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Once Bitten

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 14

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11 August 1983 – 8:13 p.m. Danderyd

The minister spoke the words to the steady beep of the cardiorespiratory monitor and poured the water onto the infant’s forehead.  It trickled down his temple until it was caught on a folded pad of clean, white cloth.  “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Kurt stood off to the side of Gabe’s bed, watching as Jon and Britt thanked the minister for coming to help and offer his support.  He thought it ironic that he had been able to attend Gabe’s baptism after all.  He should’ve been happy about that, but of course, no one had expected it to happen in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Bacterial meningitis.  That’s what the lumbar puncture had shown late yesterday evening.  Somehow, bacteria—they weren’t yet sure exactly what kind—had found its way into his nervous system and had infected the covering of his brain.  Now he was getting intravenous antibiotics to try and save his life.  Flora had related what the doctor had told Britta: that his illness was fatal 30 percent of the time.

He looked at the little bundle of tissue that was Gabe.  Instead of the brightly colored footie jammies that Britta favored, he was half-naked in a diaper that seemed too large for him and covered with tubes, wires, white gauze and bandages.  His little mouth, which usually could be persuaded to smile with some gentle bouncing on Kurt’s knee, was now covered by tape that secured a tube inserted down his windpipe. His first grandchild, barely a month old, and here he was, sedated and attached to a mechanical ventilator.  Fighting to live.

He suddenly marveled at their pathetic circumstances.  It seemed hard to believe that in the latter half of the 20th Century, infections still claimed lives in places like Stockholm, which offered some of the finest medical care in the world.  Yet here they were, huddled around a little baby who was probably dying, praying for him and making sure he was baptized before it was too late. 

Life, it seemed, was still terribly fragile, even in the modern age.  He understood, perhaps moreso than most people, that death lingered around every corner, ready to claim the unwary, despite all of the efforts to deny it, delay it, and defeat it. It seemed as though the older he got, the more keenly he felt the proximity of death; grasped its nearness to everyday life.  Nobody lived forever.

Or so he had thought.

He excused himself from his family, telling them that he wanted to go down to the cafeteria and get a cup of coffee.

As he waited for the elevator, he reflected on the call he’d received from Dr. Larson, the deputy chief medical examiner, a half hour after Martin had left.  Larson had done the autopsy on the Fransson girl who’d died over in Sundbyberg.  He was an old friend of Kurt’s who had begun his career as a forensic pathologist in 1968, five years after Kurt had moved up to Homicide.  They’d worked together on many cases over the years.

“Hi, Kurt.”

“Hey, Joel.”  Kurt tried to remember whether Larson owed him any labs on his open cases, but couldn’t think of a thing.  “What’s going on?”

“I wanted to let you know that I think they made a big mistake, taking you off the Christensen case.  And then putting you on leave—that wasn’t right.”

“Mmm.  Well, I appreciate that, Joel.  I know I stuck my neck out—”

Joel chuckled.  “way out—”

Irritated but maintaining his composure, Kurt continued. “. . . yeah—way out—but the facts are what they are, you know?”

“That they are.  I wish I could’ve assisted on the Christensen post.  But I wanted you to know that a lot of people down here in the basement feel the same way I do about what’s going on.”

“Thanks.”

“But hey, Kurt, I wanted to let you know something else.  This is strictly on the QT, but I figured if anyone should know this, it should be you.”

Kurt’s ears pricked up.  “What’s that?”

“I did the post on that woman in Sundbyberg.  You know—the skydiver?”

Kurt chuckled.  “Yeah. Fransson.”

“Right.”

“And?”

“She was injured before she hit that apartment wall, Kurt.”

There was a pause.  “How’d you determine that?”

“Her right wrist--most of the bones in it were crushed.  Couldn’t have been caused by impact—wrong pattern.”

“Crushed?  How?”

“Don’t know, but the damage went all the way around.   Scaphoid, triquetrum--even the ends of the radius and ulna were fractured.  And her right shoulder was dislocated too, although I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t from the impacts.”

“How about timing?”

“Had to have been within 15 to 20 minutes of death, because there wasn’t enough time for any hematoma to develop, or even any swelling.  I mean, we’re talking minutes before.”

“Could it have happened immediately before she died?”

“Yes.”

“Well, thanks for letting me know that, Joel.”

“But hey, Kurt . . . I mean, what do you think?”

“About . . . ?”

“You know.  About your theory.  You think this might be related?”

Kurt closed his eyes and imagined a small girl with black hair grabbing a grown woman by the wrist, hoisting her up into the air, then—what?  Flinging her?

His instincts told him clamp down.  Gotta be careful what I say.

“Don’t know, Joel.  Don’t know.”

There was disappointed silence at the other end of the line.  He knew he should say more; Larson had disclosed confidential information to him, and now wanted something in return.  Not playing the game risked damaging his friendship with Larson, but there was too much at stake right now.  Finally, to move the conversation forward he said, “Who’s investigating that—Hagen?”

“Yeah.”

“What’d you tell him?”

“Same thing I just told you.”

“What’d he make of it?”

“Nothing.  I put it in my report, and I haven’t heard squat.”

“Well, I’d be curious to know if anything comes of it.” 

“No problem, Kurt.  I’ll let you know if I hear more.” Kurt knew he wouldn’t.

“Thanks, Joel.”

“You bet.  See you soon, right?”

“Right.”

He stepped outside and stood on the sidewalk by the taxi stand with his coffee.  With a practiced hand, he put a cigarette in his mouth and lit up.  He was glad that Flora had remained in Gabe’s room with Brit so she wouldn’t give him any of that silent disapproval crap that she was so good at.  After all, every man was entitled to at least one vice.

It was a beautiful evening.   The sun had already disappeared behind the hospital towers at his back, and with its departure the air had grown cooler.  The moon wasn’t out yet, but soon would be, he supposed.

Somewhere out there was something he didn’t understand.  Something that had the shape of a little girl, but yet had supernatural strength and abilities.  Something that was extremely dangerous and had to be caught.

His restless mind worked over the details of his investigation like a sewing needle moving relentlessly through fabric, trying to understand and make sense of everything. 

Assume he was right and she really was a vampire.  Assume she needs human blood to live.  Why would she rely on a human helper to get blood for her?  Wouldn’t it be easier for her to get it by herself, if she was so strong?  Was it to reduce the risk of detection?  To avoid a pattern of victims, all bitten in the neck?  Or to serve as a scapegoat in case things went south?  Maybe all of those reasons.

The helper kills the first kid on October 21, but for whatever reason, leaves his jug behind.  Probably interrupted by the girls who found the body; got scared and ran away.  Then three days later, Bengtsson gets nailed at the underpass.  This time, the vampire herself goes out.  Fed up with the helper?  Was the helper injured?  Not clear.

He thought he had the killing method figured out.  There hadn’t been any second person, according to Bohman; just the kid.  This thing looks like a little girl, according to the hospital receptionist.  Who would be afraid of a little girl?  So somehow, she tricks Bengtsson into getting close to her, then grabs him.  Once she’s got him in her arms, it’s all over; she’s squeezing the shit out of him, and there’s no escape.  Then she bites him, and then . . .

Why twist the neck?  That was the part he couldn’t figure out.  To make sure he was dead?  He’d have to be dead if she’d sucked out all the blood.  The only thing that twisting the head would add would be to break the spinal cord--twist it right in two.  And both of the later two guys who’d been squeezed had been similarly treated.

She’d fed on TRK—he was the only one they could really prove did have his blood drained via a bite--but didn’t twist his neck.  Why?  Of course, his neck had broken anyway when he hit that awning.  Jesus.  The thing wants to make sure that something doesn’t happen, something involving the spinal cord, maybe the brain.  But what?

He’d already figured that the thing needed to eat about once every two weeks, judging from the period of time between Bengtsson’s death and the attack on Lind.  So Lind gets attacked on November 6.  But the attack is interrupted by Sorensson, who kicks the kid off his girlfriend.  Lind is wounded, but not killed.  Three days later, she goes up in flames when the poor, unsuspecting nurse yanks up the blinds.

He paused.

She was bitten, but didn’t die until exposed to the sun.

Lind had been infected.  The only difference was . . . .

The image of Gabe, lying in his bed upstairs, came to him--infected with meningitis.

Her neck--it hadn’t been broken.

He felt a surge of adrenaline.  Suddenly he didn’t want his cigarette anymore.  He took one last drag and flipped it into the cigarette tray on top of the trash can.  Then he swallowed the rest of his coffee.

The thing had broken their necks to keep them from turning into vampires.  The infection traveled through the nervous system.

Later, Kurt lay in his bed, his mind still restless.  Flora rested beside him in the darkness.

It didn’t want to make new vampires.  Why not?

Maybe it didn’t want competition?  Or was it just because it realized that making more was a bad thing? 

He thought it ridiculous that the logical analysis of evidence had brought him to wondering about a question like this.  I’m crawling into the mind of a vampire.  I ought to be committed.  If the Chief knew what he was thinking, he really would be fired, he supposed.

He grinned to himself.  So, maybe it was altruistic?

She’s altruistic?

It.

She.

Her--a girl.

Dammit.  Was it an ‘it’ or a ‘she’?

He looked over at Flora, wondering if she was still awake.  He wanted to talk to someone who didn’t think like himself, like a cop.  He thought of himself as a very left-brained kind of guy.  Flora was a woman; he’d come to understand, after almost 40 years of marriage, that she thought about things differently than he did.  She was very intuitive, and tended to see things through the prism of personal relationships.  She was usually very insightful about other people and their motivations.  Sometimes in past cases, she had been very helpful in seeing the facts in a new and useful light. 

He gently nudged her.  “Are you still awake?”

Her voice, sleepy and a little irritated.  “I am now.”  A pause; then wearily: “What?”

“I need to talk to you--about my case.  Do you mind?”

A grumpy sigh, followed by a creak as she turned over in their bed to face him.  “What time is it?  Don’t tell me you’re still obsessing about this vampire thing.”

He rolled his heavy, tired body onto his side to face her in the dark; found her hand with his.  “Yeah, I am.”

An even bigger sigh, but accompanied by a gentle squeeze that told him that she was willing to bear with him, even after an exhausting, stressful day keeping vigil at the hospital.  “Kurt, you know that no one is ever going to believe that a vampire is running around.  I still can’t understand why you did that.  You’re going to lose your job, if you’re not careful.”

“I don’t care what people believe, Flora.  I know what the evidence is, and I’m going to follow the evidence until I catch this thing, or they can me.  One or the other.”

Flora was not surprised by his response; this had been Kurt’s attitude throughout his career.  “Well, what do you want to talk about?”

“I’m trying to understand this thing—this creature.  If I can understand it, then I have a better chance of stopping it.”

“I thought it was supposed to be a girl.”

“Yeah, that’s right.  That’s what two or three witnesses have said.”

“Then why are you calling her an ‘it’?”

“Well, I . . . I suppose I’m just having a hard time imagining a vampire being a little girl, for starters.  That maybe . . . maybe it’s something else, something that just takes the form of a girl to make itself appear innocuous.”

“So you think this thing can change shape, along with all the other things you believe it can do.  The super strength, the flying—all of that.”

“Well, maybe.  I don’t know.”

“But like you say, if you just look at the evidence, there’s no one who’s said the thing has taken on a different shape, is there?”

“No.  Well, one person said she had teeth, but . . . not like a different person.  Or a monster.”

“So why couldn’t it just be a girl?”

Silence, as he tried to think about this idea with an open mind.  “I guess there’s no good reason.  But still—it seems hard to believe.”

Flora laughed softly, and in the dim light he could see her turn her head to look at the ceiling.  “I can’t believe you’re getting hung up on that idea, when you’re prepared to admit everything else.”

Kurt smiled sheepishly, then chuckled himself.  “I guess you have a point.”

She turned back to look at him.  “What if it is just a little girl, Kurt?   Didn’t you say that you thought she killed those schoolboys to save some boy’s life?”

“I think so.  I think she and that Oskar kid lived next door to each other for awhile in Blackeberg.”

“So she knew him before all that happened.”

“I think so, yes.”

“If she knew him before the pool thing, why would she help him?”

“Mmm . . . well, because . . .”

“She fell in love.”  She said it quickly and matter-of-factly.  “That’s what happened, Kurt.”

Kurt made a scoffing sound.  “Oh come on, Flora.  This is getting well beyond the pale.”

“Is it?  You’re the one who said you wanted to understand her better.  And that’s what I think happened.  If you’re right and you’re really dealing with a little vampire, then I think she’s a little girl who fell in love with that Oskar, and was trying to protect him.  To save his life.  Why else would she go to all that trouble, unless she cared about him?”

“Flora, please.  Something that squeezes people until their ribs break, sucks out their blood, twists their heads around 360 degrees, tears their heads off—falls in love.  No way.”

“Kurt, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard you say in a long time,” she retorted.  “You’re saying that anyone who’s capable of extreme violence can’t love someone?  You’re talking about the whole human race.”

“Hmm.  Well, yeah, but—”

“Let’s just take this all the way, Kurt.  Imagine that you became a vampire.  Suddenly you need to kill other people to live.  What would you do?”

“I’d go see a hematologist or something like that.  Try to find a cure.”

“Of course you would.  Because you’re a mature, grown-up man who believes in the power of science to solve problems.  But what if you had become a vampire when you were only 11 or 12?  Do you think you’d do the same thing?”

“I’d try to get my parents to help me.”

“Okay.  I would, too.  But how did this kid become a vampire, Kurt?”

“Flora, I have no idea.  This seems kinda silly.”

“Yes, you do have an idea.  Don’t you believe that the lady that caught on fire became a vampire?  Because she was bitten?”

“Yeah.  I think so.”

“So this girl was bitten, too.  Doesn’t that follow?”

“I guess so.  Unless, maybe she’s the first one.”

“When do you think she was bitten?”

“I don’t know.   Could be any time, I guess.”

“Don’t you ‘freeze’ once you become a vampire?  You don’t change afterwards.”

“Well, I think that’s what happens in the movies.  Vampires live forever, and they always look the same.”

“So you have no idea how old this ‘little girl’ might actually be.  What if she was born in the Middle Ages?  Before they had decent health care?  What would you have done then, if you were her?”

“Well, I’m not sure.  But I know I wouldn’t go around killing people.”

Flora stared at him briefly, until he began to feel uncomfortable.  “That’s easy for you to say, isn’t it?”

“Flora.  I’d rather kill myself than kill an innocent human being.  You know that—I’m a police officer, for God’s sake.”

“Of course I know that, Kurt.  But are you prepared to think that others might make different choices?”

“Well, it’s difficult to imagine.  I don’t know of anyone who has to kill other people to live.  There’s never been such a person, as far as I know.”

“Well, if you’re right, maybe now there is.  You know, Kurt, sometimes I wonder if you can see the forest for the trees on this.”

He frowned.  “What do you mean?  I’ve been analyzing this thing until the cows come home.”

“I mean that if she really is a vampire, there are broader ramifications that merely catching her.”

“Such as?”

“Such as a person unlike anything the world has ever seen, Kurt.  A different form of human being.  Someone with incredible abilities.  Someone who maybe is able to live forever.  She could be a walking history book.”

“Yes, you’re right, of course.  But it’s really not my job to worry about those things.  This girl is killing people left and right, Flora.  She has to be stopped.”

“I think it is your job, Kurt.  I think it would be everyone’s job to think about it.  And if you’re right about what she is, then there’s no way she should be killed.  Captured, yes.  But not destroyed.”

“Well, we’ve gotta find her first.  And no one has any idea where she might be.”

“Is that still your concern?”

He looked at her, stony-faced.  “When the next  person dies, they’ll change their tune.  You can count on it.”

Eli began to wake up to the soft, rapid lub-dub of Maria’s heart.  She lay in the crook of her arm, warm under the covers facing Oskar on the other side.  He and Maria were still asleep.

She could not remember the last time before Oskar that she had fallen asleep with someone.  There had been times when she had promised to lie down in a bed with Häkan, but she had not had to follow through before he had been arrested.  And Häkan’s desires to be close to her, to touch her, had been selfish.  He had not wanted to make her feel good; he had just cared about making himself feel good.  Maria was different; after she had given them her own blood and the dawn had approached, it had just seemed natural to lie down with her.  And they had.

With her ear pressed against Maria’s shoulder, Eli listened to the rhythmic sighing of her breathing, and the other sounds that she made while she slept: an occasional, soft clucking from her throat when she swallowed; a gurgling from her stomach; a low-pitched, rumbly creaking sound when her muscles moved beneath Eli’s ear . . . so different from Oskar, whose only sounds were a sluggish heartbeat and the animalistic purr they made.  Maria’s were the sounds of a natural, living person--warm and alive.

She felt badly that she might have misjudged Maria, for mistrusting her.  But her feelings had been a muddled response to Maria’s changing attitude towards them.  At first, Maria had seemed to Eli to be very self-centered, but at the same time she wanted to become a social worker so that she could help others.  Then she had agreed to help them move to Norrköping, and not only had signed a lease, but had dropped out of her classes and moved with them.  Her pointing the gun at them had been frightening and very difficult to take, but Eli had been impressed that Maria had fessed up to it, and had given her the gun.  And of course, she understood why Maria would have been scared after reading the Expressen article.

What had most impressed Eli was that Maria had offered her own blood to them, so that they would not have to go out.  She was genuinely concerned for their safety because of what had happened with the police report, and she wanted to protect them.  That was a first, in her experience—not the desire to protect, in itself—no, that was not new--but that this desire was not selfish or perverse.  Maria had shown that she loved them as a mother would love her child, and Eli knew that she loved the good in them, not the bad.  And she was completely different from Häkan, who had loved Eli’s body more than he had cared about her.  She supposed that maybe Maria felt badly about her own baby, David, who had died.  Maybe this was her way of making up for what a bad mother she’d been before.

She opened her eyes a bit and studied Maria’s features.  She did not look anything like Eli’s mom.  Her mom had had black, curly hair and brown eyes, similar to Eli’s; Maria was a natural blond, and her eyes were blue.  Her mother’s face had been thinner than Maria’s, too, and had lacked the cleft chin.

She had been angry and embarrassed when Maria had revealed how she’d crawled around the apartment, calling for her mom.  But when the truth had finally come out about how disturbed she felt about being back in Norrköping, and Oskar had said he understood, it hadn’t seemed so bad after all.  In fact, Eli had been secretly pleased that Maria had done her best to comfort her.  She had been kind to her, just as she had been kind to Oskar the night that he had bitten Rafael.

Could she accept Maria’s love?  That was really the big question.  Oskar had done so without reservations, it seemed, and Eli struggled to understand why it seemed so easy for him when it was hard for her.  She knew from what he had said that Oskar had mixed feelings for his real mom; that although he knew that she loved him at one level, she had been unable to love him in a way that recognized or understood who he was, or was becoming.  He had been . . . outgrowing her love, and for whatever reason, his mom didn’t want to see or deal with what was happening to him.  Maria’s love was based on a simple, brutally truthful understanding of who the two of them were: that they basically good kids with a terrible disease who needed help. 

Eli squeezed Oskar’s hand and then stroked the back of his fingers.  Was she jealous of Maria?  Of how Oskar had, with natural ease, seemed to open up and accept her as part of their life?  Was that part of the reason she had had such a hard time with Maria?  Yes, she realized—in all honesty, it was true.  A part of Eli, the part that was insecure and needy, was afraid of the relationship that had developed between them; was afraid that Maria might somehow pull Oskar away from her.  Eli sensed that what Maria was offering them filled an emotional hole in Oskar’s life that she, Eli, was probably unable to fill.  After all, she could never really be Oskar’s mom.  While it was of course true that she did her best to look out for Oskar, she was more like Oskar’s one and only best friend—his . . . soulmate

But could Maria ever be Oskar’s soulmate?  No.  Just saying it sounded foolish.  Maria’s love did not truly threaten Oskar’s love of her.  She was being stupid to feel jealous of Maria in this way.
 
The real problem, Eli realized, was that it was simply very hard for her to think of Maria as a substitute for her own mother.  In a perverse way, she felt that to accept the love that Maria was offering would betray her feelings, her longing, for her real mom; would be like closing the door on a relationship that she had struggled to keep alive for her entire life, one that was central to her understanding of who she was: her mother’s son. 

Yet, she also understood that her own mother was long dead.  She, Eli, was stuck in the present—had to live in the present.  Longing for her real mother was, in a way, a useless thing; trying to relive sensations, re-experience feelings that now only caused pain.  And somehow, this woman, whose life Oskar had chosen to spare, had decided to give up everything to be with them; to take care of them.  Now, even to feed them. 

Had Maria given Eli any reason not to love her? 

No. 

Could she love Maria, but still cherish the memories of her real mother? 

What would her mother have told her to do, if she were still alive: remain trapped in a dead, painful past, or embrace the present, and accept the genuine love of a living person?  The question answered itself.

Feeling better, Eli sighed and snuggled closer.  She could have her mom, Oskar and Maria, too.

She smiled a little when she thought about last night; about Maria’s frustrated attempt to dye their hair.  She had put it on both of them, working it into their hair, and then Eli and Oskar had sat around for several minutes, grinning at each other in anticipation of their ‘new look,’ and feeling silly with clear plastic bags on their heads.  But it quickly became obvious that nothing was happening.  They had rinsed the dye out in the shower, but their hair had looked no different.  Maria had been nonplussed.  They had tried a little more, but to no effect.

Then Maria had suggested that maybe she could cut their hair to help them look different.  Eli had told her it wouldn’t work, but hadn’t minded when Maria asked if she could try anyway.  So she had cut Oskar’s bangs, and just as Eli had predicted, before their eyes his hair had inched down to where it had been a minute before.  Eli had been secretly amused by the look on Maria’s face.  Some people just had to learn by themselves.

But in truth, it wasn’t really all that funny.  Changing their hair would have helped quite a bit to make them look different, and right now, Eli felt like they needed all the help they could get. 

The article in the newspaper had been deeply upsetting. Before reading it, Eli had not really understood how strongly the odds had been stacked against them.  It was shocking, almost unfathomable, how the police knew so much about what had happened; how they had tied it all together.  And it was all because of this one detective who was pitted against them; out there somewhere, bound and determined to catch them.

Tears silently appeared in the corners of her eyes, ran down the side of her face, and soaked into Maria’s nightgown as she squeezed Oskar’s hand harder.  It just wasn’t fair.  Why couldn’t they just be normal, like everyone else?  Her whole life had been spent like this—full of fear and anxiety, harried and harassed.  Always running away, always looking over her shoulder, pursued by people who didn’t understand her and had no desire to.  And they had only grown more powerful over the decades—stronger and stronger, with longer and longer memories.  The whole world was against them—two little kids who were just trying to stay alive.  And now, just when she had finally found Oskar and things seemed to be getting better . . . .

She sniffed, wiped her nose, and cried in earnest, trying hard not to make any noise and wake up Maria. 

Oskar.

She opened her eyes and saw Oskar open his; saw him look at her in confusion.

I’m scared.  I need you.

Together they lifted their heads from Maria’s sleeping form and looked at each other.  He didn’t understand exactly what was wrong, but he felt her anxiety, and understood that she needed to be comforted.  They got up and hugged.

He whispered in her ear.  “Eli, what is it? What’s wrong with—”

Shhh.  I want to go away with you.  Just for a little while—where we can be together.  Take me to another party.”

Still he did not understand, but it did not matter--he accepted.  With their hands holding their arms, he kissed her neck, and she kissed his.  And by the gentle workings of their mouths they broke through their barriers and began, once again, to share each other.  But after they sank to the floor, it was Oskar who felt the rising pulse as Eli fell asleep, and he was pulled into her, into her rushing darkness, and went . . .

. . . under a bed. 

Lying on his stomach, on a rough, wooden floor.  There was a coil of rope next to him.

He heard muffled giggling above him, and then footsteps on some stairs, growing louder.

The bed creaked and suddenly Elias’ face appeared, upside down, in the gap between the bedrail and the floor.  It was very shadowy, and Oskar realized from the slight flicker on the wall behind Elias that the room was lit by a candle, not a lightbulb.

Elias gave him a big, secretive smile.  Oskar was surprised at how . . . happy he looked.  He appeared to be about the same age as the Eli he knew, but there was something different.  His eyes . . . they were not the eyes of someone who had been alive for centuries, or who had experienced the horrors of the world.  He was seeing Eli as he had been before--

“Shhh!  Oskar—don’t make a peep until I tell you!”  Just as quickly, he disappeared, and Oskar heard more subdued giggles as the footsteps reached the top of the stairs, somewhere to his left.

He turned his head to look out the other side of the bed.  He saw a pair of old-fashioned, leather shoes with ankles and legs sticking out of them.  Somewhere from downstairs he heard a man cough.

“What are you boys up to?  It’s time for bed.”  A woman; the owner of the shoes.  Oskar immediately understood that it was Eli’s mother.

“Nothing!” replied two voices in unison.

The feet moved and then turned, and there was another creak as Eli’s mom sat on the edge of the bed.  “Come now, quiet down.  Let’s say our prayers.”

“Yes, Mama.”  Elias’ voice.

He heard the faint sound of a book being opened; of pages being turned. “We were on Psalm 37, weren’t we, Jakob?”

A voice, older and deeper than Elias’, murmured assent.

“Who’s turn is it to read tonight?”

Jakob’s voice again.  “I think it’s Elias’.”  There was a pause, and then he heard Eli’s voice.  He had never heard Eli read from the Bible before, and he was startled by how crisply and clearly he spoke the words.

“The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein forever.

“The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment.

“The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide.

“The wicked watcheth the righteous, and seeketh to slay him.

“The LORD will not leave him in his hand, nor condemn him when he is judged.

“Wait on the LORD, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee to inherit the land: when the wicked are cut off, thou shalt see it.

“I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.

“Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found.

“Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.

“But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the end of the wicked shall be cut off.

“But the salvation of the righteous is of the LORD: he is their strength in the time of trouble.”

“That was very good, Elias.  The Lord loves those who do good, doesn’t He?  Now, are either of you thankful for anything that happened today?”

Elias snickered.  “I’m thankful that Papa made Jakob bring down the hay instead of me.”

Jakob spoke, but not too harshly.  “Shut up, Elias.  You could’ve helped.”  The bed creaked once again, and there was a soft smacking sound.  “Oww!  Stop it, Jakob!”

“Boys, no more foolishness--it’s late.  Jakob, I found plenty of chores for Elias to do while you took care of the cows.”

Respectfully: “Yes, Mama.”

“Now don’t tell me that neither one of you hasn’t got a single thing to be thankful for today.”

Elias spoke.  “I’m thankful that the harvest’s coming in like Papa wanted.”

“Yes.  Me too,” Jakob chimed in.  Then he said, “and I’m thankful that Lilja had her calf this morning without dying.”

Elias’ voice, happy and excited.  “And that we have a new baby calf—Magnus!”

“’Magnus’ was a good choice, Elias,” his mother replied.  “He certainly was big—had your Papa worried for awhile.”

Jakob spoke.  “Oh . . . that Mrs. Bergman made it safely back from her trip to Stockholm with Paula.”

Oskar’s mother said, “You’ll be able to play with Paula on Saturday.  I’ve invited the Bermans over for supper.”

Jakob and Elias both talked about how happy they would be to see her, so they could pepper her with questions about her trip.

“Now, is there anyone you want to pray for?”

There was silence for a few seconds; then Oskar’s mom spoke again, this time with a note of disappointed expectancy.  “What about Uncle Mårten?”

“Yes, of course,” Jakob replied. “Sorry.  Lord Jesus, please make Uncle Mårten’s fever go away soon.”

“And let’s not forget about Mrs. Andersen with her leg pain?”

Jakob and Elias dutifully said a short prayer for Mrs. Andersen.

“Okay, you two.  Time for our last prayer, then?” 

The three of them now spoke in unison.

“I thank Thee, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ,

“Thy dear Son, that Thou hast graciously kept me this day;

“and I pray Thee that Thou wouldst forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night.

“For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.

“Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the wicked Foe may have no power over me.

“Amen.”

Oskar heard movement on the bed and the sound of the covers being arranged; then, very faintly, the soft sound of kisses.  Both boys exchanged ‘good nights’ and ‘love yous’ with their mother.  Then the light went out, and she left the room.

For several seconds, Oskar could not see as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.  Then, faintly, he was again able to make out the wall.  There was no sound except the footsteps receding down the stairs.  There was some more coughing, and the sounds of movement from downstairs for a minute or so.  Soon, the whole house was silent, and Oskar realized that the wind was blowing around outside.

He waited for what seemed like forever, lying still under the bed.  As the minutes ticked slowly by, he realized that instead of a box spring, there was a network of ropes supporting a tic mattress over his head.

He was beginning to wonder what he should do when Elias’ hand appeared, motioning him to come out.  With a whispered hiss he said, “And bring the rope!”

As quietly as he could, Oskar slid out from under the bed.  He found the rope with his leg, and pushed it out ahead of him with his foot.  Once he was out, he popped up next to the bed.

Elias and Jakob were sitting up, waiting for him.  At Elias’ prompting, Oskar sat at the end of the bed, which creaked under his weight.  Jakob’s finger flew to his lips.  “Shhh!”

Elias whispered something in Jakob’s ear, and then Jakob extended his hand.  Oskar took it as he studied Jakob’s face.  He didn’t look like Elias at all.  In the darkness he could not tell the color of Jakob’s hair, but it was cut quite short.  His face was broader, and his ears and nose were bigger. 

“Hi.  I’m Oskar.”

“Good to meet you.  I’m Jakob.”  He looked Oskar in the eyes.  “Are you in?”

Oskar didn’t know what to say.  He looked to Elias, who looked back at him and said, “He’s in.”  Then, more forcefully, “You’re in, aren’t you, Oskar?”

Oskar was a little apprehensive and confused, but hesitantly agreed: he was in.

“Good, good!”

The two boys sprang into action, their movements quick and quiet.  They stripped off their nightshirts, found some clothes in an armoire, and changed.  Then Jakob looped the rope around a broomstick and made a knot as Elias opened the window.  Oskar turned to look out the window as the night air blew in.

A thin layer of clouds drifted past a waxing moon that laid the sleeping fields bare in a ghostly pallor.  As far as Oskar could see there were fields, trees, and occasional clusters of small farms.  He stared in awe.  The world--two hundred years before I was born.

Jakob tapped his shoulder.  “Whatcha looking at?  Come on.”  He threw the coil of rope out the window and secured the broomstick across the window frame; then looked at Elias.  “You go first.”

Elias grabbed the rope and clambered out the window.  Carefully he lowered himself a little ways, then dropped deftly to the ground.  Jakob looked at Oskar.  “You next.”

Smiling, Elias looked up at Oskar from the ground outside and motioned with his hand. He whispered encouragement.  “Come on, Oskar!  You can do it!”

Uncertain of himself but caught up in their excitement, Oskar got ahold of the rope and carefully swung himself out of the window while Jakob held the top steady.  He dropped down so that he was more or less hanging by his arms, lowered himself a little further, and then let go.  He dropped backwards and down, landed hard on his feet, and rolled.  Then he got up, shaken and dusty but unharmed.  Within a few seconds, Jakob was clambering down the rope, and soon the three of them were standing in the yard.  Elias picked up the end of the rope and threw it behind some bushes next to the house.

“Come on!” They motioned to Oskar, and the three of them ran quietly across the yard toward a fence on the opposite side of a lane.  It had thin poles that were nearly twice as high as the fence itself.  They climbed over and began moving past a barn through a barren pasture stewn with rocks and cow pies.  When they were behind the barn and out of earshot from the house, Oskar caught up to Elias and grabbed his shoulder.  “Wait!  Hold up a sec!”

Jakob and Elias slowed, then stopped and turned to look at him.  Elias’ eyes were darkly excited.  “What--what is it?”

“Where are we going, Eli—I mean, Elias?”

Elias did not seem to notice that Oskar had called him ‘Eli.’  “To Mr. Eriksson’s place.  You know—the tax commissioner.”

Jacob gave Elias a puzzled look.  “I thought you said he was in on this.”

“He is in on it.” He shot Jakob a stern look.  “Oskar’s my best friend.  We stick together through thick and thin.  Right, Oskar?”

“Yeah, but . . . are they expecting us, or—”

Jakob snorted.  “Expecting us?  I sure hope not.”

“Well, then . . . I don’t understand.”

Elias stepped up to Oskar and put his hand on Oskar’s forearm; leaned in so his face was very close.  “You know, Oskar .  . . the dare.”

“The dare?”

“Yeah—with the Lundgrens.  We can’t back out now.  Not after last week.”

Oskar’s unease grew.  “Umm . . . what’re we going to do?”

“Take a midnight horse ride.  Don’t worry—nothing’s gonna happen.”

“Elias—I don’t know how to ride a horse.”

Elias raised his eyebrows, but then made a dismissive gesture.  “It’s all right, Oskar.  You can ride with me.  All you haveta do is hang on.”

Jakob turned and headed toward the far corner of the barnyard.  “Come on—if we don’t get moving, they won’t wait for us.”

Oskar hesitated; he didn’t like the sound of this.  But Elias was looking at him imploringly, and he didn’t want to be a stick in the mud and spoil their plans.  He especially didn’t want to disappoint Elias.  So he gave him a little nod and with that, Elias turned and followed after Jakob, with Oskar taking up the rear.

They climbed over another fence, and then followed the tree-lined edge of a wheat field a long way.  The wind blew and the wheat responded in whispering, undulating waves.  When Oskar wasn’t watching ahead to keep track of Elias and Jakob and to avoid tripping over rocks, his eyes kept returning to the mysterious, rippling patterns.

The ground rose gently, and soon they came to another fence.  They climbed over and then began to walk along it, parallel to a field of barley.  Then the fenceline stopped, but they kept going.  To Oskar, it seemed as though they must have gone about another half-kilometer or so before they started downhill to an irregular line of tall trees.  As they drew close, Jakob cut across the corner of the field, angling toward a small clump of trees. 

They came to a large pile of stones just outside the little grove.  Elias climbed up the pile, and when he got to the top he called out.  “Erik!  Mikael!  You out here?”  But there was no response.  He called again; still, there was nothing.

Then Jakob called out a few times.  They waited several seconds, but heard only the wind sighing through the trees.

“Shit!”  Jakob looked angrily at Elias.  “We’re too late.  They didn’t wait up.”  Oskar was relieved.  Maybe now they could just go home.  He began to wonder if he could climb back up the rope and into the bedroom.

Elias spoke.  “Maybe they’re late.  Let’s go down to the creek and wait a bit.  Come’on, Oskar.”

Jakob didn’t reply, but apparently found Elias’ plan agreeable; he moved with Elias into the trees, and Oskar followed.  They passed a makeshift play fort made of rocks and logs, and then popped out on the other side by the edge of a small stream.  Elias climbed up on a log that lay across it, and putting one bare foot carefully in front of the other, walked slowly over to the other side, holding his arms out for balance.  Then he hopped onto a boulder located next to the exposed stump end of the log and sat down.  Jakob motioned for Oskar to go next, and then he took up the rear.

They rested for a minute or so in the moonlight, not saying much.  Then Jakob said, in a tone of obvious disappointment, “This is stupid--they probably chickened out.”  He looked at Elias.  “Well?  What do you want to do?  We came all this way . . . .”

“Yeah--let’s do it anyway.  If we don’t, we’ll never be able to show our faces at school again.”

Oskar spoke softly.  “Are you sure this is such a good idea?”

“Awww, we aren’t going to steal his horse, Oskar.  We just want to take a ride, that’s all.  They won’t even know it happened.”

“How much further is it?”

Elias pointed to another small hill.  “Just over that field yonder.”

“Where’s the horse?”

“In the stable out back.  Come’on, we’ll show you.”  Before Oskar could protest further, they began moving again.

When they crested the rise, Oskar saw that they were approaching a large manor house made of stone, with several outbuildings.  It was surrounded by a generous, carefully tended yard; tall, stately trees; and a stone wall.  Oskar realized that they were moving toward it from the rear and at an angle, because he could make out a long, tree-lined driveway stretching away on the opposite side to join what must’ve been a road somewhere out in front.  Dim, yellow candlelight came from a couple of the windows on the first floor.

They entered an apple orchard, and the two brothers began to sneak from tree to tree so that they would not be seen.   Oskar, feeling  increasingly nervous, followed suit.  The house looked very imposing, and he imagined that whoever owned it must be quite wealthy.

After climbing over the stone wall, they ran the last, short distance the back wall of the stable.  They snuck around the corner and without making a sound, moved through a flowerbed alongside the stable toward the front.  Oskar smelled the unfamiliar odor of hay and manure, and thought he heard something big moving on the other side of the wall. 

When they reached the front corner, they crouched down behind one of the large, wooden doors that had been opened and pulled back.  Jakob carefully sneaked a peak around the corner of the door; then turned and whispered.  “I don’t see anyone.”

Oskar looked at Elias with concern.  “Does anyone tend to the horses?”

Elias grinned impishly.  “Usually Mr. Mikkelsen—but it’s Saturday night, which means he’s over playing cards with Mr. Lundgren.”  Jakob spoke.  “Don’t worry.  This’ll be easy.”

Still keeping their eye on the back of the house, the brothers carefully crept around the corner and entered the stable.  Oskar followed.

The smells were even stronger inside, and were now mixed with the scent of leather and an odor peculiar to horses.  In the gloom, Oskar shortly realized that they were standing in a central aisle with a series of stalls running down either side.

Jakob began looking into the stalls, and after a short period announced that he had found Mr. Eriksson’s horse.  “Here she is—that dappled mare.”

Then Elias piped up.  “Wait a minute.  Come’re and look at this one.”

Jakob was about to unlatch the stall door; he stopped and joined Elias and Oskar at a door on the other side.  A large, black horse thrust its head out of the stall toward them.

“Whoa.  He’s big,” Elias remarked.

“Sixteen hands and pure black,” Jakob added.  “I don’t see a lick of white on him.”

Elias looked at Jakob.  “Oskar and I will ride this one.  You take Mr. Eriksson’s.”

“You sure you can handle him?”

Elias chuckled, then shrugged.  “No, but . . . so what?”

Jakob gave him one last look.  “Okay.”

Jakob quickly bridled the mare; the black horse was already bridled.  A saddle lay on a rack near the front, but there was no time for that.  After another quick glance around, the boys led the animals out of the stable and around the corner toward the back.  The mare was compliant; the stallion was not.  It did not like Elias pulling it by the reins, and whinnied so loudly that Oskar was certain someone would come running out of the house.  Elias jerked its head smartly by the halter and said as loudly as he dared,  “Come’on, you stubborn devil!”  Then he looked back at Oskar.  “Don’t walk behind him—he’s liable to kick you.”

When they were safely back of the stable, Jakob quickly mounted the gray.  It was skitterish, and turned in a half-circle, but he managed to get it under control.  “You catch up, okay, Elias?  We’ll go to the stream and then come back.”  And before Elias could answer, he exclaimed “Watch this--Yah!” and jabbed the animal in the flanks with his heels.  The horse broke into a run and Jakob guided her straight at the stone wall circling the property, which was about as high as Oskar’s chest.  Appalled at Jakob’s recklessness, Oskar watched helplessly as they rushed toward the wall.  At the last second they jumped over and ran off at a gallop through  the orchard.

The black horse was a bundle of nerves, and did not want to be mounted.  It kept turning and rearing as Elias attempted to swing up onto its bare back, and when he got too close to its head, it tried to nip him.  Elias cursed and swore at it.  Finally he told Oskar to hold the reins while he got on.  Oskar came to Elias’ side and grabbed the animal’s halter.  He was frightened of the horse, but mustered his courage and held it firmly.  He realized for the first time, now that they were out of the almost pitch-black confines of the stable, how finely made the halter was.  The metal parts were bright and shiny, and the bridle loops appeared to be silver with onyx centers.

With Oskar’s help, Elias was finally able to get up.  Oskar handed him the reins and moved back to the animal’s side; it was only then that he truly appreciated how tall it was.  Understanding this, and knowing that Elias barely had control over it, he realized the futility of what Elias had in mind.  There was no way he could climb up onto the animal.

He looked at Elias as the horse neighed and stepped sideways away from him.  “I can’t do it, Elias.  I can’t possibly get up there.  You—you go on ahead.  I’ll walk.”

“Aww, come on, Oskar!  At least try!”

Oskar had finally had enough of the tomfoolery.  Quietly and forcefully he looked Elias in the eye.  “No Elias.  I can’t.”  The trickle of fear he’d been feeling all night gained force in his chest, widening into a steady stream.   “Are you even sure that Mr. Eriksson owns this horse?  Can’t we just leave this one here, and go after Jakob?”

A wave of anger flickered over Elias’ face.  “Shit, Oskar—I’m already on’im!  Let me ride him a little bit, and then we’ll switch, okay?  Don’t worry--I’ll help you get up.”

Disgusted, Oskar turned away.  “Yeah—whatever.” He started toward the orchard, muttering under his breath.  “This is stupid.”

Elias said nothing, and for a short time all Oskar could hear behind him were the sounds of the horse, snorting and stamping.  Then Elias goaded the animal, and the black stallion shot like a bolt past Oskar.

In less than five seconds they had reached the wall.  Oskar prayed that the horse would jump high enough to clear it, but at the last second it balked.  It thundered to an abrupt stop, and Elias was thrown forward over its head and onto the grass.

Terror filled Oskar’s heart, and he ran to help him. “Eli!”

The horse swished its tail, snorted, and began to walk toward him, its head held high and its ears laid back.  It paid him absolutely no attention as he raced past.

He rushed to Elias’ side.  “Elias!  Are you all right?”  Elias slowly rolled over onto his back, eyes closed, his mouth contorted in pain.  Half of his face was scratched and covered with dirt, and both palms were scraped and bleeding.  He held his left arm gingerly with his right hand.

“Did you break it?”

Elias grimaced.  “Oww, oww . . . no—no, I don’t think it’s broken.  Maybe just—”

They both heard the approaching footsteps at the same time.

“Come’on, Eli, we need to get out of here.  Now!”  Oskar began to help Elias to his feet.

A deep, melodically hypnotizing voice, too close to be escaped, rang crisply through the air.  “Midnight!  Who’s been riding you?  Such a good horse, to come back to your master.”

Frozen with terror, they turned their heads to look. 

Two men stood less than five meters from them.  One of them was short and held a lantern.  The other was robed, tall and dark, and was leading the horse by its bridle.

“Well, well.  Are these your boys, Mr. Eriksson?”

The pale, powdered face was startling in its whiteness, framed as it was by a blond wig that fluttered in the breeze.  A pair of blue eyes studied them with intense interest, like a butterfly collector might study a rare and freshly acquired specimen he has just pinned to a board.

“No, I’m afraid not.”  Eriksson held the lantern higher and looked directly at Oskar.  “You, I don’t know.” His eyes turned to Elias.  “You . . . you’re Mr. Johansson’s boy, aren’t you?”

“Y-yes.  I am.”

“You’re the youngest, aren’t you?  What’s your name?”

“Elias.”

“And you?”

“I’m Oskar.  Oskar Eriksson.”

The short man harrumphed and then both men laughed.  The man with the wig said, “Must be a distant branch of the family tree, hmm, Olaf?”

“Must be,” Mr. Eriksson gruffly replied.

The men stepped closer as Elias got to his feet.  Now Oskar could clearly see that the tall man wore a suit of dark gray, and was wearing a red-lined robe.  He looked almost caricaturish, with his makeup and red lipstick.  But there was nothing funny about his eyes, which were the palest of blues; they appeared to be amused, but behind the amusement there was something deeply frightening.  Oskar had never felt so afraid in the presence of another person before.

The man with the wig released his horse. He ignored Oskar and stepped forward to stand directly in front of Elias, who looked up at him, rooted to the spot, his eyes as big as saucers.  He was now too afraid to cry, so all he could do was sniffle. 

“Master Johansson . . . I believe you’re bleeding.”  A hand, just as pale as the man’s face, reached out, and the long, thin index finger touched the abrasion on Elias’s cheek.  Elias stayed stone-still; he didn’t flinch.  The fingertip dabbed the bloody spot and came away, wet and red.  Like a snake slithering quickly into its hole the fingertip disappeared between the thin lips and into the gash-like mouth with a kissing sound.

“Do the two of you know what the penalty is for stealing horses?”

Oskar had no idea what the answer to this question was, and Elias was too afraid to speak.  His eyes were locked to the wig man’s face, and all he could do was slowly shake his head.

“Why it’s death, of course.  You didn’t know that?”  His gaze shifted from Elias to Oskar, then back again.

Elias and Oskar both managed tiny, petrified “no’s” in unison.  Oskar was so frightened, he felt as though he could hardly breathe.

Mr. Eriksson stepped up and cleared his throat.  “Lord, I’ve known this boy’s family for years.  He comes from a good, God-fearing home.  His father works some land a little ways southeast of here.  I’m sure they were just out having a little fun.  Isn’t that right, boys?”

At the speaking of the man’s name, Elias lost all color; he now looked positively sickly.  He and Oskar both nodded rapidly; then Elias looked down and said softly, “We weren’t going to steal your horse, Lord.  We were just looking to have a little fun, that’s all.  It was my idea, not Oskar’s.  I’m very, very sorry.”

There was a long pause.  Then the Prince lifted the terrified little boy’s chin up so that their eyes met once again.  “I’ve decided to let the two of you go, Elias, because Mr. Eriksson has vouched for your good family.  It doesn’t look like you got very far with my horse in any event.  Now you and your friend run home as fast as you can, and don’t ever do anything like this again.  Remember, the Lord destroys the wicked, but the righteous man shall inherit the earth.”

More next week

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