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What Eli and Oskar Do on Their (First) Summer Vacation

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It takes a while for Oskar to stop talking about his old life like it's still happening to him.

He'll say things like, "My father says that next time I go to his house, he'll take me out in his truck and start teaching me to drive in snow," or "Next year at school, my teacher says they might have a class in forensics, like with the police, and I hope I can take it," and sometimes he'll even finish the sentence before he realizes what he's saying, and why Eli has gone so still, like a statue waiting. She doesn't say anything about it, but he can tell she's afraid, when he says things like that, that it means he really wants to go home, that he wants to leave her for learning to drive a truck in the snow and the possibility of forensics classes.

And that isn't it at all. It's just, his life was basically the same for a pretty long time--mother; father; school; bullies at school and at the bathhouse and everywhere --and he didn't expect that anything would change much, anytime soon. Part of his brain still expects that all those things will still happen, somehow, even though he's left them all behind. And wanted to. He chose Eli, and even though she doesn't quite believe it yet, he wouldn't leave her for anything.

He figures Eli could say that her life was basically the same for a pretty long time before they met, too, even though it would mean something entirely different. Things have changed so much now, for both of them.

Being with Eli is almost like a forensics class sometimes, anyway--only better. Even though he always carries his knife, Oskar's not that much help with killing Eli's victims--not that she really needs help with killing anyway--but he can help her remain undisturbed long enough to make sure they're truly dead, standing lookout or even providing a nearby distraction. But where he really shines is forensics. His longstanding habit of studying the grisliest and goriest of news stories has given him an understanding of how police use evidence to solve crimes; his newspaper album is a catalogue of ways other people have failed and been caught, ways that they now know to avoid. A forensics class in school would be about learning how to read the evidence at crime scenes, to find the story that it tells; this more practical course is about changing what's written in the evidence in the first place so that it will be silent, or tell a different story entirely. To keep them safe.

He bets a forensics class wouldn't have real blood, either.

*

They have a difficult few days near the end of winter when the cold gets the better of Oskar's tissues and he develops recurring nosebleeds. Eli is in a constant state of tension, and she practically throws him outside every day at dawn so he'll be away from her and she won't hunger for his blood. The nights are still long enough then that she usually has time to fill up on other people's blood, but she takes any delays or difficulties badly. When they're inside together at the same time, she keeps herself in a separate room as much as possible. They communicate by notes and Morse code again, and Oskar wanders the city and buys lotions, ointments, sprays, anything he can find that might help stop the nosebleeds.

Apparently all it needs is the weather, because almost all at once, the nosebleeds stop--relieving one source of stress--just as the nights start getting short enough for Eli to feel pinched--adding another. They start to make plans for summer, and Oskar realizes, once he sheds his coats and jackets, that he only packed winter clothes.

Oskar is used to packing for himself thanks to going back and forth between his mother and father each week. He wasn't one of those kids whose mother
still packed for him, even though he was already twelve --and while in the beginning he forgot one or two boring-but-necessary things like underwear and toothbrushes, he hasn't done that for a long time. So when he packed to run away with Eli he knew what to take: the underwear and the toothbrushes, yes; several changes of clothes; blah, blah, blah. And then there was the important stuff: his newspaper album, his knife, his Rubik's cube, some books to read, both of Eli's notes to him. He didn't realize for several weeks that he'd brought along a library book--no chance of returning it now. It seemed so long, so vague and improbable then, the idea that, months later, he would still be with Eli. He wanted it, but he didn't know if he would get it.

So when the snow melts and the weather turns warm, he discovers one evening, picking shirtless through their pile of clothes, that he hasn't brought any summer clothes with him. He mills around in the clothing pile for a minute, then draws a t-shirt out--one of Eli's, soft blue, with a sunflower on the front. He holds it up to himself and nods; he thinks they're about the same size. When she sees what he's chosen to wear, her eyes widen a bit. She reaches for the edge of a doorframe and swings herself backward around it, leaning out and pivoting back and forth on her heels. Oskar sees bits of her as she swings herself back and forth, now more than half-hidden by the wall, now partly revealed.

"I guess you need some more clothes, huh? I can buy you some," she says as she swings.

"Yeah, I don't have any short sleeves with me," Oskar half-answers, scratching his stomach idly. "But--it's all right if I wear yours, right? You don't mind?"

"No," Eli says as she releases the doorframe, draws nearer, joins her fingers with his against his stomach, then trails up to trace the sunflower's petals on his chest. "I don't mind. You can wear any of my clothes you want to."

And Eli does buy some more clothes for him--he has great fun picking out t-shirts that his mother would never have let him wear, mugging toughness in the mirrors to hear Eli giggle--but after that they don't bother keeping separate sets of clothes anymore. They both pick whatever they want to wear out of a common pile, without paying attention to whose it was first.

*

"Can we go stay on one of the islands this summer? Mother always wanted us to go, but she, um. She never had the money."

"I have the money," Eli answers absently, then focuses. "But, Oskar. Most of the islands are small; it will be hard for me to eat, there."

"But there'll be lots of people on holiday. Lots of people coming and going--it won't be so noticeable when some of them go missing. And we can take boats between the islands to spread them out; it'll be perfect!"

"The nights will be short, though. So short."

"So... it wouldn't be good to kill on the island, and it wouldn't be good to travel off the island to kill, either. Okay, then, we don't have to."

"No. If you want to, I want to. If only we could stock up on blood somehow, though."

And so Eli makes reservations for a summer cottage by mail, and then they get a cooler and some ice and steal some blood from the blood center in the nearest hospital. They're already in their cottage on one of the innumerable islands around Stockholm, with the bags of blood unloaded into the mini-fridge, when they catch the report of their theft on the news. They learn that one video camera caught them, but only indistinctly.

"The security camera footage appears to show two girls carrying bulky packages in the area shortly after the time of the theft. It is suspected that they may have something to do with the bizarre theft, but the persons in question have not been identified," the newsreader intones.

Oskar looks up and says, "That's us. But I'm not a girl!"

Eli smiles, then ducks her head to hide it. "It has been a while since you cut your hair," she teases gently. "I guess they couldn't tell the difference."

Oskar turns and looks at Eli. "You're not a girl, either!" And Eli starts to laugh, quiet and bright. She puts her arms around Oskar's shoulders and leans into him.

"Then that will make it more difficult for them to find us, won't it?"

"Eli. It's good that you don't have to kill to get blood anymore, right? Do you like it?"

"What do you mean?"

"If we can steal blood from hospitals instead of killing people, um, um." He stumbles to a halt. "Isn't that better?"

Eli slowly shakes her head against Oskar's neck, not exactly saying no, but denying the whole question. "There's no safe way to be what I am, no way without hurting someone. I'll kill again," she says flatly. "Besides, hospitals keep blood because people need it. Someone still could have died because of us." They're both quiet for a moment, considering. "Stealing it makes it easier for us to do what we want to, right now," she continues. "I like that." Oskar nods, his hair rubbing against hers.

*

The islands are a fairly good place to hide out, really. There are tons of people coming and going, and no one really pays attention to two more kids hanging around--or notices that there aren't actually any grown-ups with them. And it's not even so strange for them to be seen out at night, even when the sun sets so late--summer is full of kids complaining about going to bed when it's still light and trying to stay up to outlast the sun. As a precaution against people finding it strange that Eli is so rarely seen during the day, however, Oskar makes sure to mention to the clerk at the store where he buys food that his mother and sister get migraines a lot, and when they do light hurts their eyes, so they have to stay inside, where it's dark, drapes absolutely closed. The woman makes kind and sympathetic noises about what a shame it is to have to miss so much of the good, rare summer days, and asks no further questions.

Oskar's birthday is June 14th, which of course Eli knows, because he's only been counting down to it forever. Even though she can barely get around in the brief nights, she manages to surprise him with a wrapped present. He supposes she must have bought it earlier in the year, and successfully hidden it all this time--magically, because they don't have many places to hide things among their few belongings.

"Happy birthday," Eli says, sitting down cross-legged on the floor with the box in front of her.

"And happy birthday to you," Oskar says, presenting her with a gift of his own. He took the ferry into the city today to get it and had it wrapped at the store. Eli's smile fades into puzzlement. He sits down too, mirroring her, and their knees touch. "I thought, since you don't remember when your birthday is, we could celebrate it at the same time as mine. Or we could pick another day for it, if you don't like this one," he hastens to add, seeing her still unsmiling.

"That's a really nice idea, Oskar. But... it won't really be a birthday, for me. After today, you'll be thirteen, but I'll always still be twelve."

For the first time, instead of looking forward to his birthday, Oskar suddenly feels that thirteen is the wrong side of a line he may not, after all, want to cross.

"Eli," Oskar says slowly. "Do you want me to be a vampire?"

She goes very still. Then she stands up, walking around behind him. He turns his head to follow her, but she gently turns it back, then sits on the floor again, back-to-back with him. He can feel her, but not see her. He reaches out a hand behind him, as though searching for her hand--but it isn't there.

"Why would you ask that?" Eli says at last.

"I never thought about it before, about me getting older and you... not. I'm not sure I want that to happen."

Eli is silent for a while. "Remember that time when you cut your hand and wanted us to mix blood? And you said it wouldn't hurt."

"Yeah?"

"Well. This hurts. It hurts a lot. And then afterward--you're not exactly the same. You wouldn't get older--"

Oskar rolls his eyes. "I know all that already; that's the point --"

"Oskar. Listen." she says low and intent. He quiets and settles against her. "Yes, you already know a lot of this, so I don't understand--." She draws breath. "You would need to drink blood, like I do, to stay alive. You would need to kill, a lot. You would never be able to go out in the daytime again. Or eat food. Even ice cream." Oskar chuffs a small laugh; he loves ice cream, and has eaten a lot of it this summer. Eli has a point. "You wouldn't get any older. And you would be that way forever. And it would hurt." She stops again. "In a way, it never stops hurting."

"Do you really hurt all the time?" Oskar asks tentatively. "I didn't know that."

"Not really," Eli replies. "Only, when I'm hungry, it can hurt very much. And I can get so hungry."

Oskar presses his lips together. "I don't want things to change, with us."

"They'll change anyway if I make you like me."

"They'll change anyway if I grow up, too--oh, I--"

"Oskar." He hears the smile in her voice, a small one. "Thirteen isn't grown up, after all. Not yet. We still have time to think about this, and decide."

"Yeah. We do. Okay, then." He adds reflectively, "You know, if you changed me today, it would still be my birthday. I mean, my new birthday. My becoming-a-vampire day. We could still celebrate it on the same day."

Eli turns around and embraces him from behind. "You're right; we could." She takes his hand, caresses his fingers, his palm. "I promise you, that if you decide you want me... to change you, I'll do it. You can cut your palm again, like you did that night, and I'll do it. We'll mix."

"Good," Oskar says, satisfied. He leans forward and retrieves his gift, passing it over his shoulder to her. "Presents now! Open yours first."

"No, let's open them at the same time. Get yours."

"Okay. One, two, three--" And they tear into the paper at the same time.

Oskar has a handheld video game; the box says "Game & Watch" and "Donkey Kong." "The store clerk said he thought that was the best one," Eli says. "Do you like it?"

Oskar pores over the box. "I can't wait to play it!" He looks over at her. "And do you like yours?"

Eli's box says "Ten Billion Barrel"; when she opens it, she brings out a clear plastic cylinder with columns of differently colored beads inside.

"It's like the Rubik's Cube. You turn it, and mix up the beads, and then you have to try to get each column back to being all the same color." Oskar explains, and a sly smile sneaks up on his face. "Only it doesn't have any corners, so you can't use your trick to solve it!"

"Thank you," says Eli, already turning the rows. "This will be fun to play with when I can't go outside. And Oskar. Thank you. For my birthday." She says the word wonderingly, as though it's unfamiliar, but sweet.

*

Oskar has felt the circle of the world contracting around them as the days get longer and Eli can go outside less and less, a feeling he's known before only as winter approaches. The next week is Midsummer, with the shortest night of the year; even the night isn't completely dark, now, and Eli is edgy about being outside at all.

"Let's go to some of the Midsummer celebrations," Oskar says.

"Not exactly my kind of holiday," Eli says.

"I mean, let's go after the sun goes down, of course. And anyway, we have a reason to celebrate Midsummer, too. Everyone else may celebrate it because it's the longest day of the year, but we can celebrate because afterward, the nights will start getting longer again, and you can go outside more."

Eli looks at the window, with the curtains they've never opened. "Yeah," she says, "Let's go."

On Friday, Midsummer's Eve, what seems like everyone in Sweden goes outside to celebrate and enjoy the sunshine: raising maypoles, dancing, laughing at the dancers; eating, drinking.

Oskar stays inside, sleeping curled up with Eli for most of the day. He wakes when it's still light out, and picks up one of Eli's hands. "Can I paint your nails?"

Eli pulls the blanket over her head with her other hand. "I can't answer your question. I'm still asleep."

"Come on. Can I or not?" He taps her forehead gently through the blanket.

"I guess. But why do you want do?"

"It's something girls do, right? Something girls like?"

Eli half laughs and half groans from under the blanket. "Will you ever get tired of making jokes about that security camera?"

Oskar grins. "Only when you stop laughing at them."

Oskar is careful, but it's his first time using nail polish, and of course he does a blotchy, awful job of it. At the end of it Eli finally emerges from the blanket and evaluates the mess of blackness on her hand. "I think... you've made me look like more of a vampire than I already am," she concludes.

"It's cool, though, right?"

"Yeah. You know, it is."

At last Eli deigns to sit up and Oskar leans against her while he racks up points in Donkey Kong (and occasionally dies) and she rattles the beads around as she turns the rows of her puzzle. They can feel each other's elbows as they move.

After what has by now become a familiar wait, the sun sinks in the sky, and the light from outside is orange and dim when Oskar checks. He breaks the companionable silence. "They're having dancing down by the pier tonight, for the festival, and they'll have food, and all kinds of things. Come with me?"

"Are you asking me to dance with you?"

"...I guess. Yes. Yes, I am."

"Oskar," she says as she stands, and holds her hand out to him, "I would love to go dancing with you."

So they go, once dusk truly settles in. On their way down to the shore, they approach a small group of teenage boys who have clearly been observing their festival day with great quantities of alcohol.

One of the teenagers catches sight of him and yells, "Hey, sissy boy! Why are you wearing girl's clothes?" His friends laugh raucously around him and cheer him on. Encouraged, he yells again: "Hey, freak! Are you a boy or a girl? Do you know? Can't decide?"

Oskar looks down and finds that he is, indeed, wearing that same same sunflower shirt. He looks back at the boy and stops. "I'm a boy," he says. Eli stops beside him when he does, saying nothing.

The boy sneers. "Well, why are you wearing a girl's shirt, then? Did you get it from your creepy girlfriend? Huh?" He lurches toward Oskar as he continues his taunting, his friends snickering behind him. "Does your scary girlfriend make you wear it? Is she the boss of you?"

Oskar remembers, keenly, how such questioning used to frighten him. It still amazes him a little how much it doesn't, anymore. He's almost unable to understand what they're objecting to, or why he should care.

And Oskar thinks: this one.

Oskar doesn't say anything else, but locks eyes with the boy, who says "Hey, aren't you going to answer me? I'm talking to you!" He approaches with a steady stream of taunts and insults and Oskar backs away uncertainly, and Eli slips softly away into the darkness under the trees around them. Oskar backs up into a tree and jerks to a halt, and the other boy continues his approach until they're almost nose-to-nose. "You weirdo, you weird little scaredy cat," he almost murmurs. "What are you going to do now that your scary girlfriend isn't here to protect you?"

His friends call out in the distance--to encourage him further? To call him back?

And Oskar reaches up and sticks his knife into the boy's neck.

He plunged this same knife into tree bark who knows how many times, but against human vertebrae the blade at last catches and breaks, and he pulls out nothing but a handle with a jagged edge.

"My scary girlfriend is here to protect me," he says serenely, as Eli floats out of the darkness from where she's been watching, ready to help him if he needed it. She fastens onto the cut, and starts to drink. The bully's friends stand frozen, unable to decide whether to pile on to help their friend or run for help (or just run away), until Oskar gestures at them with the stump of the knife. They decide to run. He watches the path while Eli drinks; listens to the crack of Eli breaking the boy's neck when she finishes. He goes down the path to the boys' abandoned bottles of beer, picks one up through the tail of his shirt, and carries it back to the body, where he breaks it against a tree.

"He was drinking to celebrate Midsummer. Now you're doing the same," Oskar jokes. Eli smiles a little underneath the blood, and Oskar has to kiss her again, just for a moment. He takes the broken bottle neck and grinds it into the boy's neck over and over, to obscure the marks of Eli's bite. With any luck, the police will assume it was a drunken accident--or a drunken fight--and anyway the boy's friends won't make very good witnesses.

Eli cleans up, and they continue their way to the shore through the trees, instead of by the path, catching each other when they trip on obstacles they can't see. When they arrive there are lights, and musicians, and so many people dancing and laughing together. Against the night sky and dark water they can just see all the boats tied up, and hear the clanking of sailboat rigging in the breaks between songs.

"It would be fun to rent a boat sometime, and travel between the islands as we please," Oskar mused. "You have enough money for that, too, I suppose?"

Eli smiles a deliberately enigmatic smile, which quickly becomes simply mischievous.

"Okay, I'll take that as a yes. Say, would you have enough money to buy a boat?" Eli's grin stays strong. "A house? An island? " he continues, nearly incredulous.

Eli shakes her head, holds out her hands. "Maybe someday. Dance with me now."

They clasp arms around each other's necks, and twirl while the musicians play on and on. Two children, dancing on the dock on one of the shortest nights of the year, welcoming the return of the dark.