Set Me as a Seal Upon Your Heart Part 7
Discussion Link: http://www.let-the-right-one-in.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=9446
"Oskar, I'm so excited!" Eli says as Mr. Ávila drives his old Fiat through Malmö toward the Yule market at Gustav Adolfs torg.
They pass stores with bright, elaborately decorated window displays. Familiar streets – now magically transformed – sparkle and shine with dazzling lights, foil stars, and streaming tinsel. The decorations are not just strung generously every few yards across the streets, but they cover trees and statues and turn lampposts into tall trees crowned with lights. It's as though Yule elves had emerged in the darkest part of the Scandinavian winter and used their elven skills to create a brilliant oasis of light.
"How are we supposed to shop when there's so much to look at?"
"I know!" Oskar says, "I don't know where to look next!"
Mr. Ávila grins like a kid himself and says, "I had an idea you'd love the decorations."
He finds a parking space near the plaza and pays the attendant. As the little family make their way through crowds of shoppers, Oskar and Eli take in the wonders, including a brightly lit carousel, a big tree decorated with glowing green, red, and yellow gift boxes, and a herd of reindeer sculpted from wire, their shapes outlined with glittering white lights.
Mr. Ávila says, "There's the row of fountains where we're meeting." Although the rendezvous is necessarily set for late afternoon, they will have time to shop before the stores and gift stalls close around 7:00.
Since Sassa and Professor Grigore haven't arrived, Mr. Ávila lets Oskar and Eli run wild. They soon stop in front of a music store, where Eli spots a Sony Walkman in the window. That's one gift for Oskar, she thinks and smiles to herself.
But they don't have time to spend any of their money because Mr. Ávila sees Sassa and Professor Grigore making their way through the crowds. He takes out his whistle and blows into it sharply two times.
Oskar says, "They're here!"
"How do you know?" Eli asks.
"Because that's Mr. Ávila's signal to go to him. I know because he was my gym teacher, right?"
They run toward the fountains, dodging around shoppers and yelling that they're coming. Sassa opens her arms for a hug. Although it has only been three weeks since the cast party, Eli shrieks, "We haven't seen you in like forever!"
After the hugs, Eli asks, "How is Ingrid?"
"She's fine. She's been helping me at my studio after school. She misses you."
Although Eli grew to like "flirty Ingrid" during the months they worked together at the little theater, she still has mixed feelings about her, especially regarding Oskar, so she just asks, "Is that where you make dresses?"
"It sure is. Why don't you come by sometime?"
Oskar is singularly uninterested in visiting what he imagines to be a dress shop, but he wouldn't pass up an opportunity to see Ingrid again.
Sassa says, "I have an idea. Let's split up so nobody sees what they're getting. Eli, do you want to shop with me? Where do you want to start?"
Eli smiles, takes her hand, and leads her in the direction of the music store.
Professor Grigore says, "Oskar, do you have any ideas?"
"Nah, let's just walk around and look."
After browsing for a few minutes, Oskar asks, "If I buy a ring for Eli, do you think she would like it? I want to get something that shows how special she is to me."
"I think a ring from you would mean a lot to her." Mr. Ávila says.
"But what kind of rings do kids give kids? It can't be a pretend sort of thing, like we're just playing."
Oskar stops in front of a stall that has teddy bears and dolls.
"You're likely talking about a friendship ring," Mr. Ávila says.
"But would a friendship ring mean all we are is just friends?"
"More than friends," Professor Grigore says. "You only give a friendship ring to that one special person."
"But Oskar," Mr. Ávila says, "I think that might be too special to just put under a Christmas tree. It should be between you and Miss Eli."
Professor Grigore adds, "If we do not see a stall selling rings, you may have to go to Södra Förstadsgatan at Triangeln to a real jewelry store."
"Would a real jewelry store be too expensive?"
"Not for a friendship ring. I am pretty sure you could find one that won't break the bank."
Oskar thinks for a moment. "Wouldn't it have to be like now so she doesn't know I'm getting it for her?"
"Yes, I see the problem," Professor Grigore says. "You are always together. Hm. I have an idea, but let me think about it, and then you can decide."
While they talk, Oskar picks up and puts back several dolls and stuffed animals until at last he says, "Hey, this looks like Winnie the Poo! I'm getting it for her. She'll probably say she's not a baby or something, but I can just see her with it."
Oskar buys it and they walk on. Professor Grigore and Mr. Ávila take special note of everything Oskar looks at or touches.
Mr. Ávila also notes the professor's ready familiarity with the location of jewelry stores and wonders if that portends anything for his relationship with Sassa.
As soon as Sassa and Eli enter the music store, Eli picks out the Walkman, which she gives to Sassa to hold while she looks at music cassettes.
"We love music, but I'm not sure what albums Oskar likes. I don't think he likes Kiss Alive. Maybe just one song." She asks a young clerk, "Do you have any Kiss albums that don't sound too crazy?"
"No. They're supposed to sound crazy."
"Okay, well, what do you think a really cool 12-year-old boy would like?"
"Kiss," the clerk says with a laugh.
Sassa laughs too, but Eli puts her fists on her little hips and gives him a mean look. "Okay, which one?"
"Buy Alive and Destroyer," the clerk says. "If he doesn't like them, you can bring them back for a refund. But not if they're opened, and you need to hang onto the receipt."
"Gah, you can do that? Okay, what else?"
"What if I just tell you what I like?"
The clerk picks out Secret Service's Cutting Corners and an album by Peps Blodsband.
"Do you like to dance?" he asks.
"Er, I guess."
"Okay, take this one. ABBA, Super Trouper."
When they leave the store, Eli says, "I hope he really likes what I got."
"I bet he will, but I have an idea. Why don't you come back together after Christmas?"
Eli smiles. They walk back to the rows of stalls, stopping at this one or that one until they come to a stall stacked high with gaily painted jewelry boxes.
"What are these!" Eli asks and lifts the lid of one to peek inside. To her amazement, the jewelry box begins to play Für Elise. Enchanted, she tunes out all other sounds and lets the melody take over.
When the music slows and stops, Eli's expression changes from delight to disappointment, but Sassa turns the music box over, winds it, and opens the lid again.
Eli looks at the price tag and is amazed that such magic could be had so cheaply.
"Do you...do you think Ingrid would like it?"
"I think she would love it, Eli." And so will you, Sassa thinks, knowing she'll come back and buy a music box for Eli.
Eli pays and the merchant puts it in a bag for her.
"I think I'm ready to go back," she says, eyes still glistening from the remarkable effect of the Beethoven melody.
As they walk toward the fountains, Sassa wonders, What kind of past could Eli have that doesn't have music boxes in it? But she checks herself and thinks, I suppose there's plenty I didn't know at her age. I should probably stop focusing on how different she and Oskar are. Constantin was clear about Señor Ávila's boundaries. But still...
The guys are also on the way back to the fountains when Oskar stops in front of the music store.
"We haven't really listened to music since we left Blackeberg."
Professor Grigore asks, "Why is that?"
"Where could we listen to it? We had to keep pretty quiet in whatever hideout we were in."
"I think music playing in the house would be wonderful," Mr. Ávila says. "Let's go in and see what they have."
"Nah, we don't have a way to play it."
"Let's go in anyway. Pick out some music you think Miss Eli will like. Maybe Santa will bring you something to play it on."
Oskar is at the age where it's important that people not think he still believes in Santa Claus, but he lets it pass.
Inside the store he browses through the cassettes. He knows Eli likes an old Vikings song, "Flickan I hagen," and he finds it listed on the Det går som en dans 5 album. He selects it even though the band is too rockabilly for his taste.
Eli also seemed to like "Försonade," the Agnetha Fältskog song that was playing when they were hanging out in the basement in Blackeberg, so he asks the young clerk if he knows what album it's on. It turns out that he does – a recently released album of older singles.
As Oskar continues to browse, he sees a cassette with a cover picture that reminds him so much of Eli – a barefoot young girl looking into the windows of an old garage – but he's not sure what the group's name means – Violent Femmes.
Mr. Ávila reads the blurb. "It says, um, that it's punk rock. Sure makes me think of Miss Eli, though." Mr. Ávila shows it to a clerk and asks if he thinks a 12-year-old girl would like it.
"Does she have acne, an awkward haircut, and ripped jeans?" Oskar takes the tape from him and puts it back.
"In that case, maybe she would like ABBA's The Visitors," the clerk suggests.
"Do you like what's playing now?"
Oskar is aware of the electronic music coming from the store's speakers, and he rather likes it. "Sure, what is it?"
"It's Kraftwerk. From their album Computer World."
The clerk hands a copy of the cassette to Oskar. "Look," he says, "We get a lot of returns after Christmas. If you have the receipt, you can bring back any unopened cassettes. And if you bring the young lady with you, she can pick out some albums she likes."
A few of the shops are closing and the stalls have begun packing up for the night by the time they all get back to the row of fountains.
"How did it go?" Mr. Ávila asks.
"Great!" Eli says.
Professor Grigore and Sassa hold hands as they begin their walk back to her studio. Mr. Ávila and the kids go to find the car. Oskar and Eli are glowing with excitement, but they're quiet now except for a little shoving to make sure they don't peek into each other's shopping bags.
Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore have resumed taking their morning coffee at Järavallsgatan, although the professor now comes an hour later because he has breakfast with Sassa before he drops her at her studio.
After the men exchange their usual courtesies, Mr. Ávila asks, "What was the idea you mentioned last night about the friendship ring?"
"It was a scheme to figure out Eli's ring size, but it was a little complicated. After Sassa and I talked about it, a different idea emerged. She thinks you should convince Oskar that it doesn't have to be a surprise."
"Hm. I imagine Oskar would go for that. So..."
"So you tell them that kids sometimes buy their rings together and present them to each other."
"I like it. Let's see what Oskar says this evening."
Mr. Ávila leans back in his chair and studies Professor Grigore's face for a moment.
"Speaking of rings, how is it that you're familiar with the jewelry stores on Södra Förstadsgatan?"
Professor Grigore blushes and stares into his coffee cup.
"Oh, I...I did not want to say anything yet. I mean, not to be secretive, but I do not know who could advise me. Sassa's sister Elise is divorced, and you're a bachelor..."
"I see your point. But would you share your thoughts if I promise not to give you advice?"
Professor Grigore chuckles. "I suppose. You see, Señor Ávila, I feel as though I'm in a quandary. I am sure you have deduced that Sassa and I are in this for the long haul."
"Right. I do not know what Sassa thinks about marriage and – with or without marriage – children."
"Ah. But what is the quandary?"
"It is this. If I bring these questions up, Sassa may think they are important to me, that I want to get married or to start a family."
"And you're afraid she'd push for it because she would think it's what you want."
"Yes. And anyway, I do not know if Swedes even get married anymore."
"I don't know either. And I imagine Elise would have her own agenda, especially about Sassa providing her with nieces and nephews."
"That had not occurred to me."
"And, as you anticipated, I'm not in a position to give you advice about marriage. But look, my dear friend, what do you want?"
"What do I want? Short answer – I'm good with whatever Sassa wants."
"Hm. I'm ambivalent about the marriage part. I could go for it if Sassa wanted it. I mean, I would be honored to be her husband, but I'm honored anyway. It does not feel as though the relationship is lacking because of it."
"Yet you've been looking at rings."
"True. I have to acknowledge that marriage has a certain attraction for me, but not if..."
"And the part about children?"
"I can scarcely imagine Sassa not having children around her. You may have noticed how much she enjoyed working with the little kids – the fairies – at the theater, and how they responded to her as she measured and fitted them for their costumes."
"And yet her business means so much to her. Maybe children are not on her mind at all."
"Yes, that sounds plausible."
The men fall silent. Mr. Ávila goes into the kitchen to refill their cups. When he sits down, Professor Grigore says, "You really are not going to give me advice, are you?"
"Only what I've already given you."
"And that would be..."
"To get clear about your own feelings, what you want."
"When Sassa brings these questions up, you won't be caught off guard."
"Of course! It never occurred to me that she might initiate the conversation. You really are the most intuitive person I know."
Mr. Ávila laughs. "With my intuition and your logic, we could go far."
Mr. Ávila already knows that they are headed to the altar, and he knows that Sassa knows it, too.
He smiles at his friend and thinks – For a brainiac, you can be so gormless. Everybody but you knows it's a done deal!
When Oskar and Eli wake up and come downstairs to say hello to Mr. Ávila, he asks, "Would you join me in the dining room for a minute?"
Oskar and Eli run to the dining room table and grab chairs.
"Oskar, you know that thing we talked about when we were shopping?"
"What? What did you guys talk about?" Eli asks.
"Hang on, Miss Eli."
"Sure." Oskar says. "What about it?"
"Professor Grigore said it's something you might want to do together."
"But then it wouldn't be a surprise," Oskar says.
Mr. Ávila waits.
"But it would still be pretty special, wouldn't it?" Oskar asks.
"Sure. That might even make it more special."
"Make what more special?" Eli asks and starts bouncing in her chair.
"Okay, I think that would work."
Oskar turns to Eli and says, "I want to give you something that shows how special you are to me."
Eli looks puzzled. "You mean like a Christmas present?"
"It's way more than a Christmas present. It's a ring."
"You want to give me a ring? Like when people get married?"
"Miss Eli, wedding rings are for grownups. Oskar is talking about a ring young people give each other."
Oskar adds, "It's called a friendship ring, and when you give it to somebody, it means they're that one special person."
Eli puts her hands between her knees, squeezes her legs together, and wiggles. "Oskar, you mean me? You mean I'm that one special person? And nobody else?"
"Yep. That's what I mean."
Eli gets up, hugs Oskar, and mashes her lips against his cheek.
Okay, Mr. Ávila thinks, that went well.
"When?" Eli asks.
"How about after Christmas?" Oskar suggests. "That way it won't just seem like a Christmas present."
"Right," Mr. Ávila adds. "We can go to a real jewelry store, and you can both pick out the rings you want to give each other."
“I can give Oskar a friendship ring, too?”
“Depends on how much you like him.”
“Then I have to think about it...just kidding!” She hugs Oskar and mashes her lips against his, which both thrills and embarrasses him.
Eli grows quiet and sits down again. After a minute, she looks at Oskar and cocks her head to one side.
"Mr. Ávila, there's something else. Oskar knows I'm unhappy about blaming bad things we do on some stupid infection."
"Right," Oskar says. "We've been trying to figure stuff out..."
"...but we need your help," Eli says.
"And you need to know something else. Eli is over the idea that we aren't vampires."
"My word, children, that's a surprise! But what do you need from me?"
"We want you to call a family meeting, just the four of us," Eli says.
"We've been talking about this for a while," Oskar says, "and it's making it way harder to hunt."
Mr. Ávila's expression betrays nothing, but the idea of changing what has worked so long for Eli alarms him.
"I see. Sounds as though we need to sort this out sooner rather than later. How would it be if I mention it to Professor Grigore tomorrow morning? If he doesn't have plans, we could meet as soon as you get up."
"Awesome," Eli says and hugs Mr. Ávila.
Professor Grigore lets himself in at the big house on Järavallsgatan. Once he sits down at the dining room table, Mr. Ávila pours a cup of coffee for his friend, he asks, "Are you free this afternoon?"
"I have nothing pressing, although I would like to drop by my apartment and pick up my mail. I haven't checked my box in a few days."
"Good. Miss Eli said she wants to have a family meeting. She didn't go into detail, but she mentioned being tired of blaming her behavior on the infection."
"I know. And Oskar said they accept that they're vampires. It sounds as though they're going through something, doesn't it?"
"I agree, Señor Ávila, but I wonder why they are questioning things now."
"Maybe it's because this is the first time Miss Eli has lived in comfort and relative security?"
"Ah. Thus giving her time for self-reflection."
"Yes, but whatever her reason, Professor Grigore, I suggest we take the opportunity to reflect on our role in their life."
"I think we are clear about our feelings and our decision to help them, are we not?"
“Yes, certainly. And yet, how do you feel about the moral implications of harboring and protecting our two little serial killers?"
"Or, Señor Ávila, two children who suffer from a biological infection that forces them to kill in order to survive. And one of them has survived for more than two centuries without needing our protection."
"Without needing our protection…I haven't thought of it that way."
"Viewed in that light, Señor Ávila, what we are doing does not affect the number of deaths, does it?"
"It affects the number of deaths locally, Professor Grigore."
"I imagine the number would be about the same, with or without our help."
"That is how I prefer to look at it, Señor Ávila."
"Okay. We're giving them – Miss Eli in particular – something they haven't had, an opportunity to enjoy a somewhat normal childhood. I can see that the body count would be constant whether they are happy or unhappy, but…"
"Then let us continue to do the best job we can in taking care of them. Should Providence decide otherwise, then so be it; but I believe with all my heart that we are doing the right thing.
Professor Grigore returns in the afternoon, lets himself in, and takes his place at the table.
"I thought I might come a little early. My mind has been all over the place since we talked this morning."
"Well, Señor Ávila, do you think this is going to be just soul-searching, or..."
"I don't think we're going to be sitting around a campfire toasting philosophical marshmallows. Whatever it turns out to be, my dear friend, it could have real-world consequences. Oskar said it's making it harder for them to hunt."
"Hm. The possibility of real-world consequences is what has kept my mind in a state of uncertainty."
"Yes, mine too."
"Then let us wait for the children to join us. As Conan Doyle's famous detective remarked, 'It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.'"
Presently, the children come downstairs. They solemnly hug the grownups and take their places at the table.
Professor Grigore says, "Eli, I understand that you and Oskar are now referring to yourselves as vampires."
Eli looks at Oskar for support. He nods, and she begins, "We know we have a kind of infection. That's why we have to be careful not to infect our victims, but..."
"Yes, so what has changed?"
"Once I got infected, nothing changed. I mean, the infection did whatever it did, but nothing changed after that."
"I got super strong and super fast. You know, stuff like that. But then everything stayed the same. I didn't keep getting stronger or anything. And I feel like I'm the same person I was before I got infected."
Mr. Ávila says, "That's deep, Miss Eli."
Oskar speaks up. "Same for me. I haven't become evil or weird."
"But all this time," Eli says, "I felt like I was in a kind of battle with the infection."
"Eli, that's one of the first things Señor Ávila said to me, that you have a measure of control over the infection."
"What kind of control?"
"Such as not harming children."
"That's not it though. We figured out we don't harm children because we're children. The battle I mean is trying to put off hunting because I don't want to kill anybody. Until now, I thought I was resisting some kind of evil thing inside of me."
"Yeah," Oskar says, "but it's not something inside of us. It's us. We have to have blood or we'll die. It's what vampires do. It's our own hunger that makes us hunt."
Mr. Ávila asks, "Oskar, that doesn't create the same conflict for you?"
Oskar laughs. "Mr. Ávila, the person I love with all my heart infected me. That's way different than what happened to Eli."
"So I just went along with Eli. I figured it helped her feel okay about having to kill people or something."
Professor Grigore asks, "You went along with her believing she was not a vampire?"
"Yeah, I figured as long as she had the infection to blame, it would help her feel good about herself."
"But not you?"
"Nah. I was automatically okay with being a vampire. Before I asked Eli to turn me, I was bullied every day and couldn't do anything about it. Now it's too bad for anybody who tries to hurt us!"
"But you don't mean you enjoy killing, do you?" Mr. Ávila asks.
"No. I just like being strong and being with Eli."
"Mr. Ávila," Eli says, "when we came to you for advice in Vällingby, I knew I was unhappy. I thought it was because we weren't having fun. And, really, I thought Oskar would leave me if it wasn't fun."
"And it really wasn't," Oskar adds. "Just hiding and killing and running."
"So you and Eli found that just having fun, having a better life with Señor Ávila, wasn't the answer," Professor Grigore says.
"Right. The way Eli said it to me, she isn't happy being a normal kid sometimes and a killer other times."
"So I asked Oskar didn't he think it would be better if we only kill bad people."
"Like the two teenagers who tried to make you do something in that alley in Vällingby," Mr. Ávila says.
"But that's hard to do," Oskar says. "It means we have to hunt more often..."
"...and start earlier," Eli adds. "But there are more lights on and more people walking around or whatever."
"And that means you're putting yourselves in more danger," Mr. Ávila says.
"A lot more. But what else can we do?" she asks.
Mr. Ávila turns to his friend. "As a forensic scientist, what are your thoughts?"
"I have alarms going off because of the increased danger," he answers and turns to the kids.
"Where are you looking for these so-called bad guys?"
Eli answers, "Rosengård, mostly."
"Well, yes. I can see that you could find 'bad guys' in that part of town. There are parts of Rosengård and nearby Husie that even the police and fire brigade do not like to enter."
"Plus," Oskar says, "we have a place to stash bodies – a big cemetery."
"Östra kyrkogården, I imagine. How would that work?"
"We checked it out and saw freshly dug graves. I figure we can dig down a bit, put in the body, and then put the dirt back."
"Resourceful as ever! But setting that aside, I do not think focusing on 'bad guys' will work for you."
"Why not?" Oskar asks.
"You will never really know whether your prey is a good person or a bad person. And even if you were to get it right every time, it would still be murder, would it not?"
Eli turns to Oskar and says, "I knew we needed help from grownups to figure this stuff out."
"Mr. Ávila," Oskar says, "Is that what you think, that we can't really tell who's good or bad?"
"Yep, and there's more, Oskar. When you and Miss Eli put yourselves in danger, you put the whole family in danger."
Eli says, "I hadn't really thought about that part."
Professor Grigore says, "From a forensic perspective, the earlier and longer you are out hunting, the more chance that people will notice you."
The kids shift uncomfortably in their chairs.
"People put things together," he continues, "such as when two strangers show up in a neighborhood about the time that people start disappearing."
Like we don't know that, Eli thinks and looks at Oskar. He turns down one corner of his mouth to confirm her thoughts.
"May I say, Miss Eli," Mr. Ávila interjects, "that your hunting methods are probably part of the package that came with the infection. Has anything changed in the way you hunt during all this time?"
"I guess not."
"Okay," Mr. Ávila continues, "I agree that what you must do to survive conflicts with how you think of yourself, but you both acknowledge that you are vampires. That's who you are, too."
The children grow still.
"Yet, I think it's reasonable to want to change how you get blood."
Eli gives Mr. Ávila a hopeful smile.
"And I think you will, Miss Eli."
"Yes. I think you will have to, and not just because killing people makes you unhappy."
"Modern cities are not vampire friendly, and that's not going to change."
"Sure not," Oskar says. "After our experience in Göteborg, we had to become invisible – hunt late, wear dark clothes, move from shadow to shadow. That worked, but it sucked. No fun."
"Right, Oskar, so not today, not even while we're in Malmö, but soon we're going to have to find ways for you to get blood without anyone dying."
The kids look at each other, and Mr. Ávila sees the doubt on their faces.
"Look, kids, let's start with this – There's plenty of blood around, right? But we have to figure out ways of getting it. Blood collection centers come to mind. Hospitals. Doctors."
"Um, I don't see how. When I could get helpers to bring me blood, I found out it goes bad real quick. In like 30 minutes it tastes bad. Much longer, it doesn't work at all."
"So," Mr. Ávila asks, "even refrigerated blood would go bad?"
"I don't know. I never thought about it."
"That hardly matters, Señor Ávila. I know from the Lund investigation that blood centers now have surveillance cameras and other ways of protecting donated blood."
"I've taken that into consideration, Professor Grigore. I've also figured in what a small town Malmö is."
"I see. You are thinking down the road..."
"...to Barcelona. Yes. And my dear friend, it can't happen in Malmö anyway. You and Sassa do not have the luxury of getting out of town in a hurry should things go wrong."
He turns to the kids. "We've only lived in Malmö since May. I don't have connections with family and friends here. But the Ávilas have lived in Barcelona for many generations. Those connections will somehow have to pay off for us."
"Okay, what do we do?" Oskar asks.
"Nothing for now. Use all of your skills to hunt and to avoid detection."
Professor Grigore looks relieved, but Eli doesn't look happy.
"Miss Eli, there's nothing we can do right now. I'm sorry. But once we're on my home turf, I'll work with you to see that you and Oskar can get blood without anyone dying."
Oskar says, "It's going to be okay, Eli. This is why we asked for a family meeting."
"Right," Mr. Ávila says. "But please note that I said I'd work with you. I'm wary of how smart my ideas would be. We'll put on our thinking caps and see what the three of us can figure out among us."
Professor Grigore says, "You have the intention of merging your humanity with your needs as vampires. I believe that intention will lead you and Señor Ávila to unexpected solutions."
Eli smiles. It's still hard for me to get used to having a real family.
"Okay," Oskar says, "but something else is bothering me. When Eli said she's a vampire, I argued with her. I didn't want her to think that she's a bad person."
Mr. Ávila says, "That's the Oskar we know and love."
"Whatever. But what about you guys? If we're not controlled by the infection, will we seem like creepy scary monsters to you?"
Mr. Ávila responds in an unusually soft voice, "Professor Grigore and I think you are the best children in the world. You are kind and thoughtful, and you're delightful to be with."
After a moment, Professor Grigore adds, "Anyway, I think the vampire side of the equation is a part of Nature. Vampires have coexisted with human beings for a long time."
Eli shakes her head. "No, Professor Grigore."
"That's right." Oskar says. "You called us magnificent predators, like wolves, but we're not."
"Wolves make baby wolves," Eli says. "Vampires live a long long time, but they don't make baby vampires."
Professor Grigore and Mr. Ávila exchange a look, astonished at how far the kids have gotten in their thinking.
Mr. Ávila says, "It sounds like you're challenging us to take another look at our role in your life."
"For my part," Professor Grigore says, "I compare you to people whom I have helped bring to justice. Unlike them, you do not kill out of greed or cruelty, so to me you are not criminals."
Eli stares at him for a moment. "A little while ago you said it's still murder even if we could get it right about who the bad guys are."
"My word, Eli!" Professor Grigore says. "I can see that our program of education is bearing fruit."
"Yes, she has us there, Professor Grigore. Regardless of our motivation, we're technically accessories to murder."
"Tech shmeck," Oskar says.
"Yeah," Eli says, "not just technically."
The grownups can't help but laugh.
"I know it is not something to joke about," Professor Grigore says, "but six months ago I do not think you would be holding your own so well in this conversation."
"Yeah," Oskar replies, "a big dose of Shakespeare will do that for you."
"And anyway," Eli adds, "when you're right..."
"...and you are, Miss Eli." He turns to Professor Grigore. "Let's admit we both knew when we started down this road that there was no way back. There is one thing though – the way we looked at it this morning. The body count would be the same whether we came into the children's lives or not."
Eli senses another facile evasion and rolls her eyes.
"Eli," Professor Grigore says, "I still think that is valid. Additionally, we did not become your teachers and guardians because of any thought of reward for ourselves."
"Not so fast," Mr. Ávila says. "Didn't you sense an opportunity for adventure, for a new twist to your life as a top-notch forensics expert?"
"Mm. That is true. I am thrilled to observe such a little-known phenomenon. But I believe you sought a payoff, too – a chance to redeem your life by finding meaning again."
"Yes, and I jumped at the chance to relieve the burden of guilt I felt – I failed to protect Oskar when I was his teacher."
Professor Grigore turns to the kids.
"I think we have to admit that it comes down to personal decisions. And they are somewhat selfish. Consider – what else could offer such a life of adventure to two old bachelors?"
"Yes. When I went all-in in Vällingby," Mr. Ávila says, "I felt I'd come back to a life worth living, to feelings I haven't had since college."
"And kids," Professor Grigore adds, "no Oskar and Eli, no Sassa in my life. Señor Ávila, let us just admit that we are aiding and abetting two little murderers without trying to put a good face on it."
"Right. We need to do the same kind of soul-searching that you're doing, Miss Eli. But let's not lose sight of this – We love you, and you deserve to be with people who love you as we do."
Eli's eyes sting and Oskar has to swallow a couple of times before he can ask, "Professor Grigore, what do you mean about a program of education? You mean our lesson plans, right?"
"No Oskar. Your schoolwork is only part of it. We have just engaged in a very grownup discussion. Let's look at what contributed to your increasing ability to do that."
"But since you two don't care much for your course work," Mr. Ávila says, "let's start there."
The kids both make faces, and Oskar asks, "How does knowing the names of Chinese rivers help us think better?"
"It may not," Mr. Ávila says, "But what's the capital of West Germany?"
"What's the capital of Belgium?"
"I don't know, but I still..."
"Because every schoolchild other than you two knuckleheads knows it's Bonn and Brussels!"
"And there's lots more stuff you don't know that other kids know. Miss Eli, how old are you?"
"Then why did you tell Oskar you were 'about twelve?' You told me that story in Vällingby, remember? That means you are the only child in Sweden who doesn't know her birthday."
Oskar lights up. "You mean like what we don't know will make people look at us funny?"
"Right. You want to move freely, like other kids. For that, you have to fit in. Your classes are what that's about, right?"
"Oskar! I get it now! We have to study! Anyway, you don't know how excited I was to be able to go to school so I could be smart like you."
"Aw," he says and gives her a one-arm hug.
"But kids, remember, we said you'll learn more outside of classrooms than in them. In seven months you've become extraordinary young photographers. You've learned a lot about amateur theater and acting. Even singing."
"And bus routes! And Shakespeare in English!" Eli says.
"Right," Oskar says, warming to the topic, "and racquetball."
"Yes. About that," Mr. Ávila says, "if you had not learned to fine tune your control over your strength and speed, we wouldn't be here now."
"Rakel," Eli says quietly.
"Yes, Rakel. But there is so much more that you must learn, and it is not going to happen quickly."
"Like what? And why?" Oskar asks.
"First the why. Professor Grigore and I will grow old. There will be a time when you must live in the world on your own."
"No!" Eli says and runs to Mr. Ávila.
Mr. Ávila holds her, and they all sit in respectful silence until Eli stops sobbing.
"Professor Grigore," Mr. Ávila says, "we just covered a lot of ground."
"Yes, Señor Ávila. It would be good to wait and pick this up later."
Professor Grigore goes into the kitchen to ring Sassa in case she's ready for a break.
Mr. Ávila gathers Oskar and Eli to him and holds them close.
By Mishrashade48 and dongregg, who shape the story from here until Christmas
A tall, broad-shouldered young man disembarks in Malmö from the Copenhagen ferry, a fast hydrofoil that crosses the Öresund in about 40 minutes, much quicker than the car ferry. The young man is wearing a warm jacket, but the damp December air chilled him during the trip. He goes into the first bar along the docks and orders an Irish whiskey.
During his week in Denmark, he adjusted to the sun setting at mid-afternoon. Even though it's already growing dark, he knows he has plenty of time before he needs to be on the last boat before midnight. He chats with the bar patrons about what he might see and do. One recommends a Yule market and gives him directions.
The bartender agrees that it isn't far, but he recommends going by taxi and offers to call one. The young man demurs, saying he likes to walk. The bartender just shrugs and says okay. After he knocks back a second whiskey, he stubs out a cigarette and waves bye to everyone.
Let's see, he thinks, the guy at the bar said walk a few blocks directly away from the harbor, turn right, and walk until I see Christmas lights. Or did he say turn left?
After walking for a while, the young man notices that the street has become narrow and, instead of bright lights, the area is becoming darker.
Before he can say more, one man pins his arms from behind and the other punches him. His glasses go flying.
Oskar and Eli are riding in the backseat of Professor Grigore's Volvo as he and Mr. Ávila drive them to pick up photo supplies. They are just passing a side street when Eli shrieks stop! and Professor Grigore brakes hard. The kids are out of the car in an instant and enter the narrow street at a dead run. They see one of the men punch the tourist again, knocking him to the ground. The muggers have only a second to notice two children racing toward them. The kids reach them before it occurs to the men that nobody can run that fast. Eli grabs the jacket of the nearest one, jerks him down to her height, and slaps him across his face and side of his head.
Professor Grigore backs up, turns the wheel sharply, and accelerates as he enters the narrow street in time to see the first mugger go down. Oskar ducks under a wild swing, jerks the second mugger off balance, and slaps him hard just as the car screeches to a stop.
The grownups jump out and quickly approach the three men. Professor Grigore observes that the muggers have similar injuries – blood coming from the mouth and from one ear. He makes sure their airways are clear and rolls them onto their side so they don't choke on their own blood.
Mr. Ávila kneels beside the tourist and uses his handkerchief to stanch the blood flowing from his nose. Professor Grigore turns from the muggers and helps Mr. Ávila lift the young man into the backseat. While they wrestle with the weight of his limp body, a billfold, travelers checks, and passport fall out of his jacket pocket.
Standing over the two muggers, the kids shrug and exchange a look of resignation. Fate delivered two bad guys to them, but under circumstances that preclude biting the muggers' throats and draining their blood.
Eli picks up the young man's glasses. Stomachs rumbling, the kids start toward the car. Mr. Ávila holds the back door for them, but Eli shakes her head and mouths the word blood. He gets it. The kids get into the front seat next to Professor Grigore.
The big tourist takes up so much of the backseat that Mr. Ávila has to squeeze next to him. Doors slam and Professor Grigore drives toward a hospital.
The young man groans. Keeping pressure on the bloody handkerchief, Mr. Ávila asks, "Where are you?"
"In Sweden. In Malmö."
"What day is this?"
Mr. Ávila holds up a finger and moves it up and down and back at forth. The eyes focus and follow the movement without hesitation.
"Do you have a headache?"
"No...but my eye hurts."
One of the tourist's eyes is already swelling shut.
Professor Grigore asks, "Concussion?"
"Not that a field test indicates, but the hospital may want additional tests."
"Which may take a while," Professor Grigore says, "unless we can beat the rush. Admissions can be crowded after hours, especially on the weekend. One of us may need to stay with him."
Eli chimes in, "Why don't we take him home!"
"I'm okay with that. He doesn't seem to have any serious injuries. He can clean up before we take him to his hotel or wherever. Oskar?"
"I'm good with that."
Mr. Ávila turns his attention to the young man. "What's your name?"
"Connor. What happened?"
"You tell me."
"I...I was trying to find a Christmas market, but I guess I took a wrong turn. I started to ask some guys for directions, and they jumped me."
"They stopped as soon as we turned onto your street," Mr. Ávila says by way of misdirection. He knows it won't do for Connor to wonder about the details.
"Are you okay with cleaning up at our house?"
"Sure. Thanks. The only thing is, my stuff is in my hotel room in Copenhagen."
The young man tries to sit up.
"Lie still. Keep pressure on your nose with the handkerchief."
Mr. Ávila takes off his jacket, rolls it up, and puts it under the young man's head to keep it elevated.
As soon as they arrive at the big house on Järavallsgatan, Oskar jumps out and opens the garage door. Professor Grigore pulls the Volvo alongside Mr. Ávila's old Fiat. Eli collects Connor's camera, traveler's checks, and papers, adding them to the eyeglasses she's already taking care of. In consideration of the children's feelings, Mr. Ávila ditches the bloody handkerchief in the trash bin and closes the lid.
Connor is able to get out of the car on his own, and the grownups help him stand. The men support him as Oskar runs ahead to open doors for them.
"He can lie down on Oskar's bed. Miss Eli, please put Connor's things on the dresser. Both of you go into hallway and wait. I need you to stay close."
The grownups remove Connor's boots and help him out of his bloody jacket and shirt.
Mr. Ávila sticks his head into the hallway and says, "Miss Eli, will you please bring me a damp washcloth?"
While the kids fidget outside the door, Mr. Ávila cleans the blood from Connor's face.
Professor Grigore empties the jacket pockets – a pack of cigarettes, loose change, a lighter, a handful of Danish and Swedish banknotes – and adds them to the pile on the dresser. He takes the jacket and shirt to the laundry room and rinses them out as best he can.
The air in the bedroom is still heavy with the smell of blood, but with no visible signs of it, Mr. Ávila says, "Okay kids, you may come in. Oh, and Oskar, will you please bring the bottle of Tylenol and a glass of water from my bathroom?"
Eli goes up to Connor and peers into this face. We saved him. He got hurt, but we saved him.
With Eli standing so close, Connor gazes at her and thinks, What an intriguing child. She's so quiet.
Oskar returns with the water and Tylenol, and Eli is all eyes as she watches Mr. Ávila shake out two pills from the bottle.
"Miss Eli, would you just stand out of the way for a minute? Please get a blanket from the closet, okay?"
Oskar wonders about Eli's attention to their guest, and he feels a pang of jealousy, but it just registers as a feeling of being excluded.
After Connor swallows the pills and drains the glass, Mr. Ávila leaves the bedroom and walks briskly toward the front of the house.
Connor finds his voice and says, "He called you Eli."
"Yes. And your name is Con-oor."
"Yes, Conoor," he says, assuming that's how Swedes hear his name.
He looks at Oskar and asks, "Are you Eli's brother?"
"No. Sort of. I'm Oskar." To Connor's American ear, it sounds like Oos-kar rather than Os-ker. He offers his hand and winces when Oskar squeezes it harder than he expected, almost like a challenge.
Connor looks at his hand and notices it's scraped. I must have hurt it during the scuffle, he thinks, and he returns his gaze to Eli. I'm looking into the eyes of a very caring child. Just looking at this little one takes my mind off the pain.
Mr. Ávila returns with a makeshift icepack – ice cubes wrapped in a hand towel – and an ounce or so of brandy in a glass.
"Connor's hand is hurt," Oskar says, by way of asserting his presence.
"I see that, Oskar. Scoot over, Miss Eli."
"Drink this, Connor. It will help you rest." After Connor swallows the brandy, Mr. Ávila gently places the icepack over his swollen eye.
Connor and Eli gaze at each other while Oskar fidgets.
"Oskar, there's a roll of gauze, tape, and a bottle of peroxide in my bathroom. And bring the tube of antibiotic ointment." Oskar comes back quickly with the supplies. Mr. Ávila's years of teaching gym are evident as he expertly cleans and bandages Connor's hand. He reluctantly gives up the notion that their guest could clean up and resume his journey, and he imagines problems that might arise if Connor is particularly observant – or curious.
But with Connor’s stuff in Copenhagen, Mr. Ávila accepts the obvious. "I don't think it's a good idea to put you on a boat tonight, Connor. We're experiencing unusually cold weather, and your jacket and shirt are wet. You'd be asking for pneumonia. Kids, are you okay with Connor staying here tonight?"
Eli nods vigorously and Oskar utters a noncommittal "Mm."
Connor says, "I'm really sorry for causing so much trouble."
"No problem. Glad we came along when we did. Kids, let's let the young man rest."
Oskar says, "See you tomorrow."
"Goodnight, Conoor," Eli says.
Connor takes her hand and squeezes it.
"Goodnight," he says and closes his eyes. As he drifts off, his fingers slowly slide from her hand.
"Are you coming, Miss Eli?"
Professor Grigore hangs up the shirt and jacket to dry in the laundry room and joins the rest of the family at the dining room table.
"I am concerned about Connor's eye. If he will allow it, I would like to take him first thing tomorrow to see a surgeon, one who worked with the police during the Lund investigations. He can tell us whether Connor needs treatment."
"Like?" Oskar asks.
"He could have broken facial bones, or the eye itself could be hemorrhaging."
Mr. Ávila notices the look of distress on Eli's face.
"And at least he can prescribe something for the pain. I can also ask him about leeches to remove the old blood from the bruise, although I think Swedish doctors have to order them from pharmacies in the UK."
"Leeches! Ew!" Eli says.
"That would be my reaction, too! But surgeons use them to keep down swelling during an operation, and leeches are good for dissolving severe bruises."
Oskar looks at Eli and says, "Ooo, I'm a leech. I live off blood."
"Okay, you worm, you," and she creeps toward Oskar, shaping her hands like claws.
The grownups laugh and turn back to the discussion while the kids pretend to stalk each other.
Mr. Ávila hasn't given up the notion of sending Connor on his way at the first chance. "Seeing the surgeon – that's up to Connor," he says. "We don't know anything about his plans. I imagine he'll want to get back to Copenhagen pretty quickly."
Eli stops playing and says, "No! He's hurt! He has to go see a doctor!"
"We can recommend it, Miss Eli, but it will be up to him."
"Then he might be gone when I get up?"
Oskar is ready to accept that he really is starting to feel jealous of all the attention their guest is getting, especially from Eli.
Mr. Ávila holds out his arms and Eli runs to him. "We don't know what he'll want to do. It's a shame he'll never know what you and Oskar did for him tonight."
With all eyes on Eli, Oskar makes another try for attention by mimicking a tough-guy voice from the movies. "Yeah, and it ain't over, see? We know those guys' faces, see?"
Professor Grigore smiles at Oskar. He gets up and pats him on the shoulder as he goes into the kitchen to ring Sassa's studio in case she's ready to take a break and maybe grab a bite.
Mr. Ávila turns to the kids. "Connor's passport says he's from Kansas. Where is Kansas?"
Eli looks hopefully toward Oskar, who says, "Um, Canada?"
"No, Oskar. Miss Eli?"
"Um, the USA?"
Oskar objects, "Kansas sounds like it should be in Canada – Kansas, Canada."
"Here's a chance for you to bear down on geography, Oskar." He tells them which video to watch and what he wants to see in their notebooks.
Mr. Ávila smiles as they head off to their classrooms.
When they finish their assignment and go upstairs to their pallet in the attic, Oskar asks, "What's the deal with you and Connor?"
"I don't know, Oskar."
"I don't know. Nothing. He's hurt and all, and we saved him. Will you lie down with me? Can we cuddle?"
Oskar and Eli are awake and still lying together in the hours before dawn. Eli sits up and says, "I'm going to check on Conoor," and she pulls on her sweats.
"Hurry back. There might be some leeeeches lurking around."
Eli smiles, plants a kiss on Oskar's cheek, and hugs him. She goes down the attic stairs and moves silently past Mr. Ávila's bedroom. With her enhanced vision, she sees that Connor is asleep, still lying on his back. The icepack has slipped from his face and is soaking the pillow.
Eli collects the spilled ice and wet towel and puts them in the lavatory in the bathroom. She comes back with a pillow from her bedroom, carefully raises Connor's head, and replaces his wet pillow.
She thinks, This feels a little like Karlstad when I was taking care of my Oskar. It feels like I'm doing something good, instead of...
She pulls up a chair and sits with her elbows on the bed, chin propped in her hands. She breathes in the relatively unfamiliar smell of tobacco and spirits.
Connor groans and stirs. Eli moves back and sits up. He opens his eye and can just make out that Eli is watching him, although he can't see her features. On impulse, he drowsily reaches up to stroke her hair.
She thinks, That means he likes me helping him, right?
"Isn't it late for you to be up?" he asks.
Eli doesn't know how to answer.
"Well?" he asks. "Are you just going to stare at me like I've got two heads?"
Eli reaches over and caresses his cheek. "I'm sorry your nice face got hurt."
Connor stares after her when she gets up and goes out of the room. She comes back with a glass of water and the bottle of Tylenol. Just as she saw Mr. Ávila do earlier, she gives Connor two pills. He swallows them and drains the water glass.
Eli says, "You need to go to sleep so you'll get better."
"Shouldn't you be in bed, too?"
"Close your eyes. I'll sit with you until you fall asleep."
Connor holds a fist toward Eli and extends his pinky finger.
She doesn't know what that means. Connor finds her hand and hooks his pinky around hers.
With their fingers locked, Connor experiences a deep sense of peace. He thinks – A little angel is watching over me. But as he drifts off, he wonders, Do angels have eyes that shine in the dark? Maybe I have a concussion after all.
When Connor's breathing becomes regular, Eli slowly withdraws her hand. She thinks of her beloved waiting for her on their pallet, and suddenly, more than anything in the world, she wants to be with Oskar.
While Mr. Ávila is enjoying a cup of coffee at the dining room table, the sound of running water lets him know their guest is up. After a few minutes, he hears the back door open and, in a bit, he hears the door open and close again. The sound of Connor's heavy tread and the smell of cigarette smoke precede him as he comes through the big front room and into the dining room.
Mr. Ávila thinks, He must really need his glasses. They can't be comfortable with his eye so swollen.
He stands up to greet Connor with a handshake and thinks, Dios, no wonder it took the two of us to lift him into the car. He must weigh 15 stone, and he looks to be over six feet tall.
"Good morning, Connor. I hope you rested well."
"I guess I did, Mister, uh..."
"Ávila, but you may call me Fernando. I see you found your shirt and jacket. Looks like you're ready to go."
"And my smokes and my other stuff. I can't thank you and your family enough for taking care of me."
"We may not be done yet. Professor Grigore wants you to see a doctor this morning."
"I don't know that I need a doctor. Anyway, I'm travelling on a shoestring..."
"Well, if you're ready to go to the ferry terminal, I can call a taxi for you. The thing is, Professor Grigore is on his way. If you don't talk to him, I'll have to answer to Miss Eli."
"Why is that?"
"She seems to have taken a proprietary interest in your health, and she says you need to see a doctor."
"She’s a very caring child, isn't she?”
“You can count on that, Connor.”
So – what? – they're in school now?"
Mr. Ávila thinks, Here come the questions. "No, their classes are at night. They're asleep."
"Yes. They sleep until mid-afternoon. That's when their day starts."
"I guess that explains something."
Mr. Ávila looks puzzled.
"I mean Eli's visit last night. I wondered why she was still awake."
"Yes, sir. She brought me some Tylenol and a glass of water."
"You didn't wake up and change your pillow?"
"No. I guess she did."
Now even more uncomfortable with a guest under their roof, Mr. Ávila says, "Before you ask, Connor, the children's schedule is dictated by their pale skin. They think people look at them as freaks. After they wake up, they'll have classes here at the house."
"They're really special then, aren't they? What are they studying?"
"The usual middle school subjects. When they finish their homework, they work in their darkroom in the attic."
"Wait, those photos in the bedroom and hallway are theirs?"
"Yes. Other than their classes, photography is mainly what they do."
"Wow, they're really good!"
"Professor Grigore and I think so. I imagine photography will become more than a hobby as they get older."
Connor becomes quiet. With an air of resolve, he says, "Sir, this is a lot of new stuff for me. I guess that's why people travel. I'm grateful for what you've done for me. I don't mean to pry into family matters."
"I appreciate that, Connor, and they will too. Any reference to how special they seem could embarrass them deeply."
At that moment, Professor Grigore lets himself in and joins them in the dining room.
"No, don't get up. How do you feel, Connor?"
"I guess I feel okay. Better than I look."
"I am concerned about your eye. I have arranged for a doctor to see you this morning. No charge. Professional courtesy."
"Professional courtesy...you're a doctor?"
"Not a medical doctor. The surgeon who will examine you is a police colleague."
Connor looks confused. "Police?"
Professor Grigore takes a thin folder from an inner pocket of his tweed jacket and opens it to show Connor his police ID.
"I'm a forensic scientist, and the police occasionally ask me to be part of a criminal investigation."
"Whoa, I'm impressed, sir. But does that mean I have to give you a statement? Or look at pictures?"
Professor Grigore laughs. "No. I only work with the department when there is a serious crime and they need me to tell them what their evidence points to."
"Whew! That's good. But hey, I really don't want to be any more trouble. You guys have been great, and I'm ready to get out of your hair."
"It's up to you. If you want to go back to Copenhagen now, your shirt will be okay if you keep your jacket zipped all the way up. And Mr. Ávila can bandage your eye so you don't frighten the natives."
"Ha ha! That's funny. But look, I don't think doctors can do anything for a black eye, can they? This isn't the first time I've ever been punched."
"How does your eye feel?"
"It aches. It's kind of throbbing."
"Hm. If any of the bones around your eye is broken, it will hurt a lot more before it gets better. Also, without a proper examination, you do not know whether your eye is bleeding internally. If so, you could lose the sight in that eye."
Connor thinks for a moment and says, "Sounds like you know what you're talking about, sir."
"Yes. As the kids say, 'Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.'"
Mr. Ávila asks, "Does Connor have time for breakfast before you take him?"
"Could you eat an omelet?"
"Sure, but..." he starts to say, but Mr. Ávila is already up and walking into the kitchen. These guys are used to getting their way, he thinks, and anyhow, there's no rush to leave. I mean, I'm on vacation, right?
Mr. Ávila takes out olive oil and eggs. Parsley. Salt and pepper. It won't be a proper Spanish omelet without potatoes, but potatoes would take too long to cook.
"Would you like anything, Professor Grigore?"
"Coffee is fine, Señor Ávila. Sassa and I had breakfast before I dropped her at the studio."
Dr. Luka opens the door to his office and says, "Hello, Constantin, good to see you again. I take it this banged-up specimen is Connor."
"Yes, thanks for opening your office on a Saturday. Hell of a welcome he got from some would-be muggers last night."
"I hope you got them."
"No. We had to attend to Connor, but I got a good look at them."
"Good! Connor, follow me to my examining room."
Dr. Luka has Connor sit on a low stool next to the examining table. He holds Connor's eye open so he can peer into it with a scope.
"No bleeding. Cover your eyes with your hands and tell me what you see."
"Er, nothing. Am I supposed to see something?"
"You don't see flashes of light? Floaters?"
"Probably no damage to your retina, then. You got lucky. You took a heck of a blow. As I press the bones around your eye, tell me what hurts."
Connor flinches at the pressure, but when Dr. Luka works his way to the frontal bone above his eye, Connor jumps and yells ouch!
Dr. Luka writes something on a prescription pad and tells Connor to take it to the X-ray lab on the floor above them. "Wait for the results and bring the X-ray back here so I can look at it."
He writes an order for pain medication on a second prescription blank. "The pharmacy on the street level can fill this."
After Connor goes out, Professor Grigore says he hates to put him on the boat back to Copenhagen looking so bad. "Would you mind covering his eye with something so people won't stare at him?"
"Sure, but I can do something better than that. On the phone you mentioned the possibility of leeches. As it happens, a pharmacy in Edinburgh sends me a batch every so often. I use leeches anytime I operate on a joint, like a knee or elbow. Keeps the swelling down so I can work faster."
When Connor comes back, Dr. Luka clips the X-ray onto his light box and studies it. "You're good, Connor. Nothing broken. But there's something more I can do for you. Left alone, your shiner is going to look like crap for four to five weeks. Even longer. Want to try something?"
Dr. Luka leaves the examining room and returns with a jar of what looks to Connor like something out of a nightmare.
"This is the proper treatment for a deep bruise. Have you heard of medical uses of leeches?"
"Not...well...not in modern times, but, uh..."
"Some older procedures still have a place in modern medicine. You see, the leeches will draw out the old blood so fresh blood can reach the injured area. You need that for more rapid healing, not to mention your eye will look and feel better."
"Dr. Luka, this is turning into a strange vacation. I'm pretty creeped out by the idea of having leeches on me. How...how will you get them off?"
"They drop off once they've done their work. Could be in as little as a half-hour, but probably longer. Let's say an hour." He holds up two fingers behind his back for Professor Grigore to see. "Lie back. We'll be right here with you."
He cleans the area around Connor's eye with alcohol. The first two leeches attach right away. Dr. Luka swabs one of Connor's fingertips with alcohol and takes an instrument from a cabinet.
"This won't hurt," he says, and jabs Connor's finger.
"Ow! You said it wouldn't hurt!"
"I didn't feel a thing."
Connor groans at Dr. Luka's lame joke.
Dr. Luka collects a few drops of blood on a cotton swab and smears it on the bruised area. The third leech attaches, then a fourth and fifth.
I feel pretty nervous about having leeches attached to me. But these guys didn't really give me a choice. Sheesh. I could be on the way to my hotel by now. But it's hard to say "no" to people who don't hear the word very often.
The last leech drops off almost two hours later, and Dr. Luka helps Connor sit up. He hands him a mirror and asks, "What do you think now, young man?"
"Oh my God! My eye looks so much better! I can open it!"
Professor Grigore says, "Dr. Luka, you are a gentleman and a scholar."
"As are you, my good friend."
After they stop at the pharmacy, Professor Grigore says, "Let's see if we can find a shirt your size."
It's nearly mid-afternoon when they get back to the house. They join Mr. Ávila at the dining room table, and he pours coffee for them.
"You cleaned up nicely. I suppose you're ready to head back to Copenhagen."
Connor doesn't answer right away. When he does, he says, "Sir, I've already seen a lot of Copenhagen, and I haven't seen any of Malmö. I'm sort of thinking about getting a hotel room and bringing my stuff over."
Mr. Ávila says, "That would make somebody happy. She was distressed that you might be gone when she wakes up."
"Could I stay until they wake up? I'd like to see them before I take the boat back."
"Of course, Connor. We can use the time to find a room in Malmö for you. Room rates are through the roof for the holidays, but I imagine you can get one for a little less than you're paying in Copenhagen."
Professor Grigore says he can make a couple of calls, and Mr. Ávila says he has a newspaper in his room.
I guess it's a tradeoff, Mr. Ávila thinks. At least Connor won't be staying here at the house.
Eli opens her eyes. She hears the grownups talking, but she doesn't hear Connor.
Her internal clock tells her it's still a minute or two before sunset. The front room won't be safe until then because its large windows face west.
Oskar begins to stir.
With the sun safely below the horizon, Eli descends the stairs to the hallway and enters the front room. Looking into the dining room, she sees an empty chair pulled away from the table and a coffee cup in front of it. She smells Connor's odor – his blend of tobacco and sweat – but her enhanced hearing tells her he isn't in the house.
He was sitting right there talking to them. I just missed him.
She holds her arms straight down by her side, her fists clenched.
I didn't get to say goodbye.
Mr. Ávila looks up just as her face crumples and she begins to cry.
No, it's just a dream. I'll wake up and come down the stairs and Connor will be sitting there talking to them and he'll see me and he'll smile and...
"Miss Eli," Mr. Ávila says, "Connor's still here." But Eli stands rooted to the spot, wailing loudly enough that the words don't register.
Oskar dresses quickly and heads down the stairs to see what's wrong with Eli.
Between sobs Eli hears the backdoor open, and a second later she catches the smell of cigarette smoke. She turns and goes running down the hall.
Oskar reaches the last few steps. He sees that Eli's face is wet with tears, and he sees her big smile. As she races past him, she squeals, "Conoor!"
That sounds like Ingrid squealing "Viktor!" at the theater when she jumped up and ran to him. Oskar's shoulders slump. Crap, Eli. It's like that, is it? He turns around and starts to walk back up to the attic.
Mr. Ávila enters the front room in time to see Eli halfway down the hall, holding Connor’s hand, grinning and dragging him forward like a prize.
Glancing at Oskar retreating to the attic, Mr. Ávila calls out, "Oskar, where are you going? Come see how much better our guest looks."
Oskar stops, turns, and starts back down, his face wooden, betraying nothing of the confusion of feelings jostling for attention.
Eli drags Connor past him, and Oskar trails along behind them into the dining room. Connor extracts his hand from Eli's and extends it to Oskar. "How are you doing, pal?"
He expects a firm, almost challenging handshake again, but Oskar's hand is limp.
Connor senses that something is up. "Call that a handshake? This is a handshake." He increases the pressure and Oskar responds in kind. Connor squeezes even harder, and Oskar gets a mischievous smile on his face and doubles the force.
"Whoa!" Connor says. "You've got a heck of a grip! Come here, pal," and he pulls Oskar close and puts an arm around his shoulders.
Oskar doesn't resist. He just says, "Steady, old man. You'll make Eli jealous."
"Gyah, Oskar," Eli says and rolls her eyes. "Hey, doesn't Conoor look about a million times better?"
Oskar laughs and says, "Maybe only a thousand."
As Mr. Ávila watches the scene play out, he senses that something is being resolved, but he has no clue as to what it might be. He relaxes a little, relieved that he no longer feels tension in the room.
Oskar looks at the grownups. "What's the plan?"
Connor answers, "I'm taking the boat to Copenhagen. These gentlemen found a room for me, so I'll check out of my hotel tomorrow morning and bring my stuff to...where is it?"
"Near Limhamns torg," Professor Grigore says.
Eli lights up. "There's a bus stop at Limhamns torg! He can take the 34, then transfer to the 4 and get off at Sibbarpsvägan!"
"Yeah," Oskar says, "and then a short walk to here."
Professor Grigore pushes his chair back and stands up. "Ready, Connor? Get your things. We can check out your new room, and then I'll drop you at the ferry terminal."
The little family sees Professor Grigore and Connor off. As soon as Mr. Ávila closes the front door, he turns to the kids and says, "Let's talk."
Oskar catches his gym-teacher tone of voice. He and Eli walk quickly into the dining room and take seats at the table. Eli sees that Oskar is sitting up straight with his hands folded in front of him, so she sits up straight and folds her hands.
"Kids, we're going to have people in and out for the next few days. I don't think Connor and Sassa will be asking questions, but they might in all innocence. I want you to be careful what you say."
"Like what?" Eli asks.
"Oh, what you eat. When you eat. Stuff like that."
"Well," Oskar asks, "what do we say?"
Mr. Ávila looks at him.
"Oh, we don't say anything, right?"
"And we give them a look, like this," Eli adds, miming what she thinks is a withering stare. "We've been practicing it!"
"Miss Eli, just refer them to me, please. And remember, our guests have eyes. Make sure you have clothes on when you're up."
"But we already know that," Eli says.
"What our guests also have is a sense of smell. Put on fresh clothes after every bath, and put anything you've worn, even once, in the laundry room."
He adds, "And, don't pick up heavy furniture and all with one hand."
"Gyah, we know that, too."
"Now let's clean house top to bottom and air the place out. Bring your pallet and anything else I can wash. Eli, will you take the vacuum cleaner upstairs and get started on the attic?"
Eli runs to the utility closet, picks up the heavy vacuum cleaner with one hand, and puts it over her shoulder like a hobo's stick.
Mr. Ávila raises his eyes to heaven and shakes his head.
"Oh. Sorry," Eli says and pretends to struggle with it as though it were too heavy for her, which gets a big laugh from Oskar and Mr. Ávila.
"Oskar, help Miss Eli straighten the darkroom, bring stuff down to wash, and then you can help me open all of our windows while she vacuums."
In just over an hour, the house is clean, neat, and aired out. The kids are ready to shower, so they strip off their sweats and sneakers in the hall.
Sighing resignedly, Mr. Ávila picks them up and takes them to the laundry room to start the first load of wash.
When Oskar and Eli emerge from their bedrooms, they are also clean, neat, and aired out. As they pass Mr. Ávila's room, they see he's sitting in his easy chair cutting things from a newspaper.
He sets the paper and clippings aside and says, "Come in! Great job on the house, kids. Now I've got another job for you, or, really, a study assignment."
"What subject?" Oskar asks.
"History and English Lit combined – Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth."
"How can it be both?" Eli asks.
"Well, it's a play, but it's based on historical events. The 1944 film version of the play stars Laurence Olivier, a popular British actor. I have a study guide and workbook for each of you. Your assignment is to answer the questions in the workbook. You'll also need to use your atlas to find places in England and France that are in the play."
"Great!" Eli says. "We love movies."
"And you'll love this one. The thing is, it's a play and a film. It starts out about 400 years ago at Shakespeare's Globe Playhouse where actors are putting on the play. As I recall, it turns into the movie during the battle of Agincourt, and then ends back at the Globe."
Oskar and Eli look at each other.
"Don't worry. You'll get it. But look, I know it's Christmas. I'll just ask you to find time each day for the play. You've got a week to complete the workbooks, okay?"
The children nod vigorously.
Mr. Ávila gets up, goes to his bookshelf, and takes down the tape and study materials, which the kids grab and go running to one of their classrooms.
Of course they don't open their workbooks or study guides, and they don't take their atlas from the shelf.
Oskar puts the tape in. His finger hovers above the play button.
"Are you sure you can concentrate on the movie? It might not have Conoor in it."
"What do you mean?"
"Since he got here, everything has been about him."
"Oskar! It has not! We both saved him, and we both got stuff to help him when Mr. Ávila put him in your bedroom."
"Yeah, and after that it was all googly eyes between you two."
"You're jealous of Conoor?"
"I wouldn't say jealous. Just, you know, kind of feeling left out."
Part of Eli wants to hug Oskar, to kiss his cheek and reassure him. But another part wants to stamp her little foot and storm out, hurt by what she perceives as the unfairness of his words.
Instead, she chooses to glare at him. "One word, Oskar – Ingrid."
"Ingrid? I thought you were okay about that."
"Yeah, except I wanted to wring both of your scrawny necks!"
"But...but you never said anything."
"Like that would've made a difference."
"You don't know. It might have."
"I do know. Whatever I said, you would still want to be with her, and I would still be jealous. Anyway, I knew you would be with me when you two got tired of acting silly. After Örebro, you know nothing can come between us for long."
"Eli, I'm really sorry. I thought, you know, you were just worried about me getting hurt. I didn't know you were jealous."
"Okay, then I'm sorry I paid so much attention to Conoor."
"Nah, we're good. We'll be three pals. It'll be fun."
Oskar pushes play.
Ten minutes into the film, they're lost. They look at each other, turn off the tape, and open their study guides.
After Mr. Ávila goes to bed, they put on their black sweats. It will be a long night for them. However good the hunting in Rosengård turns out to be, it's pretty far from Limhamn.
Oskar and Eli wake up early because of a new and wonderful scent in the house.
"Oskar! It smells like we're in the forest!"
"I bet I know why."
"Because the house was magically transported?"
"Ha ha! No, you goose. It must be the Christmas tree."
They dress quickly and spend the remaining few minutes – until the west-facing front room of the house is safe to enter – by speculating on what they'll find. Eli says, "I bet the tree is all decorated and has tons of presents under it!" Eli's experience doesn't include personal encounters with Christmas trees, but she has seen decorated ones in store windows.
Oskar waits for Eli's slightest movement. When her finely tuned internal clock goes ding, she starts to move, but Oskar springs to the landing a step ahead of her. They tumble down the stairs to the hallway and into the front room, shoving and elbowing each other to be the first to see the tree.
And there it is – very large and lying on its side. Just a tree. No decorations. No gifts. Cardboard boxes sit on the floor beside it, a large one overflowing with decorations and an unopened one holding a contraption that will serve as the base.
Responding to the tumult, Mr. Ávila comes out of his room and walks down the hallway to join them. "What do you think, kids?"
"Mr. Ávila, um, are we supposed to decorate it and all?" Eli asks, feeling a bit daunted.
"We're going to do something a lot more fun, Miss Eli. Sassa and Professor Grigore are coming over later, and I'm counting on Connor showing up, too. We'll put up the tree and decorate it together."
Sublime, Eli thinks, but she doesn't say it. She just smiles. Oskar makes fun of her when she overuses a new word. And really, she's not quite sure what sublime means, but she heard Sassa say it when they were standing in front of a beautifully decorated store window during the shopping trip.
In spite of his many years of living in Sweden, Mr. Ávila knows almost nothing about how to prepare a traditional Christmas meal. To that end he has been cutting out recipes from the newspaper, but he isn't far enough along in his shopping, so he bought the Swedish standby – good for all occasions – a small mountain of cinnamon buns.
But he has the ingredients for glögg, sweetened red wine mulled on the stove with raisins and blanched almonds. He even picked up a set of little mugs that glögg is traditionally served in. And anyway, he plans to go all out when the family and guests open presents on the 23rd. They will have their Christmas Eve dinner a day early so Professor Grigore and Sassa can celebrate on the 24th with Sassa's family. But for decorating the tree and wrapping gifts, cinnamon buns and glögg will have to do.
Or so Mr. Ávila thinks. Shows what the old bachelor knows. Of course Sassa will bring holiday food, her gift to the house.
The smell of glögg simmering on the stove greets Connor. Eli runs to him and hugs him around the waist. Oskar offers his hand, which Connor shakes cordially, and he tells the kids all about his new room and the nice lunch he had at Limhamns torg. He also recounts his adventures with the Malmö bus system, from the ferry terminal this morning and now to the bus stop near their street.
While they are chatting, Professor Grigore and Sassa show up with traditional Christmas food that will supplement the cinnamon buns. She sets down her shopping bags of food and gifts so she can greet Mr. Ávila. She takes both of his hands and says, "Señor Ávila, I am honored that you and the children invited me into your home."
"Señor? Oh, but you must address me as Fernando," he says and kisses her hand.
Sassa marvels at the way Constantin and Mr. Ávila formally address each other. She senses it has to do with the Old World courtesy that she loves so much about Constantin. Living in an officially classless society, she hasn't encountered the polite formulas that other parts of Europe employ to uphold class distinctions and to honor old family lineages.
She looks around, impressed at how neat Mr. Ávila keeps the house, although she isn't surprised at the Spartan furnishings. After all, it's home to a bachelor and two children.
Mr. Ávila is delighted to work with Sassa in the kitchen by helping her find containers and serving utensils. He asks her to hang on for a minute, goes to his room, and comes back with the recipes he clipped from newspapers. Since the 23rd will be a smörgåsbord with tons of food, he and Sassa put their heads together and decide who will prepare which dishes.
With the food now on the table, Oskar and Eli take the opportunity to show Sassa and Connor the whole house. Mr. Ávila's heart swells at the evident pride the children take in their home. He thinks again about how well things have worked out for them – from living on the run with dirty clothes and matted hair to living the normal life most children take for granted.
Like Connor before her, Sassa shows a keen interest in the photographs pinned and taped up everywhere. "These are all so great! But why are there no pictures of you and the grownups?"
The kids look at Mr. Ávila. "These are all formal studies by two budding professionals, Sassa. I don't encourage snapshots, nor does their mentor, your beau."
Sassa thinks – my beau – and is charmed anew by the men's old-fashion way of talking. She nods to indicate she gets it, but she wonders whether the children's self-consciousness about their pallor makes them reluctant to appear in photographs.
When the kids' tour leads at last to the attic darkroom, Sassa thinks – It's like a production line, as orderly as the setup at my studio. They really do seem like young professionals.
With the children's impromptu tour concluded, it's time to pay attention to the tree. Fortunately, Sassa is a dab hand at it, so she directs setting it up and decorating it.
Once Professor Grigore and Connor have the tree standing straight, Sassa begins distributing decorations to Connor and to the kids – strings of little Swedish flags; lots of straw elves, goats, and angels; cutouts of candles, snowflakes, and stars; and glass balls and red lacquered hearts.
Neither Oskar nor Eli have ever decorated a Christmas tree. Each year Oskar's mom just brought out the same small artificial tree, already decorated. But Connor knows what he's doing, so the part left to him, the highest part of the tree, looks pretty okay. The kids' excitement as they race around hanging ornaments goes from merely frenetic to off-the-chart, and their shouts and shrieks follow suit. The lower half of the tree takes on a charmingly haphazard look.
When they step back to admire their work, Eli moves close to Sassa and, in a low voice, says, "Sublime." They look at each other and share a knowing smile.
After a moment, Sassa says, "Oh no! We forgot to put the star on top. I seem to forget to do that every Christmas."
"Let me!" Eli says, and everyone stares at the diminutive child as she steps on the heels of her sneakers and kicks them off.
"Conoor, stand like this!" she says and pushes and pulls him into position facing the tree.
"Stand still! Don't move!"
Star in hand, she scrambles up Connor's back to stand on his shoulders.
Connor thinks, She's as light and quick as a monkey.
She pulls the top of the tree toward her and attaches the star.
"How's that?" she chirps.
Everyone agrees it looks just fine. Connor reaches up to help her, but she steps from his shoulders and lands lightly on her feet, raises her arms and says, "Ta-da!"
Connor wonders about her remarkable agility, but he bites his tongue and just says, "Good job!"
Eli runs to Mr. Ávila for an approving hug. He shakes his head and thinks – God, Miss Eli, you're such an irrepressible little sprite.
Before they begin the gift-wrapping session, they assemble in the dining room and kitchen to fill plates with food and refill mugs with glögg. Sassa brought sausages, meatballs, spareribs, and dried codfish – a sampling of what the Christmas dinner will be on the 23rd.
Mr. Ávila is happy that things are going smoothly, glad that no one remarks about Eli's acrobatic display. Sassa wonders why the kids stay near the tree and don't dig into the food. She opens her mouth to call them, but she thinks better of it when she sees that Mr. Ávila is looking at her. She closes her mouth – but she keeps her eyes open.
And with her sharp eyes, she sees how happy her beloved Constantin is. He can't stop beaming at being able to socialize with Sassa in the house that has been a second home to him for more than half a year. And Sassa, knowing that this is not the time to question Señor Ávila about the children, instead corners Connor and asks about his trip and what it's like to live in Kansas.
Once everyone has eaten, Sassa and Mr. Ávila tidy up the kitchen. Alone in each other's company again, she gathers her courage. "Fernando, I almost embarrassed the children by calling them to dinner."
"No harm done." He studies her face for a moment before he adds, "Their condition requires a special diet."
Mr. Ávila's somber look doesn't encourage further discussion. A moment later, Sassa feels relieved when his face brightens and he gives her a big smile. "Let's wrap some gifts," he says.
Now Sassa looks over her crew and thinks, I'm not going to get much gift-wrapping help from this lot. She divides the front room into two areas – one for her and Eli, one for Oskar and the men, whom she directs to start making labels for their presents while she and Eli begin labeling and wrapping Eli's gifts for the guys and for Ingrid.
With the first batch wrapped, Eli has to go to another part of the big room while Sassa wraps Oskar's gifts for her. In this way, one after another, all the gifts get wrapped without anyone seeing what they're getting.
When Sassa has placed the last gift under the tree, she takes the already-wrapped gifts from the shopping bag and adds them to the pile. That's Mr. Ávila's signal to excuse himself. He takes the stairs two at a time to the attic. In the storeroom, he removes a blanket to reveal a long package, already gift wrapped and labeled, "To the Best Children in the World." When he comes back down and puts it under the tree, the kids run to it.
"You mean us?" Eli asks. Mr. Ávila just smiles and hugs them a little longer and a little tighter than usual.