“Their skin condition! You said there is no medically described condition to account for their pallor.”
“There isn’t. However, a rare but well-understood illness would account for their extreme reaction to sunlight, for why they appear as though their skin is never touched by the sun – pale, although not alabaster.”
“Close enough. What is the condition?”
“Porphyria cutanea tarda. Sunlight causes the skin to blister severely and almost instantly. Although we know the genetic flaw that causes the condition, there is no cure. Treatment involves ways of reducing excessive iron, such as through blood replacement. And here is something of interest, although I don’t think it would help the children to know it.”
Mr. Ávila raises a questioning eyebrow.
“PCT has been suggested as the origin of vampire myths. People with the condition avoid the sun and crave iron-rich foods, such as blood and red meat.”
“I see your point, Professor Grigore. They don’t need to know about the vampiric conjecture.”
“Just so. Now, as we build new identities for the children, we will avoid creating any documents that a single phone call could expose. The medical documentation will bear the name of a Spanish dermatologist I get from an obituary. Dead docs tell no tales.”
“Professor Grigore, in trying to protect the kids, it is as though I’ve been feeling my way in the dark.”
“Such is the power of teamwork, Señor Ávila.”
"I imagine we will need to come up with new capital to make some of this happen," Mr. Ávila ventures.
"Yes. Specifically, cash, and I am reluctant to create bank transactions that coincide with trips out of the country. You did well to combine a loan with small cash repayments when you outfitted the kids with photography equipment."
"Eli's old banknotes are a big part of that, but I've hit a snag."
"A snag, Señor Ávila?"
Mr. Ávila gets up from the table and goes to his room. He returns with a collector's catalog and a thick display album filled with Eli's very oldest, pre-1874 banknotes. He opens the album and turns to the corresponding pages in the catalog.
"Here are Miss Eli's banknotes, and here are catalog photos of the same banknotes, some of which show bills that are in good shape, others not so much."
"I see your point. If it were known that these exist in such quantity and in reasonably good condition, museums might want them. And a museum would want proof of their provenance. There's a fortune here, but I can see the collection will be difficult to move."
"Just difficult. I have contacts who would buy the Mona Lisa if it were to come on the market. An acquaintance who now lives in Kuwait comes to mind."
"My word! One surprise after another!"
Professor Grigore again smiles modestly. "It will take a little while, but it will be good to have a reserve. Zaki or any other artisan will want cash, and moving cash around can attract attention, even though we are talking about relatively small amounts."
"Yes, Señor Ávila. What we are doing is small beer. The trick is to make it hard to detect or to trace. Criminals habitually believe that detection is the issue; when in truth, an investigator sometimes stumbles across a trail through normal police procedures. For that reason, Switzerland can serve as the nexus. Transactions are protected by privacy laws, and from Zürich, it's a relatively easy train ride to Genoa."
"Okay, Professor Grigore, then I have a surprise of my own. Miss Eli has left bags of silver coins throughout Sweden, especially between here and the Norrköping area."
"Yes, when they became too heavy to carry around, she just left them in dens she dug to use as her hideouts. I hope to use the coins to set up a trust fund for the children."
"Switzerland could work for that, too. Do you have a plan for recovering them?"
"Miss Eli says she knows where they are."
"That implies a prodigious memory."
"Not really, Professor Grigore. Miss Eli has forgotten much of her past, but she says hideouts are so important to her survival that she can go back to any hideout she ever had. When the days have grown short and the nights long, I'll drive the back roads of Scania, letting Miss Eli guide me. The sun sets so early in winter that we can start these treasure hunts in the afternoon."
"I see. It would be early enough that you wouldn’t have to explain why an old man is driving in the woods at night with a child. By then, however, we will have completed the other transactions, so you’ll have bona fides establishing you as the children's guardian."
Mr. Ávila bows his head in thought. At last he looks up and says, “Professor Grigore, when the children and I put this Malmö adventure together, it had more holes in it than a block of cheese from La Mancha. So many things could go wrong, exposing Oskar and Eli to danger and seriously inconveniencing me.”
“As in being in jail would be inconvenient.”
“At the very least. But having you as part of the family makes it seem as though we can really keep this thing going and keep the children reasonably safe while we’re doing it.”
“I agree, Señor Ávila. The four of us make a formidable team, do we not?”
Throughout the rest of July and into August, Professor Grigore works on establishing the children’s new identities. He moves Eli’s oldest banknotes and uses the proceeds to open accounts in the children’s names in Zürich. The account balances are substantial, and they will grow. Zaki tells Professor Grigore what information he needs to forge the passports and other documents. By the end of August, Mr. Ávila has the documentation to show that he is the children’s guardian, and the children have passports that will make travel easier when the need arises. Just as important, the passports bear a visa stamp that shows they entered Sweden, that they are visitors, not residents.
After Professor Grigore returns from Genoa with the documents, he and Mr. Ávila enjoy the delicious corned beef Zaki prepared for them – simple fare that these two down-to-earth grownups appreciate.
"Gyah, Oskar, it's shiny!" Eli says as they enter the fitness center for the first time. "I had the idea it would look like the school gym in Blackeberg!"
"Yeah," Oskar says. "It's sparkly like the camera shop. Remember? So cool looking."
The expanse of chrome, glass, and stainless steel exaggerates sounds and lends a sharp quality to voices and to the slap of sharply hit leather or rubber. The center has its own smells – steam from the sauna, chlorine from the pool, wet towels, and damp sweatshirts – smells that are more familiar to Oskar than to Eli. Mr. Ávila keeps quiet as Eli's eyes dart everywhere. Her demeanor is somber and focused as she takes in everything.
Mr. Ávila waited until the first week of August so they could start early enough to accommodate his racquetball partner. As they approach the courts, Mr. Ávila says, "Bengt agreed to stay late so you can watch us through the plate glass doors. Compare the rules we went over to what you see us do, okay?"
The two men play three fast and furious games while the children watch, totally fascinated. They see the rules in action, and they begin to get it that they can only play if they dial back their strength and speed. After Bengt says goodnight, Mr. Ávila lets them onto the court so they can use his racket to get a feel for hitting the ball.
The following week drags by until they can play again, and Eli says more than once, “I wish we could go to the gym every night.” But Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore keep them focused on their schoolwork, so they manage to endure until it's time for their second visit.
When they get to the court area, Mr. Ávila says, “You did well last week. Here.” He opens his gym bag and presents them with eye protection and their own rackets.
With his guidance, Oscar and Eli practice the control it takes to keep from swinging the racket so hard it destroys the ball, and it isn't long before they move at normal human speeds instead of so quickly that some of their moves are a blur. He serves them easy shots until he is satisfied they don't move like spooky aliens. To the kids, it feels like slow motion.
When they have a little free time, the kids take their cameras and resume their walking tours of Limhamn as a replacement for their photo trips into Malmö. Sometimes their walks take them past the theater of the Limhamn Players, but it’s late, and the theater is dark.
By the fourth visit to the gym, Oskar and Eli play complete games with Mr. Ávila, and by the fifth week, he allows them to play against each other under his watchful eye. Much of their energy goes into shrieking with excitement and yelling at each other. Oskar tries to distract Eli by teasing her – “Let’s go, Shorty” and “Who knew shrimps could play racquetball?” He tones it down after Eli reaches her limit and drills him in the chest with a shot that achieves a significant fraction of Mach 1.
But Oskar heals fast.
"Hi, kids! Come in! Looks like you have a night off from your studies," John says when Oskar and Eli stick their heads in at the door of the Limhamn Players Theater, cameras around their necks like the first time John saw them.
"Hi, John, Cool place!" Oskar says, although he thinks – "Theater" sounds a bit grand for a converted storefront.
Eli waves to Denise, who hurries to the front of the hall to join them.
"John and I were wondering about you two," she says. "I remember you said you were tied up until sometime in August."
"Yeah, we knew our classes would take up a lot of time," Oskar says, "But things have settled down now we’re into September. Anyway, we walked by here a few times..."
"...but it was kind of late and the lights were off," Eli finishes.
Denise asks, "Do you guys ever go anywhere without your cameras?" Or without each other, she thinks, noting how close they seem, even finishing each other's sentences, just as she and John do.
Oskar and Eli look at each other and shrug. "I guess not," Oskar says.
"At least mostly not," Eli adds.
The hall is empty except for a few groups sitting on folding chairs and reading scripts or talking animatedly. A few chairs serve as makeshift tables for paper cups and sandwich wrappers.
John calls out, "Hey guys, come meet a couple of our neighbors." A few come over to introduce themselves, smile, and then return to what they were doing.
John continues, "We're between productions, so most members of the troupe haven't started coming in yet."
Denise says brightly, "Let us show you the theater!" She takes Eli's hand and the two of them stroll toward the back of the hall while Oskar and John continue to chat near the door.
Oskar glances at the folding chairs stacked against the walls. "I remember you said the hall seats 50."
"Yes," John says, "and that works for us. The acoustics aren't bad, but at least there aren’t any good seats."
"We make up for the limited seating by having a lot of shows," John continues. "And it's pretty cheap. The best seats are only a hundred kronor."
"How much are the cheap seats?" Oskar asks.
"A hundred kronor," John says.
Oskar laughs good-naturedly.
Meanwhile, Eli points to the posters on the walls, running the whole length of the theater.
"I love these, Denise."
"One of our many artistic members silk-screened every production, right from the beginning."
As they walk hand-in-hand toward the back of the hall, Eli says, "There are so many."
"Yes, the theater and the Limhamn Players have been here a long time, but John and I only joined three years ago. It's where we met. The members asked us to run the theater right after that."
They reach the back of the hall, which ends at a low stage. "What are the little rooms for?" Eli asks.
"Stage left is the dressing room, such as it is, and stage right is John's office. That is, until we need it for costumes or whatever."
"Where does the door go?"
"That opens to the alley. We put scenery in front of it and use the door for changing sets. We store scenery in the alley so we can make quick changes during the play. We pay a young man from the neighborhood to stand guard."
John and Oskar drift to the middle of the hall as they talk, and Denise and Eli soon join them.
Eli asks, "What is it the different members do?"
John answers, "Just about all of us have two or more jobs, like designing and making sets..."
Denise adds, "...and making the costumes."
"...and after the play opens, running the lights and the curtains..."
"...and most of the troupe play at least one character."
"Right. In a play with lots of parts, some play two characters,” John says.
“That would be pretty much every Shakespeare play,” Oskar says.
“Very good, Oskar," Denise says. "A lot of times, John cuts out scenes so we can lose a few characters."
“Yes,” John adds, “and in some plays, the characters wear masks. That helps with multiple roles."
"Even with cutting out some of the characters," Denise says, "our dressing room is crazy busy during scene changes and between acts.”
"Yeah, our seamstress, Sassa, not only makes all the costumes, but we could never handle all the costume changes without her help..."
"...and without the help of Velcro," Denise adds with a laugh.
Eli turns to Oskar and says, “This sounds like so much fun!” She asks Denise, “Is there stuff kids can do?”
“Oh my yes,” she answers. “We never have enough bodies…”
“…which always makes opening night an adventure,” John adds.
“Do you need somebody to take pictures?” Eli asks.
“Do we!” John says. “As it is, we have to get by with Denise's old Instamatic for publicity shots.”
"Very old," Denise says in a stage whisper, and the kids laugh.
“Hey, that reminds me,” Oskar says, and he opens his camera bag. “Here are the shots we took of you and Denise in front of the Victoria Teatern.”
John says, “You kids really are as serious about photography as you seem to be. These shots are terrific. Nobody could have done a better job – I mean nobody.”
Oskar and Eli look at each other and grin. They only really have Professor Grigore’s word for it that they’re pretty good photographers.
“What else could we do?” Eli asks. “We can run a vacuum cleaner.”
“And we’re strong like an elephant,” Oskar adds.
Eli gets up in Oskar’s face and says, “Enough with the elephant jokes. I happen to know what the word facetious means now.”
Denise laughs and says, “You’re a lively pair! What do you think about playing a role sometime? Oskar, your rendition of Romeo when we met you guys was, um, interesting.”
Oskar and Eli look at each other. Denise's question was unexpected, but, as usual, they are on the same page and both start to answer.
“We have to…”
“Our classes are…”
The kids laugh at their awkward response and Oskar says, “Let’s start over. My Romeo might work if Romeo were 12. But what nights are you guys here? Our class nights aren’t carved in stone.” Oskar doesn't really know this, so he crosses his fingers behind his back when he says it.
Denise turns to John and asks, “Do you think it’s too early to talk to them about our fall production?”
“Not at all. Everybody agreed on the play at our meeting...”
"...and we've already cast a few roles," Denise says.
Turning to the kids, she says. “We’re doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we're doing the production in English. And get this – It has some fun roles that only have a few lines..."
"...like the fairies, and we don't have anyone to play them yet," John says.
"You mean we could be in a play?" Eli asks, big-eyed.
"Sure! John, it looks like we've got two of our fairies. Welcome to the glamorous world of treading the boards!"
"Two fairies in addition to Ingrid, of course," John says. "Ingrid has two big scenes playing Fairy to Edvin's Puck."
“Who is Ingrid?” Eli asks. Denise notices the serious look on Eli's face.
“Oh – Ingrid. She's our seamstress’ niece," John says. "She’s 14 and is as pretty as a fairy.”
Eli says nothing, but she thinks – Pretty as a fairy is she? She remembers her flash of jealousy when Oskar teased her about "picking up a few babes" on his journey to Blackeberg, even though she knew he was just making it up to bug her.
Oskar says, “Wow, I can see where star struck comes from. I’m way excited. But Eli and I have to talk. We're doing a lot of stuff right now. I mean not counting our classes. We need to figure things out. If it looks like a go, then we have to see what our teachers think about it.”
John and Denise walk the kids to the door. John shakes hands with Oskar, and Denise gives Eli a warm hug.
As they walk from the theater toward Järavallsgatan, Eli says, "John and Denise are so nice. I want to spend time with them even if we aren’t in the play."
"But you want to be, don't you? I mean, if it's easy, like just a few lines?"
"I want to, Oskar, but isn't it scary? I mean, all those people looking at us?"
"Er, I didn't think about that. But, yeah, I want to anyway. They would let us practice on the stage before we had to do it for real."
“I’m thinking about how pale we are. Won’t people make fun of us?”
“Hm. I think we need to be upfront about that with John and Denise.”
"Okay then, but how about this – Can we do it? How much time will it take?"
"Good question, Eli. More like how many nights will it take."
"Right, Oskar. We've got classes and homework four nights..."
"...and racquetball one night..."
"...and the sun sets early enough now so that we could start shooting again in Malmö..."
"...so we shoot in Limhamn instead. Like at the theater," Oskar counters.
"Okay." Eli says. "The photography part’s easy. Anyway, we don't have anything tomorrow. We can go back and hang out."
"Yeah, Eli, we don't even know when they’re going to do the play. Looks like it will be a while, since not many people were there."
"Now," Eli says, "what will Mr. Ávila think about us hanging out with people who aren't infected?"
"What do you mean?"
"I guess I'm thinking about how Håkan got bent out of shape when I started being friends with you."
"Oskar! Don't you remember how creepy he looked when he was watching us play in the courtyard?"
"But, Eli, that's when I just thought he was your dad, like making sure you were okay or whatever."
"Nope. He didn't like it because, you know, if people found out I live off blood, we would have to move again. Oskar, after we left Blackeberg, we didn't ever talk about Håkan."
"Because when I found out he wasn’t your dad, I kind of didn’t want to.”
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know...it just started to sound creepy."
Eli doesn’t respond.
“We can talk about it sometime," Oskar says. "But you mean Mr. Ávila would worry about us being around normal people?”
“Yep. He set up this whole deal in Malmö so people wouldn’t wonder about us.”
“Eli, he knew we were going to check out the theater tonight. It can't be too big a deal or he would have said something."
"Yeah. Håkan sure would have."
They reach home, let themselves in, and call out Hi.
"Hang on, Eli. We need to look at something in the kitchen."
Oskar takes down the astronomical calendar and tapes it lower on the fridge to be at their eye level.
"Here’s where we are today. Sunset is about 8:00. In two weeks, it's 7:30. By October it sets at 5:45."
"I get that Oskar. I have a built-in clock or something so I don't have to think about it."
"Yeah but this is to help us plan. We'll soon be able to do racquetball or the theater really early. Our classes could maybe start early. It gives us something to play with figuring out how we can do all three."
Oh yeah, planning. Gotta work on that. “You're smart Oskar. Let's see what Mr. Ávila thinks!"
They go into his room to say Hello, and Eli says, "Guess what, Mr. Ávila!"
"Let's see...Something good happened at the theater, right?"
"We might be in a play!"
"My word, Miss Eli. That was quick."
"But small roles," Oskar says. "We might get to play fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"And we might get to help keep the theater looking clean!" Eli says, with the same enthusiasm.
"I'd say somebody has got the theater bug," Mr. Ávila says with a big smile. "Tell me all about it."
They tell him how small the theater is and that it's been a theater for a long time. They say how nice John and Denise are, and Mr. Ávila says they looked like a nice couple in the photos.
"Okay, then, how will this work with your classes and with racquetball?"
"We don't know, Mr. Ávila," Oskar says. "We want to go back tomorrow night and find out more."
Eli says, "We talked about it on the way home. We decided we won't shoot in Malmö this fall, but we can take pictures for the theater. We can do racquetball one night and our classes four nights."
"Yeah," Oskar says, "but we probably want to be at the theater more than just two nights."
"Hm," Mr. Ávila says.
"We looked at the calendar on the fridge," Oskar says. "Sunset is earlier and earlier. Couldn't we double up some nights, like do our classes earlier?" Oskar asks.
"We'll see. Professor Grigore and I agree that learning goes faster if the subjects are interesting."
"Does that mean we don't have keep studying history?" Eli asks with a bright smile.
"Sorry, little one. What it means is you need to learn more outside of class than in class because that's where your interests will mostly lie. When you go back to the theater, try to find out how much time you'll need."
"So," he continues, "you're willing to put off your photo excursions to Malmö? Let's see what Professor Grigore and I can work out."
Eli hugs Mr. Ávila and gives him a big kiss on the top of his bald head.
The fun Oskar and Eli have at the theater rivals their love of racquetball. But Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore wisely adjust class schedules to accommodate these two exciting interests.
Even before they achieve an acceptable level of control on the racquetball court, Bengt starts pestering Mr. Ávila to let the kids play him. Mr. Ávila knows the kids' play would be sloppy at this point, and he doesn't want them to experience sloppy play.
To that end, when he is confident that the kids have the control required to play full games at normal human strength and speed, Mr. Ávila takes them a step back and introduces them to finesse, the fine points of serves, returns, and volleys so the ball goes where the shot will be most effective. When the children combine strength, speed, focus, and accuracy – the four areas of control – their games are thrilling to watch.
No one is more thrilled than Oscar and Eli. They love racquetball. It's their game.
When their racquetball skills are where Mr. Ávila thinks they should be, he agrees they can play Bengt. After all, he knows control alone is not enough – The kids must polish their finesse techniques through play. The whole package will take them to a new level, but getting there requires practice and presence of mind.
At first, Mr. Ávila and Bengt use their experience and skill to beat the kids, but that doesn't last. Once they put superb control together with the experience of playing real opponents, they are unbeatable, although Mr. Ávila and Bengt enjoy the challenge of trying. Playing doubles with the kids on opposing sides adds interest to the games. The kids play back for long returns and volleys, and the grownups play up. Playing with the grownups in front of them challenges the kids to use all of the presence of mind two 12-year-olds can muster to avoid putting the grownups at risk.
Because they play so late, few members of the center witness their awesome skills, and Mr. Ávila won't let any those few sign up to challenge them. It would raise too many questions if they became known as racquetball prodigies. Anyway, Bengt and Mr. Ávila provide enough competition, so the kids continue to hone their skills.