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Once Bitten

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 16

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Eli . . .

Eelii . . .

Footsteps on the cold stone of the darkened hallway

Coming for me, coming in the whistling dark

Run and hide, hide where He won't find me My feet go pitter patter

The flames flutter in their iron flickering shadows they cast

Try one door then the next but they're all locked, pull and pull but they won't open

Growing louder getting closer I'm so afraid

            (St. Michael the archangel defend us in battle . . .)

I reach the end nowhere to go He sees me and I see Him

A Monster, no clothes now no wig

            (Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil)

I am trapped the roughness on my back He grabs me, He takes me

My face pressed against His dead white flesh can't breathe can't move

            (And may God rebuke him we humbly pray)

The door shuts Puts me down on a bed of silk a boy tied there in candlelight beautiful and clean like a girl silk knotted in his mouth so quiet

            (And do Thou O Prince of Heavenly Hosts by the power of God cast into Hell Satan and . . .)

My head thrust against the boy's thigh, slick tense and sweaty Holds me there

            (. . . Satan and all the evil spirits--)

His silver knife comes out

It makes the cut swish between his jerking legs blood spurts forth

            (who prowl—who prowl throughout the world seeking to--)

My face forced into the cut, the hole, the warm stream, He commands

            (--seeking to ruin souls)

Drink . . . Drink . . .

In my mouth my nose I'm drowning

Twist and squirm, must get away but my face is thrust down even harder . . .

            (St. Michael please please)

Yes. 

I surrender.

I drink . . . and drink . . . and drink.

I drink and now I am destroyed I must hide my face from God

He knows, He is happy now and lets go

I rest my head upon the dead stomach and look

Oskar Oskar it is your dead face I see No, no Please no

Your dead eyes staring at me I cry

He lifts me by my hair pulls me to Him holds me tightly

You are mine Forever He says face changes as He kisses me clean and loves the evil in me

He is Nils Tobbie Johan Ake Rutger Håkan their hands, their fingers, they are everywhere upon me

And I . . . I . . .

(die)

Eli.  Wake up.  Wake up, Eli.”

“Oskar?”

“Yeah.”  The soft touch of his hand on Eli’s face.  A touch and a voice, full of love and concern.  “You were having another nightmare, I think.  You kicked me in your sleep.”  He tried to smile.

“Oh.” 

She turned her face from him and began to cry.

 

Friday 12 August 1983 – Stockholm Police Station

“Kurt--Kurt.”

“Yeah, Martin.  What is it?”  He paused and looked up as he pulled a file from the cabinet in the outer office.

Martin held up a fax and tried to suppress the excitement in his voice.  “Just got the ID on our floater.”

“Good.  Who is he?”

“Miguel Aguilar, age 29.  Had a rap sheet as long as my arm.”

Kurt smiled.  “And you’ve got long arms.”

Martin laughed.  “Yeah.  Well, apparently he was running a little prostitution ring before he disappeared.  I’ve got some uniformed guys out right now, interviewing known associates about his last whereabouts.  And we’ve found his car.  A really nice Porsche, over in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Rinkeby.  But there’s no record that he ever lived there.  And the car is clean.”

“Okay, good.  Where do things stand with the flyers?”

“They’re being wired out tonight.  Stockholm, Göteborg, Malmö, Uppsala, Västerås, Norrköping, Örebro, Linköping and, uh . . . Helsingborg, I think.”

“Great.  I liked the work the artist did on the girl.  Good thing that Carlberg got such a long look at her.”

“Yeah, that was a lucky break, all right.” 

“And we’re going to have the boy’s picture right below the sketch, right?”

“Yeah.”  Martin looked away, then back to Kurt.  “Oh, Kurt—I know you’ve been wrapped up with the ME today.  Did you hear the news?”

“News?  You mean about the floater, or—”

“No.  About the guy they just arrested over in Rågsved.”

Kurt shook his head and gave Martin a puzzled look.  “No.  What guy?”

The eagerness in Martin’s eyes was abruptly replaced by a guarded, cautious look.  “He, uh . . . apparently burned his house down with his wife inside while she was asleep.  Said he thought she’d turned into a vampire.”

“Oh, Jesus.”  He visibly slumped, and his hand, with the file still in it, dropped onto the open drawer of the cabinet.  “Tell me you’re joking.”

“No.”  There was a pause.  “I’m sorry, Kurt.  Word is that he had a history of mental illness, if . . . if that makes you feel any better.”

Kurt grunted.  “It doesn’t.”

“Well, I’m . . . I’d better get on the phone to those guys and find out what we can about Aguilar.  Talk to you.”

“Yeah.”  Kurt turned and went back into his office and shut the door behind him.

His chair wheezed under him as he sat down at his desk and stared at his wall in silence.  He looked at the dusty plaques and awards, some of them hanging askew, and suddenly felt very old and tired.  Just about burnt out, yep; right on the cusp. 

He shook his head.  What would be the next thing--mass hysteria?  People running around with torches and stakes?  Some nut job had read the goddamn Expressen article--

(your report, you mean)

--and now some poor woman was dead.

Yes--my report.  That fucking goddamn report that he never should’ve put together and signed.  That some SOB in the department who had a hardon for his job had leaked to the press.  They were still trying to figure that out, he thought with a touch of cynicism.  He’d be surprised if they ever did.  A nod and a glance, and Koch would get the message: don’t look too hard.  It was time to turn old Magnusson out to pasture; he’d gotten a little too big for his britches.  Hell, it would happen even if that kid marched right in here tonight and turned herself in.  No one ever took the Department on that way without paying a price.

But yet, the report represented his best work; was the consummation of long, hard hours of solid investigation.  The Chief hadn’t liked it, but no one had come forward with any evidence to contradict it; instead, it had been met with disbelief; with willful blindness.  He felt, intuitively and logically, that his conclusions were correct, even if they were unbelievable.  Dammit, he would call a spade a spade--anything else was cowardice, pure and simple.  And he would not be a coward.

A spade is a spade.  He looked down at the carefully rendered black and white sketch on the middle of his blotter.

She was very beautiful, that was certainly true.  Big, plaintive eyes in a small, round face. Not the kind of face you were likely to forget.  But what was behind that face?  What lived in those eyes?  That was what he wanted to know.  It was the only thing that mattered. 

He pulled a directory out of the left upper drawer of his desk and scanned down the names; picked up his phone and dialed a number.  It was time to talk to Hagen about what had happened in Sundbyberg.

Stunned and shaking, Maria clutched her right leg, squeezing her upper thigh above the break in her femur.   She groaned and whimpered in pain, breathing in panicky, ragged breaths of fetid air that stunk of ashes and burned her nose and throat.

It was utterly dark; she could see nothing.  She had landed, more or less on her right side, in a pile of sticks.  The sticks under her were jabbing her.  One had torn like a giant splinter through the skin and muscle of her right arm, and the first thing she had done after falling was to pull it out; an instantaneous reaction to remove an offending object from her body.  Then she had realized that her right foot was pointed sideways.  Her right leg was jammed down into the sticks, and the pain in it was explosive, pumping up past her clenched fingers in heavy, brutal waves that threatened to make her pass out.

As she squeezed her leg, trying to will the pain to stop, she felt a warm wetness trickle past her elbow and run down her forearm.  Then it coated the ring and pinkie fingers of her right hand and began to drip off.

She was bleeding . . . a lot.  She reached over with her other arm, trying not to move her lower torso, and explored the wound.  It was an angled puncture wound that had left a large flap of flesh gaping open on the back of her upper arm.  She had to find some way to stop the bleeding, and quickly.  She was weak already from when she’d helped out Oskar and Eli.

Her belt.  Maybe she could figure out a way to wrap it around her arm just below her armpit and pull it tight.

She reached down with her left hand, found the smallish buckle, and after a little bit of struggling, unfastened it.  And as she began to pull it free—

            (oh my God if I move too much my leg My Leg MY LEG)

--she felt something round down under her left thigh.  Round and hard.

She paused; let go of the belt, which was still halfway around her waist.  What the hell was it?

She extended her hand again and tentatively touched it; explored it with her fingers.  It felt dirty.  Something—

            (something burnt)

it had a hole . . . two holes, side by side, like a bowling ball, but too big for a bowling ball, and then her fingers traced a third hole, and then they touched some little hard things, like--

            (teeth)

She gasped and wrenched her hand away; then paid the price for her violent reaction with a bolt of pain.

A skull.  There was a skull underneath her, and she was lying on
            (sticks let it be sticks please God)
--bones. 
Her hand felt the other protrusions that were supporting her weight.  She imagined a Halloween skeleton in her mind, trying to match the picture with the objects she touched: a curved something here; another that felt a bit bigger at one end than in the middle, with a ball-shape on its end.
She screamed, screamed, and screamed again.  Her screams echoed, then died.
She was in a pit.  An ash pit, chock full of skeletons.  She extended her left hand again and carefully felt all around her as far as she could.  More skulls and bones, some of them that broke and crumbled at her mere touch; others that were hard and unyielding.
She pulled her hand back and tried to get herself under control; fought to master the nearly overpowering urge to begin clawing and scratching her way to, to . . . what?
Up.  Up somewhere.  Get over to the wall, then maybe find the shaft that must be above her somewhere.  She’d had a good, long fall; she was sure of that.  She called out, and listened to the echo.  It sounded like a pretty big pit; not small and enclosed.  There was no way to know how far up it was, but it had to be a fair distance.  Could there be a ladder, or something to climb?
Her right hand now felt completely wet.  She wiped it on her pants, but the wetness soon returned.  The adrenaline kicked in and she struggled to get her belt free.

He touched her again and she did not pull away.  He thought about asking questions, or saying “it’s all right,” but decided that they were not what she needed, and simply held her instead.  She turned in his arms to face him; her arms came up to encircle him.  She pushed her face against his neck, under his jaw, and continued to cry, and he comforted her as best he could, waiting for her to slow down.

“We can’t—” she sniffed and swallowed, “do the blood thing anymore.”

Surprised, he stiffened a little, but continued to stroke her hair; her back.  “Why not?”

“Because it’s not safe.  It wouldn’t be safe for you.  You might end up in something really bad.  And then you’d be stuck with the memories forever, just like me.”

Some time passed before he answered.  “Bad like the dreams you’ve been having?”

“Yes.”

“But are they just dreams, or are they real memories?”

“They’re both.  And some of them I don’t ever want you to see.  Ever.”

He nodded slightly, feeling as though something dark and terrible was lurking just beneath the surface of their conversation, and whispered “okay.”  He hugged her, willing his disappointment to depart; wishing that his love for her could somehow purge the bad memories from her, could remove all of her pain and leave only happiness in its wake.  But there was no easy out; no quick and painless way to make everything right.  He could tell her he loved her, hold her forever, kiss her endlessly, and she would still be . . . damaged.  Some hurts, it seemed, lasted forever; left scars that could never be erased.  Maybe she would never be a whole person, even if they did find a cure for their problem.  And if he wanted to be with her, to love her, to be her one special person, he would have to accept that, and . . . take her as he found her.  He now understood this; with Maria’s help, he had been able to understand it.  And with this thought his love for Eli flared up in his chest: the knowing certainty that he was the one person in the whole world who had chosen to be her lover, whatever she was; through thick and thin--no matter what. 

He pulled her more closely to himself and wished that there was some way he could express the totality of his feelings for her, transmit the raw force of his emotions beyond the mere use of his arms to hug, or his words to comfort.  If that flame, he thought, could only be moved through the few inches of skin, muscle and bone that divided his heart from hers, then she would know its power; could experience it directly.

But of course, there was a way.  The way that she had shown him; the way that he had shown Maria.

This is probably a dumb question, but do you know how much he loves you?

I can do it.

He gently lifted her face to his.  “Eli.”

She felt his fingers under her jaw, bringing her head to his as he spoke her name; then the soft moistness of his mouth, closing over hers.  And in the darkness of Eli’s mind, the pleasant sensation of his lips was transformed into a door, a white square appearing in the blackness, its whiteness growing and growing, becoming larger and larger until the darkness was pushed away and obliterated.  So bright, but not harsh or blinding.  A lightness warm and soft, washing over her, like settling into a tub of warm water, but it was not wet, it was

            (joy dancing around me)

Seeing herself on the jungle gym Seeing her hands twist the Rubik’s Cube Hearing her voice say start with the corners Hearing herself tap Sweet Dreams into his ear Feeling her hand pressed into his as they run across the courtyard Hearing their shared laughter at the kiosk Feeling the touch of her body upon his back The caress of her hand upon his shoulder upon his arm their fingers intertwining the sensations pouring out faster One after another Ten meaningful glances One hundred soft touches One thousand kisses now so fast that they tumble over one another too fast to be counted to be measured they blur together and merge into one mighty tidal wave of--

Eli Eli
I hear you
I touch you
I kiss you
I know you
I want you
I love you and
I will love you forever

. . .

 

Trying to move her torso as little as possible and work through the fiery pain from her broken leg, Maria pulled the end of the belt up and cinched it down tightly around her arm.  In the process of getting it the rest of the way off her pants and into place, she had bled quite a bit, and her injured arm was now completely slick.  She had blacked out briefly while trying to get it threaded under her armpit.

She realized as she held the belt tightly that the idea of trying to crawl anywhere was out of the question.  There weren’t enough holes on the belt to lock it down, and the leather was too stiff to tie into a knot.  This knowledge, and knowing how the slightest movement caused her leg to hurt, forced her to abandon the idea.  She was stuck where she was, and would have to wait until someone could come along and rescue her.

But would someone come along?

Those kids.  Maybe they’d come back to play some more after supper. 

(if it’s not raining and their mom lets them play in the woods after dark, you mean)

Yeah--exactly.  Shit.

Oskar and Eli, then.  They’d wake up and she wouldn’t be there, as she’d said.  She shifted a little and checked her watch.  They ought to be up by now, she supposed.  What time did it get dark?—she wasn’t sure.  How long would it take them to figure out something was amiss, and come looking for her?  It wasn’t as if she had been off on a dangerous mission, or anything

(at least, that’s what she’d thought at the time)

. . . but still, they’d get worried soon enough, and come out.  Start looking for her.

So, what were the chances of them finding the secret room?  A small hole in the middle of the woods was the only clue.  Even with their super-keen eyesight, that wasn’t much.  They wouldn’t want to talk to those kids if they could help it.  And they might not even start looking for her up here.  Just because she had chosen to start looking for clues at the granary didn’t mean that they would, did it?  When she’d been up over the silos with Isak, she had seen all kinds of woods lining the eastern side of the promontory.  What if they started to look there?  Plus, they couldn’t stay out forever, and the nights were short in August.  It might take them days.

Those kids—Frank and Elsie—they were her best hope, then.  If they didn’t come back tonight, maybe her wound would clot and she could hang on until morning.  Maybe they’d come back then, see the door standing open, and . . .

She paused.  Was the door still open?

Her breath caught in her throat.  It had opened by itself . . . had it—

(oh Jesus please not that)

Panic gripped her, and with the panic came the abject whimpering of total fear.  Her mind raced with terrible images of herself trapped in this horrible pit forever, sealed off and eventually dying, alone and undiscovered, from loss of blood or from starvation; becoming a mummified corpse, decaying away, one more body on top of innumerable bodies, no one ever knowing, ever learning of her fate.  Forgotten.

Then she felt something that made her stop crying.  She sniffed, wiped her face with her good hand, and then lay absolutely still and quiet, hoping and waiting to feel it again.

Yes—there it was.  The faintest movement of air.  Not strong enough to be called a breeze, nor loud enough to be heard, just . . . a soft coolness that she felt on her face and arms.  Which meant that—

. . . the door was open.

An enormous wave of relief passed through her.  There was a chance, then, if the kids came back, or maybe even Eli and Oskar, that she would hear them

(assuming you’re not asleep or passed out)

and call to them, and they’d realize she was down here, and go get help.  Yes.  That would be her hope; was what she would now live for.  She relaxed a little, and wondered if the bleeding from her right arm had stopped.

Later, after she had stopped crying and they had lain in peaceful silence, he pulled away and looked at her stomach.

“Hmm.”  He lifted her shirt and probed her gently with his finger.

“What?” She looked at him with mild curiosity.

“Did I ever tell you that I think your belly button is cute?”

She snorted.  “Oh, you.”  She pulled the shirt’s edge aside and looked down at herself as she spoke.  “It’s just a normal belly button.”

He poked her some more.  “I’m glad it’s not an outie.  Outies are gross.”

She giggled.  “Stop it!  That tickles.”

“Just checking.”

“Checking?  I know there’s no lint.”  Mock haughtiness.

“Not any more, at least.”  He snickered and she glared at him.  “But no, not that.  Just wanted to make sure your screw is tight.”

Now she was truly puzzled.  “My what?”

“You know . . . your belly button screw.  If it’s loose, your butt will fall off.”

She laughed, and once she did, he joined in.  Then she gave him an evil grin.  “Well, your butt has been dragging a little lately, so . . . let me check yours!”

After their playing in the tub had ended, they came into the darkened living room, holding hands, puzzled that Maria wasn’t back; she had promised to be home by dark.  They were both concerned, although neither of them could say precisely why; after all, it was 1983, not 1783, and the most dangerous thing that could happen to her was stumbling over some old stones.  Bad dreams were just that—dreams.  So they chose to wait awhile.

After half an hour had passed, they decided to act.  They wrote a note for Maria, telling her that they had gone out to look for her, and that she shouldn’t worry; that they would be back before sunrise at the latest.   Oskar folded up the map and stuck it in his pocket, and then they left.

It was a cool, blustery evening.  A thunderstorm had blown through earlier, leaving puddles and broken tree branches in its wake.   They moved cautiously from shadow to shadow in a westerly direction, their hats pulled low over their heads to hide their hair as best they could.  Fortunately for them, it was still drizzling, so they didn’t meet anyone.  Eventually they reached an open, grassy field, which they ran across toward a small forest on the opposite side. 

Once they were inside the dense stand of trees and were sure they were alone, they rose straight up and headed northeast toward Djurön, flying just below the lowest layer of clouds.  On their way, they passed directly over an airport and admired the twinkling blue and white lights outlining the runways and taxiways.  Off in the distance to their left, they saw the lights of a plane break out of the cloud layer on final approach for a landing.  They looked at each other and smiled.

Maria

A man’s voice, deep and formal.

She heard the words in her mind, and was confused because she thought she was hearing them in her ears.  Frightened, she looked around in the eerie blackness, trying to pinpoint the source, but it had none.  When she spoke, her own voice was high and terrified. 

“Who . . . who’s there?”

You know who it is, Maria.  The one for whom you searched.

For a moment she was unable to do anything at all, so total was her fear.  A paralysis of mind and body gripped her entirely, stopping all movement and all thought.  And once she realized that she was hearing the voice in her mind, she tried not to think at all.

Why are you so afraid?  I mean you no harm.  Indeed, I may be able to help you . . . if you will help me.

She spoke again; it was easier to speak than to think the words she wanted to say.

“You’re the vampire, aren’t you?”  Her voice echoed back to her in the dark, mocking and empty, making her feel small and powerless.  “The one who did all those awful things to Eli.”

I was once a ‘vampire’ as you say, but now I am virtually nothing.  In my present condition I am harmless.  I seek only release from bondage--my freedom--just like you.

She tried to inject some strength, some force of will, into her reply, but wasn’t sure if it worked.  “I don’t believe you.  You’re evil, a liar.”

Every coin has two sides, Maria.  So quick are you to judge the hearts of others.  Shall I judge yours?  I can, if you wish.

“I . . . I know what I’ve done.  I know I’m not perfect.  But I’ve never abused little children, I know that much.”

Define ‘evil’ for me, if you can.

“It’s . . . it’s the opposite of good.  I can’t explain it.  But I know it when I see it.”

She felt an emotion, with no words attached: a mixture of pity and contempt.

You know nothing—you are pathetic.  Soon you will die here.  You are tired,  and your wounds are grievous.  There is only one way out of the pit, and that is the way you came in, quite unattainable to you in your present condition.  Your friends will not find you.  Soon you will fall asleep from exhaustion and your tourniquet will loosen.  Then your bleeding will resume and you will exsanguinate.  That is the fate that awaits you, foolish woman.

“They’ll come,” she replied in a small, trembling voice.  “They love me and they won’t abandon me.  And they’re smart and they can see really good in the dark.”
 
If they find you at all, they will find only your corpse.  And they will cry, as children do.  And then they will go on their way and soon forget you, as children also do.  And no one will ever know what happened to Maria Fridell.  You will not be missed; you will not be lamented.

“You shut up!”

A pause; then:  As you wish. 

Suddenly, Maria was alone.  And to her surprise, she discovered that her fear of being alone surpassed even her fear of Him.

They were about three kilometers away from Djurön when they saw the lights of the granary and the ship that was moored offshore.  A tall radio antenna jutted up from the middle of the complex, over 30 meters in height and lit with a flashing white light.  They headed for it, and soon silently alighted midway up its length, hanging on either side of the cold, tubular bracing of one steel strut.  Both of them were sopping wet.

Oskar swept the hair out of his eyes and looked around.  The antenna swayed gently in the wind, which made a low moan around the wires.  He looked down at the triangular pattern of support beams that disappeared beneath him, then up at the same thing above his head, and whistled.  “Wow, Eli, it’s pretty cool up here.  Check out those big silos down there.  And that ship.  It’s huge.”

Eli murmured a vague response.  She was not looking at the granary below them or the ship; instead, she was gazing toward the horizon all around, and at the trees and homes to the east.  When she continued to look in silence for what seemed to Oskar an inordinate amount of time, he spoke.

“Eli . . . what is it?”

“It was here.”

“Here?  You mean, the—”  But he knew what she meant, and her nod confirmed it.

“How do you know?  I mean, there’s sure no castle around now.”

The distant look in her eyes remained as she spoke.  “It’s just . . . the lay of the land.  The view out over the bay.  And especially that little island over there—I remember that.”  She paused, as if trying to organize her thoughts.  “What’s that word?”

“Word?”

“You know, when you’ve . . . when you feel like you’ve been somewhere before, or done something—”

“Déjà vu.”

She nodded.  “Yeah--déjà vu.  That’s kinda how I feel right now.”  She looked down, puzzled.  “They built this thing right over it.  I wonder how long it’s been here.”

“Dunno.  Looks like they’re loading grain onto that ship . . . do you see the boom?”

“Uh huh.”

“Do you suppose Maria came here today?”

“It would make sense.  I mean, it seems like a good place to start looking, I guess.”

“Maybe we should ask them if they’ve seen her.  Or should we just look around first?”

They looked at each other for a long time; both of them understood the risks that the question entailed.  Then Eli looked out over the wooded promontory once again.  “This place is bigger than I remembered.  She could be anywhere, although she’s probably on her way home right now—that’s the stupid thing about all of this.  But if she’s not, then I think we need to do what we can to find her.  I’m just worried about her—I don’t know why, but it’s not like her to be late or not follow through with what she says.  It’s already almost ten o’clock.  She was supposed to be home an hour-and-a-half ago.  And the sun will be up around 5:30, so we don’t have much time . . . we could spend all night out here and not see a thing.  As much as I hate to, I think we should risk it.”

“Well, Eli, they probably know my face better than yours, so . . . .”

“I’ll go, don’t worry.  Just need to figure out where the office is.”

“What’re you going to say?  I mean, if you tell them she’s missing, they might insist on calling the police.”

“We’ll work it out when we get down.  I have an idea, but we might both have to do it.  Come’on.”

Isak stepped out of the white-washed office and yawned as he turned and deadbolted the door.  Another 14-hour workday was behind him, and he was ready to call it a night.  The comforting hum of the transfer augers continued to fill the air; the crew foreman had everything under control with the Maartensdijk, and the loading operation would be completed in the morning.

Quite a storm they’d had earlier, he thought as he zipped his jacket all the way up against the cool night air, stepped down onto the gravel parking lot and headed toward his truck.  As he skirted the dark, cold puddles, he wondered if the college student had found anything interesting after she’d left the granary.  Their meeting had been in the back of his mind all day.  Maybe he’d call Christoffersen next week to see if she’d gotten ahold of him about doing some excavation.  Would they let her?  He sure hoped so.

He found it fascinating to think that there really might’ve once been a castle in Djurön.  It could confirm his theory about the foundation line running through the woods.  He wondered why they would’ve torn the whole thing down, though, assuming there’d been one.  Maybe the ground was deemed too valuable because of its deep water mooring potential to waste on yet another historical site.  Well, the old always had to make way for the new, he supposed.  That was progress, right?

He was unlocking his truck when he heard a young, anxious voice behind him.  “Excuse me, sir.  Can you help me?”

He turned around quickly, a bit startled to hear someone out here at this time of night.  A kid was standing a few meters away.  He wore a winter jacket and a dark hat, and it was hard to make out his face in the streetlights that illuminated the parking lot, positioned as they were behind the boy.  He was a little surprised that he hadn’t heard him approach, but then again, he knew his hearing wasn’t what it used to be, what with all the racket around here.

“Hi.  What can I do for you, son?  Aren’t you out kinda late?”

The boy adopted a self-embarrassed tone; shuffled his feet a little and stuck his hands into the pockets of his coat.  “Yeah—I guess I am.  Do you work here?”

“Sure do . . . just going home.  Quittin’ time.”

The boy took off his hat, letting his blond hair fall free around his head.  “I’m looking for my sister.  She came out here earlier today, looking around for a castle.  I’m a big castle fan.  My mom and my little sister and I spent the day in town looking at some down there, and she said we could come out here and join my sister afterwards.  Sis told us to meet her down at the corner,” he motioned vaguely down Djurövägen, “but I can’t find her.  I was wondering whether you might’ve seen her, or know where she is.”

“I talked to her this mornin’.  College girl, right?”

“Yes.”

“Nice young woman.  Well, I don’t know where she is now.  I told her that there looked to be a foundation wall buried out there in those woods behind you, and that she was welcome to go take a look.  But I haven’t seen her since.”

“What time did you talk to her?”

“I don’t know for sure.  I guess it was late morning . . . you know, a little before lunch.”

“Oh.”

He glanced up at the dark sky, which had finally stopped raining.  “I can’t imagine that she’d still be out there at this time of night, son.  Not with the thunderstorm that came through and all.”

The boy turned his head and glance back over his shoulder at the dark stand of trees; then he said softly, “Yeah.  Me neither.  Unless someone took her in for a bit.”

Isak pulled the keys out of the door of his truck and flipped through them until he found the one for the office.  “You, uh, want me to call anyone?  Get ahold of the police, or something?”

“Well, I . . .”

Suddenly a new voice--maybe a girl’s, although he wasn’t quite sure—arose from the opposite side of the service road.  “Oliver!  Oliver!”  The voice grew louder.  “I found her!”

The boy turned and they both looked at the small, dark figure who trotted into the parking lot, splashing through the puddles.  She ran up and stopped, panting, a short distance from the boy.

“What?  Where, Sofie?”

“Down there,” she spoke breathlessly and pointed back toward the curve in the road, “where you told me to wait for her.  She just showed up, and said she’s tired and wants to go home.  We’ll have to come back out some other day.”

“Aww . . . but I wanted to see it.”

Isak spoke up.  “You’re welcome to come back anytime—tomorrow, if you’d like.  I’d be happy to show you around.”

The boy’s face brightened a little.  “Really?  Gee, thanks.”

“Come on, Oliver.  We need to go.”

He turned back to Isak.  “Could you just maybe show me where that foundation wall was?”

Isak sighed; then he stepped up next to the boy and turned him to face the line of trees across the way.  “You probably need to come back out during the day.  I don’t know if I’m right about this—maybe ask your sister--but you see that spot right there where there’s sort of a dip in the treeline?”  He thrust out a lanky arm next to the boy’s head so he could look down its length.

“Uh huh.”

“Well, that’s what I was tellin’ her about.  It runs back through them woods in a straight line, then turns ninety degrees and comes out way down there.”  He pointed off to their left.

“Oh, yeah.  I see it.”

“Yep.  Now you two and your sister better get home to your mom, and maybe come back when it’s daylight and the weather’s a little more decent, okay?”

“Okay.  Thanks.”

“You bet.  You want a lift?”

“No thanks—it’s not far.  But we appreciate the offer.”

In his truck on the way home, he passed the two of them walking southeast down Djurövägen, but he didn’t see the college girl waiting for them anywhere.  He frowned briefly, but kept driving.  It just felt too good to finally be off his feet and in the warmth of his truck to turn around.  And like the boy said, someone in one of those homes along the road probably let her come in for awhile.  After all, the people in Djurön were the nicest folk.

Maria snapped awake.  She had fallen asleep for a few seconds, her head drooping down, her breaths becoming slow and shallow.  She gasped and looked around blindly.

She had fallen asleep despite her best efforts to remain alert and the throbbing pain in her arm and leg.  She had been up for almost fourteen hours, mostly tramping around in the woods.  There was no light and virtually no noise in the pit, and being so tired, coupled with the nearly complete lack of sensory input, was having its effect. 

He’s probably right.

She pulled the belt tight to shut down the fresh flow, and inhaled deeply for several breaths until she felt more alert.  The increased oxygen helped clear the cobwebs from her mind, and she decided it might be better to put her wounded arm up over her head.  Then she started thinking about how she could keep herself awake.

Songs.  Yes, songs—she would sing them to herself.  Any song she could think of.  A few seconds passed as she tried to think of something.  She was surprised at the difficulty of this simple task, but she supposed that she had good reason to be distracted.

Her voice, wavering and uncertain, rose up from her dry throat and over the bones and ash.

“It happens all the time
“This crazy love of mine
“Wrapped around my heart
“Refusing to unwind
“Ooh, ooh, crazy love . . .”

The lyrics faded out into dead silence as she paused, trying to remember the next part.

“Count the stars . . . in the southern sky
“That fall without a sound
“And then pretend that you can't hear
“These . . .”

How did it go?  Oh yes.  “. . . teardrops coming down.”

She returned to the refrain and was starting to repeat it when his voice broke through, calling her.  She stubbornly ignored him and continued to sing, but he was persistent, and somewhere around “ooh, ooh, crazy love,” he broke her concentration and she stopped.  This time, she spoke to him in her mind.

Go away.  Leave me alone!

I told you I mean you no harm.

I don’t believe you, damn you.  Get out of my head!

I have already been damned.  I want to be released from my prison only so I may die.  Only you can help me accomplish this.  Help me die, and I will help you live.

What . . . what do you mean?

Reach out your hand.

A new wave of fear gripped her; she instantly withdrew her right arm to her body.

No.

It is our only hope of escape.  Soon I will lack the energy to speak with you.  Unless you do what I say, we will both be lost.

Why should I stick out my hand?  What good will it do?

Silence.

She started another song, but her mouth was so dry that she developed a tickle in the back of her throat and began to cough.  With each spasm of her airway, pain spiked down through her broken leg.  She desperately needed some water, and in its absence, she worked up some spit and swallowed.  When this failed to help, she stuck a finger into her mouth and touched her uvula, which made her retch but seemed to improve things a little.  Then she tried to breathe through her nose so she could keep her mouth shut.

For a few moments she lay still, listening, hoping, praying for the slightest sound of salvation from the shaft above.  And after only silence greeted her ears, she reached out with her left hand, and felt . . .

. . . nothing.

Further.  Reach further, woman.

I can’t.

Then die.

She gritted her teeth and with a quick lunge, moved her body forward over the bones; then screamed in agony as her leg shifted.  After the pain had passed, she reached again.  Her fingertips touched cold, rough stone.  She moved her hand around, feeling further.  It was the wall.  Without knowing it, she had been only centimeters away from it the entire time.

I feel the wall.

Break it.

Break it?  How?

Use your fist.  Use a bone. It is exceedingly thin; anything shall suffice.

How could it be thin?

Because I scratched it for over a century.

Oskar stopped walking and looked at Eli.  His voice was hoarse from calling Maria’s name.  “We’ve lost the line again.”

“No, it’s over . . . I think it goes that way.”  Eli wandered in a semicircle and then pointed vaguely off in one direction.

Oskar gestured in a slightly different direction.  “Seems to me that it should be that way.”  He looked up and scanned the trees overhead. “Can you see it?”

Eli looked up and around at the treetops waving in the wind.  “I can’t tell.  It’s hard from here.”

“Well, let’s just keep going.  I know we came from that direction.”  He glanced back over his shoulder. 

Eli looked at him with frustration.  “She’s not out here, Oskar--you know that, don’t you?  I mean, why would she be?  Once it started to rain, she would’ve turned back.”

“Well then, where is she?”  He glanced at his watch.  “I mean, it’s almost 10:30 now.  She should’ve been home hours ago.”

“I don’t know!”  Eli’s voice was high and near to breaking with emotion.  “I don’t know, Oskar.  But something bad happened—I can feel it.”  She looked around.  “This place is bad.  We never should’ve let Maria come out here by herself.”  In the span of a few seconds, Eli remembered that just days earlier she had thought about breaking Maria’s neck, and she felt ashamed.  Just who was the monster, anyway?

“Well I’m not sure, but I think we need to go that way.  Come’on, we have to keep looking.”  He offered his hand to her.

“Okay.”  She relaxed as she took it, and together they jumped over a fallen log and kept moving through the scrubby underbrush.

“It’s starting to rain again.”  He couldn’t conceal the dejection in his voice. 

“Maria?  Maria?  Are you out here?  Maria?”

There was no answer.

The stone broke under her fist like a piece of fine china, but it was still quite hard.  She cried out, withdrew her hand, and put her scraped knuckles into her mouth; sucked.  The semisweet, bitter coppery taste spread across her tongue.

She caught the whiff of an odor and wrinkled her nose.  She had almost gotten used to the all-encompassing smell of ashes, but this was different, like . . . cabbage that had gone bad in the back of someone’s root cellar.  A sulfurous smell.

She groped around for something to use against the wall.  Some ribs . . . too fragile.  A spine . . . no way to hold it.  Some long bone . . . maybe.  Something round—

Another skull.  Her stomach turned as she grasped it, twisted, and tore it free of the spinal column.  And as she brought it up to strike the wall, she realized how small it was.  A child’s skull.

Oh my God, what is this place?  What happened here?  Oh Jesus, please—

The townsmen dumped them here and burned them.  Some of them weren’t dead yet . . . did you know that?

She sobbed as she began to beat the stone with the little skull.  It lasted precisely three blows before it collapsed in her hand.  She felt the spot and realized that she had made an opening the size of a grapefruit.

I’m sure you were the reason for all of this, you murdering bastard.

Yes, I was.  In a way.

Then why should I trust you?  She reached back where she’d felt the long bone, found it again, and pulled.  It came free, but something was still attached, a little thing that swung on one end like a golf ball, it was a--

(a kneecap)

Her stomach took another twist; it was too much.  She stopped, turned her head, and vomited down into the blackness.  There wasn’t much to give up, making the dry heaves that followed that much more painful.

You have no choice.  Your friends are not nearby; if they were, I would know it.

You wouldn’t tell me even if they were.

Perhaps not. But you must continue to enlarge the hole.

She hammered repeatedly at the wall with the little femur, ignoring the increasing smell, the pain in her leg, and the loosening of the belt.  When a piece of bone flew off the end, she turned it around and used the other.  After it, too, shattered, she threw it down and touched the opening, pulled and snapped thin pieces of stone away from the edges.  She was surprised to realize that it was now about the size of a child’s ball.

It is sufficient.  Now you must do what is necessary.

What?

Release the tourniquet and reach into the hole.

She froze.  I don’t want to.  I won’t.  You’ll do something to me, hurt me.

Take a bone, then; thrust it in.  Then you will know what I now am.

Slowly, hesitantly, she reached back for the ribs.  As she found one and snapped it off the sternum, her fingers were enveloped in a spider’s web.  Under any normal circumstances, she would’ve flung her hand back and forth, terrified, to get the sticky strands off.  Now she just thought, Fuck it—who cares?

She put one end of the rib into the hole and prodded around.  The rib got caught in something . . . something stick-like.  It was light and movable, yet attached at the far end.

She realized with growing horror that it was the bones of his arm--dry and dessicated.  It was limp and lifeless; she sensed no independent movement.

Suddenly it all made sense to her.  The vampire had been entombed in this place.  Buried alive, they must’ve hoped, for all eternity—a punishment worse than death.  They’d torn down his castle and found the bodies of all the people he’d destroyed—men, women and children.  It must have been horrible beyond description.  So they’d dumped them into this pit, burned everything, and then sealed it up; sealed it off so no one would ever discover it.  That was why everything was underground; why there had been no stairs.  No one had ever intended this pit to be discovered.  And now here she was . . .

She pulled the rib out and let it go.

I’m not going to do this.  No fucking way.

I cannot save your life without your blood, Maria.  It is the only way.

Shut up!  You’re nothing but skin and bones—you should be dead!

And yet, I live.  Put in your arm, Maria.  A few drops is all that is needed.

You go to Hell.  No.  No way.

I would rather be in Hell than to remain here.  Once I have saved you, you and your friends may kill me, or leave me for the sun.  I will welcome it.

She strained to hear.  Please Oskar, Eli . . . please save me.

They drifted like mist through the tall, dark trees in the pouring rain, looking ahead and side to side. They figured that the chances of meeting anyone were very low, and moving through the forest in this way had proved much easier than walking.  When they began to feel unsure of their course, one of them would float up above the treeline to get a better view.

They came to a stream and were beginning to cross it when Eli paused, hovering, over the running water.  “Hey Oskar, look at that.”

He followed her eyes and looked off to their left into the blackness.  He saw something white, limply fluttering in the light gusts of cold wind.  He frowned.  “What is it?”

“Don’t know.”  She looked as perplexed as he did, and without speaking she began to move toward it.  Oskar followed.

Maria reached down with concern and gingerly felt below the break in her leg.  Ever since she had shifted herself closer to the wall, the pain in the limb had diminished.  At first she had been relieved, but her relief had been short-lived because the pain had rapidly been replaced by a numbness that was somehow worse.  She couldn’t feel her toes, and when she tried to wriggle them, she wasn’t sure if she was doing anything.  The whole leg up to the break was starting to feel heavy, congested and cold.

Something’s blocking my circulation down there, she thought.  Probably the bone itself, compressing a vein in her thigh.  How long could it go on like this before the muscles died?  She had no medical training, but she doubted that it could be very long.

She swallowed, closed her eyes and looked up toward the ceiling.  Somewhere up there, beyond the wood-beamed ceiling, beyond the layer of earth and rock, beyond the forest, beyond the sky, beyond the stars, someone was there.  Someone who cared about what happened down here; Someone who would not lead her astray.  Would God, in his infinite kindness and wisdom, allow her to make a mistake and give birth to an abomination merely because she was desperately trying to cling to the little sliver of life that he had deigned to grant her?  Wasn’t it written somewhere that God helped those who helped themselves?  Didn’t Jesus teach about mercy and forgiveness? Would she be serving God by just lying here and dying?  Would her pathetic little death be a part of his Grand Scheme of the Universe?

She experienced a doubling back, the sense that she was once again in her apartment in Sundbyberg, pointing a pistol at Oskar and Eli.  The simplest action of my hand could determine whether thousands live or die. 

A cry from the dead in the pit seemed to rise up around her and into her mind; as if they could sense what she was about to do, and were begging her to stop.  No, no no . . .

Dear God, please forgive me if I’m wrong.

She loosened the tourniquet, then thrust her hand and forearm into the hole, found the skeletal fingers, and seized them firmly, holding the gagging sensation in the back of her throat at bay by sheer force of will.  The blood oozed anew from her wound, leached sluggishly down the undersurface of her arm, gathered itself for a moment on the heel of her hand, and then trickled down to intermingle with her ghastly handshake.

At first nothing happened; she felt only the pocket beneath her palm slowly fill and grow sticky from her blood.  Then she heard the sighing in her mind, like the exhale of a man who has just downed his first mouthful of water after a long, grueling march in the desert.  There was a tingling sensation in the center of her hand and the little pocket of blood there drained away, only to be replaced by more as she continued to bleed.  Then she felt a faint twitch of the fingers, and started to pull away; but then the hand squeezed hers gently as the sighing changed to his voice, now pleading.  Please, don’t.  Please . . . please.

An image rose in her mind, and she instantly tried to will it away:  Oskar and Eli’s upturned faces, their tongues moving busily over her forearm.  Lapping up her life, just like the thing in the hole.  She suddenly wished that she had never met them; that time could be rewound back to that night she had gotten out of Nick’s car, so that she could now march right by Oskar and leave him in the rain.  She moaned loudly in fear and anguish, wishing with all her strength to be removed from this horrible place, away from this awful, grotesque thing that was now coming alive in her hand.

As the seconds slipped by she heard wet, organic sounds from the cavity.  They reminded her of the time she and her sister had played with a bowl of fresh Jello, picking up globs of the cherry-flavored, translucent gelatin and squishing them gleefully between their fingers, letting it squirt out of their clenched fists.  The fingers in her hand rapidly grew thicker, expanding, like tiny balloons, into miniature sausages; then into the fingers of a child; then into those of an adult.

Just as she began to grow fearful that her blood loss was becoming too great, he broke their handgrip.  She jerked her hand back as she realized that he was now thrusting his arm out of the hole.  He groaned, and she was surprised to realize that she was hearing it with her ears, not in her mind.  There was a cracking, crumbling sound, and bits of stone and debris began to pop off the wall, some of it sprinkling onto her arm.  Then the sound and activity increased, as did his groaning.  Something moved very close to her in the darkness.  She tried to scoot backwards, then remembered the tourniquet.  Need to tie it—

“Give me your uninjured hand.”  His voice was not the same as it had been in her mind.  It was deeper; smoothly commanding.  It was not a voice to be resisted.  She reached out and he clasped her forearm; she instinctively grasped his.  It was hard to believe that such a thin layer of muscle over bone could be so strong.

“Pull.”

She tried to pull back her arm as he strained against her, and for a moment she feared that he would pull her into the wall.  But instead, a tense equilibrium was reached, and then the angle of his arm changed and she felt him shift.  More stone gave way and then suddenly he relinquished his hold on her, and she felt the weight of his body fall next to her.  He was free.  A deep sigh escaped from him.

For a brief time nothing happened, and the longer it lasted, the more frightened Maria became.  She imagined him gathering his strength, preparing to lunge upon her.  And why shouldn’t he?  She was helpless, and undoubtedly had what he needed.  Killing her would be easy.

“I require more blood to carry you up that wall.”

His statement prompted her to remember the tourniquet, which she twisted down tightly over her upper arm.

“No.  I’ve given you enough.”

“It is not sufficient.  If we fall, you could die.”

“No.”

A pause; then his hand lightly touched her arm.  She recoiled, but he did not follow; and when he spoke again, his voice was a model of gentleness and compassion.

“Maria, we have come this far.  I have grown weary of taking; hence, I now ask.  Let us do what is necessary to achieve our goals.  Otherwise, all that you have given up will be placed in jeopardy.”

“All right.  Shut up, you bastard.  How do you want it?”  She sighed, loosened the tourniquet again, and wondered with disgust how many liters she had left.

“Give me your hand.”

She extended her arm to where she heard his voice, then felt it grasped in both of his hands.  He guided it into some sort of position, then held it there.  She saw nothing in the blackness, but felt her blood run down and off to . . . she didn’t know where.  And she did not want to see it.

“Enough.” 

She heard his voice, and that was when she began to feel light-headed.  She fumbled for her belt, tried to tighten it, and failed.  She didn’t have the strength to keep tension on the leather.

He moved on the bones; then his hands were upon her neck, on her . . .

She screamed and began to beat against him, her fists thudding weakly against his chest.  “Stop it!  Stop it, damn you!”

He didn’t stop, but he wasn’t strangling her, either.  His hands moved down to her blouse and with one, quick motion, he tore it open.

“Be still.”

She continued to strike at him; tried to hit him in the face.  When her hands slammed against his flesh she realized that he was naked; his skin felt thin and leathery.  “What’re you doing?  Stop that, dammit!”

Relentlessly he yanked at her shirt, pulling it out of her pants and raising it up to her arms, where it gathered and caught on her shoulder blades.  She thought about the things Eli had said.  How she had been his pet, in his bed, so he could do awful, unspeakable things to her.  She struck him with renewed fury while making a continuous growl of denial.

A sharp, painful slap rocked her head back, bringing stars to her eyes.  “Stop struggling and raise your arms, woman.  You are losing too much blood and you will die if you fail to cooperate.”

In the few seconds that Maria was stunned, he pulled again on her shirt, jerking her arms up over her head, and it came free.  She drifted in and out of a foggy daze, vaguely aware of tearing sounds, followed by his manipulation of her wounded arm.  Then she felt a snug pressure coiled around the arm just above her armpit.

For a short time she sensed that he was no longer near her.  When he returned, crawling over the cracking bones, he spoke again.

“I am going to free your leg now and try to straighten it.  There will be pain.  Bite this.”  A flap of something was suddenly in her mouth, tasting bitter on her tongue.  She reached for it and realized it was a length of her belt.  Without ceremony he lifted her.

The pain was so intense that she thought she was dying.  She bit down, her teeth making a deep, crescent-shaped pattern in the tough hide, thereby transforming her scream into a long, loud, muffled moan; then she blacked out.  When she came to, something stiff was tied to her throbbing leg.  She reached down and felt a tight piece of cloth--her shirt.  The stiff thing was . . .

Her hand closed around a smooth knob of bone.

“Yes—a leg bone.  It will have to suffice.”

Her hand fell limply away.  Then she felt, very briefly, his hard, bony hand upon her cheek.

“You are very brave.  Ignorant and foolish, but very brave.”  There was only admiration, not condescension, in his voice.  Before she could reply, he continued.  “Are you now prepared to do the hardest thing?”

She wasn’t ready to do much of anything, but she understood that just lying there was not an option.  “Yes.”

“I cannot fly, and you are too weak to withstand climbing with me to the shaft opening.  Therefore, I will jump from here to the opening, and then ascend the shaft.  You must hang tightly onto me.  This will be best achieved if you lock your good arm around my neck, as if you were want to choke me.  Do not try to hold me with your legs.  If I miss the shaft opening, we will fall a distance of some fifteen aln, and it is likely that you will die.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.  But . . . fifteen what?”

“Aln.”

“What is that?”

She sensed a smile.  “A long way.”

Oskar shook the water out of his hair, pulled ahead of Eli, and alighted in the middle of the fort.  He looked at the logs and branches arranged around him.  “Pirate flag,” he murmured.  “Some kids built a fort.”  For a moment he was reminded of Eli’s and Jakob’s play fort by the stream, the one he had seen in his shared memory with Eli so long ago . . . but not really.  “Pretty cool one, too . . . don’t you think, Eli?”

“Eli?”  He looked around.

She was tensed on top of the log wall closest to the stream, and at first he thought she was staring at him.  Then he realized that she was staring at the ground, at something not too far from his feet.  He frowned and looked down.

A hole.  A hole and a splintered old piece of plywood, cocked up at one end, dark and drenched with water.

“What is it, Eli?”  He looked back up at her and saw the fear in her face and heard a deep whining coming from her throat.  Then she scuttled backwards out of sight, down the face of the fort.

“Eli!”

She tightened her left arm around his neck, locking its scrawny thickness in the crook of her elbow and seized her forearm with her right hand.  She closed her eyes and tried to shut out the revolting sensation of the dry, sandpapery skin on the back of his head pressed against her cheek and the rough skin of his back, pressed to her breasts.  He felt like a living skeleton, animated by a wiry, supernatural power. 

“Hold me tighter.”  She tried. 

He crouched, tensed; she felt him tremble, and then . . .

Whoosh.

They slammed onto the bottom lip of the shaft and her head smacked into the back of his with incredible force.  Her right hand was jolted free of its grip on her left arm, and she hung freely from his neck.  The broken ends of her femur ground together, producing explosive pain in her leg.  She screamed and instinctively tried to cling to him with her good leg, but it was impossible because like his arms, his legs were too busy working beneath them, kicking and scrabbling for purchase.  He bucked furiously, his arms reaching over and over, clawing, digging into the stone; and yet they slid backwards.  She felt his pelvis slide down, slipping off the edge as her legs did likewise and dangled out into space.  Then there was a long, continuous screech of claws on stone.  He swung his pelvis to the side, seeking to gain purchase with his leg, and she swung in the opposite direction like a pendulum, her weight dragging him down.  He cursed and lunged forward, swung his leg up again, and caught his knee up over the edge, swung his left arm wide, and dug in with his left hand.  And held.

She cowered next to the wall outside the play fort in the rain, her arms crossed protectively in front of her chest.  When Oskar came to her side, he realized she was shivering.

“What is it?  What’s wrong, Eli?”  But somehow he knew, even before she spoke.

“It’s him.  He’s down there . . . in that hole.”

He paused, standing completely still by her huddled form, and looked back, straining to see the hole which was now just out of his vision.  He closed his eyes and tried to reach out with his mind; tried to listen.  But he felt nothing, and heard nothing except the rain.  He turned and started to climb back up the wall of branches and tree trunks toward the hole, but she grabbed his wrist and looked up at him with huge, pleading eyes.

“Don’t!  He’s coming--we need to leave!”

He twisted out of her grip and scrambled up into the fort.

“Oskar!  Stop!”  But he was already lowering himself into the hole.

He crabbed up the terrifyingly steep shaft, pulling them with one clawed hand and then the next, grunting with each thrust of his legs.  Maria hung on, feeling him straining beneath her, but her arm was loosening with pain and exhaustion.  The shaft was just as black as the pit, but the air was fresher.  She could feel its coolness more strongly now; almost a breeze.

She closed her eyes.  The breeze . . . it felt good against her face.  Like that time when she was seven, just a little girl, and she and Lena had run through the park down by the river after that thunderstorm; the air had been full of a fresh, wonderful dampness, cool on her face and arms, almost mist-like, the wet grass beneath her bare feet . . .

He began to slow down and slip, and as she faded in and out, Maria was dimly aware that her elbow under his neck was being dragged through loose, wet earth.  She thought about opening her eyes to try and see what was happening, but decided not to.  It was dark anyway, and she was now used to being blind.  And it was better, easier, just to keep them closed.  She no longer had the energy to be repulsed by his lizard-like skin, and allowed her face to settle down onto the side of his neck, gently lolling upon his flexing shoulder.  He would either save her, or he wouldn’t; it didn’t matter one way or the other.  She had done what she could, had held up her end of the deal, and it was all the same.  She relaxed to the rhythmic movement of his body beneath her.

Momma, sing me a lullaby; rock me to sleep.

Suddenly his purchase on the floor of the shaft failed and they slipped down abruptly.  His body tilted as he reached out and up with his left arm, straining to seize the bottom corner of the door with the last of his energy.  Maria’s unconscious body broke free and rolled off him to his right, but his right arm was also above his head and in no position to stop her.  He pistoned his right leg out against the wall, trying to block her descent, but her body merely crumpled briefly against his thigh, rolled over, and slid soundlessly down the shaft.  He froze and heard the faint thump.

Oskar slipped down through the hole.  He had never seen Eli so upset.  She was usually very collected and self-assured, and her sudden and complete loss of self-confidence and transformation into a shivering bundle of nerves was shocking.  But when he saw the terror in her eyes, and understood that for reasons unknown he was not scared like her, he could think only of protecting her.  And so he had scrambled toward the hole with the sole purpose of stopping the thing that had hurt her.

His feet hit a floor of damp earth with a soft thud.  He ducked his head down a little, and then he was in.  Being inside and cut off from the rain and the wind, he was able to hear movement from an open door at the far end of the low, underground room.  There was no additional chamber beyond the doorway, only a wall that slanted down and away.  He assumed that there must be a flight of stairs going down somewhere.

Something or someone was coming up toward the doorway.  Oskar couldn’t see it, but he could hear it.  Scratching, clawing sounds, and the grunting of exertion. 

He’s crawling up the stairs.

A pale, clawed hand, accompanied by a scrabbling noise, suddenly appeared in the bottom of the doorway and grabbed the lower edge of the wooden door, which swung over in a short, rigid arc as weight was applied to it.

He heard Eli as she drew near the hole, her voice shrill and full of alarm but muffled by the earth over his head.  “Oskar!  Get out of there!  Please!”  And as she spoke, her voice growing louder, the rotten wood at the bottom of the door broke away, and the hand disappeared.  He heard a sliding sound, like someone being dragged across the ground.  Then there was silence.

“Oskar!”  Now she was directly over the hole, shouting in.

He saw something glimmering on the floor by the doorway and went to it.  As he approached he realized that on the other side of the door there was a shaft, not a set of stairs.  And the shiny thing at his feet was—

. . . a camera.  He recognized it as he picked it up.

“MARIA!   Eli, get down here!  Hurry!”

They found her lying on her right side, sprawled in the ashes at the bottom of the shaft.  Her injured leg, with the old bone, now broken, still tied to it, was splayed in front of her at a grotesque angle, as if she were attempting to kick a ball with a leg bent at mid-thigh instead of her hip.  There was a dark, bloody tear on the back of her thigh from which protruded the broken end of her femur, glistening whitely in the darkness.

The vampire was near to Maria when they arrived at the bottom of the pit, but he crawled to the opposite wall when Oskar snarled fiercely at him to get away.  He slid down to a seated position, pulled his legs up to his chest and sat, quiet and motionless, with his eyes closed.

Upon seeing Maria, the children began to cry in earnest.  They crouched down on either side of her, and Oskar patted her cheek.

“Maria, Maria . . . can you hear us?” He sobbed, his voice trembling.  “Maria?”

When she spoke, her voice was barely audible.  “Oskar?  ’sthat you?  Eli?”

“Yeah--we’re here,”  they replied in unison.  Eli brushed the ashes off her face and out of her hair, and Oskar took her hand.

“I should’ve waited.”  She mumbled something that ended with “. . . so stupid.”  Then she looked up at them and frowned, and when she spoke again, her voice was slurred.  “Don’t even think about . . . you know.”

They looked across her at each other, puzzled; then they understood.  Oskar squeezed her hand.  “It’s okay; we won’t.”

“Good.”  She coughed harshly and swallowed.

“Now you two remember . . . there’s more people like me out there.  You find ’em and . . . try to make some new friends.  In my purse you’ll find my sister—Lena . . . you’ll find her number.  Get me back to her if you can, okay?  And Marta’s in there, too.  Tell her you’re my kids—and that I want her to help you.  She’s nice.”

“Okay.”

She reached for Eli, trying to touch her face, but couldn’t.  Understanding what she wanted, Eli took her hand into hers and pressed it to her cheek.  “Honey . . . don’t be too bitter.  He tried to get me outta here . . . it just didn’t work.  Whatever he did to you—try to forgive a little, if  you can.  Not for him—for yourself.  Maybe you’ll feel better.  Okay?”

Eli felt a lump in her throat that was so huge, she could barely speak. “’kay.  I’ll try.”

Maria turned her head to look at Oskar and gently tugged on his hand.  He bent down so his face was next to hers, so she could whisper in his ear.

“Don’t ever stop loving her, okay?  And give her a kiss for me once in awhile, will you?”

Oskar closed her eyes and they cradled her for a long time in their arms, crying and moaning as they kissed her smudged and dirty face over and over, unable to believe that she was really gone.  And when their emotional energy was completely exhausted and they could cry no more, they turned their attention to the one who remained with them.

They picked their way over the bones and stood before him, their eyes red and faces swollen from crying.  Oskar spoke first, his voice loud and demanding.  “What’d you do to Maria?”

His eyes shifted briefly upwards to Oskar, then down again, and a few seconds passed before he spoke.  “I caused the door at the top of the shaft to open.  Of her own accord she came to the entrance and fell in.”

“What else?”

“I persuaded her to release me from my imprisonment.”

“What do you mean?”

He looked up once again at Oskar, and Eli was able to get a good look at his face.  She tried to conceal her shock, but was unable to prevent a tiny gasp, her hand flying to her mouth like a small bird.

It was the same face she remembered, yet different.  Without the wig that he once wore, his head appeared shrunken, and his scalp was pocked with small patches of long, thin, white hair.  The gray skin of his face was pulled tightly over his skull.  His cheekbones jutted out over cheeks that were sunken, like those of a starving person.  The mouth was still small, but even more flat and gash-like because his cracked, almost nonexistent lips, the corners of which were hidden in deep crevasses that ran down from the corners of his long, delicate nose. 

His wrinkled brow was more prominent than she remembered, but the eyes underneath were still incredibly huge and blue.  They no longer held the dark, terrifying eagerness that she remembered, though; they were flat and bereft of any spark of emotion--the eyes of someone who has seen all that there is to see, and does not wish to see any more.

He nodded toward the opposite wall and then looked down once again.  They both looked at the hole in the stone face of the pit.

“You tricked her, you mean!”

“There was no trickery--I was merely persistent.  I asked her to give me her blood so that we might escape this place, and she did.  Just as she has given her blood to you—has she not?”

Eli spoke, her voice cracking with fury.  “That’s none of your business!  She gave it to us because she loved us, not because she was trapped and tricked into it by someone like you!”

“I have told you the truth, and she herself told you the rest.  It is unfortunate that she died--her bravery was admirable.  But I wanted to be free of this place, and she agreed to help.  I will not answer further to you.”

He stood and made as if to walk past them, but took only two steps when they leapt upon him, knocking him onto his back. 

Although he was bigger than both of them, he did not have their strength and was overmatched.  After a brief struggle in a cloud of dust and ash, they pinned him against the wall on his knees.  Oskar held his arms behind his back while Eli held his neck in a deadlock.

“You’ll answer to us!”  she screamed.  “You’ll answer for what you did to me!”

He turned his head slightly in her vicelike grip to look up at her out of the corner of his eye.  “Your name is Eli?”

“Yes!”

He gave her a mocking smile, his fangs gleaming.  “I . . . don’t remember you.”

It was the final insult; the last indignity.  Perhaps, had he said something different, she might have been able to heed Maria’s wishes, to find some modicum of forgiveness.  But there was nothing in his face that warranted forgiveness.

“Well now you will!”  She drew his head back and began to slam his face into the wall of the pit, screaming between each impact.

“This is for Maria!”

His nose shattered, crumpled against his face.

“This is for cutting my cock off!”

She rammed his head into the wall twice in quick succession.  The bones of his forehead flattened into the stone.

“This is for biting me!”

She tilted his head up and slammed his mouth and lower jaw into the bloody splotch that was rapidly forming on the rough surface.  The fangs and front teeth snapped off, and his lower jaw fractured on both sides.

“This is for Mama and Papa!”

With each thrust she turned his head slightly to the side, angling the impacts to destroy first his left cheekbone and then his right.

“And this is for ruining my whole, goddamn life, you miserable son of a bitch!”

Oskar felt the vampire’s arms go limp as he counted the impacts, each one sounding more sickening than the last: one, two, three, four, five, six . . .  He reached and touched her small, heaving back.  “Eli . . . Eli, that’s enough.  Eli, stop.”

She delivered three more blows, then released him.  He toppled over sideways and rolled onto his back.

He no longer had a face; just a pulpy mess of blood and bone.  Even the globes of his eyes had ruptured.  The vampire made a muted gargling sound.  Eli seized him by one slowly twitching arm and began dragging him toward the other side, toward the base of the shaft.

Oskar was in shock and felt sick to his stomach.  Finding Maria—who had, through some miracle, come to love them unconditionally--broken and dying at the bottom of the pit had been bad enough, but the brutality of Eli’s total destruction the vampire’s face had completely unnerved him. 

More than the loss of Maria, he now feared losing Eli.  He had seen her panting face when she had released her chokehold on the vampire, and he had been simultaneously repulsed and moved with pity.  It had been the most scary thing of all, much more frightening than the vampire--a distorted mask of hatred so deep that it seemed as if she had become a different person, an impression reinforced by the spasmodic clenching and unclenching her claw-like hands, held rigidly at her sides.  Yet, he also saw that she was crying, and crying quite uncontrollably, the tears running freely down her cheeks in rivulets through the dust and ash.  Hers was a picture of anger and grief mixed so completely as to be inseparable; a confluence of bitter emotion that held her with such force that he feared that she might never be the same person again, might never return to being the Eli he knew and loved, whenever this awful day finally ended.

He understood her urge to inflict pain and punishment on the vampire, and did not oppose it.  He knew too much about her past to feel any differently.  Through her shared kiss he had experienced directly the horror of her neutering, turning, and the trauma of her separation from her mother.  By that same kiss, he had also come to know the sadism that lived within the vampire.  He had seen the gleeful anticipation in his eyes when he had given the little fat man the signal to proceed with the cutting under the table.  It was akin to the pleasure that Oskar had seen, over and over, in the faces of the classmates who had tormented him for days on end--a perverse desire for happiness in the destruction of another human being—body, mind and soul.  And in the few seconds before Eli had begun to batter his head into the wall, he had seen it again in the unrepentant face of the vampire lord.

Oskar also understood completely the rage that had found its expression in Eli’s act.  More than any other person, he knew how the vampire had, for no good reason, forever destroyed a joyful little boy named Elias.  He knew that Eli had felt the same intense release that Oskar had experienced when he had thrust his knife as hard as he could into the tree in the courtyard of his old apartment complex, imagining that it had been Conny’s eye—the raw, unadulterated desire to be free of unreasoning malice and oppression; to get even and to right, with the power of one’s own hand, unseen, cosmic Scales of Justice.  But could that same emotion, given its full and unbound expression, be self-destructive?  Could abandoning herself to it turn Eli into a monster, too?

She flopped the beaten creature down near Maria’s feet, and twisted one broken end of the old femur free from its binding on her leg.  Then she straddled him, held it with both hands, and pointed its jagged end at the middle of his chest.

“Wait, Eli.”  She looked up at him, surprised.

“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?  What if he knows about a cure?  He might be the only one who does.  Isn’t that why we came here in the first place?”

“If he did, do you think he’d tell us?  You saw what he did—he enjoys being a vampire!  He killed Maria, and he’d kill you, too, if he could.  My God, Oskar, look around you!  Why do you think all of these bones are here?  Who do you think’s responsible for all of these dead people?”

“I know, but I’m more worried about you than about him.  You’re scary.”

Oskar saw the flash of confusion and consternation in her face, the anger of one unexpectedly opposed from friendly quarters.  “What do you mean?”

“The way you’re acting.  What you just did.”

“He deserved it, Oskar, for what he did to me.  And to say he doesn’t remember me—that’s . . . that’s just--”  She groaned loudly.

“Go ahead and kill him, then.  I won’t stop you.  But I don’t think it’ll make you feel any better in the long run.  It’ll . . . leave a bad taste in your mouth, or something.”

“Oskar, it has to be done.”

“Then do it.”

“I want to feel like you’re with me on this, Oskar.  That you’re behind me.”

“I am behind you, Eli.”

“It doesn’t feel like it.”

“Yeah.  Well, I’m sorry.”  He broke her gaze and came to Maria’s side, crouched down, and straightened her fractured leg.  Then he undid the piece of cloth around her calf, and used it to tie her ankles together so that he could move the body more easily, all the while feeling Eli’s eyes on him.  He couldn’t bear to look at her, and as he hoisted Maria’s body up over his shoulder, the tears came. 

“I’m going to take Maria out of here,” he said bitterly, his voice choked with emotion.  “You do whatever you need to do.”

As he drifted up toward the shaft’s opening, he heard Eli sob loudly, followed by the sound of the broken femur being driven through the vampire’s chest.  An inhuman moan rose up from the floor of the pit.  Then there was thrashing in the bones as the moan grew softer and died away, and suddenly Oskar felt as if he might vomit.

Eli. Oh dear God, Eli . . .

He was wiping Maria’s face clean with a shirt sleeve in the rain when Eli emerged from the hole.  She came to his side and stood over him.

“It would be easier to leave her here tonight, and come back for her tomorrow night when we know where to take her.”

He looked up at her, his face sad and forlorn.  “I can’t do that, Eli.  It wouldn’t be right.”

She sank down beside him, sniffed, and took one of Maria’s hands into her own.  “I know--I can’t, either.”

“Okay.”  He started to rise, then stopped when he felt her hand on his forearm.

“And Oskar . . .”

“Yes?”  Her dark eyes searched his, seeking understanding.

“I’m sorry—about down there.”

He put his hand over hers and squeezed.  “We’ve just lost Maria, Eli.  I don’t want to lose you, too--you’re all I have.  Know what I mean?”

She nodded silently, then looked down and away.  “Yes—I think so.  Now, let’s get her home.”

Saturday, August 13, 1983 - 9 p.m.       Hageby, Norrköping

They sat facing each other at the kitchen table.  The library books on the castles of Östergötland County were shoved to the side, in a small pile on one end of the table.  To Eli, last Thursday, when Maria had helped them figure out the mystery of the castle’s location, seemed like a long time ago.  An earlier life.

Maria lay in the bathtub, wrapped in a blanket, completely covered.  They couldn’t stand to look at her face any more.

They finished composing the note to Maria’s sister, folded it, and put it on Maria’s chest.  Then they took their bags and headed for the train station, leaving the door unlocked.  Eli placed the call.

“Hello?”

“Is this Lena Fridell?”

“Well I’m Lena, but I’m not Fridell any more.  Who is this?”

“Your sister, Maria, is dead.  You can find her at Formaregatan 220C, Hageby, Norrköping.”

“What?!”

The tears came, stinging Eli’s eyes.  Someone else who had loved her would now suffer her loss.  “Do you have a pen?”

“Y-yes.”  A rustle of something at the other end—panicky fingers searching through a drawer.  “Who is this?  Is this some kind of a joke?”

“Write it down.  Formaregatan 220C, Hageby, Norrköping.”  She swallowed; almost couldn’t speak. 

“We’re sorry.”  Click.

Dear Lena,

Your sister Maria was a good person.  She loved us like no one else ever has.  She was like a mom to us.  And we loved her too, very very much.  She died trying to help us, trying to do a good thing.  We are very sorry that she is gone, and we miss her terribly.  She asked us to call you about  her, so we did. Please do not think she died for no good reason.  Maybe someday we will be able to tell you more about how brave she was.  The bravest.


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