Set Me as a Seal upon Your Heart Part 6

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BOOK 2
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SET ME AS A SEAL UPON YOUR HEART PART 6
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Sassa

With the theater shut down for the holidays, the Limhamn Players go their separate ways to spend time with their families and to prepare for the Christmas festivities, the highlight of Malmö's year.

Oskar and Eli are asleep in a tangle of arms and legs on their pallet in the attic while Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore enjoy their morning coffee at the dining room table.

Mr. Ávila observes, "It's good that schools take a break this time of year."

"True, Señor Ávila, but the children's schoolwork has been on hiatus since the play opened in November."

"And yet, September and October were academically intense when they waded into Shakespeare and their roles as understudy for Puck and Fairy."

"No, you are right,” Professor Grigore says. “Even though we suspended classes when the play opened, their learning didn't stop. I think by the final performance, they had much of the play by heart."

“I wouldn't be surprised. Learning Shakespeare from the inside out put a spin on their English studies. But we could take a look at what will keep their minds engaged during the holidays, make adjustments for now, and then get up to speed again in January."

Mr. Ávila gets up to refill their cups. When he sits down again, he has a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“Speaking of the play, Professor Grigore, I noticed you and that nice-looking young seamstress were rather cozy during the cast party.”

“Well, um, she gave me her telephone number. Sassa. Ingrid’s aunt.”

“Ingrid?”

“The young girl who played Fairy.”

“Oh, right. When we dropped by the theater the first time, they were working on costumes. As I recall, the young woman – Sassa? – clung to you while Denise introduced us to everyone.”

“I would not say clung to me," Professor Grigore says, a little sharply. "I mean, she took my arm. But, yes, that is Sassa.”

“Professor Grigore, I’m being jokey."

"I know that, Señor Ávila. I am just on edge."

"So, you rang her and…”

“No! I didn't ring her! That is what has me on edge. You see, it is a bit tricky because of the children.”

“Hm. Yes, it could be complicated. But you’ll handle it.”

“I am not at all confident of that, Señor Ávila. She knows the children so well. They are certain to be the subject of conversation.”

Mr. Ávila laughs. “You know this is the payoff for getting involved with Oskar and Miss Eli, don’t you?”

“Payoff?”

“Yes, just as it is for me. I haven’t been interested in such companionship since before I left Barcelona. But that’s changing.”

Professor Grigore raises an eyebrow.

“Yes. You see, I always make loan payments in person so I can chat with Edina, a bank manager there. But I don’t see how I can ask her out. I mean, how can I explain not inviting her here sometime? At least you don’t have to keep your digs under the radar."

"But do you anticipate that I would want to bring Sassa here?”

“Or that she’ll suggest it. I imagine she’ll continue to set the agenda for the courtship. In anticipation of that eventuality, I’ll review the family rules with the kids.”

“Courtship. You are way ahead of me. Is that what it is, a courtship?”

"Sounds like. Anyway, I imagine you may want some time away from us.”

"Well, um, if things were to work out, do you want to handle the reduced teaching load during Christmas?"

"Sure. I could take over your classes and mostly concentrate on English and Swedish Lit. Especially the latter. My rather lame Swedish is getting a boost, too, you know."

"Perhaps you could free up some time through a greater use of videos.”

“Good idea. The children could watch travelogues and historically accurate films in lieu of geography and history lectures. That would make Miss Eli happy.”

“Okay, my dear friend, but do not expect me to stray far. I look forward to the four of us enjoying Christmas activities, such as the Yule markets in Malmö and Copenhagen."

Or the five of us, Mr. Ávila thinks.

"You know, Professor Grigore, this may be the first time Miss Eli has gotten Christmas presents. I wonder what she and Oskar would like."

"Hm. We can keep an eye out for what catches their attention at the Yule markets. I imagine they are too old for toys, but there will be tons of other stuff."

Professor Grigore grows quiet and stares into his cup. After a moment, he says, "You realize, Señor Ávila, this talk about Sassa may be much ado about nothing. I have not made up my mind to ring her. I cannot think of what she might see in me. I'm quite a bit older than she is."

"You haven't made up your mind, but I would venture that your heart has already made its decision."

"Yes, my heart decided the night she took my arm at the theater. But what if she is just playing with me? Like those girls when I was in college. You know, as a joke."

"You're a scientist. Occam's razor, Professor Grigore."

"I do not see that Occam applies."

"Either Occam or the KISS principle. Same thing – Keep it simple. Why not just act as though you’re attracted to each other, without all the what-ifs?"

"It's just..."

"It's just that the lovely girl swept you off your feet, and you're afraid it isn't real. Or that you’ll screw it up."

"As I observed once before, you are like Eli – very intuitive – whereas I am trying to be logical."

"But logic is no stronger than the premise upon which it rests, and your premises are chimeras arising from past embarrassments or from your present trepidation. Anyway, the heart has a mind of its own, and it is impervious to logic, common sense, and the opinion of others. So, what are you going to do?"

"Finish my coffee, drive back to my place, and ring her?"

"Yes. And then ring me. I'll be as anxious as you were during the curious incident of the vampire Rakel."

"Ha! An apt comparison. It feels nearly that scary to me. Indeed, I shall ring you afterward. That is, if she answers her phone. I mean, if she is at home when I ring her. Or if…"

Ya basta with the ifs!” Mr. Ávila barks, and the two friends enjoy a hearty laugh.

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Coffee Shop

Professor Grigore opens his apartment door, walks briskly and with resolve to his phone, and stares at it.

"Sassa is probably not even, um...I mean, I wonder if she's..."

"This won't do. I'm acting like a child."

Now he stares at the number Sassa wrote down for him. He notices that he's starting to sweat.

"I'm not going to feel any better just standing here. I'm calling her and be damned."

He dials the number. After the third ring he says, "Yes, just as I..."

But Sassa picks up and says, "Creations. How may I help you?"

"Sassa, hello, it's..." He gets a catch in his throat. "...it's Constantin."

"Hey, Constantin! I'm so glad you rang me! It's time for me to take a break. Want to meet somewhere? There's a coffee shop near my studio in Old Town."

"Well, I'm not far from Old Town."

"Then you know the underground parking garage. The coffee shop is a short walk."

She gives him the street address, and Professor Grigore says, "Wonderful, Sassa, I'll...I'll see you in a little while."

"Great!" she says, and rings off.

As Professor Grigore puts down the receiver, he notices that his hand is trembling. He takes a few slow breaths. He acknowledges that he's trembling for fear that he won't know what to do or say when he sees her. But he also knows he's trembling in anticipation of just being with Sassa again, no matter how it turns out.

He remembers to ring Mr. Ávila.

"Señor Ávila, thank you. I'm meeting Sassa for coffee in a little while. I do not know whether I would have phoned her had you not exposed my doubts for what they are."

"That's wonderful, Professor Grigore. I look forward to another update after your rendezvous."
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Professor Grigore enters the crowded coffee shop, and Sassa greets him by taking his hands in hers, rising up on her toes, and lightly brushing his cheek with the corner of her mouth.

“You look lovely, my dear,” he says, which seems a polite way to greet her, but Sassa is quick. She smiles and asks, “Am I, Constantin? Am I your dear?”

Professor Grigore looks down and blushes scarlet.

Sassa thinks – Good answer.

“Sassa, you cannot know how dear you are to me. I…should I have not said that?”

“Constantin, your blush answered for you.”

“But I am out of my depth, Sassa. I don’t know how to proceed.”

“Like this," she says. She takes Professor Grigore’s hand and leads him to the line at the order counter.

"The cast party was so loud we couldn’t really talk, but now you can tell me what you do in Malmö."

“My university lent me to the Malmö Police Department to help with a case, and I managed to find ways to stay.”

“Impressive. Are you still helping the police?"

“Only when they get in a jam.”

Chatting helps Professor Grigore to calm down. He pays and they take their coffee to the table, where he seats her. It pleases Sassa that others in the coffee shop – especially the regulars who know her – notice his effortless, elegant manners.

“Then you are…what?”

“A forensic scientist, mostly of the academic variety, but a criminal investigator at times.”

"Are you going to keep finding ways to stay in Malmö?"

"Yes. I have no plans to return to Bucharest. I have become a Swedish citizen, and living in Malmö suits me.”

Sassa leans close to him and lays her hand on his. "You are such a dear man, Constantin."

“Am I?”

“You and – Magister? Señor? – Ávila have a gentle way with Oskar and Eli, and they obviously think the world of you.”

"Were it not for the children, Sassa, I should not have met Señor Ávila. He is my only close friend."

"In Malmö?"

"Anywhere. Ever."

"And now me," she says, leaning still closer.

They are too wrapped up in each other to notice that people at nearby tables are watching them and smiling.

"Yes, and now you, Sassa. Señor Ávila and the children will be leaving Malmö in the spring. I had anticipated taking up my normal routine – pursuing my hobby of photography and being part of an occasional police investigation. But now..."

Sassa blushes with pleasure.

Realizing the tables are too close for intimate conversation, Sassa suggests they walk to the nearby park in the old cemetery. He holds her jacket as she slips it on, and they leave without their untouched and forgotten coffee, still oblivious to the smiles of the people sitting near them.

Sassa takes Professor Grigore's arm. As they stroll they talk about their first impressions. Sassa says he won her heart by his looks, his formal bearing, and his shy manner.

"I saw strength, and I also saw something gentle and sweet-natured."

"Sassa, when you took my arm that night, it felt so natural. I experienced an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, as though we had always been together. Since then I have thrilled each time I caught a glimpse of you or we exchanged a few words. My feelings have swung wildly from elation to despair – elation in the hope that my feelings could be reciprocated, and despair that they probably would not be."

"And my feelings," she says, "are just this – joy that I met you and that you care for me. There is no room in my heart for doubt."

"Then, are we...is this...?"

"...love at first sight? Yes, Constantin, but something more. I’ve worked hard to lay a foundation for the rest of my life. As soon as I saw you, I knew you were the one I would start that life with. It isn't just love at first sight..."

Professor Grigore waits.

"... it's Life at first sight."

They find a quiet bench in the popular park. Professor Grigore confesses how awkward he feels around women, and he talks about his discouraging early experiences with dating.

"Constantin, my own relationships were completely normal, but that became a problem. My last boyfriend liked to go out a lot, and he resented nights I devoted to making dresses. He considered sewing to be a domestic chore, like cooking and cleaning."

Professor Grigore’s face grows pale for a moment. He’s not at all sure he wants to hear about anyone with whom Sassa has been intimate.

“But you see, sewing is in my blood. I learned it from my sister Elise, Ingrid's mom. After I broke up with my boyfriend, I treated the absence of a man in my life as an opportunity. With the help of my family, I opened a tiny dress shop in Old Limhamn. It wasn't long before I started designing and making costumes for the Limhamn Players for just the cost of the material. But word got around, and I was able to charge other performing groups a good rate. With that income and my dress sales, I opened a larger shop in Malmö, and the business took off. After a couple of more years, I moved the business to where it is now. I design gowns for private clients, and my line of dresses is in Malmö department stores."

"Sassa, I get it that you were busy, but you weren't attracted to anyone?"

"No, although once the business became reasonably successful, I thought I'd enjoy going out again. But I became so involved in fashion design that almost every moment of my day was filled with women – my staff and my clients. The few men I met – mainly buyers for department stores – were more interested in women's clothing than in women. But, for whatever reason – lack of opportunity, too busy – I haven't gone out with anyone since the breakup."

"Fate, Kismet, Karma – without it, I would have no chance, would I? You would be building a life with someone else."

"But as we see, Constantin, Life and Fate made sure we would be together."

After a pause, Professor Grigore says, "Sassa, this is the first time I have not been afraid to talk to an attractive woman. At the coffee shop, I...I was terrified that I would make a mistake, that I would appear foolish to you. Or that your feelings for me were not as mine are for you."

She snuggles close to him.

"I'm not afraid, Sassa. I feel as though I have known you my whole life. Yes – Life at first sight."

There is a lull, and Sassa says, "My studio is on the same street as the coffee shop. Will you walk with me?"

As they retrace their route, Professor Grigore’s heart soars when she holds his hand rather than taking this arm.

"Will you have dinner with me this evening?" she asks, and without pausing for his answer, "What do you like to eat?"

"Oh, you know, kielbasa, goulash, borscht, pirozhkis..."

Sassa's opens her mouth and stares at him.

Professor Grigore laughs. "I am pulling your leg. I shall eat anything you place before me."

Sassa laughs, too. "Goulash and borscht, is it? I will have my revenge for that trick, and you will never see it coming," she says and squeezes his hand.

As they pause in front of her studio, Professor Grigore looks up at a large sign that says "Creations" and, below it, "Designs by Sassa." At a window above the sign, faces appear and quickly disappear. When they enter the well-appointed showroom, Sassa's receptionist jumps up from her desk and runs to them. Looking Professor Grigore up and down, she says, "So this is Constantin! Hang on a sec."

"Freja, what are you..." But her receptionist is already halfway up the stairs. In an instant, sewing machines fall silent and Sassa's staff comes trooping down and crowds around the couple.

"Well done, Sassa!"

"Even handsomer than you said."

"You two look so good together!"

Sassa looks bewildered and asks, "What is this?"

"All you've talked about for two months is Constantin this and Constantin that."

"Yeah, we were afraid you would perish if he didn't ring you."

Professor Grigore feels a warm glow at hearing he's been the topic of such speculation.

"So now what happens?" one of her staff asks.

"So now what happens is we all get back to work," Sassa says, blushing for the second time. At that moment, it occurs to her that she will soon have more reason to blush, and her face grows even redder.

Sassa recovers her composure and squeezes Professor Grigore’s arm. She gives him directions to her apartment and tells him what time to come.

As they linger outside her studio, he laughs and asks, "Sassa, would you have perished had I not rung you?"

"No, you dear man. When I said there's no room in my heart for doubt, it's because I knew we would be together. I didn't worry about how it would happen."

They are reluctant to bring the interlude to an end, but at last they hug goodbye.

As he walks to his car, he thinks – How odd. It is a cliché, but I admit to feeling so lighthearted that it really is like walking on air.
.

As soon as he gets to his apartment, he rings Mr. Ávila.

"Señor Avila, it went well, I think. No, I mean it definitely went well. Sassa invited me to her place for dinner."

"Oh la la!"

"Er, I guess. In any case, if I do not ring you in the morning, please do not come and tidy up!"

"Ha ha! A nice reference to the Rakel episode!"

"Yes, but in this scenario, if I die, I shall die smiling."

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Señor Ávila

Professor Grigore hasn't been to the big house on Järavallsgatan for a week. He lets himself in the front door and joins Mr. Ávila at the dining room table.

Mr. Ávila pours a cup of coffee for him and says, "We've missed you, but I'm thrilled at how things are going for you and Sassa."

Professor Grigore smiles dreamily. "I cannot express to you how happy I am. And how quickly the week has passed. This is the first night Sassa and I will not be together."

Mr. Ávila's broad smile shows how much he shares his friend's happiness.

"But what do the children think about my absence?"

"I think they are puzzled by it. They are so innocent in some ways."

"I feel as though I am stealing time from them."

"Maybe they feel the same way. Miss Eli acts almost jealous that there is a woman in your life other than her."

"Well, there's a surprise. Beyond Oskar, you are the main man in her life. She obviously dotes on you."

"I know. We're like father and daughter. I guess it will sort out, but she must have a crush on you to be bothered that you're seeing Sassa. But how is it you have a night on your own?"

"Sassa has a big order to get out, so she and her staff will be working late into the evening. She even plans to press her niece, Ingrid, into service."

"Perhaps you could join me for a light dinner then. I was thinking of a tapas recipe I haven't prepared for a while – twice-breaded croquettes of mashed potatoes and manchego cheese."

"That sounds delightful, but your meals always are."

"Thank you. Afterwards, we can have a roundtable discussion when Oskar and Miss Eli get up. You'll want to know what they’ve accomplished this week."

"I look forward to it. But Señor Ávila, concerning affairs of the heart, you spoke the other day about your interest in Edina, the bank manager. You said that she is the first woman you have had feelings for since Barcelona."

Mr. Ávila goes into the kitchen to start the potatoes. He talks as he selects herbs and makes other preparations for their light dinner.

"Until Oskar and Miss Eli came into my life, I didn't have feelings for any adult that I met. At least not positive feelings."

“I also recall you saying you left Spain soon after you completed school.”

“Yes, Professor Grigore. I had to hang around after graduation until I got my teaching certificate – but, yes, as soon as I got that and secured a teaching position.”

Mr. Ávila dries his hands on a kitchen towel and sits down again.

“And you returned to renew your passport after the 1978 vote established Spain as a democracy. Does that touch on why you left so quickly after college?”

“Very much so. I helped organize some of the earliest prodemocracy student demonstrations against Franco's government, many years before national protests finally bore fruit.”

"Oh my. But since you graduated normally, I infer that you did not leave because you were in danger."

"No. I wasn't in danger. By then I was no longer involved in antifascist activities. I left because it was too painful for me to stay. I was disgusted with my fellow students as well as with Franco's tyranny."

“I wonder whether this bears on why you have remained a bachelor. Did you leave a sweetheart behind?”

“Yes, in a way, Professor Grigore, although we parted before I graduated. Our parting was not of our own volition. If you want to hear it, I don’t mind sharing the story with you."

“I would love to hear it, Señor Ávila.”

"By way of background, Barcelona was almost the last Republican bastion to fall to Franco’s forces, two years before I was born. The reprisals were severe and extensive. Tens of thousands of citizens were executed, the Catalan language was banned, and Barcelona’s schools and institutions lost their autonomous status.”

“I know something of that disaster, of course. Being from an Iron Curtain country, the Spanish Civil War finds its way into many school courses. Barcelona fell in 1939.”

“Yes, in January, and I was born two years later, almost to the day. When the city fell, many of my relatives crossed into France along with tens of thousands of others. The worst of the mass executions continued through 1944, so it was years before some of my family members were reunited. I still have an uncle in Paris. Most were in internment camps in France, and a few sought asylum in Ireland or in Argentina.”

Professor Grigore listens in respectful silence.

“My parents and grandparents stayed in Barcelona. They were professionals and therefore not part of the labor organizations whose members fought so hard for the Republic. And they had connections on the so-called Nationalist side of the conflict. Even though they supported the Republican cause, they kept a low profile. Their names never came up, so they were spared. Or if their names did come up, the Nationalist ranks contained many scions of aristocratic families."

"Aristocratic families."

"Yes. My name is Fernando Cristóbal de Reyes y Ávila.”

Mr. Ávila gets up and walks into the large front room, where he stands staring through the windows for a few minutes. He returns to the dining room and sits down.

“I enrolled in the University of Barcelona in 1959. Resistance to Franco’s government was once more on the rise, and government agents were determined to crush it. I joined a small prodemocracy student organization – one of many such groups – where I met my girlfriend.”

Professor Grigore nods.

“She was from Madrid. I was athletic and she was beautiful. But her father was one of Franco’s ministers, so enrolling in the University of Barcelona was an act of rebellion against her family. For two years we soldiered on with our comrades, printing flyers, organizing clandestine meetings, holding small hit-and-run street protests. If you want to imagine how isolated and vulnerable we were, Professor Grigore, consider that this was years before the worldwide student demonstrations of 1968.”

Professor Grigore nods again as he takes everything in.

“We were idealistic, of course, and our activities gave focus and meaning to our lives. But there were so few of us. We had to deal with threats not only from the police, but from within, from students who, for whatever reason, may have been recruited by Franco's agents. We were also vulnerable to false friends on the left, students who were recruited by local communist organizations left over from the Comintern to ensure that our goals aligned with theirs. Members of our small group who openly resisted the communists were attacked in the street and viciously beaten.”

“One day I dropped by my girlfriend's apartment and found it empty, cleaned out. There was no note. That day, our office was raided and everyone in the organization was arrested except me."

"Do the math, Professor Grigore.”

“I already have, Señor Ávila. She returned to Madrid.”

“I feel certain of it.”

“And she failed to warn your comrades, perhaps in exchange for your immunity from arrest.”

“Yes, but I would say that is the least generous scenario.”

“Well, since the math does not indicate at what point she knew of the raid, she may have had no time to warn anyone. It isn't easy to pack up and move instantly. The scenario implies that her family showed up, packed her things, and forced her to go with them.”

“Which is how I prefer to see it. I envisage that when her family came for her with no warning, she guessed what was about to happen. She may have balked until her father agreed to protect me.”

“And you never tried to…”

“No. And since I remained in school, she could easily have contacted me. I don’t know whether her family allowed her to continue her studies in Madrid, but the way things were, I imagine they sent her out of the country, possibly for her own safety. After all, she was an enemy from the government's point of view. For my part, I turned my back on people. I completed my studies and passed the exams to become certified as a teacher. I applied to school districts in any number of European countries, and I ended up as a middle-school gym teacher in Sweden.”

“But you did not get over what happened. I observe that you have not spoken her name.”

“No. I haven’t spoken her name since that time. It is Bianca. Or ‘la Bianca,’ as we would say in Catalonia. And also no, I did not get over it. I became increasingly bitter as time passed. I saw the same self-serving agendas in my colleagues in Blackeberg. Hypocrites, sneaks, and suck-ups. I had no interest in meeting new people or in pursuing a social life.”

Mr. Ávila allows himself a smile. “But against all odds, I discovered my love for children. That is what sustained me. Before puberty, children are so open and guileless.”

“And surely that bears on how you came to be Oskar and Eli’s guardian.”

“Yes, that and a heavy burden of guilt. You see, I liked Oskar. I paid attention to him and encouraged him when I could. But I dropped the ball. Oskar was bullied so viciously that it almost cost his life. I should have seen it and intervened. If I had not been so self-absorbed…”

Mr. Ávila falls silent for a moment and goes into the kitchen. Professor Grigore waits while he breads the croquettes and puts them into the oven. He selects a bottle of sherry and puts it in the fridge. Professor Grigore knows his friend will take the bottle out when it reaches cellar temperature, and no cooler.

“When the children came to my apartment in Vällingby last May, I was overjoyed to see that Oskar was alive, and I hoped I could find some way to make amends for my failure to protect him. I soon learned that Miss Eli saved him from the bullies, who were intent on drowning him.”

“The baffling ‘Blackeberg Massacre.’”

“Yes. Miss Eli made short work of the bullies and pulled Oskar from the water. They ran away together, and, as you know, Oskar asked Miss Eli to turn him.”

“Before the children contacted me in Vällingby, I believed Oskar was probably dead, carried off by whoever or whatever killed the kids at the pool. I felt I screwed up the one chance I had to make a difference. Guilt weighed heavily on me, and I retreated into despair. I resigned and became a recluse, rarely going out of my apartment.”

“You know the rest. After more than a year on the run with Miss Eli, Oskar rang me seeking advice. Four nights later, we were on the way here.”

“I must say, Señor Ávila, until that point, your story reads like a classic tragedy. Thank God it took a positive turn when you seized the opportunity to throw in your lot with the children."

"Yes, Professor Grigore. Thank God."

Mr. Ávila applies the second breading to the croquettes and puts them back in the oven.

The conversation turns to Sassa. Even though Professor Grigore keeps Mr. Ávila filled in daily about how things are progressing, Mr. Ávila has lots of questions, and Professor Grigore still has plenty to say to his friend about the remarkable relationship that has him floating a few feet above terra firma.
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When the tapas are ready, Mr. Ávila serves them and fills the glasses with sherry. Soon they hear the kids tumble noisily down the stairs. Oskar yells "Hi" to Professor Grigore as he and Eli run to the bathroom to shower. The grownups eat dinner to the sounds of splashing and giggling.

Mr. Ávila clears the plates just as the kids come into the dining room with shiny faces and fresh clothes. Oskar sticks out his hand to Professor Grigore and, ever the wise guy, says, "Gee, you might write once in a while." Professor Grigore takes his hand and pulls Oskar to him for a bear hug.

Eli hangs back. She approaches Professor Grigore shyly and says, "How are things going with you and Sassa?" But before he can answer, she jumps onto his lap, throws her arms around his neck, and blurts out, "She better not hurt you!"

"Oh my. Why do you think Sassa would hurt me?"

"Because she's like flirty Ingrid! Ingrid doesn't care whose feelings she hurts!"

Oskar has the good sense to keep out of it.

"But Eli, how could she hurt my feelings?"

"She could have a boyfriend you don't know about! Just like Ingrid when she..." but Eli stops. She knows she doesn't want to go there.

"Dear little Eli, your concern means so much to me." He holds her to him in the warmest hug he's ever given her. "But Eli, Sassa has not had a boyfriend for a long time. She's been very, very busy making dresses."

Eli takes Professor Grigore's face in her hands. Lowering her eyebrows and putting on a very serious, almost mean look, she peers into his eyes.

After nearly a minute, she says Okay in a matter-of-fact voice and slides down from his lap.

Oskar quietly breathes out and relaxes his shoulders. "So," he asks, "are we going to have class tonight?"

"Yep, roundtable. To bring Professor Grigore up to date."

"After that," Professor Grigore says, "let's talk about some things we can do for Christmas."

The children run to their classrooms and return with books and videos to discuss.
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Professor Grigore leaves, and Mr. Ávila begins to prepare for bed. The children go up to the attic. Eli lies on the pallet and turns her back to Oskar.

"Eli."

She doesn't answer.

"Eli, I didn't know."

"You didn't know what?"

"That it hurt you too."

"I got over it."

"Yeah, sure."

Eli continues to lie with her back to Oskar, but she turns the side of her face to him.

"Oskar, what if there hadn’t been a Viktor?"

"I don't know. I never thought about any kind of Oskar and Ingrid deal. I mean, I was just in it."

"What if she felt like you did?"

"What's to think about? She isn't like you and me."

"Yeah but, what if she asked you to turn her?"

"Like that would happen."

"That did happen. Remember? You asked me to turn you."

This throws Oskar into confusion. He hasn't thought much about stuff like that. After two years with Eli, he's still a child when it comes to relationships.

But for all of her more than two centuries, Eli has no more experience with relationships than Oskar has. Except for him, she has never been with anyone her age.

Oskar lies on his side. He cautiously snuggles against her back and lays his arm over her.

After a while he says, "Eli, I wasn't thinking. I acted like an idiot kid, didn't I?"

"Nah, just a kid. We’re both just kids."

She squirms onto her side to face him. She smiles at Oskar and lets him hold her.

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Vampires

The night following Professor Grigore’s visit, Oskar and Eli complete their assignments and hang out on their pallet in the attic darkroom until it grows late enough for them to hunt.

Oskar has his head in a book when Eli says, "Oskar, we can't push it."

"I know," Oskar replies without looking up. His stomach rumbles.

"You almost lost it the night Professor Grigore told us he knows what we are."

"I know."

"Let's start near the quarry."

"Sounds like a plan."

"We've got a little time till it's late enough."

"Yeah."

Eli falls silent as she casts about for words she knows she needs to say.

"Mr. Ávila gave us the normal life we yearned for."

Oskar looks up from his reading.

"Yeah, Eli, it's great. It's our dream.”

"But, Oskar...we're not normal."

"What do you mean?" he says, closing the book and setting it beside their pallet.

"We never will be normal. I asked you that night if you think we’re like wolves or something else."

"Yeah, Eli, but I didn't know what to say."

"We're not like wolves, like Professor Grigore said we are."

"Fun to think so."

"But it's pretending. It can be fun to pretend. We love fun, and I thought if we started having fun again, everything would be okay."

"Isn't it? Isn't everything okay?" Oskar asks. He begins to feel uneasy and wonders where Eli is going with this.

"In a way. It's a million times better than it was when we got to Örebro. But I know now what you were running from when you took off."
"What I was running from?"

"Yes, Oskar. You were running from what we are. By the time we got to Örebro, we were down to nothing but that."

With their enhanced hearing, there is never complete silence. Eli hears the wind rustling the dead leaves on the trees in their yard. She hears the traffic on distant Limhamnsvägen...a ship's horn far out in the Sund...

"We asked Mr. Ávila for advice because I thought we needed to have a normal life, like we tried to have when we first met in Blackeberg. You know, playing, rolling in the snow, walking around the town center. I wanted it so bad that I put us in danger in Vällingby.”

“You mean by shopping for new clothes."

“Exactly. Like a normal life was going to somehow happen."

"See, Oskar, I thought you took off because we weren't having fun anymore. When we were together again, I thought I needed to fix that, to figure out how to live like normal kids, but that was just running from what we really are."

"R-running from what, Eli?" Oskar asks with a slight quiver in his voice.

"Oskar, I'm tired of pretending we're just two kids with some kind of infection."

Oskar feels as though a weight were pressing down on him.

"Then what are we?"

"We're vampires."

"But..."

"I know, Oskar. I said we are not that. I said we are not like the vampire that infected me. But pretending to be just normal kids with a weird infection is..."

"But aren't we, Eli? Isn't the infection separate from who we really are?"

"I guess I had to think that. I thought I was holding onto the human part that I think is good."

"You are human, Eli! You are good!"

"Yeah, but in a little while, we're going out to kill somebody."

"Because the infection makes us do it!"

"No, Oskar, because we live off blood. Our hunger makes us do it, not the infection. It's what vampires do."

"Why are you saying this, Eli?"

"Because I don't think I can go on pretending. I can't be two Elis. I can't be a normal kid sometimes and a killer other times."

Oskar starts crying.

"I know that, Eli. I know we're not two things. But I never wanted you to know it. I wanted you to believe anything bad we did was the infection. I want you to love yourself as much as I love you, to never think bad things about yourself."

"Oh, Oskar, my dear sweet Oskar."

Eli holds him until he stops crying.

"I didn't know, Oskar. I didn't know what it was costing you to help me live in a fantasy. But Örebro showed us the fantasy doesn't work. Not for either one of us."

"I can sort of see that, Eli. Like when I was bullied every day, it wasn't about getting beat up; it was that I couldn't be Oskar. Whenever I raised my hand in class, I knew what I was in for after school."

"I guess that's what I'm starting to understand," Eli says and gives Oskar a little squeeze.

"In a weird way," Oskar continues, "I felt like that again in Örebro. You were spending so much time taking care of us, it didn't leave room for me to show you I can take care of myself, that I can just be me. I guess you’re saying by then it's all we had left, right?"

"Yeah, that's what I'm saying. We were just living like two vampires in a horror story. The year that passed after we had to get out of Göteborg real quick turned into that kind of life. By the time we got to Örebro, there was nothing left for me to do but make sure we could survive – to hunt and not get caught."

They grow quiet, and after a minute, Oskar says, "Eli, are you saying you’re okay with being a vampire?"

"No! I'm not okay. But I think I have to learn to be. Living like I’m not responsible for what I do – that makes me unhappier than anything I can think of."

"Eli, if you can learn to be happy being this way, then I'm happy," and he grabs her and tries to tickle her.

"Stop it, you big goof! Stop it, Oskar! Gyah, you really are just a big happy kid."

"A big happy vampire kid."

"Right, Oskar. I want to be who I really am, and I don't have that figured out yet."

"Okay, I can get into this. How about we start with we're not 'wolves or some other magnificent predator,' like Professor Grigore called us."

"Yeah, Oskar, we're not. I mean, we're predators, but wolves have little wolves. There won't be any little Oskars and Elis running around the house and growing up to be good little vampires. The only thing that gets passed on is the infection."

"If we let it. Which we don't."

"And maybe that's the first thing we can say is good about us."

"Okay, Eli, we're not wolves. Too bad. And we don't spread the infection, and that's good. What else are we? We’re two kids who kill people and drink their blood."

"Yeah, Oskar, that’s the main thing vampires do, whether they’re 12 or whatever. In that way, we're no different from Rakel."

"But we're way different from her in other ways, right?"

"Yep, and one way is, Rakel hated other vampires." A mischievous smile plays about Eli's lips. "But we looove vampires."

“Right, Eli! We love each other. Oooo – vampire love.”

“Ha ha! That’s so silly! Hey, I know what! Let's make this into a game, okay? Naming stuff we are and stuff we're not. What else we are is strong as an elephant and all that other stuff. Like we can grow our teeth and claws. Like we can grow wings."

"But we haven't for a long time. Now the nights are longer and darker, I want to fly with you over the Sund."

Eli smiles. She hugs Oskar and mashes her lips against his cheek.

"Okay, here's the game. Once a day, we each say one thing we are and one thing we're not. We can write it down in one of our notebooks."

"This is a really good game, Eli. But we can’t write it down."

“Why not?”

“Same reason we're not in the cast photo. We can’t create a forensic trail.”

“Oh. I knew that. Duh. So let’s take time each day to just say the list and then add to it.”

Oskar's stomach rumbles again. He hopes they are at a good stopping place.

Eli gets it. "Let's check out the area between here and the quarry."

As they pull on their black sweats and sneakers, Eli wonders about sharing all of this with the grownups.

I guess we need time to sort this out before we talk about it to them. I mean, Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore know what we are, don’t they? Oskar knows. Maybe I’m the only one who kept thinking about it as just some kind of an illness.

.
Creations

Constantin answers his phone and hears Sassa say, "It's getting crazy here. It's going to be another late night for me."

"Poor baby."

"Thanks. I need to run out and get a bite. Want to meet me here? There's a takeout place nearby."

"Wonderful. I shall be at the studio in a few minutes," which he manages to do, even with heavier than usual traffic because of early Christmas shoppers and an increasing number of tourists. He gets lucky and finds a space in the parking garage close to Sassa’s studio.

The sky is grey. It is uncommonly cold for December, with the temperature right at freezing. Sassa puts on her warm coat as she goes to the front of her studio, where she greets Constantin with a quick peck on the cheek.

Street vendors have been popping up to take advantage of the Christmas crowds, and they spot a grill-on-wheels in front of the coffee shop.

"These holiday crowds remind me all the more that I‘m neglecting you,” she says.

"I do not feel neglected, my dear. You know you are in my heart. We are always together."

"That's beautiful, but..."

"I know. I yearn to be with you every minute, but this is life, and life abundant. I do not think you would be happy if you could not give Creations everything the business needs."

They take their hot lunches and walk toward the park, but they spot a sidewalk bench before they go very far. It snowed earlier, but the amount was too light to accumulate or even to officially measure. They brush a little snow off the bench, and, while they eat, shoppers walk past them carrying packages, some with kids running ahead of them chattering or squealing with excitement.

Constantin notices how quickly Sassa is eating. That speaks volumes to him about how busy she is.

After a few minutes, she says, "I don't know what I'd do if Freja hadn't stepped up and added production manager to her receptionist duties. Christmas orders have doubled from last year, but Freja keeps everything moving so the rest of us can just cut and sew."

"But more orders, that's a good thing, right?"

"Good and bad. The bad part is we got our usual Christmas orders months ago and have been running at close to capacity before these unexpected orders started coming in."

"Ah. Too much of a good thing then."

"Yes. I brought in another cutting table and two more machines, but other shops have already grabbed every available seamstress. I also added a second shift, but only half the girls can work both shifts. The extra income is good, but they have family obligations and stuff. When Ingrid goes on school holiday, she'll work with me using the new machines during the day."

"Uh oh. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."

"You're quick. Yes, I’ll also be sewing during the second shift with my sister Elise."

"You have a wonderful family, but it’s good that you’re busy. If there is any way I can help..."

"I don’t know, you dear man. We’ll see.”

They walk back to the studio and go into Sassa’s office. She closes the door, and Constantin helps her out of her coat. When they sit down, she says, “Look, there's something else on my mind. We've barely talked about anything but each other, and I’m wild to learn more about Eli and Oskar.”

Constantin grows quiet. “Sassa, your experience at the theater was of the children at their strongest. You see, they are very vulnerable, emotionally and physically.”

“There’s something wrong with them, isn’t there?”

“My dear, Señor Ávila is their guardian, and he is fiercely protective of them. When he sought me as their tutor, it quickly became clear there are family boundaries. The only thing I feel comfortable sharing is that they are self-conscious about their pallor, and Señor Ávila is careful about putting them in situations that would draw attention to it. I believe those boundaries apply to what the children are allowed to do and say, too. If pressed for information, they refer the person to Señor Ávila.”

“Oh, right, the cast party. I noticed that Señor Ávila was never more than a few steps away from them, although he didn’t seem to be hovering.”

“Yes, he's very able and very caring. He never mentioned it to me, but letting them be part of the theater must have kept him on edge. I would guess he allowed them to do it because their exposure was limited to the Limhamn Players and to small audiences."

"I get it about how self-conscious they are. Denise tipped me off when I remarked one night at how pale they look. She told me she and John met them when the kids were taking pictures in Malmö. John whispered they looked spooky or something. Oskar overheard him and came back with a sharp remark, something about a Halloween costume."

"I had not heard that story. It breaks my heart to think how such encounters must hurt them. But look, while we're on the topic of the theater, you can help me with something. When Señor Ávila told Eli you and I are together, he said it seemed to upset her. We wondered whether she might be jealous of you, but it turns out Eli was afraid you have a boyfriend I don't know about. And she added, 'Like Ingrid'.”

"Like Ingrid? Well, she usually has a few boys hanging around her, but she's mostly seeing Viktor. You met him. He was her escort at the cast party. And I recall that Ingrid and Oskar were together a lot, but I'm afraid I didn't pay much attention to them. Ingrid seems to have one foot still in middle school and one foot in high school, so she's no doubt trying her wings. But Denise probably knows more about it than I do. Nothing at the theater gets by her."

"No, no need to bother her. I would just guess that Oskar was attracted to Ingrid and was disappointed when he found out she was already taken. Eli’s conclusion is an example of how a child’s mind works, isn’t it? Equating Ingrid and Oskar to you and me."

"I get that. But the important part for me is that Eli is a sweet child, looking out for her Oskar and her Constantin. I really want to spend some time with her and the family. Or do you think Señor Ávila would...?"

"No, he was way ahead of us. He suggested the morning before I rang you that you might like to visit them at the house sometime."

"Before you rang me? Very intuitive of him!"

Sassa grows quiet. She sighs and says, "I want to do it, but when will I have time?"

"How about we start by just doing a Yule market with them? No pressure, but if you can take a couple of hours off, the one at Gustav Adolfs torg opens in a few days. The day before Saint Lucia. I could pick you up here."

"Or we could walk. You know, I think you sold me. But it depends on whether we can stay ahead of the orders."

"Of course. But might it not also depend on how well you are holding up? If you start to appear as pale as Oskar and Eli, you may have to rethink your schedule!"

Sassa gets up and goes to Constantin. She sits sideways across his lap, puts her arms around his neck, and gives him a real kiss, which more than makes up for the quick peck she gave him when she greeted him.

"I love you, you dear man."

He hugs Sassa to him and would say something, but he’s too choked with emotion to speak.

.
Flying

Oskar opens his eyes and sees Eli already sitting up on their pallet in the attic darkroom, rubbing her eyes with her fists. He moves next to her and they start to play their new self-awareness game, We are vampires who..., as they have for the past several nights, by repeating the previous night’s list and adding to it.

They quickly reach the end of the short list, and Eli recites, “We’re vampires who don’t pass on the infection to our victims.”

"We're vampires who kill people and drink their blood," Oskar says.

"And last night I added, 'We’re vampires who are human and who want to know how to make that work.' Your go, Oskar.”

“Okay, my new one is, 'We’re kid vampires who have grownups who will help us sort that out.'”

"Sort out being vampires and human at the same time, right?" Eli asks.

"Right. Your turn."

"Okay then, 'We're vampires who want to only hunt people who do mean things.'"

"Yeah, like those teenagers who tried to make you do something in that alley in Vällingby."

"Yes. But you know, Oskar, to make that part work, we have to hunt when people are out doing bad things."

"Yeah, but earlier there will be more people still walking around..."

"…and more lights on. It doesn’t make good survival sense to play cops and robbers..."

"...or Batman and Robin."

"What?"

"Never mind. It's a comic book. I was just thinking – because of the lights, we'll need to do more hunting from the roofs of buildings, like Batman."

"Okay, whatever. But yes, our black sweats make us invisible when we're moving though shadows, but more light means fewer shadows. I mean, we agree it's way better than hunting people at random, but it makes us more vulnerable."

"Well that's true, Eli, but there are parts of towns that are kind of always dark, like rundown areas."

"Yeah, the neighborhood in Örebro was dark like that."

"Okay, so it would be good to find dark neighborhoods," Oskar says. "That could take a while. Like, where do we start?"

"Well, if we do this, we need to spend way more time hunting. So how about we go out early – like, now – and start riding busses?"

"What are we supposed to be looking for?"

"Oh, broken windows. Apartment buildings with a lot of vacancies. Empty houses. Old cars. People hanging out."
"I see how vacant apartments and empty houses would make a place look dark."

Oskar thinks for a minute and then says, "I think you're onto something. We could see a lot from a bus. How did you get so smart?"

"I hang around with my own personal Sherlock."

"Ah," Oskar says, pleased at the comparison. "But Eli, Malmö is kind of a big place. Think the plan will pay off before we have to hunt again?"

"Don't know Oskar. But I know how we can cut down the search area. First, we can skip the places we already explored. Next, we can limit the bus routes to south and east of town."

"Why those places?"

"Because whatever we see from the bus, we'll have to come back another time to check out. Since Limhamn is south of downtown Malmö, east and southeast of downtown will be easier to get to. And hey! Here's another idea! We can get a bird's eye view of the light and dark areas tonight."

"Wait, what? You mean fly?"

"Sure. We can fly from the old dock so nobody sees us."

"Oh man! Great idea."

Eli smiles and gives Oskar a big smooch on his cheek.

"Let's put on our sweats. We can just tell Mr. Ávila we're going out. He'll be cool with that."

They dress, trip lightly down the attic stairs, and stick their head in at the door of Mr. Ávila’s room.

“Going out early?” he asks, looking up from his book.

“Yep. Don’t wait up for us!” Oskar says, and Mr. Ávila smiles at the joke.

They leave by the back door. Their comings and goings are none of their neighbors' business.

They make their way carefully through their Limhamn neighborhood, only taking their usual shortcuts over fences and through backyards of houses that don't have any lights on.

When they get to the old dock, Eli strips off her sweatshirt and Oskar drops his next to hers. They raise their arms over their heads so they can grow the membrane that will become their wings. Barely visible lines from their arms and torso radiate throughout the membrane and become a shimmering, gossamer network that soon thickens and grows robust.

Eli walks to the end of the dock and faces the steady breeze blowing in from the Sund. The space between her upraised arms and her body fills like the sail of a ship and she rises , Oskar right behind her. They begin to soar in a widening spiral, alternately tacking or running with the wind. When Eli is satisfied they are high enough so they won't attract attention from the ground, she takes a heading toward Malmö.

They last hunted near the limestone quarry in Limhamn, which is close to home and a good place to stash bodies, so Malmö's transformation catches them off guard. The town has put up the brilliant Christmas lights that Scandinavian cities are famous for.

They stay high enough to avoid detection, and they use their keen vision to marvel at the sheer number and variety of lights – strung every few feet across streets, covering trees and statues. Storefronts have their own bright decorations, and the kids even spot a brightly lit carousel in a shopping plaza.

"Okay, Oskar, now I'm starting to get excited about Christmas shopping with Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore."

"Yeah, and I bet Sassa shows up too, right?"

"Ha ha! I bet, too, Oskar."

After a moment, she says, "Plenty of dark areas to choose from. I think our first bus trip can be down Amiralsgatan."

"Cool. You know that because..."

"...because I know all the bus routes, and Amiralsgatan has bus stops on it."

"Oh yeah. Duh."

"And I know it's Amiralsgatan because it's wide and I see where it crosses the canal."

Oskar says, "It looks like the farther southeast it goes, the darker the neighborhoods are."

"Yeah. But Oskar, I'm too excited to do any more. Let's look at our map later and figure out other bus routes."

They spiral higher and higher above Malmö until they can safely embrace and plummet toward the Christmas lights of the streets, parks, and plazas below. Oskar gets so excited that he kisses Eli full on her mouth. They unfurl their wings and soar upward again.

"Oskar, that was like a real kiss, right? Like teenagers? I kind of liked it."

"It was okay? Maybe because we like each other so much?"

Eli compares Oskar's kiss to how it felt when she let grownup helpers kiss her, which just felt stupid. Maybe Oskar's right, she thinks. Maybe it's supposed to feel good when you kiss somebody you like, and she wonders, Did Oskar ever think about kissing Ingrid? If he ever gets the idea he wants to kiss somebody, it better be me!

They circle even higher, all the way to just below the dense overcast. Eli furls her wings and shrieks like a banshee as she falls, Oskar right behind her.

Two tourists look up. “Holy smoke, Molly. What was that?”

“I don't know, Harry. Some kind of sea bird?”

“Jeez-Louise, it must be a big one.”

“Yeah, Harry, that's something else we can tell our friends when we get back to Queens.”

At the bottom of their descent, the children unfurl their wings and use the speed they reached to zoom upward again. They circle even higher until they enter the wet, freezing-cold overcast. Everything goes blank inside the cloud. They can't even see their own bodies, but they use the sound of the wind sweeping over their wings to stay close to each other.

As they soar higher, the overcast begins to brighten and they emerge at last into a crystal clear sky – a black velvet expanse blazing with stars that seem every bit as beautiful as Malmö's Christmas lights. The top of the cloud cover is as white from above as it was grey from below. Light from a fat crescent moon sweeps across the cloud tops at shallow angle, creating a ragged cloudscape of mesas and canyons, cloudy draws, bright ridges, and dark arroyos.

They try to take in the sky, the stars, and the cloudscape all at the same time, but Eli suddenly says, “Oscar! You’re like covered in diamonds!” Completely coated with ice crystals, they sparkle in the moonlight like living jewelry. They circle and soar, laughing and shrieking like maniacs.

When at last they furl their wings and plummet toward the cloud tops, it feels as though snowy ground is rushing up to meet them. Oskar draws in a breath and Eli squeaks, but the cold, damp cloud envelops them. They fall through the total blankness until a few flickering images signal the lower boundary of the overcast, and they burst out of it to the splendor of Malmö’s lights.

Still high above the city and trembling with excitement, they circle once and head back to Limhamn. They light gently on the dock, wet from head to toe from the cloud and the slowly melting ice crystals. In this, the dampest season of humid southern Sweden, they have no choice but to walk home wet. Oskar hums “Kvar i min bil,” and they nod their heads to the beat, sublimely happy and more deeply and intricately in love than their young minds can as yet comprehend.

When they get back to the big house on Järavallsgatan, they strip off their wet clothes in the laundry room and go quietly to the attic.

"Oskar, didn't the cloud seem like it was solid from above?"

"Yeah, I knew it wasn't, but it was still scary. I heard your little squeak just before we hit."

"Ha ha! Yep, and you held your breath. Oskar, that was the best time we've ever had flying. Like, everything came together."

"Above and below the overcast."

"And of course," Eli laughs, "we didn't have our cameras."

"Hey, you're right." Oskar thinks for a minute and adds, "But it would be hard to explain how we got the pictures!"

"True. But gyah, Oskar! The Christmas lights!"

"I know. It's going to be hard to look at anything else when we all go shopping."

As their night winds down, Oskar offers, "We can look at the map tomorrow, okay?"

“Yeah, it's still going to take time before we know if our new way of hunting will work.”

Eli thinks, I know we're right to try this, but maybe it's too big for us. I want to have a talk with Mr. Ávila soon. Like Oskar said, we have grownups who can help us sort things out.

With the dawn just minutes away, they lie together on their pallet, hold each other, and mash their lips against each other's cheeks. When Oskar grows still and Eli is sure he's asleep, she gently presses her lips to his and feels a little bit wicked. She smiles and purrs as she slips into her dreamless sleep.

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