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The Hunters

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 9


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Chapter IX

Jed felt completely exhausted as he and Eli climbed into his chilly pickup truck.  It was quite late, and he made no effort to suppress an unhappy yawn as he put on his belt and Eli snapped in next to him.  Because of what Eli had said about going away, he was dreading the ride home.

The truck started like a charm and the big V-8 rumbled reassuringly as he backed out of his parking spot and headed toward the exit.  He found its sound comforting; it afforded a sense of normalcy that had been absent the entire evening.

He flicked on his turn signal, paused briefly at the driveway entrance, and then hung a left onto Redbud Street, heading north toward Sunset Lane.  The sky was a magnificent sheet of black velvet, endless in its depth; the stars shown down fiercely in the frigid December air, their white fire beautiful but untouchably cold.

Jed turned the fan up, felt that it was blowing cold, and then turned it off.  Better to wait a few minutes for the engine to warm up.  “Supposed to get really cold tonight.”

“It’s already cold.”

“Eli, I really—”

“I know what you’re going to say, Jed, and the answer is no. I’m not going back to the cabin tonight.”

“Don’t you think it’s amazing that at no point this evening did you have to say a single word about needing human blood to live?”

Eli was quiet for awhile.  “I guess so—yes.  It did surprise me.”

“Well, in light of that, don’t you  think you’re overreacting a bit?  I mean, these doctors you saw tonight are not superstitious. If anything, they’re too smart—I mean, too smart to see you as anything other than a patient with an extremely unusual set of problems.  They see you as a victim, and as a little kid to boot.  It’s natural to think of you that way.  And even if they did start to put two and two together, do you think they’d jeopardize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of your medical workup by calling the cops?”

“Hmm.  Maybe I am overreacting.  But I don’t like making assumptions about what anyone might do.  Doing that could get me killed.”

“Eli, sometimes you confuse the hell out of me.”

He looked up at Jed.  “What do you mean?”

Jed paused, trying to find the right words.  “What I mean is, a few days ago you pointed my rifle at yourself and pulled the trigger.  Now, you’re afraid of being killed.  You don’t make any sense.”

“I know—I’m sorry.  These last few weeks have been really hard.  It’s just—”  He sighed and leaned against Jed’s arm as the first currents of warm air began to flow in around their feet.  “When we first met, all I wanted to do was die.  I was really sad about losing Oskar.  I wanted you to kill me because I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it.  I’m too weak.  I thought maybe once you knew what I’ve done, it would be easy for you to do it.

“But then we talked.  About death, about you losing your daughter when she was really little.  About how to stop missing someone so much, and finding the good things to remember.  And while we were doing that, I also began to understand how much you cared about me, about how much you wanted to see me live and find some way out of this.  Out of being me.  You gave me some hope.”

“And now you’re startin to be afraid of havin a little hope.  Is that it?”

“Yes.  Because I don’t want to die like that.  Captured like an animal and locked away somewhere.  And it could happen—I know it.  You may think I’m being stupid, but I don’t.”

“I know it could.”  He looked out the window and thought for a little while.  “Eli, maybe I’m being a little selfish.”

“Selfish how?”

“Selfish because . . .”  He stopped and looked at Eli; then patted his knee. “. . . because I want you around so I can love ya, I guess.  I could say it’s because I’d worry about you being out there in the dark by yourself, in the cold, but I know for you, that’s not a big deal.  You can take care of yourself, I know that.  So it’s really nothin’ more than that I’d miss you alot.  I’ve come to enjoy having you around.  I guess you could say that you give my life some meaning again.” He smiled ironically.  “Funny thing is, I hadn’t realized it didn’t have any until you came around.”

Eli was quiet for a few seconds as he considered what he wanted to say.  “I don’t think that’s really being selfish.”

“Well, maybe you can’t see it from my point of view.”

“I think I can.”

“I just don’t want my feelings to jeopardize your welfare, Eli.  You took a huge risk, doing what you did tonight.”

“I know, but I wanted to do it.  And something happened to me in that MRI machine, so I’m glad I did.”

He looked at Eli sharply with concern.  “What do you mean?”

Eli smiled at him.  “Don’t worry--it wasn’t bad.  What I mean is, I started to see myself in a different way than I had before.”

Jed felt a warm surge of anticipation.  Was something changing in Eli, something that would dampen the anger that had burst forth when they’d argued about God?  He repressed the thought; to think it might spoil it.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s hard to explain, but I thought about Oskar, and about you, and about how much both of you cared about me.  Even though you understood what I am.  And before Oskar came along, and now you, I had always thought about how much I’d lost.  You know, in becoming what I am.  And I’d always spent so much time thinking about that, that I never really appreciated all of the good things that have happened to me.”

“Hmm.  I suppose a lot of folks are full of self-pity for no good reason.  But I don’t think that would apply in your case.  If anyone was ever entitled to feel a bit disgruntled about their lot in life, it’d be you.”

“Maybe.  But I guess what I’m saying is, I realized that hanging onto all that bitterness, even over losing Oskar, is never going to make me happy.  It sort of made me feel good sometimes, and it made doing what I have to do easier.  But ultimately, it’s not what I want.  And that’s why, when I came out, I decided I was going to change things.  And when I decided that, I realized that there were things in my heart that I felt about you that I hadn’t said yet.  And I didn’t want to let another minute go by without saying them.”

“Hmm.  Well you certainly took me off guard.  But in a good way.”

Eli nodded.

“So where do you want me to steer this truck?”

He turned and looked at Jed.  “The cabin—but just for tonight.”

“Okay.  You sure?”

“Yes.”

They rode in silence for awhile.  Eli stared out his window at a passing cemetery.  He thought of pale teeth, jutting up from the floor of a vast, undulating mouth.  Then it was gone.

“We need to get you some more clothes.”

“Why?”

“Because you can’t go back to see the docs in the same pair of pants and sweatshirt that you wore today.  They’ll think I can’t take care of you.  Dr. Cook is worried enough about me as it is, and I don’t want to give him any more cause to call the County.”

“Worried about you?  Why?”

Jed sighed and appeared to take a sudden interest in some very ordinary homes passing by outside his window.  “He asked me whether I’d had any ‘contact’ with you.  ’Cause he’s worried about you having an infection.”

“I haven’t had the kind of contact with you that causes the infection.”

“You and I know that, but they don’t.  He’s startin’ from scratch--not making any assumptions.”

“So what did you tell him?”

Jed shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  “I told him the truth.”

“You mean the kissing?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“You haven’t lived in this country very long.  If you did, you’d understand.  That sorta contact between grown men and children who aren’t their own kids is very taboo--and that’s putting it mildly.  People in the U. S. are extremely vigilant when it comes to protecting children from pedophiles.”

To Jed’s surprise, Eli laughed.  “You’re not a pedophile, Jed. Believe me, I know.”

“I like to think I’m not.”

Eli looked at him, surprised.  “You doubt that?  Jed . . . you’re no Håkan.”

“Eli, I’m old enough to know that there are parts to human nature that aren’t always easy to shut down or lock up.  And if you don’t mind me being blunt about it, sex is one of them.  I’ve also been walkin around long enough to know that part of being a grown-up is not putting yourself in situations where you know you might be tempted to do bad things.  So, no—I don’t believe I’m a pedophile.  And I enjoy being close to you.  But when we’re together, there’s a part of me that I gotta ignore.  It’s the part of me that’s sayin, what the hell would you do if someone like Katie walked in right now and caught you holding this little kid.”

Eli was silent for awhile; then spoke with a carefully measured voice.  “So you’re ashamed to kiss me--or hold me in your bed.  That’s what you’re saying.”

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“No, it’s not.  You either love me, or you don’t.”

“I do love you, Eli, but that’s not the point.  I know in my heart that showing you I love you in those ways isn’t wrong.  But we live in a culture where perceptions are important.  Someone lookin in from outside wouldn’t understand.  In fact, most people would be appalled.”

“I don’t care what other people think.  Do you?”

“Not really.  But having a county social worker filing a criminal complaint against me  wouldn’t be so cool, would it?”

“I guess not.”

“There’s no guessin to it.  It’d be a big fat mess.”

Eli stared despondently at the yellow dashboard lights.  “Why are things always like this?  How come I can never get what I want?  It’s not fair.”

They passed a general store, now dark and closed, where Jed sometimes bought gas.  He was silent for a considerable time, pondering what Eli had said.  Fuck it—Eli was right.  If his intentions were pure, by what rule or law was it right to deprive him of love and affection?  If anyone needed to be loved, it was him.  It was cowardice, plain and simple.

“You know, you’re right, Eli.  It ain’t right.  So don’t worry about it, okay?  Forget all the B.S. I just said.”

“B.S.?”

Jed smiled.  “Bullshit.”

“Oh.  Okay.”  He smiled back.

“So what did you think about what Dr. Cook said about the MRI?  Sounded like he was a little unsure of what they were seeing, but . . .”

“I’ve always known that’s where it was.  That’s what I was told, a long time ago, and it makes sense.”

“He said it might be like a cancer.”

Eli nodded.

“And he’s thinkin about getting a surgeon involved.”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Well, what do you think about that?  Obviously, he’s wondering whether it can be removed.”

Eli nodded.  “Maybe it’s the only way—or I might die.  I don’t know.  I don’t want to think about it yet.  All these doctors . . . .”

“Okay—I understand.  Sounds like they need more information, anyway.”

There was a lull in their conversation before Jed spoke again.  “I’m sorry Dr. Andrews upset you.”  He chuckled.  “You gave him a good little scare.”

“It wasn’t funny.”

“Oh com’on—it was too.”  He jabbed Eli with his elbow.  “Lighten up a little, will you?  Not too often that you can do that to one of those supersmart types.”

Eli smiled in spite of himself.  “I guess it was a little funny, after all.  The way he jumped back like that.”

“Yeah—no doubt they’re all scratchin their heads right now.”

They rode a bit further; then Jed slowed as they entered a small village.  “This here’s Sperryville.”  They passed a few buildings, and then Jed turned right.  “If we’d kept goin straight, it’d take you up to Skyline Drive.  It’s very pretty in the Fall.  And down south of here a little ways is Old Rag Mountain.  There’s some good hiking up there.”

“Maybe someday we can see it together.”

He smiled.  “I’d like that.  I betcha you could really enlighten me about what’s going on in the woods.

“Eli, I gotta ask you—are you tellin me that you never take even a little pleasure in doing some of the things you can do?  I mean like seeing in the dark, sharing thoughts, flyin around like that . . . .”

“Sometimes, yes.  Especially if I’m . . . with the right person.  But then . . . .”

“Then what?”

“Then the hunger comes.  And I wish it’d never happened.  I see it for what it really is.”

“’Really is,’ meaning . . . ?”

“Meaning that they’re powers that make it easier for me to kill people.”

“But you’ve resisted that, haven’t you.”

“Yes—in a way.”

“How have you done that?”

“I try to eat as little as possible.  I wait and put it off.”

The road broadened into a divided highway, and a tractor-trailer glowing with yellow running lights passed them on the other side of the grassy median.  “You ever pay anyone for it?”

“Sometimes, but not very often.  That’s very risky.”

“You know, the more you tell me about your problems, the more impressed I am with you. You didn’t expect that would be the case, did you?”

“No.  I thought if you knew what I was, you’d hate me and try to kill me.”

Jed took his hand into his and gave it a gentle squeeze.  “I see what kind of a person you are, Eli.  On the inside.  You know, alot of other people would’ve given in to it a long time ago.  Frankly, I think it’s amazing that you haven’t.”

“If I did, I wouldn’t be a person any more.”

“Mmm.  Or at least not a very nice one.”  He guided the truck into the right-hand lane and set the cruise control. 

“I got a question.  You just said that you were told a long time ago that your infection lives in your heart.  Who told you that—the man who did it to you?  Or are there more of you out there?”

“No, not him--it was a woman.”

“How long ago was that?”

“I don’t remember exactly.  Before 1800.”

“What happened to her?”

“I don’t know.  She was bad, like him.  I ran away from her.”

“And she’s the only one?”

“Yes.  She said there aren’t many because most of them can’t stand the idea of hurting people, so they kill themselves.”

“Like you were talking earlier.”

He nodded.

“So why’d you run away?  At least she could understand your problems.”

“She wanted to help me kill myself.”

He looked at Eli sharply.  “What in God’s name do you mean by that?”

“She wanted to drink my blood . . . so I’d die.  Then I wouldn’t hurt anymore.  And she’d be stronger.  Because she didn’t mind being what she was.  She enjoyed killing.”

Jed shook his head.  “Some of the things you tell me are just . . . I don’t even know what to think about them.”

Eli nodded.  “I know.”

“Well, I’m glad you got the hell away from her.”

They rode in silence until they were a few miles from Jed’s cabin.  Then Jed glanced at Eli again.  “How we doin on the hunger front?”

“It’s coming.”

“I was afraid of that.”  Jed thought for awhile.  “What’s it feel like?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know.   When you start to get hungry.”

Eli thought for a minute, trying to think of some way to explain it; then he spoke.  “When I was ten years old, I got really sick.  I started throwing up, and I had diarrhea too.”

“Stomach virus.”

“Yes, I suppose.  It went on for a few days.  I’d throw up, and feel better—for awhile.  But I could feel it in my stomach, coming back.  I lay in my bed, trying to sleep, but the feeling would come, and come, until finally I had to throw up again.

“So the hunger I have now is kind of like that.  When I drink, I feel better, almost normal, for awhile.  But then, it starts to come back.  And that’s the part I hate--dreading that feeling of it coming.  It's like when I was ten--the feeling of waiting for my stomach to get sick enough so I’d vomit.”

Jed shook his head.  “Sounds horrible.”

“It is.”

“Well, Eli, why don’t we do something about it before it gets too bad.  I don’t want you to suffer.”

Eli looked at him.  “What are you talking about?”

He switched from high to low beams as a car approached them around a curve.  “I’m talking about me feedin’ you.  That’s what I’m talking about.”

“No.  I don’t want you to do that.”

Jed frowned.  “Why not?”

“You’ve done too much for me already.  And you’re not going to pay for Dr. Cook and the others, either.  I’ve got money for that.”

“We’ve just started scratchin’ the surface of what I’m gonna do for you.”

“No.  Your leg isn’t healed yet--you’re tired, not getting enough sleep because of my screwed-up schedule.  You’ll get weak, and then you’ll get sick.”

He slowed and made the final turn to head up the mountain, but instead of accelerating, he brought the truck to a stop and put it into park.  Then he turned in his seat to face Eli.

“Now you listen to me.  I don’t give a rat’s ass about any of them things.  What I care about is you.  Not that thing living inside you--you.  And if takin care of you means we gotta feed that thing a little longer before the docs get into gear on what to do, then so be it.  I’ve been healthy and fit all my life.  This walkin cast don’t mean shit.”

“But—”

“No buts.  Are you committed to lickin this thing, or not?”

Eli’s voice rose.  “Yes, I am!  I told you that.”

“Well so am I.  And it’s high time we put an end to this business of hurting people to keep you alive.  That’s your A-#1 biggest problem, and we’ve gotta deal with it.  We can’t afford to have you goin crazy with hunger when we’re in the hospital or with the doctors, or anyone else, for that matter.”

He pulled Eli to him and kissed his forehead.  “Now lookee here--as far as I’m concerned, you’re my kid.  I know you’re older than me and all that, but I’m sorry, it’s just how I think of you.  And no kid of mine is gonna starve--I won’t have it.  So you’re gonna eat and go to bed tonight on a full stomach.  ’Cause I can’t tolerate the thought of you sufferin like this.”

Eli was no longer upset, and when he replied his voice was soft.  “All right, Jed.  But it won’t be enough.”

“I understand that, but we have to start somewhere.  It won’t be too much longer before Dr. Cook and the others start thinkin’ with the other side of their brains and ask you that big question.  And that’s when you’re going to have to bite the bullet, lay it out, and ask for their help.  We’ll start with them and work from there.  There’s no other way.  You know, Eli, there’s 280 million people in this country.  More than enough blood for a little bitty thing like you.”

They sat facing each other at one side of the kitchen table.  Eli’s backpack lay open on it, next to the lantern and a bottle of alcohol.  Jed had built a fire and the room had warmed up; the wood in the stove was damp, making it crack and pop. 

Jed rolled up the left sleeve of his union suit, exposing the crook of his elbow, and proceeded to wipe down the spot with alcohol while Eli withdrew a razor blade from her box.

“You know what you’re doin, right?”

Eli nodded.  “Mmm hmm.”

“I think it’s ready.”  He gave the cotton ball to Eli, who cleaned the razor.   The pungent odor of the alcohol hung over them.

Eli looked him in the eye.  “This is going to hurt a bit, and your arm is going to feel cold.  Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”  They scooted their chairs a little closer together and Jed offered his arm.  Then he pumped his fist a few times as Eli took his wrist in one hand and brought the razor to the vein.

“How much’re you gonna take?”

“A little less than a liter.”

Jed nodded.  “Go ahead, then.” 

He stared with morbid fascination, wondering whether Eli’s appearance would change like it had before, as Eli bent over to the task.  Eli had been holding Jed’s arm loosely, but just before making the cut, his grip tightened.  Jed felt a twinge of fear, but didn’t move.  Whatever was going to happen, would happen.  He was in Eli’s power.

But please don’t let those eyes change.

With one brief, short movement, the corner of the razor plunged down; then Eli quickly put it back on the table.  A warm surge, rich in its redness, sprang forth with a force that surprised Jed.  Eli held his arm so that the blood ran down the smooth skin on the inside of his forearm.  Then Eli’s head bobbed down and Jed could no longer see his face.

Eli’s tongue, cool and wet, began quickly licking.  In a few seconds his mouth moved up to the cut and nuzzled in.  Jed felt his lips directly on the wound. 

Then the lapping changed to sucking, and the pain in Jed’s arm intensified.  Eli’s grip on his arm tightened still further, and over the gurgling, throaty sounds of his feeding, intermittently broken by urgent sighs as he breathed, Jed heard a low growl like Eli had made the morning that Jed had found him sleeping in the loft. 

Without stopping, Eli slowly slid out of his chair and knelt before Jed, who found himself spreading his legs a little to give him room.  A cool draft blew in under the door and the lantern flame fluttered in its hurricane.  The shadows on Eli’s darkened face danced in response.

A wave of revulsion and fear seized Jed.  He moved his right arm over to push Eli off by his forehead, but by an exercise of sheer willpower he restrained himself and transformed a sharp thrust into a gentle touch of Eli’s hair, accompanied by the sudden hope that it would moderate the animal sounds Eli was making.  Even when it did not, he continued to caress; and to distract himself further, he looked away into the fire in the stove.

Should’ve let that wood sit a few more months.  It’s too green—

Eli’s sounds modulated into a low panting.  His jaw worked against Jed’s arm.

Christ, he sounds like he hasn’t drunk in ages.  Reminds me of that day in August when I cleared Katie’s side pasture with her bush hog.  Man, was I thirsty--

The panting increased.  Despite his best efforts, Jed’s eyes were dragged back to watch.  The noises Eli was now making were obscene, almost overtly sexual.  The revulsion in Jed’s stomach increased, and he twitched in spite of himself.  Inside their woolly gray socks, his toes curled involuntarily as the pain in his arm intensified even further.

Ah Fuck that hurts like a MOTHER, Goddamn it Eli finish up willya for Christ’s sake--

But Eli didn’t stop.  And for the first time, as he trembled on the verge of writhing like a snake, Jed understood the terrifying magnitude of Eli’s hunger. 

Just as Jed was ready to thrust himself backward in his chair, Eli’s grip on his wrist loosened.  Then Eli’s hand broke free, groped sightlessly for a few seconds, and found Jed’s.  His small fingers intertwined with Jed’s big ones.  And with his touch, Jed’s pain subsided to a subdued throbbing.

Jed suddenly relaxed completely, and found himself having to flex his legs to keep from slumping too far down in his chair.  He exhaled heavily and the fear departed, driven away by the sudden recollection of an image from his first marriage: feeding Julianna in her high chair.  A tiny bottle of pureed bananas open in his hand, slipping one miniscule spoonful of it at a time into her hungry mouth.  The pleasure of knowing that he was helping his child thrive.  Yes—that was precisely what he was doing now.  Gently, he squeezed Eli’s hand.  Eli squeezed back.

After a few moments, the sucking subsided; now Eli was only licking his arm, as he had in the beginning.  Then he let go of Jed’s hand and spoke, his voice thick and syrupy.  “Get the pad.”  Jed did as he was told, and when Eli lifted his head, he put it down on the cut and pressed hard.  Then he raised his arm to help stop the bleeding.

Still kneeling, Eli looked up and their eyes locked.  Jed was relieved to see that Eli’s eyes looked the same as they always did.  He knew he should have found the blood smeared around Eli’s mouth revolting, but somehow, it wasn’t.  Instead, he thought again of Julianna and what a mess she’d been, too, after she had polished off a few jars of baby food.  Slowly, Eli got up and resumed his chair.  He seemed a little dazed.

“Get enough?”

Eli nodded, and his voice was full of a soft, deep gratitude.  “Yes.  Thank you.”

“I love you, Eli.”

“I love you too.” 

Eli opened up a Band-aid and helped Jed put it on.  At his suggestion, Jed held pressure over the cut for another minute or so.  Then Jed stood, intending to go to his bed and lie down, but had not left his chair before he felt dizzy.  The cabin spun sickeningly, and as quickly as he had gotten up, he sat back down again.  He felt flushed, and a thin film of sweat broke out on his forehead.

“Whoa.  I need to lie down.”

Eli got up and came to his side.  “Let me help you.”

“’Kay.  He stood once more, and this time, with Eli’s support, made it to the bed and laid down.

“You want your socks on?”

Jed grunted.  “No.  Feet’ll get too hot.”  He tried to sit up to remove them, felt dizzy again, and settled back; closed his eyes.  Eli sat on the edge of the bed and removed them for him, then pulled the sheet and blanket up.

“I’m going to get you a glass of water.” 

“That sounds like a good idea.”  He glanced down at his arm to see whether the wound was still bleeding.  There was a small red spot in the center of the gauze pad, and so he raised his arm up once again, resting it against the inside wall of the cabin.

Eli soon returned to his side with the water; his face was now clean.  With his help, Jed sat up and drank half of it; then he lay back down.  “Better.”  He sighed.  “Man, you were right.  I’m wiped out.”

Eli pulled the small table over to the bed and put the lantern and Jed’s water on it; then dragged over a chair.  “I warned you.” 

“Yeah, yeah.”

Eli smiled.  “You’d better drink the rest of it in a few minutes.  Do you need anything else?”

Jed was quiet for a moment, thinking; then he nodded toward his bookshelf.  “Thoreau.”

“You want to read?”

“You read it to me.”

A small smile crept into Eli’s face.  “Okay.”  Once again he left the bedside, and Jed closed his eyes.  He listened to the sound of Eli moving about the cabin, then opened his eyes again when he heard the faint creak of the chair.  Eli sat next to him, wearing his Redskins sweatshirt and a pair of his socks.

“Makin yourself comfy?”

Eli nodded happily.  “Mmm hmm.”  Jed noticed for the first time that he was not nearly as pale as he had been when they had arrived back at the cabin.  My blood, he thought.  My blood has given him his color back.  Incredible.

“Where do you want me to read?”

“’Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.’  It’s bookmarked.”

“Okay.”  Eli flipped open the book and came to a reddish-orange sugar maple leaf, which he removed and tucked under the back cover.

“I like your bookmark.”

Jed closed his eyes and smiled.  “What else are dead leaves good for?”

Eli laughed and then commenced to read.  “At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.  I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live . .  .”

He continued to read, occasionally stopping to comment or ask a question or two.  After a page or two he paused.  “This guy Thoreau is kind of funny.  I like him.”

“He was a quirky guy, all right.  But he had a great knack for seeing things and putting them into words.”

“What did he mean by, ‘But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow’?”

Jed closed his eyes as he spoke.  “Huh.  Maybe he’s sayin there’s more to a landscape than what you can grow on it.  I think.”

“Like how it looks.”

“Exactly.”  He turned his head to his side.  “Keep goin.”

Eli smiled and continued for awhile; then stopped again.  “This doesn’t sound like much of a house he had.”

It took a few seconds for Jed to respond, and when he did, his voice was slow and sleepy.  “Yeah.  Apparently it was a bit drafty-- worse’n this one, I reckon.  And his roof wasn’t very good.  What’d he say about the rain?”

Eli skimmed back.  “It was not so much within doors as behind a door where I sat, even in the rainiest weather.”

“There you go—sounds like his roof leaked.  Sometimes ya gotta read between the lines with Thoreau.”

Eli chuckled.  “I see what you mean.”  He continued to read to Jed for several minutes; then stopped and looked up.  Jed was asleep.  

Quietly Eli put the maple leaf back into the book and placed it on the table.  Then he turned down the wick on the lantern and sat on the edge of the bed.  He brushed Jed’s hair away from his forehead and softly kissed him.  Then he lifted the blanket, and curled up next to Jed. He was not tired or sleepy, but it was where he wanted to be.

 

Jed’s right arm woke him up.  It felt dead because Eli was lying on it, cutting off its circulation.  The limb now protested with a tingling, pins and needles sensation.  Unable to move it, he struggled to sit up as carefully as he could, and with a fair amount of effort, he managed to pull it out from under Eli’s head and shoulders without jostling him too much.  Once freed, he felt the blood flow down to his hand in an amazing surge of reinvigoration, and his ability to move the arm quickly returned.  After things had returned to normal, he turned onto his side and pulled Eli, who appeared to be sound asleep, to himself.

Although he wanted to, Jed found himself unable to get back to sleep; the events of the past few days intruded into his thoughts.  He knew it was probably the middle of the night, much too early to get up, and so he remained in bed, hoping he could relax and fall back asleep.  But sleep evaded him.

Eli, there’s 280 million people in this country--more than enough blood for you.  But how many would sit through what he experienced last night?  Very few, if any.  Was he filling Eli with false hope?  Was his belief in the basic goodness of people misplaced—perhaps, for Eli, fatally misplaced?  He didn’t know.  In the middle of the night, the world seemed very uncertain.

He closed his eyes, trading the blackness of his cabin for the darkness of his mind, and thought about the most significant thing that had happened yesterday: what Eli had told him when he had emerged from the MRI scanner.  The “L” word.  It changed everything.  Eli shouldn’t love him; it was foolish; stupid.  He was not worthy of being loved.  If Eli really knew him, knew of his failures as a man, he would understand this.  About why both of his marriages had really ended badly.  About why he was no longer running his home construction business.  And about why he was now living out here alone in this cabin.

But he could never let Eli know the contempt he felt for himself, and therefore for anyone who would say they loved him.  It would be . . . the most hurtful thing he could ever do to a person, especially a child who had put his faith in him.  All he could do now was love Eli as much as possible, and do everything within his power for him.  Maybe then, his feelings about himself would change.  Maybe, just maybe before he died, he would stop feeling this way about himself, and would be able to enjoy the knowledge that he was loved; could just . . . accept it for what it was—a beautiful gift.  But lying in the uncertain dark, with nothing to think about but the full weight of his past failures, he doubted it.  He knew himself too well to put any hope in that.

“Vad som är fel?”  Softly his voice came, but not sleepy.

“Oh—I’m sorry.”  Jed spoke quietly.  “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Eli lifted his head a little and turned in Jed’s arms.  “You didn’t.  I don’t sleep much at night.  I just wanted to be here with you.”

“Oh, okay.  Well, I thought you were asleep.  My arm just felt a little funny, is all.  You know—the circulation.”

. . .

“Jed.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s okay to be loved.”

Jed lay in stunned silence, at a loss for what to say.  Time seemed to draw out into an interminable length.  He didn’t know what to think, and was suddenly afraid to think anything at all.  At last, he chuckled.  “Kinda hard to keep secrets from you, isn’t it?”

“Förlåt.  But sometimes you sort of—radiate.  And when I’m this close to you, it’s almost impossible for me not to know.”  He gently touched Jed’s cheek with his right hand, his face full of concern.  “Why do you feel that way about yourself?”

Jed sighed.  “Do I really need to say it?  Can’t you just tell?”

“I get . . . glimpses.  That’s all.”

“I’ve got a lot of hangups, Eli.  I don’t know that I’m prepared to go into all of them with you right now.”

Eli was quiet for awhile, then nodded.  “Okay.  And I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“It’ all right, Eli.  It’s a stupid thing to be dragging around, anyway—I know that.  But sometimes it’s hard to get past yourself.  You know what I mean?”

“Yes—I do.”

“Sometimes when folks don’t feel too good about themselves, it makes it harder for them to accept the love that others have to offer.  That’s my problem, I guess.  But it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about you, or understand how you feel about me.  Please don’t forget that.  Please.”

“I won’t.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“Good.”

“Do you want me to sleep in the loft?  So you can keep your thoughts to yourself?”

“Nah, it’s all right.”

“Okay.”

Jed closed his eyes, and pondered what a miraculous person he had fallen in love with.  He didn’t know what to think, and tried to power down his mind, as if he were mentally holding his breath, fearing that anything that passed through it would be transmitted to Eli.  He felt ridiculous—as if Eli would really care, whatever he thought—but he couldn’t help himself. 

At last his thoughts settled, for no particular reason, on the last tree he’d split up for firewood.  Putting each piece of the tree trunk in the middle of the stump, one at a time, and methodically chopping them into firewood-sized chunks.  The weight of the big axe swinging up and down.  The sensation of the shaft, sliding through his left hand as it passed through its arc.  The zing of its vibration through his gloves as the axehead struck the wood and cleaved it into pieces.  The satisfaction of making clean hits that split through with one blow.  And then getting into it--working like a machine, one piece after another; centering it, chopping once, twice, sometimes three times, then clearing the chunks away and bringing up another piece.  Over and over.  And with these thoughts, sleep once again reclaimed him.

Eli pulled Jed’s arm tighter around himself, and put one hand over Jed’s.  Gently he touched it, running his fingers over Jed’s hard, calloused ones, and smiled.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002 – 11:35 p.m.

They had decided to convene in an administrative conference room on the east wing of the hospital.  Dr. Cook sat at the end of the laminated table, the third cup of coffee he had drunk in the last two hours in his hand, Eli’s chart in front of him.  Dr. Goodwin sat to his right; Dr. Silver to his left.  Dr. Andrews was just coming in as Dr. Goodwin withdrew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.

“Anyone mind if I have a cigarette?”

Dave took a swig of his coffee and waved his hand.  “Fine with me.  My wife smoked for years, and tonight—well, who cares?”  The others readily agreed.

As Tom lit up, Dr. Andrews shut the door and sat down next to Dr. Silver.  He arranged his notes neatly in front of himself and then spoke.

“Dr. Oliverio and I just got off the phone with Jack Marsden downtown.  Ted sent the images over, and Jack took a look at them.  In case any of you don’t know him, he’s been doing pediatric neuroradiology for 17 years.  Highly credentialed.  And he confirms what Ted saw—there are abnormal structures in the brainstem immediately below the lentiform nucleus and lateral to the caudate nucleus, and the cerebellum and olfactory bulbs are unusually large.  What the function of those brainstem structures is, we have no way of knowing.

“Now here’s the other thing that’s interesting about the MRI.  Jack says that there’s organization to the cardiac tumor, too.  The spin-echo T-2-weighted images show density changes within the tumor that are bilateral.”

Tom spoke sharply.  “What the hell does that mean?”

Bill put down his pen and rubbed one of his eyes.  “It means that it may not be a tumor.  It may be some kind of organ.”

“An organ—on his heart.”  Tom shook his head.  “It’s incredible.”

Dave spoke.  “Did Dr. Marsden recommend any additional studies?”

“Yes, actually, he did.  He suggested a transesophageal echocardiogram.”

“He’d need to be under general anesthesia for that.  Intubated.”

“Not necessarily.”  Tom took a long drag on his cigarette, and in lieu of an ashtray, tipped the ashes into a plastic cup half full of water.  “He doesn’t need oxygen, remember?”

“True.  But he’d still require sedation.  You can’t expect him to lie still while we put a transducer down his throat.”

“Agreed.  And the kid’s skittish as hell, let’s not forget that.  Maybe we could try a plain ultrasound first and see what we come up with.”

“All right.  I’ll call Inverness in the morning and talk it over with them.”  Dave looked at Dr. Silver.  “Becky, did you tell Bill about what happened with the skin?”

“No.  We haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“Well, why don’t you just tell everyone, so we’re all on the same page.  In fact, we should probably just go around the room.”

“All right.”  Becky pushed back in her chair and crossed her legs. “I was asking Eli where he wanted the punch, because it does leave a little scar, and he said it didn’t matter because there wouldn’t be any scar.  Then he said he didn’t need a stitch or a bandage, either.  And sure enough, after I got the sample, the wound healed up in a matter of minutes.  I would say it stopped bleeding in less than a minute, and before I left, I could not see any mark at all.  It was just—gone.”

Dave spoke.  “And he was aware of it—I mean, this had happened to him in the past.”

“Oh, yes.  No question about it.”

“Did you ask him whether he’d ever recovered from a serious injury in the same way?”

“No I didn’t.  I guess maybe I should have.”

Dave jotted a note.  “I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna have a long list here before we’re finished.  Bill?”

“Yes.  Well, I guess everyone here has heard about the eyes.  Extraordinary--simply extraordinary.  No human being should have those.  And there was his strength.  I didn’t test it fully, but I could tell.  And his friend, Mister—”

“Inverness.  Jed Inverness.”

“Inverness.  He said the child beat him at armwrestling.  And he’s quite a big fellow, obviously.

“The final thing are these prolonged sleeps that he claims to have.  He said that he slept from sometime in September until November 24.  We’re talking two months.  And that he’s had them for as long as he can remember.  And there’s no apparent trigger, either to him falling asleep or waking up.  Now, nobody does that.  There’s no reported case.”

“All right.  Tom?”

“The EKG was highly abnormal, but was consistent with what we saw on physical exam.  The kid’s heart beats very slowly—about four b.p.m.  And there’s a very abnormal delay between his first and second heart sounds.  But there’s no indication of any myocardial infarction or arrhythmia.  His heart looks healthy.  How it’s keeping him alive, I don’t know.  And I guess we all know about his stated age.”

Dr. Silver spoke.  “What year was he born again?”

“1761.”

“And all of this happened to him when he was twelve—17—”

“—73.”  Tom nodded.

Bill spoke.  “What, exactly, do we know about the exposure that precipitated all of this?”

Dave sighed.  “Very little, actually.  Just that something bit him right about here.”  He pointed to the side of his neck.  “And when he woke up, he was different.”

“What about this business of having his sex organs removed?”

“I’m not sure how that ties in to what happened.  He just said a man did it.”

Bill shook his head, then took off his stethoscope and placed it on his papers. “We need to try to get more details about all of that.  See what else he can remember about it.  As much information as possible.”

“Agreed.”  Dave made another note; then stood up and began to walk slowly around the table.  “So, let’s review what we’re dealing with here.

“This child says he was born in Sweden in 1761, and has been alive for almost 230 years.  When he was twelve years old, something bit him in the neck and he fell asleep.  When he woke up, he discovered that sunlight damages his skin.  In fact, he says that it causes his skin to catch fire.”

Becky spoke.  “We’ll know more about the skin issue shortly.  We’re going to run some tests on a portion of the specimen.”

“Good, good.”  Dave paused by the window at the far side of the room and gazed out at the dark night.  “So we know Eli does not need to breathe to maintain life.  He doesn’t need oxygen.  Serum glucose levels are zero--the second CBC came back basically like the first.  He’s not eating solid food.  He appears to have pyloric stenosis, and he’s not generating urine or feces.  How he’s getting energy is a mystery, but apparently, all he needs is water.  He has extraordinary strength and healing abilities.  So far there is no indication of an infection.  He is able to see in the dark.  Other than these coma-like sleeps, he’s neurologically normal.  The MR shows his tissues are not as dense as ours, and he has abnormal structures on his heart and in his brain.  Am I missing anything?”

There was silence around the table.  Then Dave turned away from the window and put both hands on the back of the empty chair in front of him.  “Folks, I hesitate to say this . . . but I think we’re dealing with the world’s first immortal human being.  Setting aside whatever you might believe about Jesus Christ, of course.”

Dr. Andrews spoke.  “We don’t know enough to say that yet.  He could have any number of vulnerabilities.”

“I understand that.  But getting past two centuries isn’t doing too bad.  I think a lot of people would find that persuasive evidence of physical immortality.”

Tom dropped his cigarette butt into the cup and thought about having another one, but decided to restrain himself; the room was small and he didn’t want to distract anyone.  “How do we really know this kid is as old as he says he is?  Is there some way to verify it?  That’s a huge assumption we’re making, and I think we have a right to be skeptical.”

Dave spoke.  “I agree—and I am skeptical.  And if Eli didn’t have these other abnormalities, I’d say he was crazy.   Pardon the expression, but you know what I mean—in need of psychiatric care.  Delusional.  And I suppose just because he has all the other things doesn’t mean we should take what he’s saying about his age at face value.”

Becky looked at Dave.  “I would suggest that when you speak with him tomorrow, you ask more questions about his background to see if everything hangs together.  I don’t imagine any of us is an expert in Swedish history, but even if we’re not, we’ll at least know whether he can relate a plausible story that supports his claim.  And any specific facts he provides about growing up in Sweden could be verified.”

Tom crossed his arms and leaned forward on the table with his head down, his eyebrows knitted in thought.  “I doubt his age because I can’t understand how he could go so long without someone having reported him and his condition.  What—has he lived in a cave his whole life until now?  Clearly that’s not the case, given how well he speaks English and can carry on a conversation.  I just have a hard time believing that he could he get by for that long without someone in an authority position finding out and reporting it.”

Dr. Andrews absentmindedly tapped a pen on her consult note.  “Well you have a point, Tom—Eli is a child.  But on the other hand, he doesn’t have an ordinary child’s needs.  He doesn’t feel cold.  He doesn’t need to eat regular food.  He can apparently see in the dark.  A kid like that could disappear quite easily . . . could live almost anywhere.”

“Maybe . . . but I still have my doubts.  I mean, children have certain needs that go beyond food and shelter.  They need nurturing and attention—those sorts of intangible things.  It’s just hard for me to believe that until now, no adult has brought his case to the attention of a medical professional.”

Dave resumed his chair.  “Do we really know he’s a child?  I mean, if he’s as old as he’s saying, can he really be considered a child?  Almost a quarter of a century--he’s ancient, for pete’s sake.”

Bill sighed wearily.  “His behavior is child-like in certain ways.  For example, when I attempted to examine his dilated pupils, I was shocked, and I reacted a bit more strongly than I had intended.  He became very upset by this, and began to cry and asked his friend to take him home.  That is not something an adult would do.”

Tom nodded.  “He was not happy when I did the pelvic exam, either—remember, Dave?  He started to cry then, too—just like an embarrassed child would.”

“Yes, he did.  And frankly, given what I saw, he had every reason.  But on the other hand, he behaves like an adult when it comes to directing his medical care.  With that, he has been quite forceful.  In fact, when I was speaking with him at Jed’s cabin this afternoon, he was very direct in the way he spoke to me about me being his doctor.  I wouldn’t quite say he was threatening, but he sure seemed a bit intimidating.  I don’t see very many pediatric patients, but I’ve never had a child speak to me like that.  It was . . . well, I don’t know how to describe it.”

Becky nodded in agreement.  “He did the same thing to me when I offered to numb up his skin a little before doing the punch.  He was very emphatic about not wanting an injection.”

Tom grunted.  “Well, folks, we have an awful look of work to do before we can even begin to offer a treatment plan to this patient.”

Dave took another sip of coffee and regretted it, as it had grown cold.  “I agree.  And I have a concern about how Eli and his friend are going to pay for all of this.  Jed told me that Eli is not covered under his health plan.  That’s not surprising, when you consider how they met—I mean, they’re not related.  But the expenses for doing a workup on this child are going to be very substantial.  I, for one, have decided that I won’t be charging for my services.  An opportunity to be the doctor of someone as unique as this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  I would urge all of you to consider that as well.”

“I hear you,” replied Tom.  “And I agree.  It’s not as if I need the money, anyway.”

Becky nodded.  “You’re right, Dave.”  I’ll talk with my practice group to make sure, but I don’t think there’ll be a problem.”

“I’m in,” said Bill.  “And I’ll talk to Dr. Mazda at the NIH about applying for a grant.  I’m confident that they’ll write one for Eli. That should help defray the hospital expenses.”

“Good idea.  Just let me speak with Jed and Eli, first, and explain what we would like to do on that front.”

The room was silent for a moment.  Then Tom rocked back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling.  He laughed softly.  “This is the damnest case I’ve ever been involved with.  To think we’ve got a patient who has the ability to live indefinitely—literally hundreds of years—and he wants us to find a cure for it.  ‘I’m immortal, and I don’t like it.  Make me mortal again.’”  He shook his head.  “To think how many people out there would love to have his abilities.  And this kid wants us to get rid of them.”

“Tom, he says he hasn’t seen the sun in 230 years.  Think about that for a moment.”

“I know, I know—frankly, I can’t imagine it.  I understand that to him, it’s suffering.”

Bill spoke softly.  “It may, indeed, be a most profound form of suffering, especially for a child--to never grow up.

“But Dave, Eli has to understand that we cannot just start operating on him.  No surgeon is going to go in there and open up his chest to cut that thing out without knowing exactly what it is and how it is impacting him.”

Dave nodded.  “I agree.  And I think explaining that’s going to be difficult.”

“Same thing for the brain.  Surgery on the brainstem is damned tricky business.  We’re talking about a structure this big, buried deep in the brain.”  He held up his thumb like a hitchhiker.  “I’m not a neurosurgeon, but I am a neurologist.  And I can tell you that there are serious risks of neurologic injury with that kind of operation, regardless of whatever surgical approach is taken.”

Becky nodded.  “And how do we know that cutting into these things won’t kill him on the spot? I mean, what if they’re what’s kept him alive all this time?”

Tom looked at her.  “Hmm.  Or that they won’t just grow back?”

Dave polished off his coffee in spite of himself and chucked the styrofoam cup in to the trash.  “The truth is, we don’t know.  But we have to try and help him.  And I know what we’re all thinking, so I think it bears saying: unless Eli says so, this isn’t about studying a new form of human life for the benefit of mankind--it’s about curing him of an unwanted disease.  As far as I’m concerned, that must remain the focus of our workup.  And we need to be very circumspect about whom we tell about Eli.  Because if word of him gets out, it could become a three-ring circus.  I mean, the media would have a field day with him.  We have to do everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

“Agreed.”  They all spoke in unison.

Dave was the last one out of the room.  As they heading down the hall toward the elevators, Bill turned to him.  “Do you have a minute?”

He stopped.  “Sure.  Do you want to talk here, or . . .”

“Back in the conference room.”

“All right.”

Bill followed him in and closed the door.  They sat down across one corner of the table.

Dave smiled.  “How do you manage to keep that tie looking so good after a 14-hour day, Bill?”

Bill laughed a little.  “Bow ties are easy.  They don’t go anywhere, once you’ve tied them.”

“So what’s up?”

Bill ran a worried hand through his hair.  “Dave, I agree with everything you said about Eli.  About our roles, I mean.”

“Yes.”

“But . . .”  He sighed; then his eyes left Dave’s and looked up as he tried to gather his thoughts.  “I guess what I want to say is, have you considered that there are people out there who would be tempted to worship this child, if they understood his nature?”

Dave was silent for a moment.  “I really haven’t given that much thought, Bill.  But I guess you could say that something similar has been in the back of my mind, yes.  That he would provoke strong reactions.”

“Well, I think we should give it close consideration.  If our suspicions are correct, his existence has profound religious implications of the deepest sort.  Even his name has religious significance.”

“What’s that?”

“It means ‘my God’ or ‘ascension.’”

“Coincidental, I’m sure.”

“Maybe, maybe not.  That’s my point.  If people understand him, they will latch onto something like his name.  And there are other things about the child that are extraordinary.”

Dave laughed nervously.  “The list of extraordinary things keeps getting longer by the hour, Bill.  What—”

“I’m not talking about the medical stuff, Dave.  I’m talking about how he presents.  Physically, he is very beautiful.  From what I can tell, his skin is flawless, like a newborn’s. And when you mentioned your exchange with him at Mr. Inverness’ cabin, I immediately understood what you meant.  There is something about his personality, about the way he communicates, that is . . . highly unusual.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  Not what he says, but the way he does it.  It’s . . . .”

“I understand what you mean.  I can’t put my finger on it either, but he has a way of getting through to you.  I wouldn’t call it charisma, but it’s akin to that.”

“Yes.  Something like that.”

“But Bill, what does all of this have to do with us?  We’re his doctors.  He doesn’t want to be the way he is.  I think it’s our job to help him with that.  He doesn’t want to be worshipped—he just wants to be a normal kid again.”

“That’s the point, Dave: maybe he doesn’t know what he is.  Maybe no one has ever talked to him about it.  And I’m wondering whether it would be appropriate for one of us to speak with him about these implications.  Because you know, Dave, his work-up is not going to be complete in a few days, maybe not even a few weeks.  And the longer it goes on, and the more people who become involved, the greater the risk of his existence becoming public.  Yes, we have HIPAA, and the privacy rules are strict, but things like this happen.  They just do, especially in hospitals.  Some employee gets curious, they find some way to get into the medical records, and bingo—it’s out there.  And like you said, the disclosure of Eli’s existence would be explosive.  It will make anyone who’s nosy and inclined to break the rules sorely tempted.”

“So what are you suggesting?”

“What I’m suggesting is that the next opportunity we have to talk with Eli, that we begin offering him some of this perspective.  To warn him that despite our best efforts, there is always a risk that information about him will be leaked.  And to offer him something to help prepare him in case that happens.  Because I’m afraid that it will happen.  It’s just a matter of time.”

“Okay.  I take it you would like to be a part of that.”

Bill shrugged.  “Yes.  I suppose I would.”

“Very good—we’ll bring it up tomorrow.  And I’ll speak with Risk Management in the morning about our concerns for patient confidentiality.  I’m sure they would be more than willing to implement some extra precautions.”

“One more thing, Dave.”

“What’s that?”

“What do you know about Eli’s residency status?”

Dave raised his hands.  “No more than you, I guess.  He’s originally from Sweden.  He does not have natural parents—no surprise there, given what he’s said about his age.  I honestly don’t know whether he’s legally in the U.S. or not.  And of course, we can’t ask.”

“No, I know that--but that doesn’t mean it’s not a concern.  Because if word of him does get out, I would think that it would attract the attention of the powers that be in government as well as the ordinary joe.”

“Hmm.  I can’t see that they would have any legitimate stake in the matter.  Although I suppose that if things got really crazy, it could raise a national security concern.  But I mean, things would have to be totally out of hand for that, wouldn’t they?  Mob scenes, mass hysteria. And I just can’t picture that happening—can you?”

“I’m not worried about that so much.  I’m more concerned about people who would want to take Eli into custody for study.  If that were attempted, it would be under the guise of acting for his own protection, but that doesn’t mean the outcome would be any less terrible for this child.  The NSA collects foreign intelligence, but I’m sure their reach extends to aliens residing illegally in the United States.  If Eli is here illegally, I do not know whether he would have any constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure, due process, or anything else.”

“I don’t know the answer to that, either.”

“And you know, things have changed in this country since 9/11.  The authority of the Government to detain illegal aliens has increased.”

“Yes.  Congress pass the, uh . . . .”

“Patriot Act.”

“Yes.”

“Well, come on, Bill.  This kid’s no terrorist.”

“I know that.  But no one thought RICO would be used to sue Bud Selig, either.”

Dave smiled.  “This is true.”

“You know, Dave, I think Eli appreciates that he has taken a real risk in coming to us for help.  I suspect that his fear of hospitals may stem from this sort of concern.  A fear of being locked up.”

Dave nodded.  “Well, perhaps we should suggest to Jed that he talk to Eli about getting some legal advice.”

“Can we do that?”

“I don’t know—but I think we should anyway.”

“I hate to say it, but I agree.”

Dave rolled his eyes.  “I can’t believe I just said that—telling this poor child to see a lawyer.  Ugh.”

Bill laughed.

 

Continued next week

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