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The Hunters

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 3


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Disclaimer:
The following is adapted from the novel Let the Right One In by John A. Linqvist and the film bearing the same name. The characters in this work are those of Mr. Linqvist and no copyright protection is asserted to this work.

 

She emerged from a heavy blackness that had seemed like forever and opened her eyes.  Did not know where she was, but—it was not where she had been before.  She had been outside; she remembered that much.  And now she had been moved to . . .

--a room.  In a bed.  She was warm in the bed. 

A man was sitting beside her.  He was lightly touching her hand.  He was looking at her hand, not her face. 

Fear of the unknown seized her, counterbalanced only by his calm, concerned look.  He was not trying to hurt her.  He was . . . worried about her.

He did not yet realize that she was awake.  She blinked and tried to orient herself to where she was and what was happening.  She was in some sort of small room.  It looked old, or—rough.  An old house or a cabin.

She looked back at the man’s face and an instant later, he looked up and realized that she was awake.  He gasped, dropped her hand, and said, “Oh!”  She said nothing because she did not know what to say.

“Well, hello.”

She did not reply.

“You’ve been asleep for quite awhile; do you know that?”

Slowly she nodded.

“Can you talk?  What’s your name?”

She debated whether to tell him her name.  In her mind's eye she saw two paths: one in which they remained complete strangers, and another in which . . . many things might happen.  She would have to choose.

She reached out toward him with her mind.  Not fine-tuned, just the big stuff—what sort of a person he was.  He had the openness  of a child, and the impressions came all at once, in less time than it took to sort them out.  A loner.  Didn’t like being around people, but kind and caring.  Not judgmental.  Strong; disciplined.  Not afraid of very much except . . . something.  She couldn’t read that.

She would take a chance.

“Eli.”

“Eli.”  He repeated her name, as if to make it real.  “Mmm.  Well I’ve never met an ‘Eli’ before.  I’m Jed.”

“Hi.”

“Hi.”  In lieu of a handshake, he patted the blanket over her chest.

Her eyes left his and looked at the ceiling, then the walls.  “Where am I?”

“You’re in my cabin.  I found you not too far away from here, down the mountainside asleep in a cave.  I thought you were dead at first, but after I realized you weren’t, it seemed to me that you needed help.  So I brought you here.”

Instantly she understood how much he knew about her; clearly the stakes had been raised.  She nodded again, but didn’t say anything.

“Why were you asleep on my land?”

“I felt sleepy. I wanted to find a quiet place, where no one would bother me.”

“I imagine that some might think a bed would fit that requirement.”

“I don’t have a bed.”

“You don’t.  So you’re homeless.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you know you would’ve frozen to death out there?”

She shook her head again, and wondered if doing so was a truthful answer. 

“Well, I was sure worried that you might.  You weren’t even breathing, and your heart was barely beating at all.”

She shrugged.

“Eli, do you have a last name?  Where are you from?”

“I can’t remember my last name.”

He sat up a little.  She could tell by the way his smile evaporated that he wasn’t buying it.

“You know, I don’t like being lied to.”

“I’m not lying.”

“How could you not know your last name?”

“How can I not breathe?”

She saw the perplexity and confusion blossom in his face and felt sorry for him.  She moved her hand slightly and touched his.  His fingers were warm, but as hard as stone.  “I know it’s strange.  I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.  I’m just Eli.”

Her touch had the desired effect; he seemed reassured, and his concern for her returned.  “Don’t you know who your parents are?”

“My parents are dead.”

“Well, who took care of you before?  Where did you live?”

“I take care of myself.  I’m from Scandinavia originally.”

She could see the frustration returning.  Obviously, he had not anticipated so much difficulty just figuring out who she was.  “You seem awfully young to be living by yourself.”

She shrugged again.

He got up, dragged a chair and a table over to the bed, and put his lantern on the table.  Then he turned wick up a little to provide more light, sat in the chair and sighed.  Rubbed a hand across his face.

“Well, Eli, I don’t know what to do.  I was hoping you’d be able to tell me who your folks were, so I could get you back someplace where you’d be safe.  I guess in the morning, I’ll take you down to the county welfare office and see if they can help you.  ’Cause I don’t see too many other options.”

“I can’t go outside during the day.  Sunlight makes me sick.”

He looked at her hard.  “From what I’ve seen, that’s an understatement.”

She only nodded.  Another dangerous fact about her that he knew.  How many more would it take before he truly understood what she was?

He watched her face carefully as he spoke again.  “Well maybe the thing to do, then, is for me to get in touch with the Sheriff tonight, tell him what’s going on, and see what he wants to do.  They could probably send someone out to pick you up while it’s dark and get you down to the hospital so the folks there can have a look at you.”

“I don’t need a doctor.  I have a very unusual disease.  There is no cure for it.  It’s one of the reasons why I’m by myself now.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself, for a kid your age.  What are you . . . eleven?  Twelve?”

“I’m twelve.  And it’s just the way it is.  The doctors at the hospital won’t be able to figure it out, and they might hurt me trying.  I don’t want to go to a hospital.”

“Well, I don’t know what to do, then.  I mean, I’ll take care of you for awhile, but I really think we ought to get you into the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing.  I haven’t taken care of a kid in years.”

“I can take care of myself.”  She rose up and swung her feet down to the floor; felt a wave of weakness pass through her, and tried to conceal it.  “If it’s a problem, I’ll just leave right now.”

Now his voice took on a hard edge.  “Not so fast, baby sister--you’re not going anywhere.  I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be responsible for turning a child out into the freezing cold, with snow on the ground to boot.  Hell, you don’t even got any shoes, for Chrissakes.  So just relax.”

She stopped moving and sat, immobile, on the edge of the bed, waiting.  He looked at her a little longer; then looked away toward the lantern and shook his head.

“This is the damnedest thing I’ve ever heard of.”  He glanced at her.  “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re just about the strangest person I’ve ever met. You sure better be leveling with me.  Somehow, I got a funny feeling you ain’t.”

“Sir, I’m telling you the truth.  And I’ll leave as soon as you tell me.”

“I told you I’m Jed—you don’t need to go around calling me ‘sir.’  I’m just a little uncomfortable taking up with a runaway kid.  And that’s an understatement.”

“I’m not a runaway.  I told you my parents are dead.”

“Yeah, okay.  Well, you had to come from somewhere.  You didn’t just teleport across the Atlantic to Virginia.”

Another wave of weakness came, this time accompanied by a strong pang of hunger.  She bent over and clutched her stomach, trying to conceal a grimace.  Behind her closed eyes an unwanted vision came: tearing Jed’s throat out in the middle of his cabin and gulping down his warm blood.  He would have a lot of it, she knew.  She swallowed, shook her head, and thrust the image out of her mind.  No.

He saw her discomfort.  “You okay?  Maybe you’d better lie down a little longer.”

Reluctantly she complied, and he pulled the blanket back up over her.

“You want something to eat or drink?  You must be hungry, huh?”

“Water, please.”

“Is that it?  Just water?”

She nodded, and he went to bring her some.

As she listened to the water trickling slowly into a glass, she looked around the room more carefully.  Although she was still very apprehensive about being somewhere new, she couldn’t help relaxing at what she saw; the room reminded her of where she had been born. 

It was very simple: a square, one-room cabin with a pitched roof.  Over the front door was a loft with boxes and supplies, accessible by a hand-made, wooden ladder.

There were only two windows, both of which, she noted with interest, he had covered with blankets. 

In the front corner by the foot of the bed was a very old, single-door armoire and a plain, wooden dresser with glass pulls.  A mud mat with some boots sat next to the door, and above it, angled pegs ran up the wall for hats and caps.  On the opposite side of the door stood a coat rack.  Some fishing poles rested on more pegs hammered into the support beam over the front door.

A big leather chair and side table sat in the far front corner with a bearskin rug stretched out before them.  A set of shelves full of books and small, interesting objects hung on the wall behind the chair.

A gun cabinet made of oak stood against the wall opposite the bed with a couple of deer heads mounted above it; the antlers on the deer were positively huge.  In front of the cabinet, more or less in the middle of the room, was a round kitchen table made of black walnut with an olive drab cot set up next to it.

In the far corner where Jed stood getting water out of a bright blue plastic jug was a tired-looking, stand-alone kitchen cabinet with lots of doors and an enameled steel tray that slid out for cooking.  A mishmash of pots and pans hung from a rough-hewn beam running across the ceiling over the kitchen area.  To one side of the cabinet sat a wooden device that appeared to be half a rain barrel up on legs; Eli recognized it as a primitive clothes washing machine.  On the other side was an old-fashioned, claw-footed porcelain tub with a wooden rack built over one end to hold soap, towels and washcloths.

Along the back wall was a padded blanket box that doubled as a bench.  And then behind her, in the back corner nearest the bed, was a big iron stove with high and low flat surfaces for cooking.  From a hook high on its flue hung insulated mitts that were stained black and brown.  Immediately beside the stove was a sizeable stack of firewood, iron utensils, and a galvanized metal ash can.  And finally, standing between the bed and the stove was a rocking chair.

He returned to the bedside, pulled the small endtable up next to the bed, and handed her the waterglass.

“Here you go.”  She took a sip.

He looked around the room before his gaze settled on the loft.  “Given your allergy to sunlight, I think it would make sense to set up a bed for you in the loft.  It’s the darkest place in the cabin, and the warmest, too.  Would you mind sleeping up there?”

She shook her head.

“Good.  Then let me climb up and see what I can do.”  He lit the second lantern and ascended the ladder.  Once he was up, he hung it from a chain dangling from the ceiling and began to move boxes around.  After a few minutes of grunting and pushing, he came back down.

“Do you want to sleep on the cot up there, or just lay down on some blankets?  You’ll be warm either way.  And don’t worry, there aren’t any mice in here.”

“Whatever is easiest for you.”

“All right.  Then let me put away the cot and get you some blankets and an extra pillow.”

After he had it all set up, he went to his dresser and pulled two pair of socks out of his top drawer and brought them to her side.

“The bathroom’s outside, so you’re gonna need something for your feet until we can get you some shoes.  You can double up with these and put on my galoshes.”  He gestured toward a pair of black rubber boots with metal snaps next to the front door.  “Do you haveta go right now?”

“No.”

“Okay.  Well, if you need to go, it’s around back.  You know what an outhouse is, right?”

She nodded.

“Good. Not sayin’ you’re ignorant or anything, but I just thought I’d better ask.  You know, some folks who grow up in the city, they got no idea.”

“Don’t worry.”  She smiled a little and began to pull on the thick, fuzzy socks, which were much too large for her and nearly came up to her knees.

He scratched his head.  “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat?”

“Yes.  But thank you for the water.”

He felt as though he ought to be doing more for her, but her quiet passivity and apparent lack of need perplexed him.  He glanced at the tub.  “Do you want to take a bath?  Get cleaned up or anything?”

She was about to say no, but then remembered that she had no clear recollection of how long it had been since she had last bathed.  All she could remember was that when she had fallen asleep, it had been warm out--summertime warm.  So it had probably been awhile.  September, maybe?  She tried to smell herself unobtrusively, but he was standing right in front of her, so it was impossible.

“A bath would be nice.  Yes.”

“Good.”  Clearly he was pleased that he could do something for her beyond getting her a glass of water.  “Let me draw up some bathwater for you, then.”

He set about heating some water, adding more wood to the stove and removing one of the lids on the top.  He went outside for a few minutes and then returned carrying two buckets of water, which he poured into an enormous pot that he’d put on top of the stove.  He went back outside and made several more trips in with additional buckets of water until he had the pot very full.  He talked as he worked.

“On sunny days the sunshine usually does a good job heating my bathwater.  But today it’s just been too darn cloudy and cold for that.”  He turned away from the stove and thought for a minute.  “Well I reckon I oughta . . . hmm.  I know what we can use.”  He pulled a white sheet out of the blanket box, got a staple gun from the kitchen cabinet, and proceeded to tack the sheet up to the rafters around the bathtub.

“I take my baths alone, so I don’t usually worry about privacy.  But that oughta give you a little.”

She smiled again, apparently grateful for his courtesy.  “Thank you.”

“Welcome.”  He sat down in the chair he’d pulled up to the bed and kicked off his boots.  “Whew.  Been a long day.”

“Do you live here all the time?”

“Yup.  This is my home.”

“It’s very nice.  I like it.”

“Thanks.”

“Have you lived here a long time?”

“This land’s been in my family for awhiles.  But it was unimproved until I built this cabin back 1986.”  He smiled.  "Not that it's much of an improvement."

“You built this yourself?”

"Mmm hmm.  It was a lotta fun.”

She nodded.  “So you’ve lived alone for awhile?”

“That’s right.”

“You like living out here in the woods by yourself, then.”

He pulled up one sagging sock and covered a yawn with his hand.  “Yeah, I do.  I’ve never felt compelled to be around people.  Some people are like that, you know.  Always feel like they have to be with someone.  Not me.”

“You must get lonely.”

“Ah, not really.  Sometimes, I guess.  But there are other folks living on this mountain.  A lawyer fella lives down at the bottom; built himself a new house down there.  And Widow Enderly, she lives around’ta the other side.  I pop in to visit her from time to time, make sure she’s okay, you know.  And then there’s a friend of mine who owns the land at the very top of the mountain.  He comes out to hunt deer in the fall.”

Eli studied the deers’ heads mounted on the wall.  “You hunt, too, huh?”

He nodded.  “Venison is pretty good.  Ever had some?”

“No.”

He grunted.  “Well maybe you’ll have a chance to try it, if you stay long enough.”

“I don’t eat much food.”

He looked at her.  “I can see that.  You’re as skinny as a rail, kid.  You need to put a little meat on your bones.”

“I find what I need.”

“With what?  You don’t have any money, do you?”

“What I have, I hid before I went to sleep.”

“Oh."  He gave her a surprised glance.  "You mean, out in the woods?”

“Yes.  Not too far from where I was.”

“Huh.  Well, maybe we ought to go get it before it disappears.  What sort of belongings are they?”

“Some money.  My toys and puzzles.”

“I see.  Do you think that if I took you back to where I found you, you’d be able to find your things?”

She paused and looked down at the floor.  “I think so.”

“All right.  Maybe we can do that tomorrow night, then, if you’re feeling up to it.  Because I’d hate to see you lose your stuff.  Tomorrow I’ll run in to Warrenton and pick up some decent clothes and shoes so you’re not cold.  Then we’ll go on a little treasure hunt after supper.  How’s that suit ya?”

She smiled.  “Okay.”

“Do you know your shoe size?”

“I’m not sure.”

“All right.  Well maybe we can measure your feet before I go in there, and I’ll getcha two or three pairs of different sizes.  You can try them on and I’ll take back the ones that don’t fit.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  He got up and checked the pot of water.  “I think it’s gettin’ there.”  He put some more wood in the stove and banked the embers around the fresh pieces with his poker.  “You want me to wash those clothes of yours?  They look a little . . . you know.”  He gave her a teasing look.

“But what will I wear while they dry?”

“Hang on a sec.  Let me find something for you.”  He went to the front of the cabin and searched through one of the lower drawers of his dresser.  Then he pulled out a faded and worn sweatshirt with REDSKINS emblazoned on the front and handed it to her.

“You’ll probably swim in this, but it’ll keep you plenty warm.”

“What does that mean?”  She pointed at the word.  “Redskins.”

“It’s a football team—in the NFL.”

“N-F-L?”

He sat down again.  “National Football League.  You know--the professional teams.”

“Oh.”

“How long you lived in the States, baby sister?  And whereabouts in Scandinavia are you from?”

“I’ve only lived here a little while—less than a year, I guess.  And I’m from Sweden.”  Growing uncomfortable with the conversation, she picked at a loose thread hanging from the sleeve of the sweatshirt; then she looked at the stove.  “Is the water ready yet?”

He said nothing at first; just continued to watch her.  Then he said, “I’ll check.”  On the way to the stove he added, “You speak pretty good English for a Swede.”

“I learned it when I was young.”

He reported that the water wasn’t terribly hot, but was at least lukewarm, and if she was eager to get washed up, she could.  When she replied that she was, he poured the water into the big, clawfooted tub.  He moved the washtub over to the stove and got some soapsuds out of the kitchen cabinet.  Then once again he picked up his buckets.

“Push your clothes out under the sheet when you’re ready and I’ll get started on the washin while you take your bath.  No rush--stay in there as long as you like.  I’ll heat up some more water in case you need it.”

She sat in the tub and felt the cool draft on her shoulders as he went back outside to get more water.  Then she put some soap on a sponge and tried to think about what she would do once he was asleep.

After her bath, they sat around the stove.  His sweatshirt hung all the way to her knees, and after she put his socks back on, only a small portion of her legs remained uncovered.  She sat cross-legged in the rocking chair; he sat in one of the chairs for the kitchen table with a knife and a short stick in his hands.  Her freshly washed clothes hung over the stove from a line he had strung across the room.  He had cracked the stove door open a little, and she stared at the cheery orange glow inside.

“Feel better?”

“Much better; thanks.”

“Always feels good to get clean.  Particularly after you’ve spent alot of time communing with Mother Nature.”  He glanced at her.  “What kinda shoes do you want me to get for you?”

She did not know what to say at first, because she could not remember the last time she had actually picked out a pair of shoes, or had someone ask her the question.

“I guess some sneakers would be good.”

“You want hightops?”

“Hightops?”

He saw her uncertainty and smiled.  “I guess they don’t have hightops in Sweden, huh?”

She shook her head.  “Don’t know.”

“Never mind.  I assume you’re okay with laces, right?”

“Sure.”

“Any particular color?”

“I like black.”

“Black it’ll be, then.”  He stood, put down his knife and wood, and knelt down in front of the rocking chair.  “Give me your foot.”

She wasn’t sure what he wanted, but hesitantly stuck out one of her legs.  He took her ankle in one hand and laid the palm of his other hand flush against her sole, then studied what he saw.  “Okay, that’ll do.”  He sat back down, pulled a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses out of his breast pocket, and began to cut the wood with his knife.

“What’re you doing?”

“Whittling.  A little hobby of mine to pass the time.”

Curious, she leaned over in her chair to get a better look.  “What’s it going to be?”

“I’m trying to make Frito Bandito.  This is my second try.  The first one broke when I was finishing the tail.”

“What’s . . . I mean, who’s Frito Bandito?”

He smiled.  “She’s a mama raccoon.  Lives out back under my shed.”  Then he paused and looked up.  “Which reminds me . . .”

He went to the front door, unlatched it, and stepped out onto the snowswept porch to retrieve a dented old aluminum pie plate.  He tapped it against the doorjamb to knock the snow off, then filled it from a big, 16-pound bag of dry cat food sitting on the floor by his kitchen cabinet.  Then he put it back outside.

“She’ll be around soon with her babies,” he said as he sat back down.  “We’ll hear them.  Then you can say hi.”

Eli smiled, intrigued by the notion of having some raccoons come right up onto the porch.  “Is she your pet?”

“Aw, no.  She just lives here.  She’s not tame or anything.”

He resumed his whittling, but then paused again and looked at her.  “You wanna try?”

“I’ve never done it.”

“It’s not hard.  Just gotta picture what you want to make in your mind.  And be careful with the knife, of course.”  He got another pocketknife from the top of his dresser and pulled a stick out of a tarnished brass can sitting beside the stack of firewood.  “Here.”  It was a Swiss army knife, and he opened it so that the small blade was out.  “Remember to cut away from yourself unless you’ve made a stopnotch first.”  He showed her with his own piece; then both of them sat and whittled while the wood in the stove snapped and popped.

“So does this disease of yours have a name?  Sure sounds kinda strange.”

She paused with her carving and rolled up her sleeves to keep her hands free.  “No one’s ever told me the medical name for it.”

“Have you had it a long time?  Need to take any medications for it?”

“It feels like I’ve had it all my life.  It’s hard for me to remember how I was before.  And no, there aren’t any medications for it, because there’s no cure.  I just have to live with it.”

“Mmm.  Well, you don’t look too healthy, if you don’t mind me saying so.  And you really had me scared there while you were asleep.”

She nodded.  “It does that.”

There was a long silence as the small slivers of wood continued to fall on the floor in front of their chairs.  Then, without looking up from his work, he spoke again, very softly.  “So who’re you running from, Eli?  Did someone try to hurt you?  Stepdad or somethin’?”

“I’ve never had a stepdad or a stepmom.  And no, I’m not running from anyone.”  Except maybe myself, she thought.

He wanted probe further to try to get to the bottom of where she was from, but he sensed that she was nearing the breaking point.  He was pushing her toward an invisible and ill-defined line which, if crossed, would cause her to shut down and withdraw, maybe even run away after he went to bed.  The notion of her vanishing into the night in her current condition frightened him more than her strangeness, so he buttoned his lip and asked no further questions.

As he had predicted, they soon heard the sound of the pie tin scraping across the porch.  They went to the door, but he opened it only a few inches before quickly closing it again.  He took her by the arm and pulled her gently away.  A powerful, unpleasant odor seeped into the room.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s a skunk.”

“What’s that?”

He gave her a restrained smile.  “Polecat.  Peek out the window if you want.  You’ll see it.”

She did as he suggested and saw a small, black and white creature pushing the tin around as it ate, dribbling the cat food across the porch.  “Oh!  He’s cute.  Look at his tail—it sticks straight up like a brush.”

The skunk paused and turned its head, seeming to look at Eli in the window. “They may be cute, but you don’t wanna get near one, trust me.  If they feel threatened, they’ll spray you in a heartbeat, and you’ll stink to high heaven, just like now, but worse.  So it’s best to steer well clear.  Plus, they can carry rabies.  You’ve heard of that, I assume?”

She nodded.

“Good.  Well, sometimes you can tell by how an animal acts that it has rabies, but not always.  So you don’t want to mess with ’em.”

They resumed their whittling, and after awhile the skunk smell faded.  Then Jed put away his project and took a deck of cards off his shelf.  Her mood seemed to brighten when he asked her if she wanted to play.  He taught her how to play Blackjack with a coffee can full of change from the bottom drawer of his dresser.  When he mentioned that the game was also known as “21,” she told him about a game called Agurk that she had learned in Sweden, and taught him the rules.  They talked about cards in general, and she explained the Swedish names of each of the face cards. 

He checked her clothes, and since they were dry, he took them off the line and gave them to her.  “You sleepy?”

“No; I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.  But look, I’m bushed.”  He thought for a moment.  “It doesn’t make any sense for you to go up to the loft if you aren’t tired, just so I can sleep.  So why don’t I take the loft, and you can stay down here and play cards, whittle, or read—whatever you want to do.”

“Okay.”

“When you get to feelin tired, just come on up and wake me up.  Then you can snooze in the loft for as long as you want.”

“All right.”

“Since you say you sleep all day, I’m thinkin maybe I should rig up some sort of blanket at the loft entrance to dampen down the sound a bit.  I might have a tarp in the shed that’s big enough to do that, but we’ll worry about it tomorrow.  You hungry yet?”

She shook her head.

He gave her a puzzled look.  “You sure?  You must be famished.”

“No.  I’m okay, really.”

“All right.  Well, let me show you were the food is, in case you get up an appetite.”

When he had finished showing her around the kitchen, they went to his bookshelves.  He showed her his collection of carved forest animals and figurines, and told her she was welcome to play with them.  There was also a very old Noah’s Ark made of varnished wood on the top shelf, which he took down and gave to her, showing her how to flip open one side of the pitched roof to reveal the hand-carved animals inside.  “And of course, you’re welcome to read any of my—you can read English, right?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Okay.  Well, feel free to read whatever you want.  I wish I had more things for you to do, but you know—I don’t usually have company.”

She gave him a big smile and squeezed his hand.  “It’s okay.  You’ve been very nice to me, really.  I’ll be fine, and I won’t make alot of noise.”

He returned the squeeze and smiled back.  “All righty.  Well then, I’m going to hit the sack.  If you need to go to the bathroom, keep your eyes peeled for bears.  Don’t worry—they’re black bears, and they won’t hurt you.  But again, it’s best to steer clear.”

 “All right.”

“Well, nighty night, then.”  There was a short pause, and then, awkwardly, he gave her a hug.  She hugged him back.

“Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.”

“Ah, it’s nothing.  You’re welcome.  I’ll see you in a bit.”  He turned and ascended the ladder to the loft.  She took his deck of cards, climbed into his bed, and began to play Solitaire.

He lay down in the loft and wished he had lugged the cot up here; it definitely would have been better than the hard floor.  Oh well.  He was beat anyways, so he’d fall asleep just the same.

He closed his eyes and thought about what a strange little kid Eli was--polite, quiet and reserved.  Not that there was anything wrong with that; heck, he couldn’t remember ever having met a kid her age with such good manners.  So why did it bother him?  Was she putting on a show for him?  Was it all some sort of ruse, done to hide a really nasty person underneath? 

What if she was a thief?  She wouldn’t give him a straight answer about where she’d come from, so how could she be trusted?  Not that he had a ton of money sitting around to be swiped, but still—what if he woke up in the morning to find her gone with some of his valuables?  At least he’d had the foresight to lock his gun cabinet.

He was convinced that she wasn’t lying about being from Sweden.  Her language issues, and her knowledge of that Swedish card game, were proof enough.  And of course, there was no way she could have been born in the U.S. and not know what a skunk was.  Everybody knew about skunks.

He adjusted the pillow and kicked the blanket down so it covered his feet better.  So she had been eleven when she came to the States.  She must’ve come with someone; he couldn’t imagine an eleven-year-old getting across the Atlantic without the help of an adult.

What if she was one of those adopted kids from some orphanage over there?  He had heard about these people in the news who adopted children from former Eastern Block countries.  Kids with all kinds of problems—sometimes, problems the adoptive parents couldn’t handle.  Maybe that had happened in her case, although he would not have put Sweden in that category.  But she had said her parents were dead, so maybe some American couple had brought her over here, and then things had gone bad.  Maybe no one had told them about her weird disease, and they hadn’t been able to deal with it.  Although she’d denied it, maybe she’d run away.  That would explain a lot.

The implications of her allergy to sunlight were beginning to dawn on him.  The sunlight had been very weak when he had tried to pull her out from under the bed and exposed her hand to it.  Yet, instantly her skin had begun to sizzle like a piece of bacon put down in a skillet.  And obviously, something similar had happened just a short time before, when she had been lying in his bed.  So she couldn’t go outside any time during the day . . . unless, he imagined, she dressed up in one of those silver, full-body firefighter’s outfits, and of course, they didn’t make those for little girls.  And that meant that the poor kid was probably completely nocturnal.  Her internal clock was probably geared to be awake at night, and asleep during the day; that explained why she looked so pale. 

He frowned.  What would that be like?  To never be up during the day . . . to never see the sun?  He couldn’t imagine it.  He loved being outdoors on a nice, sunny day.  He’d probably die if something like that happened to him.

So how would he be able to live and work in his cabin without disturbing her up in the loft?

He heard the soft sound of cards being shuffled down below and his anxiety lessened a little.  The cards had been a good idea; at least she had found something to keep herself occupied.  He knew his life up here in the woods was pretty darn slow-paced, and not for everyone.  Most kids nowadays, he supposed, wouldn’t have been able to stand it for a day without a TV or video game.

Maybe he could change his sleeping habits while she was here.  Stay up later and get up later.  After all, he had an entirely self-imposed schedule; his only commitments were to himself.  So he would try that—because he did enjoy spending time with her. 

The thought suddenly came to him, like a surprise:  too bad she’s not my age.  He rolled his eyes to himself and thrust the idea out of his head.  Get a grip, Jed.

She was strange, all right.  Physically she looked twelve, but she acted like an older person.  The way she answered questions told him that she’d been living on the streets for awhile.  He didn’t think she was outright lying, but she was definitely not telling him everything that had gone on before she had crawled under that rock and gone to sleep.  Why not?  Was she just afraid?  After all, he was a complete stranger, and an old fart to boot. 

Maybe all of it was just because she didn’t really know that much about him.  Why should she trust him?  He smiled to himself.  Sometimes when you were trying to figure someone out, it helped to put yourself into their shoes, although he knew she had nothing to fear from him.

Well, maybe he could earn her trust.  He’d do what he could to help her; then maybe she would open up a bit more and he could get to the bottom of things, and really start making some decisions about what was in her best interests.  That was what he’d have to try to do.  Pleased that he had some, albeit rudimentary, strategy for dealing with her, he relaxed and promptly fell asleep.

Eli played several rounds of Solitaire in the dim light of Jed’s lantern.  She wasn’t getting the right cards and kept losing, and so she soon grew weary of the game.  She returned the deck to the kitchen table and stood completely still, listening to Jed’s breathing.  It sounded deep and regular.

Although she was terribly hungry, she was not ready to go out yet; her instincts told her that it was still too early.  So she took up her whittling stick and knife, sat in the rocking chair, and resumed carving.  A face was beginning to emerge on one end of the stick: Oskar’s.

Or at least, she wanted it to be his, but so far, it wasn’t close.  She thought she had his long hair down, but the face did not really look like him.  So she kept working, shaving off little bits of wood, trying to summon his likeness out of the unforgiving medium.

When she had begun the project she had known, or had at least felt inside,  that it was probably not a good thing to do.  He had been gone for almost two years now, and still not a day passed when she did not think of him.  Carving a picture of his face would not bring him back, and would probably not make her feel better.  But she still felt the pain of his loss, and was simply unable to let go. 

She had come near to killing herself after he died, but she hadn’t.  She knew she was weak and despicable for being unable to do the one thing that she really ought to do.  But the way she saw it, if she was going to kill herself, she should have done it before she had met Oskar, not after, because he had died trying to help her live.  Committing suicide, she thought, would have been a perverse betrayal of his love--and she just couldn’t do that.

So instead, she had decided to start a new life in a new country.  And that was why she had stolen away on a cargo ship in Malmö bound for the United States, and ended up in Norfolk, Virginia.  But of course, her new life had not turned out to be what she had hoped it would be, because she could not run from what was inside her.

She looked disgustedly at her handiwork.  It didn’t look anything like Oskar, and even if it might eventually bear some resemblance, it would not bring him back.  So what was the point?  Her stomach tightened, and suddenly she did not feel like whittling any more.  She was restless, the hunger gnawing and biting inside of her.  It made any effort to focus and sustain her concentration on a single task, even something like whittling Oskar’s face on a piece of wood, nearly impossible.  She surpressed a small cry of frustration, jumped up out of the rocking chair, and looked around the room for something to do.

She drifted semi-purposefully over to Jed’s bookshelf, and looked over his collection of books.  Although some of them seemed interesting, the one that caught her eye was actually the one with no title; the one that was sitting by itself on the lower-most shelf with a pen on top.  She lifted the cover and saw the pages, which confirmed her suspicion:  his journal.

She pulled her hand away and debated whether to take it.  Jed had said she could read anything she wanted.  Had he meant to include his private writings?  She was not sure, and so she stood before the shelves for some time, thinking it over.  Wouldn’t he have hidden the journal, if he did not want her to see it?  On the other hand, they were his private writings.  She would be prying.

At last the urge to look at it won out over the feeling of impropriety.  She told herself that she was not acting from bad motives; she had begun to like Jed, and just wanted to know him better.  She was interested in him.  So she took his journal and returned to the bed; pulled the blanket up over herself and began to flip through the pages.

The first entry that she wanted to read was the one he had made on the day he had discovered her.   She was stunned to discover that he had attempted to take her to a hospital while she had been asleep.  Of course, it made perfect sense that he would think to do this,  but that was little comfort.  If his truck hadn’t slid into the ditch, where would she be now?  Probably a pile of ashes in the middle of some hospital bed.

She was happy that he had grasped her vulnerability to sunlight and had done what was necessary to protect her.  There were other people, she supposed, who would have reacted much differently; superstitious people who would have concluded that she was some evil “creature of the night,” and tried to destroy her.  She was beginning to realize that this was especially true in the United States, where people seemed more religious than they had been in Sweden.  Jed, though, had managed to convince himself that she simply had a strange “allergy.”

She was even more intrigued to discover that he had kept her existence a secret from his neighbor.  He didn’t want anyone to know she was here with him.  Apparently he was afraid that someone might think he was some kind of pervert, harboring a homeless “little girl” in his cabin. 

She put the two facts together—his willingness to see her condition as a disease, not something supernatural, and his desire to keep her existence a secret.  What did they point to?  Was he simply an extremely rational man who was very sensitive to what people thought of him?  Or was it maybe because he liked having her here with him? Could he be lonelier than he wanted to admit?

She smiled.  He was very kind, just as Oskar had been—thoughtful and considerate.  And Oskar had been a loner, too.

But how would Jed react if he ever learned the truth about her?  He was a good man, and good men didn’t stick around people who murdered other people.  He wouldn’t be able to deal with that.  He’d try to kill her, or if not that, at least would try to turn her in.

She sighed and closed the journal.  It would probably be best for Jed if she left tonight and never came back.  She knew she was bad news to everyone whose lives she touched.  Nothing could ever possibly turn out right.  Oskar had been a perfect example of that, even though it hadn’t been what either of them had intended.  It was just what had happened after being around her for so long; of his making a choice to love her, even though he knew what she was. 

The familiar bitterness overcame her.  It wasn’t fair; would never be fair.  No measure of long-standing happiness was to be portioned out to her.  When the plate of life was passed around the table, it skipped over her spot.  Even though she didn’t intend to be, she was a destroyer of life.  She couldn’t help being anything else.

But she didn’t want to leave.  She kind of liked Jed, and had no intention of harming him.  He had gone out of his way to help her, and was clearly willing to do even more.  He was the first person in this country who she really believed had genuine feelings toward her, and she did not want to give that up and go away.  What was so wrong for her wanting to feel loved?  Was it selfish for her to stay?

She flipped the journal back open to a random page.

5/24/02

6:00 a.m. - Up before dawn today for some reason and decided to walk up to the top of the mountain to see the sunrise. The clouds were delicate shades of pink and violet.  Beautiful.

A gorgeous day.  Spring definitely in the air.  Everything is blooming.

11:55 a.m. -  Worked in the garden all morning, weeding and fertilizing.  Everything is coming along.  It’ll be nice to have fresh vegetables this year.  Stuff from the store doesn’t seem to last very long.

4:30 p.m. – Paid a visit to Mrs. Enderly.  Fixed her toilet, which wouldn’t stop running.  She had some trim coming loose on the south elevation and fixed that too.  Then we had tea and talked politics.  We don’t see eye to eye on anything but she’s no pushover when it comes to arguing.  Got a feeling she wishes she’d run for office instead of deciding to be a teacher all her life.  Hell, I would’ve voted for her, and I’m a Republican!

8:00 p.m. – Cleaned my rifle.  Tomorrow will go into Leesburg and see about that new Leupold.  Be nice to have a 4-power come hunting season.

She skimmed back toward the front, glancing at seemingly endless daily entries filled with nothing but notes about work.  No mention of thoughts, observations, feelings, hopes, dreams—just things he had done.

“replaced vent tube for outhouse . . .”

“replenished drinking water . . .”

“truck maint. – tire rotation, plugs & filter . . .”

“cleared new area out back for planting corn . . .”

“repaired door of shed (bear damage) . . .”

“laundry day . . .”

Finally she stopped at an earlier entry that was longer and more substantive.

7/30/01

9:30 p.m. - Hot & muggy today--stifling.  Rained hard most of day.  Tried to get truck to start to go into town but it won’t run.  Distrib. cables prob. damp--always happens when it rains. No one around, didn’t even see J.B. with the mail.  So sat inside with nothing to do, totally bored.  Clouds of gnats on the porch.  Don’t want to work, read, or do anything else.  Feel depressed.  Days like this I wonder why I came out here.  Then I remember.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Hard words, Henry. You say a man could feel free living in a 3’ x 6’ box & “so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free,” but I don’t know.  Could hardly stand my cabin today.  Didn’t feel like I lived or learnt too much.

She smiled.  Several days were missing after this entry, she noted.

Her stomach gurgled, its needs breaking through her thoughts.  Knowing she could not put it off any longer, she returned his journal to the shelf and then changed back into her clothes.  She went to the kitchen, made a pouch out of her sweatshirt, and loaded it with a couple of apples, a few carrots, and some handfuls of dry cereal.  Then she went to the door and kicked off his socks, putting them in his galoshes.  She picked up the galoshes, quietly lifted the latch, and slipped outside.  There was no sign of the skunk.

She slipped around to the back of the house through the modest layer of snow and made her way to the outhouse.  She removed the lid and dumped the food down the privy hole.  She dropped the galoshes, with the socks still inside, behind the outhouse where, she hoped, they would not be discovered before she returned.  Then she went back to the front and made her way past the truck and down the driveway toward the road. 

As her body cooled down to the outside temperature, she felt even weaker than she had earlier, and she began to suffer bouts of shivering and dizziness.  Her hunger had become a living thing, thumping and thrashing in her gut, rapidly taking control of her actions.  Soon, she knew, it would be completely in charge and would impair her judgment, so she hastened her pace down the lane.

Eventually she came to the bottom of the mountain.  She passed what must have been the lawyer’s home, but it appeared empty; there were no cars in the driveway.  She did not want to attack anyone Jed knew anyway, so she continued on.  The feeling of urgency deepened.

She finally came to the two-lane highway that she remembered from earlier in the year.  It had been the last improved road along which she had traveled before her decision to hibernate up in the woods.  She began to move northward as rapidly as she could, trying to get as far away from Jed’s mountain as possible before a car came. 

It wasn’t long before one did.  A pinpoint of light on the dark horizon gradually grew into two, then widened and brightened as the car grew near.  She stopped, turned, and put out her thumb.  She was surprised when the driver slowed and stopped after seeing her; at least ten or twelve cars usually passed her without the slightest sign of slowing.  She ran to the car, a small Honda sedan, and opened the passenger door. 

A young man in his twenties was behind the wheel.  He looked at her, a little surprised at her youth.  “Where you headed, darlin’?”

“Front Royal.”

“No problem.  That’s where I’m goin’, too.”

“Good.”  She smiled at him.

He drove fifteen minutes and they traded small talk before she asked him to pull off so she could pee.  She really had to go; was sorry, but couldn’t wait.  He said okay and drove a little further before he found an unpaved farmer’s turnoff into a bean field.  He turned in and put his car in park.

She fell upon him.

Continued next week

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