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The Hunters

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 5


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Chapter V

Jed and Eli stood in the boy’s clothing aisle.  They were shopping at Wal-Mart, which was not, to Jed’s way of thinking, much of an improvement over K-Mart.  He pulled a sweatshirt off the shelf and checked the tag.  “Here’s a medium.  Are you sure you don’t like red?”

“No—the blue is fine.”  She opened up the one she was holding and held it against her chest.  “This’ll work.”

He looked at her, nonplussed.  “But it’s just like the one you got on.  Don’t you want a little variety?”

“No.  Jag gillar blå.”

“What?”

She smiled at him as she put it into the shopping cart.  “I like blue.”

He rolled his eyes and spoke with mock disgust.  “Kids—I’ll never figure’em out.”  He put the red sweatshirt back.  “So how do you say ‘red’ in Swedish?”

“Röd.”

“’Röd’?  Sounds almost the same.”

“Ja.”  She grinned.

He shook his head and chuckled under his breath.  “Did you find some underwear and socks?”

“Yes.  They’re in the basket already.”

“Good.  Well, picking out a sweatshirt was easier than finding you a decent pair of pants, I must say.  Is there anything else you want, clothing-wise?”

“No.”

“All right.  Well, let’s go get the food, and then get outta here.  These places always make me feel depressed.”  He pulled a small piece of paper out of his pocket and studied it as he began pushing the cart.  “Lessee . . . water and bread; condensed milk for me . . . skim milk for Katie—or was it two percent?  Eggs . . . .” 

They had finished getting the groceries and were rolling past the jewelry section toward the checkout when a thought occurred to him.  He slowed, then stopped when he saw what he was looking for.  “Hang on a sec.”

“What?”

“You gotta little picture of your friend?  Oskar?  Or some little momento?  Lock of hair—that sorta thing?”

She looked at him uncertainly, and then to the jewelry case.   “Why do you ask?”

The store clerk, a young black woman, came around the center island behind the counter.  “Need some help?”

“Howdy.  Lemme see that locket down there, willya?”

“Sure.”  She slid the case open at the back.  “The silver or the gold?”

“Gold.  The one without the CZ.”

She took it out and put it on the countertop.  He picked it up and studied it; looked at the tag.  Sterling silver and ten carat gold, the tag declared.  Ninety-eight bucks plus tax.

“You know what a locket is, dontcha?”

“Sure.”

“Own one?”

“No.”

“What do you think of this one?”  He handed it to her.

She held it in her palm and studied the delicate flower pattern around its edge; then used a fingernail to pop it open.  Then she closed it and handed it back to him.  “Thanks, but you don’t have to.”

“It’s not a question of having to.  It’s a question of wanting to.”

She looked down at the locket, which seemed very small in his big hand, and then back to his eyes.  Then back to the locket again.  “Are you sure you want to give it to me?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

“All right, then.”

He turned to the clerk.  “We’ll take it.”

“Okay.  Will that be cash or charge?”

“Cash.”  He opened his wallet and laid out two fiftys and three ones.  She took the bills and rang him up.  “Need a box?”

“Naw.”  He tore the tag off, undid the clasp, and brought it to her neck.  Carefully he placed it upon her, reaching around and under her hair to snap it closed as she tilted her head slightly. 

“There.”  He stepped back to look at her.  “Hey, it looks nice.”  He grabbed a mirror a little farther down on the counter by some lipstick samples and put it before her, then angled it so that she could see.  “Now you just need to put something in it.”

She smiled as she looked at herself with the pendant.  “Thanks!  I will.”

While they waited in the checkout line, they passed the time discussing the Swedish names for the various small items for sale.  He offered to buy her some chocolate, but she declined.  When they got back outside, the number of cars in the lot had thinned considerably, and the snow coming down and on the ground had increased.  After loading their things, Jed fired up his Chevy and they took 29 north. 

Eli began to speak as they passed the fairgrounds with its creosote-coated fenceline stark against the whiteness of the snow, its stables dark and deserted.

“When I first met Oskar, he was having alot of trouble with a group of boys at his school.  They picked on him all the time, almost every day.   And he was too nice to fight back, so he was really unhappy and angry inside.  In a way, they were killing him a little, every day.  Not physically, but . . . mentally.  Or maybe you could say, spiritually?

“So I met him because I had moved in next door to him at his apartment.  We met in the courtyard of his apartment complex.  I wasn’t doing so well then, either, and he took an interest in me, too.  Because of my disease, I was very lonely, too, just like him—I didn’t really have any friends.”

Jed put on his signal and turned west onto 211.  “I can relate to what you’re saying about Oskar.  I was sorta the same way when I was a kid—pretty quiet and withdrawn; didn’t feel real comfortable around people.  Insecure, I guess you could say.  But I had one good friend—Dave Meritt--he was the son of one of the local police officers.  And I’ll always remember, one day at school . . . can’t remember now what grade I was in—fourth grade?  Fifth grade?  But anyway, someone was picking on me, and Dave stood up for me.  Physically, I mean--put himself between this other guy and me.  And that stopped it, right there.  And I was always so grateful that he did that for me.  At the time, it was like a miracle; I never forgot it.  So I think that’s what friends are for, sometimes.  To stand up for us, when we can’t stand up for ourselves.  It’s a great gift, really.  You know--friends don’t let friends down.  Of course, when you’re in the military, this is taken to a whole different level.  There the bond is even stronger--those men are your brothers.  You’ll do anything for them; that’s how strong it is.  But we’re talking about the same thing, I think.”

“So what happened to Dave?”

“Oh, he ended up going to a different middle school than me, and we grew apart.  Then he got into trouble when he set off a pipe bomb in his back yard and blew off part of his forearm.  Then I heard later that he was convicted of armed robbery.  But at that point, I didn’t know him any more.”

“Oh.  That’s sad.”

“Yeah, it was.  Not sure where things went wrong with him.  I think maybe it had something to do with his relationship with his father.

“So what happened with you and Oskar?”

“I ended up helping him, kind of like you talked about with Dave.  I helped get him out of a really bad fix.  And then he left his mom and we ran away together.”

Jed grunted, a bit surprised.  “Ran away together?  How old was he?”

“Twelve.”

“Twelve?  But what about your folks?  Weren’t you still with them at that point?”

“No.  You see, Jed . . .” She paused, then said to herself, “How can I tell you this.”  She looked away from him for awhile; appeared to be thinking.  Then she looked back to him and caught his gaze.  “Jed, there’s some things about me you need to understand.  About my disease.  You see, I’m actually older than I look.  I’m twelve, but I’ve actually been living longer than that.”

“Longer than that . . . so you . . . so this thing with Oskar didn’t just happen a few years ago, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes.”

“So . . . how old was Oskar when he died?”

“Thirty-one.”

“Thirty-one!”  He looked at her incredulously.  “So you’re saying you’re actually . . . forty-two years old?”

“No.  I—”  She stopped in mid-sentence, her attention drawn to pair of headlights that suddenly appeared in Jed’s window and grew unnaturally bright.  A split-second later, a car struck them.  The truck lurched violently sideways, skidded off the roadway, and began to tumble down a slight incline.

Jed came to with an intense pain in his chest.  His head hurt, too, but not as much as his chest.  Something was stuck on his chest, pinning him into his seat.  Through the shattered front window he saw the snowy ground, but something was wrong because it was sideways.  Then he realized that the truck was lying on its side.

He tried to push on the thing that was against his chest, but couldn’t move his left arm.  He reached with his right and grabbed it.  The steering wheel--it was jammed against him, and he couldn’t catch his breath.

He looked around groggily.  The passenger door was above him; snow pattered on the glass.  Something warm and wet trickled down his forehead and ran into his right eye, obscuring his vision.  He blinked and tried to wipe it away.

He heard a soft noise and at the same time felt movement over his head.  Then he realized that Eli was above and behind him, in the upper left corner of the cab.  And at the same time that he realized she was there, he smelled gasoline.

He struggled behind the wheel, trying to free himself, but all he could move was his right leg; his left wasn’t responding.  He began to feel faint from lack of oxygen.

“Eli—are you all right?”  His voice was slurred.  Panic set in as he realized that he was going to die if he stayed where he was.  He struggled harder.

“Jed?”  He felt her shift behind him; some part of her brushed his head.  “Jed—are you all right?”

“No—can’t breathe.  I’m . . . I’m stuck, this damn wheel, it—ah, shit—”

She reached across him, her thighs straddling his head.  Her hands seized the steering wheel and pushed and twisted it.  To his disbelief, it broke off of the steering column, the hard plastic shattering in her hands, and suddenly he could breathe--the vise had been released.  He drew a great, ragged breath, and for a few seconds all he could do was breathe.  Eli had freed him. 

She was still above and behind him; he rolled his eyes up and tried to see her.  “Eli, we need to get out of here.  I smell gas . . .”  He shifted, trying to haul his body up toward the passenger door above him, and swung his right arm up to find some purchase.  But with this sudden exertion, blackness overcame him.

He awoke again, this time to a powerful wave of heat and light.  He was lying on the ground in the snow about a hundred and fifty feet from his truck, which had ignited with a powerful whump.  The pressure wave of superheated air had revived him.

He could not understand why he was no longer in his truck. The pain in his chest and head remained.  He tried to move, but his left leg prevented it. His back was cold, but his face was warm.  He shivered, and then his teeth began to chatter.

He looked away from his truck and for the first time, saw the car that had struck them.  Because of the front-end damage, he could not tell what make it was.  It was right-side up, and from the light of his burning truck he could see that the left side of the windshield was shattered, probably from where the driver’s head had struck it.  Not good, he thought.

Then he saw movement at the driver’s window, and to his surprise, Eli crawled out of the car.  In a detached and dreamlike way he realized that the door must have been crimped shut.  She wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her coat and approached him with a rapid and unwavering pace. As she drew near, he heard sirens in the distance.

She crouched by his side in the snow.  There was some blood on her chin, and it had gotten onto her sweatshirt and her new locket, too.  The red contrasted sharply with the gold in the yellowish light from his blazing truck.

“Eli . . .”  He could barely talk.  “Are you hurt?”

She looked away from him toward the sirens, which were now much louder.  Then she turned back, put a hand over his heart and said, “You’ll be all right, Jed.”   Without saying more, she lowered her head to his, and when her face was only a few inches away, she looked directly into his eyes for what seemed to him to be a very long time, but which much later he knew had only been a brief moment.  

Then she kissed him softly, and with her kiss all of the tension and anxiety drained away from him; he was at once completely relaxed.  He knew that he would be all right, just as she had said.  And as the calm settled over him, she lifted her mouth from his, smoothed the hair away from his brow, and gently kissed his forehead.  He felt her lips and tongue briefly move across the wetness there; then her voice was whispering in his ear.  “Not forty-two years, Jed . . . more than two hundred.”

Then she was gone.

“Do I have your permission to record our conversation, Mr. Inverness?”

“Yes, yes—of course.”

“Okay, thanks.  So the accident occurred on Wednesday, November 27?”

“Yeah.”  Jed shifted in his hospital bed and tucked the phone under his chin so he could pour himself a cup of water from the pitcher on the tray stand centered over his stomach.

“And about what time was it?”

“Oh, I’d guess about 8:45 or so.  Because it hadn’t been long since I left the Wal-Mart in Warrenton, and I’d looked at my watch there and it was about 8:30.”

“Okay.  And you were headed west on 211, is that right?”

“Yeah.”  He took a sip of water.

“Going home?”

“Yes.”

“The weather was—”

“--snowing pretty good.  The roads were a bit slick.”  He looked out of his hospital window at the snow-covered fields that stretched away from the back of Fauquier Hospital.  “Still quite a bit of it on the ground.”

“Yes sir, it snowed about seven inches that night.   Um, did you have any passengers?”

“No.  I live alone.”

“All right.  So what happened?”

“T-boned at that intersection.  Don’t know the road.”

“It was County Road 729—Richmond Road.”

“If you say so.”

“Remember how fast you were going?”

“Not sure, but it was less than the speed limit, because I was worried about the snow.”

“Did you see the other car before it hit you?”

“Only for a second.  He must not’ve stopped, ’cause he hit us pretty hard.”

“Us?”

“I mean, me and my truck.”

“Where did he hit you?”

“Left quarter panel and the driver’s door.  Then we rolled.”

“Were you thrown clear of your truck?”

“No.  I guess I crawled out, although I don’t remember too well, now.  That part’s a little fuzzy.”

“Okay.  Do you have anything else to add about how the accident occurred?”

“Not really.  He just came out of nowhere.”

“Can you tell me about your injuries?”

“My left leg was broke—tibia, I think the doctor said.  And a concussion, my head was cut open, and my left arm was beat up pretty bad.  Also they said I had microfractures of my chest bone—you know, the sternum.”

“And how is your treatment going right now?”

“Ah, pretty good, all things considered.  They took a bunch of x-rays, stitched me up, put a cast on me, gave me pain medication—that sort of thing.”

“Do you know when you’ll be discharged?”

“I’m told tomorrow, if the final head x-ray looks okay.”

“All right.  Do you have any questions before I stop the recording, then?”

“Well yeah, actually.  No one’s told me what happened to the other driver, or I mean . . . even who he was.”

“His name was Robert Finch.  He died at the scene.”

For a moment, Jed couldn’t speak.  In his mind he pictured the shattered windshield of the car and saw Eli climb out; remembered how she had looked with blood down her front.  Remembered her eyes.

“Oh, I’m—I’m terribly sorry to hear that.  How old was he?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Anyone know why he hit me?”

“That’s not clear, Mr. Inverness.  We suspect he may have fallen asleep at the wheel.  He was last seen leaving work down in Culpeper and he was apparently heading Front Royal, where he lived.”

“Mmm.  All right, well thanks for letting me know.”

“You’re welcome.  I’m going to end the tape now.”

“All right.”

“Thanks, Mr. Inverness.”

He hung up the phone with a sense of uneasiness at the lies he’d told, and turned his head to stare out the window again.  After a little while, his thoughts drifted back to . . .

--Eli.  Somehow, she had saved his life.  Had she tried to help that other guy, too?

Two hundred years.  Had he imagined that?  He wasn’t sure.  But he hadn’t imagined her kiss; he was quite certain of that.  It was the one thing that stood out above everything else, like a lighthouse beacon in a foggy night.  Her kiss, and how it had made him feel.  And how it was making him feel now.

He put the cup back on the tray and pushed it to the side, then lowered his bed a little.  Damn nice, these electric hospital beds; you could put them in just about any position you wanted, head and feet.  Almost made all of the rest of it worthwhile.

He closed his eyes and thought again about the dream he’d had last night. 

He had been thirteen, back in middle school.  In someone’s class; he couldn’t remember whose.  It didn’t matter, because he hadn’t been paying attention to the teacher anyway, assuming there even had been a teacher.  Eli had been in the class with him, and she was the one he had been paying attention to.  She had been next to him, both of them sitting at those old school desks that he supposed they still used today—the ones with the metal legs and the formica laminated tops that flipped up so you could put stuff in the area underneath.  They had been flirting, stealing glances at each other, secretly passing little love notes.  He had been intensely happy because she had been sitting next to him and paying attention to him. 

The feeling in his dream had been the same one he’d had with that big crush on Caroline Lafave, the first girl he’d known with red hair--only that had been . . . when—fifth grade?  Something like that.   A feeling of euphoria, of unbridled pleasure, when she had agreed to a kiss behind his elementary school building during recess that spring.  Yes, that was how he’d felt in his dream.  Puppy love.

And then the dream had changed, and they were . . . somewhere.  A house with a basement; he thought it was the house where he’d been born in California when his father had been stationed at the San Diego Naval Base.  The den that had been down there with the pool table, he remembered that. 

And he and Eli had gone downstairs.  They had been sneaking around; she wasn’t supposed to be over, his parents didn’t know.  And she had taken his hand and they had run down the stairs together to that room in the back, the one next to the laundry room with that horrible green wall-to-wall shag carpet . . . and they had started kissing again.  And then they had . . .

He abruptly opened his eyes and elevated the head of his bed.  Time to think about something else.  That dream wasn’t right; he wished he had not had it.  And more, he wished he could stop thinking about it.  But he couldn’t, because he couldn’t get her eyes or her kiss out of his head.

He shook his head.  He was acting like an idiot; he knew that.  Men his age were not supposed to have such thoughts about little girls.  It was perverted and it made him sick to think about it.  What was wrong with him?  

But yet, there was something about what had happened that wasn’t perverted; he knew that too.  She had saved his life.  He didn’t know how, but she had.  The sense that she loved him—or at least, cared about him—he knew in his heart that there was nothing wrong with that.  And the powerful desire he’d experienced at that moment to reciprocate—there was nothing perverse about that, either.  It had been a good feeling--a feeling of wanting to give himself, that he hadn’t felt about anyone in a long, long time.  So he firmly resolved to reject his dream, and keep his feelings about Eli pure.  Maybe if he ever saw Eli again, he would try to think of her as his daughter.  There would be nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of.  He just had to keep the whole thing in the proper perspective; that’s all.

“Sure feels good to be outta that place.”  Jed eased himself into the front passenger seat of Katie’s car and held his crutches on his lap.  She shut his door, got in the other side, and they pulled away from the turnaround at the hospital entrance.

“How’s your cast feel?”

“It’s not bad.  Not really much pain to speak of.”

“I’m having a hard time seeing you clumping around in your cabin all alone for three months with that thing, Jed.  Especially during the winter.”

“Ah, I’ll be all right.  I got plenty of wood inside right now, and it’ll get me through until the doc says I can begin weight-bearing.  But I do appreciate you volunteering to get some fresh supplies for me, seeing as how my last purchase got waylaid.”

“That was the least I could do.  I still think that you ought to consider staying with me for a week or so while you’re getting used to those crutches.  I know you won’t do it because you’re so damn hardheaded, but I’m worried.  I think you would be doing yourself a favor.”

“Let’s just play it by ear.  I’m pretty sure I should be able to cut a deal with Jack Nerschel over at Country Chevrolet today on that Silverado I was telling you about.  He’s told me all about it, and we’re already close to a price.  And it’s got an automatic, so I should be able to drive it.  If I run into trouble, I’ll come over and you can put me up for a few days until I get my act together.”

“The thought of you driving a truck in the snow with a broken leg scares me to death.”

“You told me yourself that the roads up there are pretty good now.  And it’s supposed to warm up a bit on Tuesday.”

“I know; I just . . .”  She shook her head and sighed.  “Men.  You’re all alike.

“Have you heard anything more from your little friend?  Eli?”

“Nope.”

“What do you supposed happened to her?”

“I dunno.  But like I said, she wasn’t hurt in the accident.   She ran off, and God knows where she went.”

“I can’t understand why she’d do that, Jed.  I mean, most kids . . . they’d probably hang around for the firemen to come.  You know, for some grownups to take charge.”

“Yeah, I know.  But Eli was no ordinary kid, Katie.  I’m not sure I understood what was really going on with her, but she was unusual.  Pretty worldly-wise for a twelve-year old.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to meet her.”

“Yeah, me too.  I think she could’ve used some advice from an adult woman with no axe to grind, like you.  A friend of hers in Sweden had died recently, and she was missing him pretty badly.  I think she was feeling pretty low.  But still, an awfully nice youngster.  Very polite, and you know, fun to be around.”

She gave him a long look.  “Jed, sometimes I wonder about you.”

“What do you mean?”

“The way you talk about that girl.  It sounds like the two of you were becoming kind of close.”

“Well . . .”  He looked at her.  “. . . maybe we were.  You know, I never really had a kid to call my own.  I mean, there was Julianna, but as you know, she died very young.  So yeah, I admit it—I kinda took a shine to that young lady.  And I think you would’ve, too, if you’d had the opportunity.”

“But Jed, you know she must’ve been attached to someone.  How else could she have gotten into the U.S.?  You told me her natural parents in Sweden were dead, right?”

“That’s what she said.”

“So she must have some adoptive parents over here.  There’s no other explanation.”

“I agree, but that’s not what she told me.”

“Well Jed, come on.  You’re fooling yourself.  Obviously she’s running from someone.  You’d just be making it that much harder for her in the long run.”

“Well, I’d kinda hoped I could develop a rapport with her.  You know, so she’d level with me and then I could try to help her.  We were sorta workin on that when the accident happened.”

“Well if you really had a good relationship, maybe she’ll show up again, and then you can help her out.”

“I reckon we’ll see.”

Sat. 11/30/02 - 4:15 p.m.  Temp. 39.  Clear, wind out of the SW.

Home from hosp. today thx. to Mrs. Enderly.  What a gal.  Picked me up and waited at the Chevy dealership while I dickered over the price of a used Silverado to replace my old C-20.  Can’t believe the ins. co. would only give me $2,300 for it—highway robbery if you ask me!  But I have a replacement, and that’s the main thing.  It’s nice—a ’98 with 45K miles, a 5.7L V-8, and a fiberglas top.  Looks good sitting out there.

Katie helped unload the stuff we bought, so I’m all set for awhile.  Plenty of fresh water and food, and of course we had a late lunch together at her place.  Leg ached quite a bit after all was said and done, but I’m holding off on the pain meds.  Never liked that stuff and how it makes you feel.

No sign of Eli.  Looks like she came back here and cleaned out her stuff.  Left the jigsaw puzzle, tho.  So I have to admit I’m pretty down in the dumps right now.  Was hoping against hope that she’d be here, but I’m not surprised she isn’t.

Didn’t tell Katie about the strange things.  The way she broke that steering wheel, or the blood, or the 200+ yrs comment.  She wouldn’t believe it, and even if she did, she’d prob. give me advice I don’t want to hear.  Besides, half of it I’m not even sure really happened at this point.

Maybe it’s for the best that Eli didn’t hang around.  Hate to say that, but maybe now life can get back to normal.  Although I do miss her.  Kept thinking today how much I enjoyed holding her when she was asleep, right after I found her.  Poor little kid.

Time to put out some food for the raccoons.

 

Sun. 12/15/02 - 9:00 p.m.  Temp. 33.  Cloudy & snowing.  Some drifting today.

Saw Dr. Kenner today at the outpt. clinic and transitioned to short walking cast.  Says I’ll need to wear it for another five weeks.  Leg feels good.  Much easier to move around, which is good b/c I miss my walks in the woods.

Celebrated by putting up X-mas tree with some help from Katie.  Couldn’t do a real tree this year on account of my leg so we put up an artificial one.  Broke my own rule but something is better than nothing, I guess.  She made a wreath for my front door and helped me get the decorations for the tree down from the loft.

Carson was back out over the weekend and returned my chain saw, and the post hole digger that he borrowed back in June.

Was tempted to tell Katie more about Eli today, but just couldn’t bring myself b/c I know she’d have many Q’s I can’t answer.  Would be nice, tho, to talk w/someone about what’s been going through my mind lately.  Had thought since Eli left that I would think about her less & less, but that turned out not to be the case.  Almost feel a little obsessive at this point, although I don’t really want to admit that to myself.  So decided I would make a list of the things that were unusual so I could try to make heads or tails out of all this.

1)  Goes to “sleep” in a cave on my property.  No ordinary sleep but an apparent state of suspended animation w/almost no hearbeat and no breathing.

2)  Extreme skin reaction to sunlight exposure.  Sunlight burns her.

3)  From Sweden originally, says  > 200 yrs old, parents both dead.  Has been in U.S. < 1 yr.  Met boy named Oskar when he was 12 and stayed w/him x 19 yrs until he died a few yrs ago.  Which means they met in early 80’s.  None of this age stuff makes any sense at all.  She’s either lying or crazy.

4)  She’s very smart & some sort of child prodigy when it comes to puzzle-solving.

5)  Broke my steering wheel like a twig & somehow got me out of my truck.

Listing all of this didn’t help me at all.  I don’t get it.

He dreamed that he was hunting in the dark woods when he heard a sound from a big oak tree.  He grew afraid and brought his gun up toward the sound, and in his sights saw Eli squatting on a tree branch, staring down at him.  She wore no clothes and there was a wild, feral look in her eyes that petrified him with fear.  Yet, even though he wanted to, he couldn’t pull the trigger.  She jumped down from the tree and approached him in the moonlight.  It was warm, a mid-Spring evening.  When she was before him, he no longer had a gun and he saw that there was blood from her mouth that had streaked down her chest.  He was deathly afraid that she would bite him, but instead she put her arms around him and looked up at him, seeking a kiss.  And then he embraced her, and—

He heard the creak of his bed and her voice at the same time.  Climbing into his bed with him, burrowing into his arms where he lay on his side.  Ice cold, seeking his slumbering warmth beneath the fluffy old indian blanket.

“Hold me, Jed.”

Without hesitation or reservation he complied, pressing her small, frigid body to his chest, desiring only to have her close to himself; to warm her, to protect her, and to make her his.  How she got in, he knew not and cared less.  In his half-awake state he was aware that some barrier within him, some moral standard that he had thought was strong and unyielding, had just been swiftly and completely destroyed, but he did not care because she had returned like magic and he could, at last, express his love for her.  And that was all that mattered.

In the dark silence of his cabin, she warmed in his embrace.  He debated whether to ask her questions; there were so many of them darting through his head, like a school of frightened fish.  He opened his mouth to speak, to ask her where she had been or whether she was all right, but instead he found himself merely kissing the hair on the top of her head and sleepily murmuring a simple truth: “I missed you, Eli.”  Her reply was only a whisper.  “I missed you, too.”  She pressed her back more closely to him and fell silent. 

He sensed that no further words were warranted; that further speech might destroy the fragile joy that he now felt in reunion with her, she whom he had feared had disappeared forever.  The stirring in his heart, that he might have someone to love and to live for, was the joy of the flower whose long-wilted leaves rise up to receive new life from a warm spring rain; of the dried and empty husk whose fibers are unexpectedly restored and filled to bursting with a superabundance of fruit.  And so he lay in delicate stasis, fearful that the smallest word, the slightest movement, might ruin the tenderness between them.  And doing nothing, he soon fell asleep.

Eli lay in Jed’s arms, waiting.  He was like an enormous bear; hands big and hard like paws, his arms thick and heavy, his chest a broad, gently moving wall behind her.  She knew she had taken a huge risk—not in returning to him; no, she knew he would welcome her back—but in climbing into his bed.  If she had been asked why it was risky, she could not have explained it, but in trying she would have said that she was putting Jed through some kind of test that could have been unfair to him.  For an instant after she had asked him to hold her, she had been afraid that he would push her onto the floor, but he did not; and when he had instead embraced her, a small flame of happiness had burst into light inside her chest and begun to spread throughout her body. 

He loved her. 

Now she waited for his hands to begin roaming over her, or put themselves between her legs; waited for him to begin kissing her incessantly and try to move her body around in the bed.  If he did, she would pull away from him as best she could without hurting his feelings and retreat to his loft, or leave, if it was bad enough.  But nothing happened.  After a brief exchange, she felt his limbs gradually relax and his breathing slow.  One of his legs jerked, and she then knew he was in the shadowland between wakefulness and sleep.  Then he was still.

In the stillness, the images came to her.  She had hoped being with Jed would keep them at bay, but it did not.  The old trucker she had met at the deserted rest stop had taken her into the smelly sleeping cabin of his truck.  His small, piglike eyes and leering face with its porcine jowls had been particularly hateful. She had attacked him after he had swept the porn magazines onto the floor and was removing his shirt.  Initially he had managed to fend her off, throwing her light body out of the tiny, padded space back into the cab, where her head had struck the corner of a small, stainless steel refrigerator tucked behind the passenger’s seat so hard that she was certain she had fractured her skull.  Then she had lept upon him with such fury that afterwards, on the way to Jed’s cabin, she had thrown away her blood-spattered clothing, rolled in a fresh snowdrift banking along a field of winter wheat, and changed into the new clothes she had recovered after Jed’s collision.

What good did it do to think about what had happened?  Nothing.  It could not be undone; could not be amended or taken back.  It was better just to shove it out of her mind, so it could do her no further harm.  She did what she had to do to survive; that was all.  But still . . .

At last she grew weary of wrestling with her emotions and relaxed.  She thought about crawling out of Jed’s bed and going to the back of his loft, where she would be sure to be out of any sunlight come dawn.  The windows were still covered, though, and she didn’t want to leave the warmth of his embrace.  Finally she decided to stay.  If the sunlight came in to burn her, she would burn; that was that.  She didn’t care anymore.

Jed awoke lying on his back.  Eli lay sound asleep, curled up next to him in the crook of his right arm.  She was making sounds again, only this time they were not threatening and dog-like as before; they were now more akin to the soft purring of a contented cat.  He stroked her back gently and strained to see her face, but it was still too dark.

He felt different.  Something had changed.  He had never thought that what he was doing now would come to pass: sharing a bed with a pre-adolescent child.  Was he a pedophile? 

He shifted uneasily in his bed, opening his eyes wider to stare, unseeing, at the ceiling.  What did the word mean, anyway? Didn’t “pedo” mean child, and “phile” mean love?  Was being a pedophile as simple as loving a child, a child who was not one’s own?  Surely that was not something that anyone would frown upon.  There had to be a sexual aspect—pedophiles were people who wanted to have sex with children.  That was not what he wanted, and even if he had desired it he would not be capable of it, but his dreams about Eli worried him; they made him distrustful of his own judgment.  He was uncomfortable trusting himself about whether his feelings for Eli were or were not appropriate.  And he had been alive long enough to know that many convicted child abusers would swear up and down that their feelings for the children they abused had been genuine, heartfelt “love.”  Subjective beliefs were a very slippery slope; he sensed that. 

And how would he act if a neighbor like Carson were to suddenly burst in at this very moment?  Would he leap out of his bed and try to act as though he had not been doing what he was doing?  Or would he look Carson straight in the eye and  tell him to fuck off?  Tell him that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him curling up in the sack with a twelve-year-old?  He suspected the former--that he would behave like a guilt-ridden weakling.  Why?  Because sometimes appearances mattered more than reality.

So perhaps he should just withdraw from Eli.  Keep things formal, strictly . . . what?  “Friends?”  To call her his “friend” did not seem to capture what she had come to mean to him.  Father/daughter?  Maybe . . . there was a paternal aspect to how he felt about her.  But like “friends,” this, too, felt stunted; fell short of being a true expression of whatever was going on inside him.

He closed his eyes and tried to think.  How would she react if he withdrew?  Last night she had come back; had sought him out, wanting comfort.  She wanted to be close to him.  He knew how alone she was, and sensed how much he had come to mean to her.  Would it be fair to pull back, just because there were people in the world who might misinterpret things and label him unfairly?

Another nagging question wandered through his head: was Eli really twelve?  She had told him she was more than 200 years old.  That statement had bounced neatly off his deflector shields for sure—it was simply unbelievable.  Yet, there did seem to be something about her that was very mature, even old.  Something in her eyes that he had seen, like the night they had gone to play basketball; something that was damn scary.  Her eyes had been full of a terrible weariness, the eyes of a person who has seen everything there is to see in the world, and wished to see no more.

He ran his hand down the middle of her back.  Eli . . . I’ve fallen in love with you.  You’re a child, but not a child.  Young, but somehow old.   I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know how to act when I’m with you.  I need to understand you.  I need

He suddenly realized that once again, she was not breathing.  He held his breath and lay perfectly still, resting his hand lightly on her back, trying to detect the slightest movement.  But there was nothing; she was utterly motionless.

A spike of panic gripped him--was she dead?  No, of course not—her purring proved that.  He exhaled with relief and felt foolish.  But it was time to get out of the bed and take a look at her.

Carefully he pulled himself away from her and as best he could with his broken leg, stumbled off the end of the bed.  Then he hobbled over to his table with its lantern.  He found his matches and soon had it lit; then he brought it back to the bedside.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at her.  She was now on her back, and he pulled the covers down to see if her chest was rising and falling.  He put his hand over her heart, but felt no movement.  Then he held it before her nose, but there was no air exchange. He prodded her gently, then rocked her shoulder, but she did not awake.  Was she going back into one of her weird hibernations?  He shook his head with frustrated bewilderment.

He stroked her pale, silky cheek, kissed her forehead, and then pulled the covers up around her.  He wished he could wake her and tell her everything that he felt about her.  About how he had begun to love her from the moment he had set his eyes on her, and about how his feelings had grown when he had rocked with her while she had been asleep, and had waxed stronger during each and every moment spent with her since that time.  If he did tell her these things, what would she say?

He turned his back to her and sat on the edge of the bed to think.  What was he going to do?  He reviewed his options.

He could do nothing.  Wait until she woke up, and then have an honest discussion with her about how he felt, and see how she reacted.  If she was comfortable with what he had to say, and wanted to stay with him, that’s what they would do.  He would take care of her as best he could until she finally told him what had happened to bring her to his property in the first place, and they could get to the bottom of things.  He sensed, though, that “getting to the bottom of things” was fading a bit as a genuine possibility.  Things were drifting away from some kind of temporary arrangement to . . . something more permanent.  Somehow, the idea of her just living with him indefinitely did not seem so foreign as it had a few weeks ago.

Plan B, he supposed, would be to kick her out when she woke up.  This would be very hard—to simply tell her that he would not call the County about her, but she had to leave.   He knew even as he formulated the notion that this really was not an option.  He would never be able to do that to her, even though he might . . . what?  Be happier in the long run without her?  Go back to living alone, as he had before?  He had not been unhappy before; he knew that; but yet, he had not been fulfilled, either.  As strange as she was, she represented the possibility of satisfying something deep within him; a need, long dormant, to love.  And as much as he sensed a dark, unsettling pathos in her, he wanted more than anything to grasp at that, as children will bravely reach toward a brilliant star in the night sky, trying to touch it and make it their own.  How being Eli’s lover would play out he really didn’t know, and didn’t really care to see because it seemed so strange.  But he knew that “Plan B” was really not a plan at all.

And Plan C?  Talk to Katie--today, while Eli slept.  Bring her over here so she could see the child, and explain everything to her.  Everything—the strangeness, how he had come to feel about her, the whole nine yards; then ask her for advice.  He felt like he needed some guidance from a friend, someone who could offer some perspective on what was going on, because he knew for sure that his own perspective was becoming skewed by the intensity of his feelings.  So far, he’d been afraid to level with Katie, but maybe now the time had come.  But he knew what she would suggest he do, and he really didn’t want to do that, either.

His mouth was dry and sticky, and his stomach growled.  It was time to get cleaned up and fix some breakfast.  Once he was dressed and squared away, he’d decide what to do.

“So she came back.”

“That she did.  Last night.”  Jed stopped the truck in front of his cabin, got out and hobbled around to try and open the door for Katie.  He reached her side just as she finished getting out herself and shutting the door.

“You don’t need to do that for me, Jed.  Especially not with your leg the way it is.”

“Old habit, I guess.  Com’ on inside.”  Together they turned and headed for the front door.

“How warm is it supposed to get today, Jed?  Did you catch the weatherman?”

“Up into the low ‘40’s, actually.  So I reckon we’ll see a little melt-off.”

“Well, at least the sun is out.  Feels good from all those gray clouds we’ve been having.”

“Yep.”  Jed opened the door and the stepped inside.

“I see you’ve got your stove fired up.  Cozy in here.”

“Mmm hmm.  Here, let me take your coat.”

“I’ll get it—you just sit down.”

He took it from her anyway and hung it up as she went to his bed to look at Eli.  He did not join her; instead, he went over to the kitchen area and began fixing them some hot tea.  He got the water started and then turned in time to see her sitting on the edge of the bed, lightly touching Eli’s face.  She remained there for a few moments longer, and then came to join him at the table, sitting down across from him.

“What a beautiful child.”

“Yeah.”

“I can see what you mean about her not breathing—I can’t see that she is.  You said she has a pulse?”

“Yep, I checked again just before I went to get you.  Her heart beats about once every fifteen seconds.”

“That’s just downright bizarre, Jed.”

“I know it.  That, and a lot of other things, too.”

“Such as?”

“Oh God, Katie.  Where do I begin?”

“Why don’t you start at the beginning.”

“All right--here’s the deal.  I found this kid in a cave on the southeastern side of the mountain a few days before Thanksgiving when I was out hunting.  It was just a coincidence.  She was wrapped up in that piece of canvas over there, and looked as lifeless as a corpse.  In fact, I thought she was dead at first, but she wasn’t.  She wasn’t stiff, and her pupils responded to light.  But sorta like she is now, she wasn’t breathing at all, and her heart was beating even slower.  So I brought her back here, ’cause—well, hell, because I didn’t know what else to do.  I mean, I couldn’t just leave her there.”

“No, of course not.  Go on.”

“Well, come the next morning I discover her under my bed, of all places.  Like she’d moved, but yet she was still asleep.  And when I tried to pull her out of there, her skin started to smoke—I shit you not, Katie, honest to God, it began to smoke, and I think it would’ve lit up if she hadn’t wriggled back under there.”

“Jed, mind your language.”

“Sorry.  But, you know—this scared the hell out of me.”

She nodded.  “Okay—this is sounding stranger than I thought.”

“Yeah, well, it gets even weirder.  So anyway, I um, I figured out that it must be the sunlight that’s causing this.  So that’s why I got them blankets over the windows.  And that solved the problem.

“So then she woke up.  And let me tell you something, she’s just about the nicest young woman you’ll ever meet.  Very polite and thoughtful.  You know, considerate.  Most kids her age, in my experience, are pretty darn self-centered.  Not that I’m an expert or anything, but you know, I’ve been around a few years.  And twelve-year-olds, they generally couldn’t see beyond the end of their nose to spite their face.  But that’s not this kid.”

The teapot began to whistle, and Katie got up.  “Let me get that.  Go on.”

“All right.  So like I said, she told me that she’s from Sweden.  Said her natural parents are dead, and she can’t remember her last name.  Said she’s been in the U.S. for less than a year, but denied having any adoptive parents.”

“Did you ask her what part of Sweden she’s from?  Or where she’d been in the U.S. before coming out here?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I dunno.  I guess I just didn’t feel like prying.”

“Prying?  Jed, she’s a child.  How can you help her if you don’t know more about her?”

“I don’t know, Katie.  I kinda figured that if I asked too many questions, she’d just run away again.  And for heaven’s sake, she didn’t even have any shoes—with snow on the ground.  So I guess I was trying to go easy on her.”

Katie brought the mugs filled with tea to the table.  Jed took his and sipped.  “Ah, that’s good.  You got the sugar just right.”

She sipped hers and smiled.  “Go on.”

“So anyway, after I’d bought her some sneakers and a coat, we go back out and get her backpack that she’d hidden away in a crevice.  And she hauls out this puzzle that’s shaped like an egg that’s got gold all over it, and must be worth a small fortune.  And here this kid’s dragging it around in a backpack, for heaven’s sake.”

“Is her backpack here?”

“Yeah, it’s over on my chair.”

“Have you looked through it?”

“No.”

 “Why not?  Maybe there’s an I.D. in it.”

He crossed his arms.  “Katie—I’m not that kind of a guy.”

“Jed, for Pete’s sake.  If she was your own child, would you hesitate to look inside her backpack if you thought it would be in her best interests?”

“I don’t know.  Never had to worry about that, I guess.”

“Well, we don’t need to get into that right now.  Keep going.”

“Okay.  Well, here’s the thing that’s totally thrown me for a loop, and you gotta promise you’ll keep this to yourself.  You promise?”

“Jed, how many years have we known each other?  You’re one of my dearest friends.  Of course.”

“All right.  When I had that accident, I was stuck in my truck.  I mean, the steering wheel came back and had me pinned.  And I’ll be damned if that kid didn’t grab ahold of the wheel and break it with her bare hands.  I couldn’t do that, even if I tried.”

“Maybe it was already damaged from the crash.”

“Sure didn’t feel that way, up against my chest.”

“Hmm.  Well okay, that does sound very unusual.”

He made a scoffing sound.  “’Very unusual,’ my ass.”

“Jed—please.”

“Well come on, Katie.  Anyhow, it gets weirder still.  I passed out in the truck after she busted that thing lose, but the next thing I know, I’m lying over a hundred feet away, out in the snow.  With no idea how I got there, mind you.  And then Eli came over to me from the other guy’s car with blood all over her front, and she told me . . . well wait a sec, I gotta back up.”

“Wait—what was she doing at the other car?”

“I—I don’t rightly know.  I assumed she’d gone there to see if she could help, just like she helped me.”

“Huh.  Didn’t you say the other driver died?”

“Yeah.  Looked to me like his head hit the windshield.”

“Well, there wasn’t much she could’ve done for him, then.”

“Naw.  Probably not.”

“She wasn’t hurt?  That’s a bit surprising, don’t you think?”

“Yeah—but . . . you know . . . that’s just chance, right?”

“I suppose.”  She paused.  “So you were saying . . . .”

“Saying?  Oh yeah.”  He shook his head.   “Earlier she told me that she’d fallen in love with some kid named Oskar, who was also twelve.  This Oskar . . . he died just a few years ago.  Only, get this—he died when he was thirty-one.  That means that if he died in, say, 2000, he was born in 1969, and they’d met around 1981.  So she’d known him for nineteen years.”  He stopped and stared at her.

She was quiet for a few seconds.  “That can’t be right, Jed.”

“No, it can’t.  And neither can what she told me just before she disappeared at the accident scene.”

“What was that?”

“That’s she’s been alive over two hundred years.”

Katie sipped her tea and then looked him in the eye.  “Jed, the girl has a mental problem.  There’s no other explanation.”

“Mentally she seems pretty together to me, Katie.  In fact--well, you see this puzzle right here?”

They both looked at the assembled puzzle lying between them on table.

“It’s an Escher, right?”

“Yeah.  I bought it at K-Mart to give her something to do around here.  But guess what?”

“What?”

“How long do you think it took us to build the puzzle?”

She frowned and looked at the puzzle  more closely.  “I don’t know—four or five hours?”

“Less than an hour—and she built it, not me.  I mean, I helped a little, but she did almost all of it.  It was incredible to watch, let me tell you.”

“Well Jed, even people who are very bright can suffer from mental illness.  And what she told you about her age—why, there’s no other explanation.”

 “I agree.  But in some ways, Katie, she seems very old.”

“Hmm.”  Katie paused and looked around the room.  “Where’ve you been sleeping, Jed, since she came?”

“Oh, I got an air mattress and she’s been sleeping up there in my loft, behind that tarp I got strung up there.”  He nodded toward his ladder.  “Just that last night when she came back, she slept downstairs.”

“Well, I’m not sure I understand what you mean about being ‘old,’ but the bottom line is, what do you want to do, Jed?”

“I don’t know, Katie.  That’s kind of why I wanted to pick your brain a bit.”

She looked at him closely.  “How do you feel about her, Jed?”

He leaned back in his chair and was quiet for a long time; then he turned his head to look at Eli.  “I know this is gonna sound crazy, Kate, but . . . I love her.  That’s the God’s honest truth.”

“Love her, meaning . . . ?”

He turned back and looked straight into Kate’s eyes.  “Love.  Love love.  You know—the real deal.”

“Jed, you hardly know her.  And she’s a child.  You mean you have . . . paternalistic feelings for her.”

“Yes, I do.  But . . .”  he looked down and scratched his head.  “It’s stronger than that, Kate.”  He sighed and drank some more tea.  “I know, I know . . . it’s totally insane, you can say it.”

“Jed, you need to check her backpack and then call the Social Services people.  She’s run away from home, and clearly she needs a psychiatrist or something.  You’re not helping by keeping her here.”

“That’d be such a betrayal--to go poking through her stuff.  She trusts me, Kate.   And I’m not ‘keeping’ her at all.”

“Well, if you’re not going to take the initiative, then you at least need to have a little heart-to-heart with her when she wakes up.  Convince her that it’s in her best interests to get some real help.  Because what you’re talking about, Jed—it doesn’t make any sense.  And I’m worried about you.  About how this has affected you.”

He shrugged.  “I knew you were going to say that.”

“Well, I care about you.  And it’s common sense.  You know that.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Seriously.  Jed, if you care about her, then do what’s best for her.  Don’t you think you’ve been acting a little selfishly in all this?”

“Selfishly?  I’ve done nothing but try to help her since she showed up.  I don’t see it that way.”

“Well, you’re right—that’s probably unfair.  But you really do need to talk to her.  Do you want me to wait around until she wakes up?”

“No—let me try first.  If I get hung up, then I’ll suggest that she speak with you, too.  I’ve already told her what a great lady you are.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Thanks.  You sure you don’t want me to stay?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay.  Then let’s finish our tea, and you can take me home.”

The shadows grew long as Jed cleared the last of the snow from his porch.  It had been a beautiful, clear day up on the mountain, and he had spent it going through a list of chores he’d made up after Katie had left; but as he had gone in and out, he kept glancing at Eli, and she had not been far from his mind.  He thought about what he was going to say to her, about how he would try to approach things as he and Katie had discussed.  He wasn’t looking forward to the tough love conversation that he anticipated.

Toward the late afternoon, his leg had started to ache quite a bit, so at last he had broken down and taken some of the Tylenol with Codeine that Dr. Kenner had prescribed, which dampened down the pain.

When Eli awoke, he was cooking some chicken noodle soup on the stove.  He had two bowls set out on the table, along with some freshly sliced apples and carrots.  She came over and sat down.

“Hello, Eli.  You hungry?  I got some soup going for us.”

She saw the hopeful expectation in his face, and felt a twinge of remorse that she would once again have to turn down his charity.  “Jed, I’m sorry, but I’m not hungry.  Maybe I’ll have something a little later.  Could I maybe just have some water?”

He looked at her for a moment, then collected her bowl and spoon from the table.  “Of course.”  He filled her glass.  “But I’m gonna eat now, if that’s all right with you.  I’m kinda hungry.”

“Sure.”

He brought the iron pot over from the stove and ladled some soup into his bowl.  Then he sat down and began to eat.

She took a small drink and looked around the cabin.  “Did you have a good day?”

“Yep.  Been pretty busy doin some things while you slept.”

“So what happened to your leg?”

“Turned out I broke it in the accident.”

“I’m sorry.  Was your head hurt bad, too?”

 “No, that turned out all right—I guess all that hard-headedness paid off.”  He stretched his injured leg out under the table.

“You know, I’m lucky to be alive, Eli.  I want to thank you for helping me, because I don’t think we’d be talking right now if it hadn’t been for you.”

She smiled wanly.  “I couldn’t have done anything else.  You know, I just acted.  You were in a bad way.”

He ate a slice of apple, and then helped himself to a carrot.  “Well, I appreciate it.  Still not quite sure how you did it, but . . . .”

“Do you really want to know?”

He paused; looked at her.  “Yes, I do.  Because I want to understand you, Eli.  Very much.”

She got up quietly and pulled her chair around so that she was sitting by his right while he took another spoonful of soup, and watched with a puzzled expression.  Then she put her arm up on the table so that it was resting on her elbow.  “Give me your hand.”

“What?  You want to arm wrestle?”

“No—but you said you want to understand.  So give me your hand.”

He dropped his spoon back into his bowl and looked at her for a moment.  Then he slid it to the side, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and propped his arm up on the table. His arm was so much longer than hers that at first, her hand only reached to the middle of his forearm.  So he slid back a little and readjusted the angle so that they could clasp hands.

She looked him in the eye.  “On the count of three, okay?”

He felt very uncertain about what they were doing.  A part of him, the rational part, was afraid of using too much strength and hurting her.  Yet, another part—the part that was intrigued by her mystery, that wanted to know everything about her—made him hold his breath, waiting for the inexplicable.  For surely, she would not have suggested this sort of contest unless she expected something unusual to happen.

“One . . . two . . . three.”

He exerted himself with most of his strength, expecting her arm to heel over to the table.  Instead, nothing happened.  There was a tiny bit of give—a little waver in her arm—and then, to his shock and disbelief, she pushed him over.  He felt as if he was pushing against a machine.  As soon as his arm was down, she let go.

He stared at her.  “Jesus.”  She did not smile, and at first said nothing, merely returning his gaze.  Then she spoke.  “That’s how I saved your life, Jed.”

He sat back in his chair, acutely aware of a nervous energy that had begun to course through him.  Suddenly his mouth was dry.

“Want to try again?”

“No.  I mean, yes—I do.”

“Okay.”

Again they wrestled, and this time he held back nothing.  The result was the same.  When she let go of his hand, he took a drink of water; his hand trembled when he set the glass back on the table.  She sat calmly in her chair, waiting for him to speak.

He stared at her a long time.  “What are you, Eli?” 

His question hung in the air.  He knew how bizarre it sounded, but . . .

She looked away from him to the table.  “It’s just a power, Jed.  Like with the puzzle.”  She gestured at the Escher.  “It’s like all of the things that you’ve seen me do that you think I’m so good at.  Making this puzzle; playing basketball.  They’re just powers--not talents.”

“I asked you a question.  I don’t think you answered it.”

She looked directly into him, her small, round face utterly serious, her eyes dark in the muted light from his lantern. 

“Do you love me, Jed?”

He grew very still.  Suddenly the air between them seemed very dense and full of electricity; full of possibilities that could lead . . . he knew not where. 

“Eli . . . that’s a very complicated question.  But if you want, I’ll explain to you how I feel.  But you have to promise that if I do, you will answer my question, too.”

“I promise.”

He sighed, then looked down at her hand on the table, which he took into his.  He rubbed it gently as he spoke.

“You’ve turned my life upside down, Eli—from the moment I found you in that little cave and brought you up here. 

“At first, it just felt good to help someone who seemed to need help.  Particularly since, you know, you’re twelve and everything.  But I would have to say that now, I . . . that now, my feelings for you aren’t as simple as that.   Especially since the night of the accident, when you—you know, when you kissed me.  And I’ll tell you up front, it feels mighty odd to be telling you these things, when I’m over fifty years old and you could easily be my daughter--hell, almost my grand-daughter. 

“But yes, I think I have fallen in love with you.  And I don’t know what to do about it, because . . . well, because it’s not something that grown men are supposed to let themselves do with children, and also because I don’t really understand you.  But—” he shifted his eyes from their hands to her face, “when you came back last night, I felt something that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.  And it felt good, felt . . .”

He looked away.  “Ah, shit.  This is so hard.”

“You can say it, Jed.”

“Well, it . . .”  His eyes began to grow wet, and he shook his head.  Finally he resumed.

“Yes—I do love you, Eli.  And I loved holding you last night, feeling you with me.  Even though I felt like most folks would think of me as a dirty old man if they knew.”

She was quiet for a moment; then she came to him in his chair.  Softly she touched his cheek.  “I know you’re not like that, Jed.  And I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.  I just—”  She turned away from him and looked at the puzzle on the table, as if she was turning over what she wanted to say in her mind.  “. . . I just really need to know that someone cares about me.  That I’m . . .” she swallowed, looked down, and closed her eyes. “. . . that I’m someone who can be loved.  Because right now, I don’t feel like that’s possible.”

His voice took on a soft, paternal tone.  “Eli, listen to me—please.”  Once again he took her hands into his, and they turned face to face.  “Why would you ever say that you’re not someone who could be loved?  I think you’re the nicest young person I’ve ever been privileged to know.”

She looked up into his eyes.  “You haven’t been listening to me, have you?”

He frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“About what I said--about how long I’ve been alive.”

He leaned back in his chair; in the stove, a piece of wood popped.  “I heard what you said, Eli.  But that’s just so . . . .  Look,  I know you don’t feel good about yourself.  Sometimes when people get upset emotionally, they say things that don’t make a lot of sense.  If you would just tell me more about yourself, maybe we could find some people to help you.  You know, to talk to you about what you’ve been through.”

She gave him a dark, ironic smile.  “So you don’t believe what I said.”

He hesitated, but then said, “No—I’m afraid I don’t.  Because what you said is impossible.”

She did not grow angry, but turned away from him and walked quietly around his cabin, her gaze shifting from one object to the next, her small hands occasionally reaching out to touch.  She stopped on the bearskin rug by his chair and looked with apparent interest at the great, shaggy head.  Then without looking at him, she spoke.  “Let’s go for a walk.  Are the stars out tonight?”

“They should be—the weather was clear today.”

“Good.  Do you mind?  I mean, I know your leg is hurt, so if you don’t, it’s okay.”

He slid his chair back and got up from the table.  “No, that’s okay.  Just not too far, all right?”

She offered him a happy smile.  “Deal.”

He got his flashlight and put on his coat, but she made no move to remove hers from the coat stand by the door.  He looked at her, his hand on the latch.  “Dontcha think a jacket is in order?”

She ran a hand down her new coat.  “I like the one you got me, but I don’t need one.”

He frowned once again.  “It’s pretty chilly, Eli.  Not down to freezing, but—you’ll catch a cold.”

“No I won’t.”

Irritated, he shook his head.  “If you say so.  Come’on—but my guess is we won’t be gone too long.”

They stepped outside, and four sets of eyes huddled around the old pie plate at the end of his porch turned to look at them.  Jed smiled and shined his light on the raccoons.  “Well, Eli, you finally get to meet Frito Bandito and her little ones.”

The raccoons had been eating the cat food on the plate, but upon seeing Jed and Eli, they stopped and froze.  Then the mama raccoon hissed and backed away, turned, and scuttled off the porch, her babies close behind.

“Well I’ll be,” he said with a note of disappointment.  “Guess they’re a little skitterish tonight.  Sorry—they’re usually pretty friendly.”

“It’s okay--maybe they’ll come back later.”  She stepped out into the yard and gazed quietly up at the moon, which was nearly full.

He zipped up his coat and adjusted the beam of his light.  “Where do you want to go, Eli?”

“Is there a path to the top?”

“Yep—this way.” 

Jed headed off toward the side yard and she joined his side, their feet crunching softly through the thin layer of snow.  When they had passed his woodpile and reached the edge of his clearing, they picked up a dirt trail that began to wind up and around the mountainside.  There were many pine trees along it, their boughs still laden with snow.  The light wind rustled through the tree branches and occasionally blew snow down on them.

“It’s beautiful out here,” Eli remarked.  “You’re really lucky to live in a place like this.  It’s so peaceful and quiet.”

“Yeah . . . it’s restful.  I do enjoy it.  Walking is good exercise, too.”  He fell silent for awhile before speaking again.  “So what do you want to tell me, Eli?”

She said nothing, but soon stopped and touched the trunk of a very large old oak standing alongside the trail, its naked branches creaking gently in the wind.  “This tree is dead inside, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is.  I was thinking of cutting it down come Spring and using it for firewood.”

“Don’t cut it down . . . there’s a family of owls living in it.”  She pointed up toward an opening immediately below the juncture of two large limbs.

“How do you know?”

“Because I can hear them.  Can’t you?”

“No—afraid not.”  He looked at her, puzzled.

She turned to look at him.  “Well, I can.  And they’re in there.”

He stopped shining the light up at the hole and shifted uncertainly on his feet.  “All right.  Well, I won’t cut it down, then, if it’s important to you.”

“It’s not important to me—it’s important to them.  It’s their home.”

“Okay—I’ll make a note not to touch the Owl Tree.”  He smiled at her, but she did not notice because she had already turned her attention to the path before them.  They continued up the trail, their breath pluming out in the chilly, clear air.  After several minutes, she took his hand.

He looked at her with concern and saw snowflakes in her hair.  “Are you sure you don’t want my coat?”

“I don’t need it.  I’m not cold.”

“So you just don’t get cold, is that it?”  His voice had grown impatient.

She squeezed his hand, offering reassurance.  “I don’t feel it anymore, I guess.”

He shook his head.  “Eli, I was talking to Mrs. Enderly today, and I gotta say I’m really kind of worried about you and all of this.  I really think that—”

“Shhh.”  She froze, and then he stopped walking, too.  He looked around and then whispered, “What is it?”

“A deer.  Up ahead, off to the right of the trail.”

Jed strained to see out into the darkness, beyond the reach of his flashlight.  “I don’t see anything.”

“Wait . . . it’s a buck.”

They both stood, motionless, staring up the trail.  Soon, as Eli had predicted, the silhouette of a large stag emerged from the shrubs along one side of the path.  It paused in the middle of the trail, looked briefly in their direction, and then crossed over and disappeared.

Jed grunted.  “I’ve seen that big boy before.  Never could get a shot at him, though.  How’d you spot him?”

“I can see in the dark.”

He looked at her with disgust.  “Eli, I—”

She turned and cut him off.  “How much more do you need, Jed?  I’m trying to be as gentle as I can with you.”

He sighed and shook his head.  “I don’t understand all of this, Eli.  Let’s head back.  How am I supposed to help you when you—”

She cut him off again, this time her voice rising in anger. “I’m not fully human, Jed.  Don’t you get it?”  She looked around and then suddenly leapt up onto the lowest branch of an elm tree they had stopped under to wait for the deer.  Jed’s eyes grew wide and he shined his light up at her.  By his judgment, the branch was nine or ten feet above ground; what she had done was not possible.

He stood frozen to the spot and stared up at her, his eyes agog.  He knew what he was going to say was foolish, but he couldn’t think of anything else.  “How’d you do that?”

She smiled down at him.  “The same way I pulled you out of your truck before it caught fire.  Like this.”

Silently she leaned forward, left the branch, and drifted down to him.   She went around him once and then stopped, standing in front of him.  Gently, she embraced him, pressing the side of her face against his cold barn jacket.

“Do you believe me now, Jed?  Please don’t be afraid of me.  Please.  You’re all I have.”

With shaking hands he embraced her; pulled her close.  He was lost.

Continued next week

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