Set Me as a Seal upon Your Heart Part 5

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SET ME AS A SEAL UPON YOUR HEART PART 5

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Ingrid

Although Oskar and Eli's characters in the play have only a couple of lines, they are delighted to be useful in other ways. Of course they take photos of everyone, and they sweep and tidy up as needed. They also run out for coffee and sandwiches for the troupe, where they meet some of the nearby shopkeepers.

On this night, they plan to straighten and sweep the theater, but for now they just chat with this or that actor. A young woman enters the hall with a very pretty blonde girl of about 14. The woman sets down a large bag that’s bulging with material and sewing stuff. As they take off their coats and drape them over folding chairs, the girl spots Oskar and Eli, runs to them, and takes Eli's hands in hers. "I'm Ingrid! You're..."

"Eli. Nice to m..." But before Eli can finish, Ingrid lets go of her hands and takes Oskar's. "And who is this strange and beautiful boy?" Before either of them can respond, Ingrid looks at Eli and says, "He isn't yours, is he?"

Eli starts to answer, but Oskar quickly says, "We're cousins. I-I'm Oskar," in a hesitant voice that Eli hasn't heard since she first met Oskar in the courtyard of the apartments on Ibsengatan.

Eli notes that Ingrid is a couple of inches taller than Oskar and that her sweater shows she's beginning to develop. Eli is crestfallen, discouraged from the outset as she sizes her up. Ingrid has moved in an instant from potential rival, "pretty as a fairy," as John called her, to a formidable, aggressive competitor for Oskar's attention.

And Oskar can't tear his eyes away from Ingrid, who locks eyes with him and asks, "Are you going to be in the play?"

"Y-Yes. I'm playing Moth, and Eli's..."

"Great! I'm playing Flame! Just kidding. I'm playing Fairy contra Puck."

Denise spots them talking and walks over to stand with Eli. "Hello, Ingrid, I see you've met our two new fairy children, Eli and Oskar."

“Oh yes, Moth and…what fairy are you?”

“Peaseblossom,” Eli answers.

“I wonder John didn’t let you play Mustardseed," she says, glancing at Eli's flat chest. "I mean, you’re so tiny!”

Eli’s expression doesn’t change. More important, her eyes do not change and her stomach does not rumble, although her fingertips tingle – a reminder to Eli that she has claws, too – as she thinks of what she would like to do to Ingrid.

Denise says, “Ingrid, once you get settled, let’s talk about your lines. John has penciled in a few changes.” Turning to the kids, she says, “Would you two like to help me figure out how we can make use of some old sets?”

As they walk together toward the stage, Oskar glances back at Ingrid, but she's already working the room, flitting from group to group of actors and chatting them up.

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Understudy

A few nights after she meets Oskar and Eli, Ingrid rings Sassa, her young aunt, to beg off helping cut and sew costumes for the evening. She asks Sassa to drop her at the theater instead so she can practice her lines. When Ingrid arrives, she goes straight to Oskar and Eli, who are working on their few lines as Moth and Peaseblossom.

“Pissblossom, do you mind if I borrow Oskar?” she says. “I need him to help me learn my part.”

“Sure,” Eli says and gets up to let Ingrid take her place.

“What if I cue you from my copy of Puck’s speech?” Oskar says, and he takes a few pages of the script from his camera bag.

Denise didn't think Ingrid was planning on coming to the theater tonight. When she sees Eli get up and wander away, she walks back to John’s tiny office where he’s scribbling notes on the script he's adapting.

“Listen for a minute, John. I think Oskar and Ingrid are practicing dialogue together.”

“Too early? Yeah, I guess so. They need to get the lines down before they start interacting; otherwise, their dialogue could grow stale.”

“That, plus you want it to be the understudy’s job so they learn the lines at the same time.”

“Yeah, Denise, but Edvin hasn't come in yet to work on his role as Puck. And we don't have an understudy for Fairy.”

“Not a problem. I'll work with Oskar on Puck until Edvin shows. Even though you haven't asked Oskar to understudy the role, he has to nail Puck in case, God forefend, Edvin falls off the stage and breaks his leg again.”

“Done. I'll ring Edvin and find out how soon he can get in here. Oskar can be his official understudy, but it's far too big a role for a novice, don't you think?"

"It is, but I wouldn't underestimate either of our newcomers. Oskar couldn't play Puck with the same panache as Edvin, but I'd bet he could do well enough to get us through."

"You’re right of course about needing an understudy for Fairy. The real fun of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more about the fairies than the mortals. But what cast member will understudy Fairy? Everybody has a full plate already.”

“Eli’s just wandering around looking lost and bored,” Denise says.

“Oh, right. Sure, she can help Ingrid learn her lines. You want to tell them?”

“I like the way you explained about practicing dialogue. You talk to Ingrid and Oskar. Sell Oskar on learning Puck as Edvin's understudy, and I'll see if Eli is willing to understudy Fairy, or at least to help Ingrid with her lines.”

As John approaches Oskar and Ingrid, he sees that they are sitting with their heads together. The dialogue he hears isn't from the script. He thinks – I can always count on Denise to take the pulse of the troupe.

Denise walks over to where Eli is looking at posters and kicking her heels, seemingly paying no attention to Oskar and Ingrid.

“Eli, John hasn’t filled every role yet. Oskar needs to understudy Puck with Edvin, and Ingrid needs help with her lines. That often works well when the understudy and the principal work together.”

“Oh, like if something happens and the understudy has to go on?”

“Yes. How would you like to be Ingrid’s understudy?”

“Like I would play Fairy if something happened to Ingrid? That’s pretty scary…But okay, I’ll do it.”

Denise thinks of a line from an old American movie – Born and bred in the briar patch, Brer Fox. Born and bred. Denise holds Eli's gaze and gives her a tight little smile.

Eli gets what the smile means – Denise isn't buying it. “Denise, the acoustics are really good. I heard what you and John were talking about.”

“That’s better, child.”

The young woman and the young girl share a smile.
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Eli feels more relaxed as she and Oskar walk home that night. She thinks about how lovely it is to walk through the Limhamn neighborhoods to their big, safe house on Järavallsgatan.

She wonders – How much was Denise's smile about how Oskar and Ingrid are carrying on? Is that why she separated them? So they won't be together as much now that I've started helping Ingrid learn her role?

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Curriculum Change

They get home and run straight to Mr. Ávila's room. With their increased roles as understudy to Edvin and Ingrid, the kids make a good case for bumping Shakespeare up in the lesson plans. The next day, Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore agree to let the play be the text of their English and Swedish lit courses, although their Swedish text of En midsommarnattsdröm is of limited value because it isn’t even close to a literal translation.

During the following weeks, Oskar finds that learning Shakespeare in English is hard, but for Eli, it’s a nightmare. She makes good progress, but she compares herself to Oskar and feels she isn't really doing well. Of course, both kids have to learn words they may never use again and that fewer and fewer people have used in the centuries since Shakespeare wrote them. But there are some rare perks. Kids that they are, they giggle when Professor Grigore explains how naughty some of the seemingly innocent passages are.

Eli keeps her spirits up by keeping her goals in mind – This is really hard, she thinks. It's almost too hard to be fun. Er, but it's more fun than studying history. And I haven't forgotten little Miss Pretty-as-a-fairy. Hmph!

It helps when they narrow their studies to just the roles of Puck and Fairy. A big boost is when the grownups get video tapes of the play in English, which the kids watch in their classrooms. Pretty soon they are both declaiming well enough in Elizabethan English to pass muster as understudies, and they both reach the level they need to be helpful to Edvin and Ingrid. For an overview of Shakespeare, they also study modern English themes of the plays, not only A Midsummer Night's Dream, but Othello, As You Like It, and others.

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Surprise Visit

The tempo picks up and the level of energy increases at the theater as more players show up requesting roles, practicing lines, and getting fitted for costumes. Ingrid demonstrates her depth and commitment to the theater by dividing her time between learning her part and helping her Aunt Sassa cut and stitch costumes.

To the delight of Oskar and Eli, the grownups drop by the theater unexpectedly. The children’s excitement is over the top as they introduce Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore to John and Denise, who takes charge and introduces them to the rest of the troupe. When they come to Sassa and Ingrid, Sassa puts down her sewing and jumps up. Taking Professor Grigore’s hands in hers, she exclaims, “Who are these two fine looking gentlemen?” But she only looks at Professor Grigore.

Eli rolls her eyes and thinks – Uh huh, that’s who flirty Ingrid gets it from.

Sassa takes Professor Grigore's arm and tags along with the group. When they are ready to leave at the end of their quick tour, she asks Professor Grigore when he’s coming back. “I’ve got a feeling you have an interesting story, and I can’t wait to hear it!”

Almost thirty years drop away, and Professor Grigore is once again the blushing and tongue-tied undergraduate at the University of Bucharest. He manages to stammer that he looks forward to it as he and Mr. Ávila take their leave.

John and Denise experience a bit of relief knowing that the grownups really are okay with the kids keeping such late hours. Denise privately wonders why their teachers rather than their parents are checking on them, but her English reticence prevails, and Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore have the presence of mind to leave before anyone else thinks to ask questions. Mr. Ávila has coached the children – If pressed, they are to only show their passports, which are always in their camera bags, and leave any explanations to him.

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Professor Grigore

The grownups are into the second cup of coffee at the dining room table when Mr. Ávila says, "We made quite a splash at the little theater last night."

"Yes, our surprise visit obviously meant a lot to the children."

"Well, yes, but I've been wondering about something, Professor Grigore."

"Oh?"

"Yes. That young seamstress seemed to be quite attracted to you."

"Well, um...:

"Since women find you attractive, how is it you’re still a bachelor?”

“How nice of you to put it that way, but I'm afraid I was particularly unattractive when I was younger. The word goofy-looking comes to mind. I should just add that, coming from rural Transylvania to the big city, I was exceedingly shy in college. And I was a nerd long before the term was coined. I was so immersed in my studies that it didn’t occur to me to pursue a social life. That doesn’t mean I was a hermit, and several young ladies gave me a whirl. I suspect, though, it was something they cooked up as a kind of joke. Or maybe on a dare. At any rate, nothing ever came of those few liaisons.”

“And after? I mean we aren’t young. We’re both past our student days by many years.”

“I think I just gradually developed from a young nerd into a middle-aged one. Forensic science clicked with me, and, well…”

"I can understand that, Professor Grigore. Your single-minded pursuit must explain in part how you rose to the top of your field."

"The field isn't that crowded, Señor Ávila."

"Modesty becomes you, Professor Grigore."

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Smitten

Denise has a good nose for trouble, and she knows Ingrid. Even though she arranged for Eli to start working with her, the task of keeping Ingrid and Oskar away from each other isn't over. The whole troupe sees that Ingrid has her hooks into Oskar, and Oskar is beyond smitten. At every chance, they find ways to sit apart from the others, whispering, laughing – delighting in each other's company.

And little Eli has limited resources. She can't do anything overt to interfere with the two lovebirds, so she takes an indirect approach. She embarks on a Shakespearian effort to get on Ingrid's good side. She combines the single-mindedness of Iago with the quick wit of Rosalind, praising Ingrid's style of delivering Fairy's lines and flattering her by suggesting the role is too small for her talents.

"Gyah, Ingrid, you're 14, a year older than Juliet. You should have a starring role."

"You're right, little Pissblossom; I could bring a lot to Helena's role, don't you think?"

When Eli sees an opportunity to share her opinions about Ingrid's talents with John, she says, “Ingrid is so much fun to work with. I’m so glad I got to be her understudy.”

John looks at Eli and smiles.

“Did you know she’s been an actor since she was six?”

John thinks – Who hasn’t? – but he just says, “Is that so?” and wonders where Eli’s going with this.

"You know she's wild to play Helena."

"Really? Thanks. I didn't know that."
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Eli's build-up of Ingrid gets a boost when Denise seems to buy in. One night, she, Ingrid, and Eli crowd into John’s small office.

"Double, double toil and trouble," he says as Denise pulls up the only chair and sits down, flanked by Eli and Ingrid.

Denise makes a face and says, “Not very nice to equate us with the three witches.”

“Ah Denise, it’s just a nod to the bewitching power that young women wield!”

“Then I’ll play Lady Macbeth. Ingrid has the idea that she wants to play Helena instead of playing Fairy. I think she could handle it, don’t you? She’s already helping Maja with her lines. And, John, that could bring us some much needed press, like, ‘Rising young star dah dah dah.’”

“And?” John says.

“And you haven't filled the role of Titania yet.”

“Would Maja like to play Titania?” Eli asks ingenuously. Ingenuous because most of the troupe know that Maja and Astrid are angling for the role.

“Okay,” John says, “but the role of Titania is just one issue. If Ingrid plays Helena, who'll play Fairy?"

Ingrid speaks up. “I really want to play Helena, and I know Maja wants to play Titania.” Ingrid turns to Eli. “Let’s get real, Peebottom – You know Fairy’s lines as well as I do. I wouldn’t be this far along in the role if you hadn’t helped me learn the part.”

“Well, that’s true, but Oskar and I have been studying the play as part of our English Literature class. Besides, everybody says you’re as pretty as a fairy. I’m just…”

“Hold on right there,” John interrupts. “You’re both very pretty, Eli. I think you would make a lovely Fairy. Denise, what do you think about Maja as Titania?”

“John, you do know, don’t you, that Maja and Astrid both want the role?”

“Actually, no. I didn’t know that.”

“Let me try to get a better feel for the situation. If Astrid isn’t okay with Maja playing Titania, we’ll have to stick with the original plan – either convince an actor from another group to take it, or somehow convince Tilde to come back to play Titania.”

“Forget Tilde, Denise. I hear she has a shot at a big musical role. Any chance to show off that voice of hers, she’s going for it. If she gets the part, she’ll be great reprising Kerr’s role as Anna.”

“So would I, mister.” Denise stands up, steps out onto the stage, and sings a few verses, filling the hall with her strong mezzo-soprano voice.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you.

Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me.

Eli laughs and claps, and, in one of those delightful, spontaneous moments that can occur when creative people are together, the rest of the players stand and applaud.

“Thank you. Thank you one and all,” Denise says and executes an elegant stage curtsy.

“Anyway,” she says, stepping back into John's office, “we can’t show favoritism. If Maja and Astrid can’t work it out, you’ll have to put on a wig and play Titania.”

Denise wonders who told John that Tilde was pursuing the role of Anna. She suspects it was Tilde herself. The bewitching power that young women wield indeed! And she thinks, A gel’s gotta keep an eye on her bloke every bleedin’ minute, in a voice that even John has never heard, a voice from her hardscrabble London childhood.

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Presence

One night in late September, Oskar and Eli step outside the theater to discover that a light ground fog has crept into Limhamn from the Sund. Although the fog doesn’t come all the way up to Eli’s knees, it changes the whole feeling of the neighborhood. "This is like magic," she says. "It's like we're in a fairy world for real." Eli takes Oskar’s hand and thinks about how well things are going. She’s a little happier since John asked Oskar to work with Edvin. It leaves less time for Oskar to pursue his obsession with flirty Ingrid.

As they walk hand in hand, the light southwest breeze shifts so it's blowing at their backs, disturbing the fog and causing it to swirl and eddy around the lampposts. In a minute or two, Eli lowers her voice to an almost inaudible whisper and says, "Oskar, that odor..."

"Got it." Oskar whispers. "It smells like if we go too long without hunting."

"Or don’t bathe,” Eli adds. “Oskar, just walk normally, like we aren't aware of it, and keep your ears open."

They continue to walk in silence, and the smell soon fades. They reach home, put away their camera stuff in their downstairs bedrooms, and go into Mr. Ávila’s room to chat with him about what all they did at the theater that evening. They say goodnight and go up to their pallet in the attic.

“Oskar, do you think it was an infected person following us?”

"It’s possible, Eli, but just the smell doesn’t prove anything."

"Yeah, but we noticed it after the wind shifted, blowing from the direction we just came from."

"So?"

"So I don't remember stumbling over any cadavers after we left the theater."

"Right. Good thinking. Logical. But it still might have been something else."

"Probably was, Oskar, but it doesn't feel right. Anyway, I don't want to go back out tonight."

"I'm good with that."

Eli's feeling of unease persists, but they cuddle and chat about how full their nights are – racquetball, classes, and hanging out at the theater. They agree that life is good for Oskar and little Eli.

But whenever Eli thinks Oskar wants to talk about Ingrid, she finds ways to sidetrack him. If Oskar talks about how he feels, it might start Eli talking about how she feels, and that would just complicate something that’s really simple. Ingrid is just good at boy-girl games, she thinks, like how she looks at Oskar and how she acts like everything he says is really smart or really funny.

Similar to keeping a racquetball volley going when it’s her serve, Eli keeps the initiative by talking about Ingrid instead letting Oskar talk about her. She says how much fun it is helping Ingrid learn her lines and how glad she is that Denise asked her to be Ingrid’s understudy for the role of Fairy. When there is a lull and Oskar opens his mouth again, Eli keeps the volley going by asking how it’s going for him as Edvin’s understudy for the Puck role.

When she runs out of ways to redirect the conversation, she tells Oskar she’d like to read. She takes her Winnie the Pooh book from her backpack, Oskar takes out his big volume of plays, and they both read until the sun is ready to break the horizon, when they close their eyes and slip quickly into dreamless sleep.

Eli doesn’t purr.

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One on One

Denise goes over to where Eli is sitting by herself and pulls a chair close.

“Eli, I’m starting to see that Oskar’s attention to Ingrid bothers you.”

Eli looks down and waits to hear more.

“I know you’re cousins, but I think you're much closer than that.”

Eli raises her head and studies Denise’s face.

“I want you to know how much I admire how you’re playing this.”

“Really? Thank you, Denise. Er, like...”

“Like your little smile when you pointed out how pretty Ingrid is. Men are easy, aren’t they? You knew it would get John’s sympathy.”

“It’s men? I guess I sort of know that. I mean, I know it works with Oskar.”

“You’re still learning, Sweetie,” Denise says with a laugh. “But you overplayed your hand when you said you wondered if Maja would like to play Titania. Look up the word ingenuous sometime. It’s a good technique, especially with your cute face, but don't overuse it.”

Ingenuous. Thanks, Denise, I will,” and for an instant, Eli remembers the scene with the hospital receptionist when she was looking for Håkan.

“Okay," Denise continues. "Tell me what you see.”

“Well, it’s like one play inside of another play. On the outside, it's me in a fight with Ingrid to see who ends up with the little changeling boy, like Titania and Oberon are doing in the play.”

Denise stares at Eli. “You see it that way?”

Eli nods. “Don’t get me wrong, Denise. It's a play, see? It's not really a fight. I’m really jealous, but even if I do feel like wringing Ingrid’s neck, I know Oskar and Eli are forever. Oskar set me as a seal upon his heart. Even if he gets like totally crazy over Ingrid, it’s not like what we’ve got.”

Denise silently finishes the line from the well-known poem – for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave.

"But Sweetie, I don't get how jealous you are and still say you're sure of Oskar's feelings."

"I don't know how to say it, but it's like a rock. Next to that, what he's doing with Ingrid is silly. Anyway, I can’t think of anything that would change how Oskar feels about Ingrid or how jealous I am, so I'm doing it this way.”

“I guess people underestimate you, don’t they?”

“Not that I know of. What I’m doing, it’s like I’m not even doing anything. It’s jealousy making it happen, and jealousy is a new feeling for me. I only ever felt it once before, for just a flash when Oskar teased me about picking up babes. But I’d say learning Shakespeare is helping me with the sneaky stuff. I never thought much about being sneaky before this. I’m not even used to making plans.”

"You mean, child, that you’re deeper than even you know. I love how the theater can show a person so much about herself. But look – Everybody sees how Ingrid has got her hooks into Oskar. They all just think it’s cute, but I know Oskar is in for it because I've seen Ingrid in action before. He wouldn't be the first boy she left with a broken heart. But now I get how much it could hurt you, too.”

Denise sees that Eli's lower lip begins to tremble. She takes Eli’s hands and says, "You'll be okay. As much as I can, I’ll work with you to keep Oskar busy and to give Ingrid things other than Oskar to think about.”

Instead of crying, Eli’s eyes just get misty, and she hugs Denise. “I love you,” she says, and she means it.

"You poor thing, you don't have anyone to talk to about this, do you?"

"No, I really don't. But if I did, what would I even say?"

"Well, aren't you mad at Oskar? I mean, at least a little?"

"I'm not sure. I was mad at Ingrid, calling me Mustardseed because she's bigger than me. Now I'm just mad at her for taking up Oskar's time, like getting between us every chance she gets. But nah, Oskar doesn't think he's doing anything wrong, so it's hard to be mad at him. And I'm mainly jealous because Ingrid's like really pretty and because Oskar likes her so much."

Denise sees that John is walking toward them. She lets go of Eli's hands, pushes her chair back, and stands up to signal the end of the chat. She reaches down to caress Eli’s cheek and, with a wink, she says, “So anything you don’t understand about the part, just ask me,” as though that’s what she and Eli had been discussing.

Gyah, Eli thinks, men are easy.

As she and John walk toward his office, John asks, "Eli's okay?"

"John, she's about the most okay person I know," and she thinks – There’s so much more I’d like to know about these strange, beautiful children. Are the kids really cousins or just "cousins"? What makes Eli so confident of her place with Oskar?

But she keeps these and other question to herself. She reflects on how her English reserve about personal matters fits in well with Swedish respect for privacy.

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Footsteps

October brings a light, very rare early frost, which adds a magical touch as well as a delicious eeriness to their walk home from the theater. After a while, Eli lowers her voice so it’s as soft and as quiet as a breeze. "Oskar, someone is following us, matching us step-for-step."

"I hear it, too," Oskar murmurs, "but I thought it was like an echo."

"It's not though, is it?" Eli asks.

"No."

"On three, let's stop. One, two, three."

They hear two additional footsteps. In a moment they hear a distant, almost inaudible laugh. The footsteps start again, but now they are rapidly moving away. The kids resume walking and say nothing about it to Mr. Ávila when they get home. Once in the attic, they tune their ears and listen intently. They hear nothing out of the ordinary, but they don't go back out that night to roam.

During the following days, Eli reminds Oskar to stay alert when they're out, but they don't hear the sound of footsteps again, and the necrotic odor from before doesn't return.

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Waking Up

Oskar, Ingrid, and Eli are sitting together talking. Mostly Ingrid is talking about Ingrid. Oskar and Ingrid are facing each other, knees almost touching, and Eli is sitting to the side. She has given up trying to get in a word here and there. Oskar's back is to the door. He hears it open and notices that Ingrid has stopped talking and is looking past him. She jumps up and squeals Viktor! as she runs toward the door. A tall boy of about 16 has come in with two young children.

"Here are two fairies for you, Denise!" Viktor calls out. "Back in a bit!"

He gives the children a little shove toward Denise, who holds out her arms for them as they go running to her.

Ingrid grabs Viktor's hands and spins around with him. They leave without a glance at Oskar, who has turned and sits staring after them.

Oskar and Eli sit in silence until Eli says, "Let's go meet the two new fairies." She takes Oskar's hand and leads him to where Denise is fussing over them. Oskar is silent as Eli says hello to the children and tells them pretty they are.

Denise observed the scene with Ingrid and Viktor and notes Oskar's silence. "Oskar, would you start picking up while Eli sweeps? After that, why don't you two call it a night?"

"Okay," Eli says, and goes to the back of the hall to get the push broom while Oskar half-heartedly starts collecting paper cups and other trash.

When the theater looks okay, they say goodnight to Denise. Eli holds Oskar's hand as they walk home. Neither of them speaks. Once there, they go in to say good night to Mr. Ávila.

"How did it go?" he asks.

"It went okay," Eli answers, and Oskar just adds, "Mm."

Mr. Ávila thinks – They’re home early, and they’re unusually quiet. I hope everything is okay.

They go upstairs to the darkroom and sit side-by-side on their pallet.

"Oskar, I don't know what you're feeling, but what I saw Ingrid do wasn't very nice."

Oskar reflexively opens his mouth to defend Ingrid, thinks better of it, and just says "Mm" again.

They sit on their pallet, in silence except for Oskar’s occasional sigh. He sighs a last time and says, "I feel stupid, Eli. I feel like a dumb kid. I mean, did everybody but me know Ingrid has a boyfriend?"

"I can't say, but I didn't know. Oskar, look, you're not stupid, and you're not a dumb kid, but it's okay if you feel that way."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"I know," she says and lies back on the pallet. After a minute, Oskar lies on his back beside her, and they hold hands without talking. He’s so quiet as they lie in the darkness that the only way she knows he’s crying is from the snuffling sound he makes from time to time.

When they no longer hear Mr. Ávila moving around downstairs, Eli sits up and says, "Put on your sweats."

"Eli, I don't..."

"Do it."

They pull on their black sweats and move as a single shadow toward Malmö and Old Town.

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A Lesson

As they walk to the theater the following evening, Oskar says, "Eli, I'm sort of over what happened last night with Ingrid. Now I'm just afraid everybody will laugh at me."

Eli responds, "But Oskar, everybody laughs at you anyway," and she takes off running.

"You..." Oscar says, and takes off after her. She lets him catch her as they get to the theater door. "Kidding, I'm kidding."

"Yeah, I know," Oskar says. "Let's go in and get it over with."

Ingrid is on her hands and knees cutting out material from patterns her aunt made, and her aunt is applying a few stitches to costumes she sewed on her machine at home.

"Hi Oskar! Hi Peeblossom!" Ingrid calls out and waves, then goes back to her work.

Denise is in John's office reading something and doesn't spot them right away. When she does, she smiles and waves. John is on the stage talking to two members of the troupe who are painting scenes on plywood. As the kids continue toward the back of the hall, a couple of actors look up from their scripts and nod.

"Eli, this is weird, like last night didn't happen. I thought...never mind. I guess I'm not at the center of everybody's world after all."

"Guess not," Eli says, but she thinks – Oh but you have been, Oskar. You just don’t know what good actors Denise and I are.

Edvin spots them and waves. "Hey Oskar, when we can find space on the freakin' stage, I want to walk through my moves while I'm saying my lines."

When Ingrid takes time from cutting out material, she and Eli play with the little fairies, who are waiting to be measured for their costumes.

The show must go on, which means business as usual. Show business as usual. Neither Oskar’s hurt feelings nor Eli’s bruised heart changes the course of the production in the slightest way.

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Rakel

A few days after Ingrid shows her true feelings – that is, no special feelings at all for Oskar – the kids are tidying up the backstage area when a tall, pale young woman steps out of the shadows. "I did not introduce myself when we first met, Eli. My name is Rakel."

"I know who you are," Eli says in a low, even voice.

"Are you surprised that I know your name? And Oskar's?”

“No,” Eli answers. “I’ve been expecting you."

“How prescient of you,” the woman says with a smirk.

Eli hasn’t learned that word yet, but Oskar answers, “Nah, she doesn’t need to be prescient. If you don’t want people to know you’re snooping around, try bathing once in a while.”

Rakel snarls and takes a step toward Oskar. Eli moves a step to the side and prepares to attack. But Rakel stops when she hears footsteps on the other side of the curtain.

She bares her teeth and hisses, "I will come for you when I am ready." She steps back into the shadows and is gone.

One of the troupe comes through the curtains. "What's with you two? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"You can stop with the jokes about our skin condition," Oskar says. "We always look like we've seen a ghost."

"Oh, sorry. I didn't mean it to sound that way. It was more the look on your faces that I meant."

"Nah, we're okay."

The three leave the backstage together, and Eli and Oskar take seats away from the others, who are gathering their things and getting ready to call it a night.

"So that's what your intuition has been telling you," Oskar says. "When do you think she'll attack us?"

"Tonight. On the way home."

“Do we have a plan, or are we toast?”

“If she attacked us just now, we'd be history, but in the open, we can outrun her. She's strong enough to tear us in pieces, but if we can get a few steps on her...”

Oskar points to his camera, and Eli looks down at hers. She nods and smiles.

They wait until they can leave the theater with several of the troupe. When they part company, the kids walk down the middle of the street, still a ways from home.

Rakel quickly moves from the shadows and steps into the street, blocking their way. She bares her terrible teeth and attacks, but the kids are ready. They press the shutter release on their cameras at the same time. The flash startles Rakel and blinds her long enough for the kids to race around each side of her and turn on their blazing speed. They make it home nearly a half block ahead of her, where they fall into a heap on the floor of the front room, shrieking with laughter. Rakel appears moments later and glares at them through the open door.

"I will come for you and for your servant," she hisses and disappears.

"Now what?" Oskar whispers. "We got away from her, but we're prisoners."

Mr. Ávila comes into the room. He goes to the open door, looks out, and closes it. "What was that all about? And how are you…”

Eli shakes her head and puts a finger to her lips.

“…prisoners?" Mr. Ávila whispers.

She motions them to the dining room table, and in an excited but almost inaudible whisper, she fills Mr. Ávila in. Just as in Vällingby when she and Oskar revealed their nature, Mr. Ávila betrays no sign of alarm at what he hears.

"You're prisoners, certainly," Mr. Ávila whispers, "but I’m not. The daylight hours still belong to me. As long as I get back before sundown, she will have no clue as to what I'm up to."

"Professor Grigore," Eli mouths.

Mr. Ávila pantomimes making a phone call. No classes for a while.

"So what are we up against here?" he whispers.

"Someone who is too strong for even Oskar and me together."

"Right,” Oskar adds. “And we can't go out to hunt, so she has time on her side."

"We can't even go out to fight her," Eli says. "She could pick us off one at a time."

"She will have weaknesses. Can you think of what they are?" Mr. Ávila asks.

Eli answers, "She's very fast, but we’re faster."

"She's confident," Oskar whispers. "That we got away from her just now tells me she's overconfident. No Plan B."

"Right, Oskar, and she has an anger issue," Eli says. "If we make her mad enough, she could make a mistake."

Mr. Ávila says, "She can't come out during the day, so there's a limit, even if not a weakness. And I trust she can’t get into the house unless we invite her. So what will kill her?"

"Sunlight of course," Oskar says.

"A broken neck," Eli adds, "like when we twist people's heads around so they don't become infected."

"Fire?" Mr. Ávila asks.

"It would have to be a big one. She would go right through a small one."

Mr. Ávila doodles on a note pad as they talk. He draws an axe with a question mark. Eli nods. The same with a noose, and then a garrote. Mr. Ávila begins to draw stick figures in various arrangements, such as one stick figure distracting the vampire from the front while two attack from behind.

Eli objects, "The one in front would die."

Oskar takes the note pad and begins sketching. After a minute, he shows them a sketch that makes them laugh because the trick looks so childish. But who knows? It has at least a slim chance of working.

"Let's see how that might play out," Mr. Ávila suggests. They take the scenario from the top through a couple of plans, including what they would need to do if they manage to disable the vampire. Mr. Ávila begins a list of stuff they would need in each variation of the scenario. The number of items grows, but the plan becomes simpler.

"Kids," Mr. Ávila whispers, "since you can't go out to hunt, we know time is on her side, and as it stands, she can pick the time and place to attack. This scenario won't work unless we can control both."

"What, then?" Oskar asks.

"The place will have to be here, because our tools will be here," Mr. Ávila says.

"She'll know it's a setup," Oskar responds.

"But Oskar," Eli whispers, "she won’t care. She doesn't believe for one second that anything we come up with will even slow her down."

"Sounds about right," Mr. Ávila whispers. "But, Miss Eli, how do we get her to attack when we want her to?"

Eli smiles. "I think me and Oskar..."

Mr. Ávila shoots her a look.

"I mean, Oskar and I. We can handle that. She was way mad that we got away from her tonight. She pitched a fit when she got to the door and saw us laughing. And it looks like she's still mad about me getting away from her more than a hundred years ago. Poor thing can't have much of a life."

Mr. Ávila says, "Still mad after all this time? That sounds as though she's obsessed with you. That could work for us."

"So we...?" Oskar asks.

"So we make fun of her. We mock her."

"Yeah," Oskar says, "she almost went berserk at the theater when I made fun of the way she smells."

"That's what I'm thinking, Oskar. We do stuff to make her mad. When we're ready, we invite her to come in."

The idea of inviting her into the house sends a shudder through them.

"What if she won't play?" Oskar asks.

"She'll play. See, we're the only game in town. Maybe the only fun she's had for a long long time."
.

That night and the night following, Rakel appears at their windows to spy on them and to terrorize them, but the kids make faces at her and taunt her in childish ways. They stick their thumbs in their ears and wiggle their fingers at her; they make vampire fangs with their fingers; they pantomime being afraid of her – screaming and fainting in terror. Rakel’s rage grows.
.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ávila dreads what he must say to his friend when he rings him the next morning. After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. Ávila says, "Professor Grigore, something rather distressing has come up. Beyond distressing, really. A powerful vampire confronted the children last night. They outwitted her, but now we're planning for a final showdown."

"Señor Ávila, what do you need?"

"Just this – Ring me at 9:00 each morning. If I don't answer, please come and tidy up."

"But I..."

"No, my good friend. Numbers would be of no benefit. We must entice the vampire into precipitous action by offering her an easy target. More than the three of us and our simple trap would be difficult to spring."

"When will...?"

"I think we will be ready day after tomorrow. The day after that at latest, but I'll give you a report each morning when you ring me."

"I'll be out of my mind with worry, Señor Ávila."

"The children and I don't have that luxury, my dear friend. The three of us must focus as never before. And to that end, I'll ring off and await tomorrow's call from you."

The three practice the plan in an inner room where Rakel can't spy on them. They know that however many what-ifs they think of, they cannot fully account for how the vampire will react. Mr. Ávila reminds them of the lessons they learned and perfected during the last two months of racquetball – precision and accuracy can prevail over strength and speed. As Mr. Ávila pointed out to them, more times than they wanted to hear it, "Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect."

.
Into Action

At last there is nothing to do but see the plan through to the end. Just before sunset, Mr. Ávila tapes up the kids' photos of the vampire on the front windows. The kids have defaced the photos with a black marker – eyeglasses, beard, and horns – a final goad to her rage.

Mr. Ávila takes comfort from a line he once read in a fencing manual – When you are faced with a foe you cannot defeat, give him an opening and try for a simultaneous strike.

At sunset, Oskar and Eli scramble downstairs from the attic to join Mr. Ávila. They assemble in the large front room, tools and plan in place. Within minutes, Rakel shows up and stands watching them through the open front door. She has reason to be wary, but her rage has developed a mind of its own.

"You may come in," Mr. Ávila says, and steps in front of the children. The logic of combat dictates that when you are outnumbered, you attack the flank to deal with one foe at a time. But Rakel's rage has carried her beyond the reach of logic. She moves as a blur to get through Mr. Ávila to the kids. He dekes right but spins left, a step quicker than she expected. His move prevents her from using her three-inch claws to take him out in passing, and, as Mr. Ávila spins, he swings the poker at her head. Rakel spins around and, before the blow can land, she unexpectedly grabs the poker in mid stroke, blocking Mr. Ávila's furious assault, which they designed to force Rakel to take the crucial single step backward. The children take up new positions behind her. Rakel jerks the poker to get it out of Mr. Ávila's hands, but instead of resisting, he improvises a hard shove, giving Rakel the backward momentum the plan requires. The backs of Rakel's legs encounter Oscar on his hands and knees behind her. The oldest playground trick in the book sends her sprawling on her back. Rakel springs up to regain her footing, but her upward trajectory meets the downward trajectory of Eli's axe, which crushes Rakel's throat and vertebrae, severing her spinal cord and transforming the vampire into a mindless revenant. A second blow severs Rakel's head completely.

The three gather their materials, including strong, ship-quality hemp rope. The revenant attempts to get up, but Mr. Ávila secures the thrashing feet, and the kids struggle to secure the powerful, grasping hands while avoiding the claws. Without a mind to direct them, the arms flail and the hands clutch blindly, but once the ropes are in place, the revenant can do nothing but writhe.

Rakel's severed head has ended up a few feet from her body. Her face is contorted with rage. Her jaws snap and blood runs from her bulging eyes. Mr. Ávila unzips the mattress cover, and the kids lift the body into it, followed by Rakel's head. Mr. Ávila zips it closed, avoiding contact with the vampire's blood. They can still hear the gnashing of Rakel's rows of razor-sharp teeth as the kids lift the writhing bundle. They follow the path through their backyard to the garage, where they load the bundle into the boot of the Fiat. Mr. Ávila drives to the spot he scouted earlier, a gravel strand near the old docks where the sun will reach Rakel before waking eyes will. Eli unzips the mattress cover to expose the body, and she places the head, its face still contorted with rage, a few feet away. Mr. Ávila hands Oskar a sharpened stake, which Oskar drives with force into Rakel's skull. Using a wooden mallet, Mr. Ávila drives the stake securely into the ground while Oskar drives a second stake into Rakel’s chest. Mr. Ávila pounds the second stake. Rakel will not rise – not as a vampire, and not as a revenant.

On the way to the car, Mr. Ávila becomes aware of how hard he is shaking. He can barely drive home in the aftermath of the powerful rush of adrenaline that permitted him to act decisively and to perform with accuracy and precision in a fight that, by all rights, should have resulted in the end of their happy little family.
.

When the sun's rays strike the gravel beach, the body and head that were the vampire Rakel burn furiously, leaving nothing but two mounds of fine ash, which a fresh breeze from the Öresund swirls and slowly scatters.

.
Coffee?

Mr. Ávila answers the phone on the third ring.

"Coffee, Professor Grigore?"

"My God! You mean...?"

"Yes, the vampire Rakel is no more."

"And you're..."

"...Okay. The children and I are unharmed."

"Jesus Joseph and Mary! I'm sitting in my kitchen shaking with relief and you announce the outcome with an invitation to coffee? You are a cool one."

"Heh heh...and you are clearly excited by the news – uncharacteristically loquacious."

"Forget that. And forget ten o'clock – I'll be there as quickly as my Volvo will take me!"

"Great! Over coffee, you're going to hear a remarkable tale."

Mr. Ávila closes his eyes and smiles as he thinks about Oskar and Eli sleeping safely on their pallet in the attic darkroom. Probably a tangle of arms and legs, he thinks. Those two are so close.

Mr. Ávila puts on his heavy rubber gloves and goes back to scrubbing the stains on the floor of the front room. When Professor Grigore arrives and lets himself in, Mr. Ávila stands up and says, "Just watch your step." He caps the bottle of chlorine beach, puts the scrub brush in the bucket of water, and removes his gloves. "We don't have any idea how long vampire blood is infectious."

Setting aside their usual Old World reserve, Professor Grigore wraps his arms around his friend in a bear hug. He can only manage, "My dear Señor Ávila!"

Surveying the cleanup equipment, he exclaims, "You killed the vampire right here? You invited her in?"

"Indeed. Oskar and Eli came up with a bold plan, and we executed it flawlessly."

They move into the dining room. Professor Grigore can't stop smiling and shaking his head as Mr. Ávila calmly serves coffee – their usual morning ritual. He seats himself at the table and talks the professor through each step, from the backstage encounter at the little theater to the conclusion at the gravel beach.

"It surely occurred to you that Rakel was almost certainly the serial killer I was investigating three years ago."

"Yes, that is our fondest hope. I dread to think that there could be another such evil presence haunting Scania."

Professor Grigore makes Mr. Ávila go over the details again and again, and he seems to have an endless number of questions – so many that Mr. Ávila has to brew a second pot of coffee before the professor is satisfied that he can picture and understand everything that happened. He seems particularly pleased to see a photograph of the vampire, even with the glasses, beard, and horns drawn crudely with a black marker.

"And these are the hideous teeth of a vampire. Surprisingly different from the almost discreet fangs of popular depiction. I see now how the lacerations were made in the Lund victims I examined."

"It occurs to me, Professor Grigore, that it's a good thing I saw the photos before I encountered the real thing. It steeled me as to what to expect."

"I can see that it could have been unnerving! Er, that means you've never seen the children exhibit any such transformation."

"No I haven't, nor do I wish to!" Mr. Ávila says and shudders at the thought of the beautiful children exhibiting such hideous teeth and claws.

"Señor Ávila, the children will have to destroy these prints as well as the negatives. I can imagine the frisson that would run through the ranks of believers should these become known."

"Oh, you mean like fans of the horror genre!"

"Yes, and meanwhile in the real world, one wonders when the kids will be settled down enough to resume their classes."

"And the theater. We can let them talk about how they feel this evening. I would bet that being twelve carries with it a good dose of resilience.".

.
Treading the Boards

And that proves to be the case as the children return quickly to their studies while growing in their roles as understudies.

But in the end, Edvin doesn't fall off the stage and break his leg, and Tilde doesn't get the role of Anna. A member of the Royal Dramaten wants to take a break from chilly Stockholm, so she swoops in and snatches the role from her. Tilde comes running back to the Limhamn Players and hastily prepares to play Titania. Everything returns to status quo ante bellum – Astrid and Maja play Hermia and Helena; Ingrid and Edvin play Fairy and Puck; and the kids play Moth and Peaseblossom.

From the dress rehearsal straight through to the last show, only shy or modest actors use the tiny dressing room to change costumes for their double and sometimes triple roles. Denise makes Oskar and Eli use John's office to put on their costumes, separate from everyone else. More than one actor, not unlike the Rev. Mr. Dodgson, derives pleasure in seeing children in a state of dishabille.

Not especially surprising, Ingrid and Tilde, the drop-dead beauties of the cast, are completely indifferent as to who sees their drawers and everything else when they change into costume. But throughout the play’s run, it’s eyes-off for Oskar. Denise and Eli make sure he’s looking elsewhere. Denise thinks – I wish I could exert the same control over where John chooses to point his peepers.

Oskar and Eli are lovely in the fairy costumes Ingrid and her aunt made for them. It turns out that there are more speaking parts for fairies than there are fairies. Ingrid gets to sing First Fairy's song, with Oskar and Eli joining her as Chorus. Denise coaches them on how to lift their soft palates, sing with their teeth showing, and project their voices in an arc that reaches the back wall.

John assigns lines to Oskar and Eli as needed, such as "Hail!" as Second and Third Fairy. He drops Fourth Fairy before the dress rehearsal because the other fairies are too young to know when to say "Hail!" on cue. Oskar and Eli get to play Cobweb and Mustardseed as well as Moth and Peaseblossom by ducking behind each other and rotating who's in front, which achieves the comic effect that John hopes for – a nudge and a wink at the audience, who get that it's okay for an amateur theater to be short of players.

The play runs for four weeks. Of course, Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore suspend the classes at home. They attend several performances, including the premiere and the final one, beaming whenever Oskar and Eli are on stage.

The first two shows have an element of humor and pandemonium because the little fairies are likely to run around on the stage at the wrong times or run to their parents, who are seated on the first row. This isn't children's theater, where even the youngest child knows where to go. But kids are beyond John's directorial experience. He complains to Denise, "It's like herding cats!" But by the second show, John finds a volunteer child-wrangler who devotes her full attention to the younger children, and soon things settle down. Newer cast members, Oskar and Eli among them, get over opening-night jitters and start having fun with their roles.

The show gets good reviews by the Malmö entertainment press and a nod in the Day's News. Ingrid gets good marks for the quality of her voice. A local reviewer praises Edvin and Ingrid for bringing so much spirit and fun to their roles as Puck and Fairy.

The play energizes the neighborhood. Shops stay open late, and Limhamn residents support the theater with good attendance. At the end of the final performance, the audience brings the cast back again and again with a standing ovation.

As the applause ends and the audience begins putting on their coats, John takes the stage and asks them to stay for a few minutes. He and Denise have certificates for the little fairies, some of whom are already asleep on their parents' laps. Denise quickly distributes the certificates, John thanks the parents and children again from the stage, and the parents leave with their little sleepyheads.

John now makes the inevitable pitch for financial support, and the whole troupe, still in costume, run around collecting pledges and donations. Knowing that the final performance is always well attended by longtime supporters, he invites the remaining audience members to the cast party, which will present another opportunity for John to twist arms.

After the hall empties, the cast gathers on stage so Oskar and Eli can take photos, one with them in it, one not. Sadly, the cast photo with them in it “doesn’t turn out,” or so they report, thereby avoiding the creation of a forensic footprint.

.
Cast Party

Because the theater is in a neighborhood, the hour is too advanced to have a noisy cast party the night of the final performance. The next day, John and Denise open the theater for the delivery of tables, on loan from a local office supply store, and in the course of the afternoon, local shops load the tables with free or steeply discounted food, drink, and flowers. When the Limhamn Players begin showing up – sometimes singly, sometimes with a date or a partner – everything is ready. The party starts early and gets wild quick.

As the party is getting underway, Oskar and Eli are getting ready at home. They shower, wrap towels around their waists, and run down the hall to their bedrooms where Mr. Ávila said they would find a surprise. Eli squeals and Oskar lets out a whoop when they find new outfits on their beds. Eli ditches her towel and goes running to Oskar's room holding a dress, a short jacket, and white cotton underpants.

"Oskar, you didn't get any underwear?"

"Nah. Mr. Ávila knows we don't need underwear. I don't know why he got it for you. Let's see how your dress looks on you."

Eli slips her periwinkle dress over her head and turns her back for Oskar to zip it. Like the time she put on Oskar's mom's dress, she does a little spin for Oskar to admire how she looks.

"Er, Eli, didn't you feel a draft?"

"What do you mean?"

"It's a short dress. Above your knees. When you did your girl-twirl, it came up a bit higher."

"How high?"

"Well, your little butt is cute, but still..."

"Eek!" She says and pulls on her underpants.

She puts on her jacket – a light shade of fuchsia – and Oscar starts buttoning his powder rose dress shirt. He slips on his dove grey slacks and buckles his belt. As he puts on his charcoal grey jacket, Eli looks at the loafers and socks on the bed.

"Oskar, he got shoes and socks for me, too. Um..."

"Yeah. Don't think we could run very fast in them..."

"...or climb buildings," Eli finishes.

They look at each other and shrug. Oskar puts on his sneakers and Eli goes to her room for hers. They trip lightly down the hall and spin each other around as they enter the big front room and on into the dining room to show off. Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore show their approval with broad smiles.

"So, kids," Mr. Ávila says, "what about the shoes?"

"Um..."

"Er..."

"Okay, I get it," Mr. Ávila says. "Well, you look wonderful with the sneakers, don't they Professor Grigore?"

"They take my breath away."

"Okay. Run get your hairbrushes. Professor Grigore and I will fix your hair."

When the children leave the room, Professor Grigore says, "Señor Ávila, you were concerned about their pallor, but I must say, the colors you chose compliment it nicely."

The grownups are dressed for the party, too – Professor Grigore in khaki slacks and a double-breasted navy blazer with brass buttons; Mr. Ávila in a brown three-piece suit, a little old fashioned, but it shows off his trim waist, which racquetball made possible. It's been a long time since he's been able to button the vest.
.

By the time they arrive at the theater, the party has already become noisy. But when the kids make their entrance, the random sounds of excited voices change to a long "Ahhh," and there is even scattered applause. It is a grand entrance, as they say in the business.

For a little while, the troupe and special guests from the night before act as though the kids were the stars of the show. When questions come from people they don't know, they hand them off to Mr. Ávila, who is always unobtrusively nearby.

Professor Grigore has been secretly beside himself in anticipation of seeing Sassa again, but it is anticipation with a deep undercurrent of dread. He imagines that she will be with a date, perhaps even a boyfriend, but to his relief, Sassa makes a beeline for him as soon as she spots him.

“Hey, Constantin.”

“Good evening, Sassa. May I say? You are very nicely turned out tonight.” Sassa finds his old-fashioned way of talking and his formal bearing to be particularly alluring. His blush when they first met told her all she needs to know about how attractive he finds her.

"I'm on chaperone duty for Ingrid and Viktor, but that means we can spend as much time together as we want to, as long as I keep an eye on my wards. Mainly, I have to make sure they are not drinking from the wrong punch bowl."

Sassa was sure that the professor wouldn’t be bringing a date either. While the play was running, she was too busy helping with costume changes and emergency repairs to say much more than hi, although she found an opportunity to ask him his first name. Now she would like to find out more, but the party is too noisy for any but the most basic conversation. She nevertheless takes this opportunity to give him her phone number and to invite him to ring her sometime, and she punctuates her words with body language – standing very close and slipping her arm under his.

In the course of the evening, an actor already in his cups spends too much time talking to Oskar, casually draping his arm across Oskar's shoulders and flattering him with charming but sometimes slurred words. Oskar is uncomfortable with such intimate attention, but he's too young and too well-mannered to know how to extricate himself. Denise points it out to John, who calls a cab and sends the actor home, more because the actor is too tipsy too early in the evening than because of his behavior, but still...

Most of the attention Oskar and Eli get seems sincere. The Limhamn Players make them feel as though they contributed a lot to the theater and to the play. They are beautiful, after all, and that counts for a lot in show business.

Little "Pissblossom" makes peace with Ingrid by telling her how much she enjoyed working with her as her understudy and being together on stage. Ingrid is accustomed to such attention, and she is blithely unaware that there is anything to make peace about.

Even though Tilde arrives with a date, she spends too much time talking to John.

Denise notices that the kids don’t eat, although there is plenty of food. She imagines they are on a special diet because of their skin condition. Seeing Eli in a dress, she notices her narrow hips and her large, strong hands. As pretty as Eli is, Denise realizes that she could pass as a boy – that is, with shorter hair and boys' clothes – but it's just a thought, and she doesn't dwell on it.

As the drink flows, the noise grows from merely loud to scary loud. Mr. Ávila catches Professor Grigore’s eye and gestures with his head toward the door. They practically have to shout as they say goodnight to John and Denise, drag the kids out, and take them home to Järavallsgatan. On the way, Eli realizes why she doesn't feel close to any of the actors – They are always acting the way they think actors are supposed to act. There’s a distance – actors playing themselves rather than being themselves, proffering their puns and quips, using their wit to verbally joust and to get one up on each other. That doesn't bother witty Oskar. It's his element, in a way.

Once they arrive at the house, Oskar and Eli hang their new outfits in their downstairs closets and put on their sweats. The grownups keep up with the wildly excited kids as long as they can, but it grows so late that Mr. Ávila suggests to Professor Grigore that he spend the night in one of the kids' bedrooms. When Oskar and Eli finally say goodnight and go up to their pallet in the attic, they continue talking about the theater, the play, and the cast party.

As their excitement begins to wind down, Eli says, “Oskar, didn't you think it was funny that Mr. Ávila bought me a dress and girl’s underpants?”

“Yeah, that was pretty funny.”

“But did I look okay?”

“Not just okay! Try beautiful!

“I did? I looked beautiful? Prettier than Ingrid?”

“Prettier than anyone.”

“You looked beautiful too, Oskar. But Oskar, until tonight I hadn’t thought about something – We never talked to Mr. Ávila about my gender.”

“So?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to you, right? I mean, like you said?”

“It matters to me that you’re who I want to be with.”

“But you’re a boy, and Ingrid…”

Oskar stops Eli’s words by mashing his lips against hers, only the second time their lips have touched – not since Blackeberg, almost two years ago.

Eli thinks – Yep, men are easy.

Oskar holds Eli in a loving embrace, and they kiss by mashing their lips against each other’s cheeks until dawn rounds their magical evening with a sleep.
.

Meanwhile, after everyone leaves the theater and goes home – although, as it is with cast parties the world over, not necessarily their own homes – John and Denise turn out the lights and lock up. The theater looks like a circus parade passed through it, but it will keep until they and the cleanup volunteers show up tomorrow – most of them not before afternoon, no doubt.

Denise takes John's arm, and, as they walk to their car, she thinks – Now, how do I keep Tilde away from John? I need to take some tips from little Eli!

She thinks of one of Lysander’s lines from the play – The course of true love never did run smooth.

And of Puck’s – Lord, what fools these mortals be!

END OF BOOK 1

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