It is December 1999 and the snow crunches like tiny twigs under Oskar's feet. He curls his fingers in the pockets of his thin jacket. Forgot the gloves again. He can hear mum's voice in his head, don't you ever learn, Oskar, and five years have proved that he doesn't. They get snow earlier up in the north. The darkness doesn't bother nibbling with careful bites. It swallows everything at once.
The dark and the cold and the lonely houses far away from each other, isolated even in the era of computers and television commercials. People pretend to be happy when they see each other in town. They exchange how-are-yous and we-must-visits, but why would they have come to live here if that were true? When they get home, they sigh with relief and pull the hermit-cloak of silence over their heads again.
Oskar prefers this to the suburbs where people live in top of one another, forced to listen in on each other's lives. Amongst the creaking springs and the muffled curses and the evening radio shows the loneliest people in the world. Suburbs always remind Oskar of Blackeberg, something he doesn't think about.
Oskar looks for the light in the window that Eli places there every night when he wakes up. It's harder for Eli to live in a place like this where people are few and far between. But Oskar thinks it's also good for him. You can get a sense of a hunt from the long distances and the taste of frozen night-air. In a city it would be murder, stale and smelling of garbage cans. Eli doesn't complain. He goes hunting in army-store combat boots, striped woollen socks hidden inside, because Oskar knows Eli will remember to be cold before, even if he forgets after.
Eli, who is still twelve, who will always be twelve. Knowing is different from seeing the round, smooth child's face when Oskar's own body seems to be trying to burst out limbs in all directions. He touches his own cheek with cold fingers and feels the stubble. He could look down at Eli now, if he wanted to.
Sometimes, when the smell of blood gets to him, he wonders. What will become of them? He's seventeen now, old enough to no longer have to go to school. Funny how the thought of school still terrifies him. Even though he looks like someone else, he feels the same on the inside. Instant revulsion, ice in his lungs. Maybe it's the almost dying – the being killed –, but more likely all the years before that.
He wonders what they will be like in ten years, twenty, fifty. He's used to living from moment to moment, feeding time to feeding time. It's getting harder, more complicated than that. He used to be able to ask Eli anything. Now there's one question he doesn't want to ask, one he always remembers when the day's too light and he can't sleep, when there's nothing to do except look at Eli's unchanged face. Was he like me, the old man, the pervert? Oskar is afraid of the answer.
He doesn't really have dreams of his own. Ones without Eli.
Oskar hears Eli stomp in and listens to him arranging his coat and shoes. Careful swishing sounds. Eli is always so neat now that they have a place of their own.
The old woman living downstairs is blessedly deaf. Her legs are bad and she hasn’t climbed the stairs in years. The door to the attic room is jammed shut, furniture piled in front of it in the hallway. They sneaked in through the window one night and looked upon their little kingdom of dust and cobwebs. The curtains were thick, the windows shuttered. It was good.
Oskar is fourteen and he has finally mastered making macaroni casserole on the old wood stove. He feels Eli in the doorway and turns, spatula in hand.
“Good night?” he asks, as he does every night. And then he just looks.
Eli is flushed from the night-air and the blood. He stands in the doorway in his oversized sweater, and the colour on his cheeks and lips matches the rusty-red stripes, the shapeless flowers scattered around the neckline. He is so alive that he seems to vibrate with it.
Oskar wonders if he might know a little something of how Eli feels as he drops the spatula to the table. Of what it’s like to be taken over by something bigger than yourself. Eli’s hands are warm, the fingernails no longer purple. The melted snow in Eli’s hair seeps through Oskar’s shirtsleeves as he hugs Eli, runs his hands down Eli’s back. The skin underneath the fabric is almost burning.
He doesn’t think as they move to the battered sofa, Eli’s hands firm on his shoulders. Doesn’t think about what this makes him. Hugging another boy like this, him on top of you like a pleased cat, claws drawn in for the moment. Letting him kiss your forehead, your nose, your mouth. Kissing him back. Oskar has stopped thinking a long time ago. He knows who he is. He is a person who loves Eli.
There is a faint tang of blood in Eli’s kisses, but mostly it’s just warmth that reaches all the way down to Oskar’s toes. He shifts as it gets too hot, Eli’s sweater suffocating them both, and they end up side by side in the narrow space, the shirt tossed over the backrest. They have spent countless days tangled up together like this, safe from the sun. But now Eli is awake and moving, restless. His hands are wandering, looking for something more.
Oskar breathes sharply into Eli’s ear as Eli’s hand sweeps down over his belly. Eli scrunches up his nose in a way he does when he is irritated, but he doesn’t stop. It’s – something new. Exhilarating, frightening. Maybe dangerous, judging by Eli’s narrowed eyes and knowing hands. Oskar wants nothing more than to touch Eli like this, his palms tingling with the need, but he doesn’t know if –
“Show me what you like”, he whispers. It’s Eli. He doesn’t need to be afraid of clumsy words.
Eli smiles at him with no hint of teeth. It’s all good, all wonderful.
He lets Eli show him.
It’s Christmas, the first one. Oskar and Eli are curled up in their little nest of blankets. They have an electric candelabra with them under the covers, because they are both afraid of real fire. Oskar’s turning a Christmas ornament around and around in his hands, watching how the light reflects off the tiny silver snowflakes. Eli is watching him like he’s trying to puzzle out the mystery of this activity.
Eli has remembered a little of how to play. Oskar’s hair falls down to his shoulders now, and Eli is carding his fingers through the blond mass, twisting and turning strands of hair in his hands. On another day Oskar might ask if Eli wants to braid his hair next, but now he’s too content. The gentle stroking and tugging is lulling him to sleep.
Just before falling asleep, Oskar likes to think that the world outside doesn’t exist. No search parties, no murders, no monsters. Only their own little space, small enough to be warmed by two.
Of course, the monster’s already in.
Oskar falls asleep listening to Eli’s heartbeat.