Eli sat in the darkness, intensely conscious of the small round weight pressed against her thin chest.
She had never thought that it would end like this.
It had started a few days ago. Oskar had been nervous; Eli had only thought it was the changes of the seasons. Both of them looked on the arrival of spring and summer with dread, because it meant more hours of hiding from the sun. But Oskar told her that it was something else.
"Someone is watching us," he insisted, going down on one knee to look her in the eye. She looked back and saw a husky man in his forties, still blond as the day they had met, but with new lines around the dreaming blue eyes.
"No, Oskar, no," she insisted, touching his face with one hand. "Anyone who watched us would know, and they would come for us. We are still safe. So long as we're together, we are safe."
"You make me feel safe," he husked, and she smiled and stepped into his embrace, her cool cheek against his warm one.
How long she'd enjoyed being with him, her strong protector. Even as a child, running away with her in a cardboard box at his feet, he had been smart and clever. He had found a busy train station at dusk, taken her off and helped her out, and then gone looking for 'the sort of man his mother always warned him about.' And they found him too: sleek and well-groomed but with something wrong about his eyes; something even Eli could see. He said that he would be happy to give them a ride into the city, Oskar and his 'sister'. Then he had suggested a little detour to his apartment. A warm room, a fine meal that only Oskar ate, and then a discreet suggestion as to how they could repay the man....
Eli had taken him in front of Oskar; she had not known how he would react. She had never killed for hunger in front of him, only in self-defence or in rage. But when the man had rolled over on top of her, panicking, it was Oskar who knelt on his back and pulled his head up by the hair, baring his fat neck for Eli's strike.
They stayed in the man's apartment for several days, resting and planning. They found his address book, with a list of people who liked to play 'games' with him....discreetly. For any police officer, it would have been a treasure trove; for Oskar and Eli, it was more in the nature of a menu.
They went on. After the address book was run down to the last page, they had to make other plans. When she explained what she needed, described the equipment that Håkan had used – the knife, the rope, the plastic funnel – he had been quick to catch on, and she rarely went hungry.
"Who do you find?" she asked him once, wiping her mouth on the back of her brown hand, and he looked at her with narrowed eyes.
"Children," he said, his eyes narrowing further. "Bullies, like Jimmy. I know them. I can see them. Nobody notices me; and if someone does I say my parents dropped me off, that I might be moving here. Then I follow them and I," he gestured as though stabbing, hand stiff and fingers pointed, "take them. For you."
Eli was worried about him. He sometimes had to fight to get what she needed, and she nursed him when he was injured. But he would rise from his blankets, still bruised from the last battle, and go out again. For her, always for her.
The injuries grew less as Oskar grew: tall and broad-shouldered. She watched him in the bathroom, staring silently through the half-opened door, as he plucked a fine blond hair from his chest, grimaced, and brushed it off his fingers as though it was something dirty. He did not like growing up.
Their best times together were just sitting, on the floor of some rented room or abandoned factory or railway car, playing word games, assembling puzzles, listening to the loud wailing modern music and laughing as they pretended to sing along.
Oskar had false identity papers now – he'd read about how to acquire them. And one day he came back to their rented flat bearing a heavy piece of equipment, a great metal cylinder, and a blazing grin that made his eyes seem to glow.
"What's that?" she asked, curious. She was feeling well: Oskar had been experimenting with freezing blood, seeing how long it could keep and still nourish her. She was always fed now, and it made her calm as a pampered cat.
He explained that the machine was a vacuum pump, and the cylinder was an air tank for scuba diving.
"I don't understand," she said, and he showed her. He filled the sink with water, and then hooked the tank to the machine and pumped out all the air (it made a horrible racket, and Eli covered her ears). He took a length of tubing and put one end in the sink and the other onto a fitting at the end of the tank. He turned a dial and the water vanished with shocking speed into the tank.
"And then I take my tank," he laughed, "and bring it to you." He did this now, hefting the tank in his arms and offering it to her like a cumbersome metal child, and she laughed and offered to put a bonnet on it.
They laughed so much, day and night. Oskar grew stronger with age: he exercised, lifting heavy metal weights or discarded furniture until the veins popped under his skin like snakes. Sometimes Eli would lie out straight on his palms and he would lift her, up and down, like a weight bar. She lay there, suspended in his grasp, feeling herself rise and fall, wishing that she would just rise above everything, look down on all the world at once and see it as one thing.
He was too old now to pass as a child, but he still remembered being one: the hurts and slights of childhood. He took cruel children, sullen teenagers drinking far off in the fields (once he inadvertently brought home a canister of blood laced with heroin, and had to calm and reassure a profoundly disturbed Eli for some hours); he spotted paedophiles as they watched children in turn, and lured them to some quiet area with promises of pictures, names, meetings. And then the drug, and the needle to the neck or thigh, and the blood sucked out into Oskar's tank and brought home to Eli.
They crossed the country, again and again. Everywhere they went, Oskar's eyes found new villains who deserved to die. Sometimes Eli thought that he was just fooling himself. There could not be so many bad people in the world, could there? But then she thought: let him fool himself. Better that he believes they all deserve to die.
Eli didn't know if they deserved to die or not. But she knew that she was going to live, no matter the cost.
But now, here and now, Oskar was afraid. Afraid for her, afraid of whoever might be watching them. He had grown more and more paranoid as the world changed, as cameras grew smaller and faster, as the nights grew brighter with more and more lights. He had nightmares, sometimes, muttering about computers and metal eyes, and only the feeling of her cold body spooning against him could calm him.
Now he was awake; now he was not calm. He was certain that they were being watched. There was blood frozen and he warmed it, dropping bag after bag of it into the saucepan, darting back and forth between the door and the battered stove, urging her to drink it, drink it all, until she felt as heavy as a stone, gorged with life.
He rolled her up in a heavy sheet of black felt, rolling her over and over, and then tucked her under his arm and left, his briefcase in the other hand. The tank and vacuum pump were stored in their car, along with the paperwork that showed that Oskar was a travelling sales representative for a minor exercise equipment manufacturer.
He loaded Eli into the boot, carefully, and then drove, away from the rising sun.
They caught him on the road; forced him off it into a barren ploughed field. Four black cars, filled with men in dark suits with blank expressions and heavy guns displayed a bit too boldly in shoulder holsters.
Oskar stood between them and his car, chest heaving and fists clenched, daring them to get past him. His shadow streamed out long from his booted feet, and that gave him hope. If he could only stall them, distract them until sunset, Eli would be free. No matter what happened to him, she would be free.
One of the dark-suited men stepped forward. He was slender and grey-haired, with a bristling narrow moustache on his upper lip like a caterpillar.
"Is she in the boot?" he asked.
Oskar growled, "Who are you? What are you talking about?"
"We won't open the boot if she's in there."
"This is my car, my property! You have no right to harass me so!" Oskar shouted, and Eli shivered to hear him shout. She wound herself tighter and tighter inside the roll of felt, imagining it as black armour against the sun. She was in the very back of the boot, hidden behind Oskar's clothes and equipment, but she was direly certain that they could get her out of here. They could always burn the car, and then she would have to choose between deaths.
"There are some people who would like to meet you," the strange man said. "Both of you. You will not be harmed. You will be free to go – after you meet with them. And you'll be handsomely rewarded for your time."
The man reached inside his coat and withdrew a thick sheaf of currency, riffling it between his fingers like cards. Oskar's eyes did not even move; they stayed locked on the stranger's face. One corner of the grey-haired man's mouth drew up in a gesture that was not a smile.
Slowly, reluctantly, Oskar got back into the car.
"Can we get away?" Eli whispered from the boot, just loudly enough for him to hear.
"No," he said, starting the car and turning back onto the paved road. "They're all around us. But it's almost dark. I could try to lose them in the dark-"
"No," Eli decided instantly. "They might ram the car from behind."
Oskar swallowed, imagining Eli trapped in crumpled metal, her flesh pierced and blood running down smoking metal, the screams, the flames-
"We can get out of this," she insisted. "Keep driving. Let them lead you."
"You can get away," he said a little too softly. "You can fly."
Elis paused for a long moment, hearing the sound of the motor and Oskar's heart and the cars before and behind them.
"No," she answered. "I won't. I'll stay with you."
He smiled, and turned on the headlights.
They were taken to a park, where new bright green leaves were almost black in the gloom, spreading out above the new-mowed grass. There were men moving in the darkness, and cars; but Oskar was fascinated by what was waiting in a little clearing.
Two massive chairs, high-backed, with a small table between them. There was a white lamp sitting behind the table, lit and glowing; a cable ran from it into the darkness. To a generator, or a battery; Oskar wasn't sure. The chairs were huge, taller than Eli's head, and the shadows of the lamp meant that whoever – or whatever – might be sitting in them was invisible.
A dry voice came from one of the chairs, calling to Oskar where he stood beside the car, keys dangling from his fist.
"Come closer," it husked. "Come closer...both of you." And then a rustling that was not quite a laugh.
Oskar stepped behind the car, his hands going to unlock the boot without looking. He felt a tension ripple through the half-seen men in the shadows as he lifted the lid high, and waited.
The shadows were clotted dark inside the trunk; then the shadows moved. They seemed to condense, into smooth brown skin and dark hair and grey furious eyes that stared up at the stars, for a moment, end then turned to Oskar's face.
"Fly?" he said, a little hopelessly.
Eli got out of the trunk and stood by Oskar, holding his hand. Her silence was her only reply.
He slammed the boot lid down, too hard, and the sound cracked through the clearing like a slap. Then, hand in hand, they circled the car and went up to the two great chairs. Chairs like thrones, Oskar thought.
"Are you with the government?" Eli asked, in her high child's voice.
A snicker from the second chair. "We are more powerful than any government. We are the pullers of strings, the keepers of lives, and we see you. For years, we have seen you."
A wet smacking noise, like parted lips. "And we have brought you here to say how much we approve of your actions."
"Approve? Of my actions?" Eli stepped forward and stood straight, in worn corduroy jeans and a plain blue shirt. But her face was that of a tiny, furious queen when she answered, "And why should I care for your approval?"
Two chuckles mingled in the darkness, eerily alike.
The voice came now from the first chair. "What if I told you that our country has grown great in these last twenty years? That our schools are finer, our scientists smarter, our athletes faster, because of you and your companion?"
"You have pared our population," the second voice murmured. "You have sliced away the rotten fragments that contaminated the whole. The leeches on society, the – ha ha! – the bloodsuckers, the corruptors – they are gone. A generation has grown up without their threat, and oh, what wonderful people they are! And their children, so fearless and strong, what shall they accomplish!"
"You have helped us, and we shall reward you. The police have been ordered to – distribute the files relating to you. Not let them be collected and cross-referenced. Anyone who grows too curious will be diverted. If necessary," the voice chuckled again, "we can always send them to you, for a drink. Eh? Eh? A drink, eh?" The sound of a hand slapping a knee. "Come here, Eli."
Oskar froze at the name, and again at the sight of Eli, her dark hair heavy on her shoulders, her narrow back outlined against the light as she walked towards the darkened chair, and stared at the figure that sat there, twisted and brittle.
Long fingers reached out of the gloom, and moved as though to touch that heavy dark hair; Oskar tensed, his great arms flexing at his sides, and the hand retreated. Then it returned, two hands now, holding a long length of gilded ribbon that bore a flat round medal that gleamed like gold.
"A symbol of our good faith," the voice croaked, draping the ribbon around her neck and letting the gold medallion thump against her chest. "Show this to the police, and they will pass you by. And for your companion-"
"Give me his medal," she said, holding out her hand. "I will bring it to him."
Her mouth turned down in a frown. "I do not want him to see what you are."
A rustling of clothing from the depths of the chair. Then a quick bright flash in the air; Eli's hand snapped out and caught the medal, holding it clenched in one hand.
"Ungrateful," the voice murmured. "But – you are free to go."
"Good," she said, turning on her heel and marching back to the car, head high. She did not get into the trunk; instead she climbed into the passenger side. After a long moment, Oskar climbed in the other side. He started the car, and out of nowhere men seemed to spring up between him and the chairs. Men in drab uniforms, bearing wickedly elaborate rifles.
Oskar looked at them, and for an instant he longed, with a sharp fierce desire, to hit the gas and plough through them and crush whatever sat in those chairs. But – Eli was here, she might be hurt. Instead he turned the wheel, put on his turn signal, and wheeled right, back towards the road.
As they drove, Eli handed him the medal, and he looked at it, hefted it in his hand. Eli had already traced the elaborate symbol that was pressed into it onto a piece of paper, and put the paper in the glove compartment. Then she rolled down her window a little, and let the chill spring air sting her face.
"I don't want it," he said suddenly. "We could – sell it for the metal?"
"No," Eli decided, taking it from his hand. "I don't want it either. Slow down on this curve."
He did, and she held the medals together, back to back, and hurtled them into the darkness, throwing them so hard and fast that the air snapped. They sailed a long way away in the darkness, and then vanished into the bushes.
Oskar sped up, driving a little faster now. He would have to think of ways that they could hide, new ways to hunt, new ways to protect Eli.
She reached over and touched his cheek. "Turn off the headlights," she asked softly.
He did, and they raced on in the darkness, the moon low at their backs, soaring away into the night.