Chapter 16: The Hilltop
Alvirez helped Owen drag Abby's body to the top of the hill. There Owen unwrapped the tarp in which they had carried her, exposing her precious, broken form. The horizon was just beginning to lighten. The boy had until sunrise to change his mind.
Owen began stroking Abby's hair and caressing her face. He seemed numb, calm even. Too calm. Alvirez had witnessed such behavior before, could guess what it meant. The boy had decided to join Abby in death. The agent didn't think Owen had reloaded his gun. He was probably planning on burning.
Alvirez was left with a decision of his own to make. Should he let Owen kill himself? For that matter, should he let the kid kill Abby? Owen had acted in such haste. That in itself was rather interesting. No contemplation or delay. Owen must have thought the monster would sense danger and respond. And if that were the case, then Alvirez was mistaken about the two times he had supposedly "defeated" Abby.
First on the rooftop in Bernalillo, then in the forests of North Carolina: both times Alvirez had been in Abby's presence, firearm in hand. He could have shot her. Or so he had thought. But if the monster could sense danger to such an extent that Owen had been forced to act instantly, then that meant the only reason Alvirez had gotten close to Abby with gun was because the vampire had sensed no intent to harm. Which meant Alvirez hadn't really defeated her at all.
Except here he was, standing over her dead body on a hilltop in Wyoming, his own words having egged Owen on to do the despicable deed. Was he really right? Did the monster actually restrict her ability to speak? Owen certainly thought he was right. But considering the boy was a total mess at the moment, that didn't necessarily mean a whole lot.
Owen picked up her hand and pressed it to his cheeks, his forehead, his lips. "So cold, Abby," the boy said. "You never warm up, no matter how long I hold you."
Alvirez glanced away. Was he going to be able to hold it together? He had seen a lot of people die, but not like this. He walked around Abby so he could get a better look at Owen's eyes. The boy's expression was vacant, hopeless, distant: just like Abby. Dear Jesus, he thought, what am I supposed to do? Should he try to talk Owen out of it? And if so, what could he possibly say to make the boy want to go on living?
Was there a reason to go on living? Maybe Alvirez should simply jump on the pyre with the two young lovers and add a little fuel to the bonfire. There would never be another project like Abby. How could there be? Figuring her out was certain to be the high point of his life. Could he content himself with going back to the study of "normal" people? Or should he go out on a high note, his greatest victory still fresh and alive?
Not that he had planned on Abby dying. Or that he had even expected Owen to reach the conclusion he had reached. Alvirez tried to remember what he had been thinking, found it hard to do so. He had realized Abby didn't think in words, that the monster hindered her ability to talk. Had he really gone past that? At some level had he guessed where Owen would go with that? He didn't know. He didn't think he would ever know. Abby was dead. And Alvirez was partly to blame.
Owen kept inspecting the horizon, watching the sky brighten. The weather was flawless, crystal clear: no help there. Alvirez observed Owen as the boy played with the tarp. It was like he kept thinking about draping it over Abby, only to change his mind again and again. The agent figured he had to say it at least once.
"You don't have to do this, Owen," he said. "We can wrap her back up, stick her in her tent, let her heal. I can go rustle up someone for her to eat when she wakes up. She doesn't have to die."
"What would she say?" Owen asked. "If she could speak? Maybe she'd say she does have to die." He went back to kissing her face.
Alvirez wondered how long it would take Abby to heal. Part of him hoped she would wake up in time. She would spring from the ground, eat Alvirez, and then rush off to find some sort of shelter. Maybe she would go back to Owen one day. Maybe she wouldn't. But at least Owen would still be alive. And the kid wouldn't have to deal with the prospect of an Abby-less universe, himself to blame for it.
How do you convince someone to live? Owen had made no effort to talk Abby into living. Once he had realized what she wanted, he had acted – and without delay. But Owen was at such a different place in life. Presumably he did still have something to live for. The agent glanced over his shoulder at the brightening horizon, guessed he had about twenty minutes to figure out what that might be.
"I understand why Abby would want to die," Alvirez said. "I've known men, soldiers and criminals, who killed themselves out of guilt. I reckon Abby's done worse than any of them. So her wanting to die, that makes sense to me, Owen. And maybe she is just too far gone. Maybe this really is the only way for her to be at peace.
"But how can you be certain?" the agent asked. "If I'm correct – if the monster won't let her talk – then the one thing you want is the one thing she can never give you. She can never just plain look you in the eye and say, 'I want to die.'
"You understand you're making a lot of assumptions here. Why won't she discuss her taboo topics? Because doing so would reveal her death-wish, and the monster won't let that happen. Why won't she hide the bodies? Because a secret part of her wants to get caught. Why won't she turn you into a vampire? Because she'd rather have you kill her. That's an awful lot of guessing. How can you know you're right?"
Owen gazed up at him, blinking. It was too much for the boy to handle. Alvirez could see it in his eyes. Likely the child couldn't think at all. He had made his decision. Now he was simply waiting for the sun to rise.
Uncertainty, doubt, reservation, misgiving. Alvirez tried to imagine himself in Owen's shoes. He reckoned the second-guessing would drive him mad. Did Abby really want to die? How can I know? I have to know. But I can't know. It wouldn't take too much of that to make any man insane. Maybe death on this knoll really was the best Owen could hope for.
"Pick one thing," Alvirez urged. "Pick the one thing that most clearly indicates Abby doesn't want to die."
This got Owen's attention. "She entered uninvited," Owen recalled, staring into the past. "She started bleeding all over the place. I saved her. I told her she could come in. It made her so happy. I'd never felt her so happy. You'd think she'd have responded differently if she wanted to die."
Alvirez tried to process this. Did it mean something? Anything? Everything? "There are several possible explanations for her response that night," he said. "One is that you're just plain wrong. Abby does not want to die. This is not what she's been hoping for. That moment in your apartment is actually a better indicator of her inner feelings than anything else she's ever given you. You're in the process of making a tragic mistake, one that will destroy both her life and yours."
Alvirez paused for a response. He wondered if Owen was even listening.
"Another possibility," the agent continued, "is that her happiness at that moment came from realizing, at an unconscious level, that you might finally be the person who would love her like she wanted. She might have been asking herself, 'Could this be the one? Could this be the friend who will finally figure out what I most desire but can never express? Could he be the one who will love me enough to kill me?' Not that the monster would ever let her think such thoughts, of course. But maybe that was what was really going on deep inside her.
"But the most likely explanation," Alvirez granted, "is the simplest: part of her wants to live, part of her wants to die. Even as she longs for her melancholy to end, she still clings to existence and light and joy. So you have to think about that one part of her, Owen, that part that wants to live. Why not obey the desires of that part, and let her keep living?"
"I know her heart," Owen said. "I feel the self-hate during telepathy. I hear the bitterness in her voice. I see the emptiness in her eyes. This is what she wants. I know that now. Maybe I've always known it. I tried so hard to make her whole." He lowered his head onto Abby's chest. "Some hurts can't be fixed."
Jesus, how was he supposed to dispute that? Wasn't he just a broken relic himself, going through the motions, suppressing the barrenness of a detestable life? How could he argue that this girl ought to live? Why should anyone live? Maybe it was better to burn.
Owen had let Abby in, sparing her life. She had seemed happy to be spared. An event open to different interpretations – like everything else Abby had given them. Owen might sound confident at the moment, but that was only because he was planning on dying in the next few minutes. If he went on living, the doubts, the second-guessing, would creep in and destroy him. Because he could never really know for certain. Always the question would be there: did I make the right call?
Alvirez considered the decisions he had made in Vietnam, some of them right, some of them wrong. Decisions that got people killed. So many people killed. He knew the frustration that came in the night, the lurking wonder that wrecked the soul. What if? What if? What if? Blood dripped from his hands and lips and brain, the gore of innocents. He owed the gods a death.
Oh, he knew why Abby wanted to die. No mystery there. Could he give Owen a reason to live? Could he give himself one? If the doubt were certain to slay his sanity, what kind of life could the boy possibly have? Certain doubt. There was an ironic problem: there was no doubt that doubt would kill them all.
Alvirez laughed then, although he didn't think Owen noticed. What intellectual challenge could possibly be more interesting than figuring out Abigail Wheeler's internal thought processes? Discovering a way to be certain that Abby really wanted to die. The quest for certainty – that would be even harder, for as postmoderns alleged, of course, it was impossible to be certain about anything.
How to fight the madness of uncertainty? Become certain! But how could they seek it? How could they find it? Abby had given them all she could. What could ever enable them to take that data and reach an assured conclusion? It would be a monumental task, an epic task, a quest for an infallible understanding of the mind and motivation of another creature. Could they do it if Abby were dead?
Could they do it if Abby were alive? The proposition was simple: Abby wants to die. Was part of the tragedy of her existence that they could never know for sure until after she was dead? But how to gain such confidence? Could the mission ever be accomplished? It would be a life's work. Enough to make Alvirez want to go on living.
Would it be enough for Owen? Part of the reason Owen wanted to die was probably the agony of uncertainty. He couldn't imagine living with the doubt that he had made the wrong call. But what if he lived to fight that doubt, to conquer it, to acquire a certain knowledge that he had done the right thing? That might be enough to live for. Maybe.
Alvirez realized in that instant that he wanted Owen to live. He actually cared about the boy; go figure. He would have to take him under his wing. He would have to train him and instill in him a new purpose, something that could fill the emptiness that awaited him. And if they succeeded, the holy grail of epistemology beckoned: certainty.
The agent squatted down next to Abby. In the growing light he thought her wounds appeared a bit less ragged. The monster was repairing her injuries, racing the rising sun.
"I wonder if any of her caretakers ever figured it out," Alvirez said. "She needed someone determined enough to dig into her motives and discover her secret hope. She needed a person willing to act on that knowledge. And it seems she also needed a person who would act instantly, without delay. I reckon you're the only one who ever loved her enough to meet all those requirements."
Owen stroked her hair, ignoring him.
"I used to think you'd given up everything for Abby," the agent said. "I was wrong. Now you're giving up everything for her. If you walk off this hill with me."
Owen looked up. "Huh?" he asked.
"What's harder?" Alvirez asked. "To die with her, or to live with what you've done? I think we both know the answer to that. I don't think she wants you to die for her, Owen. I think she wants you to do something much harder. I think she wants you to live for her, to take all her hopelessness and misery and self-hate upon yourself. I think she wants you to endure the uncertainty of whether you really gave her what she hoped for. To live with that burden, Owen – that would be giving up everything."
The boy actually seemed to consider this line of reasoning, although Alvirez wasn't sure why. He pressed his advantage. "If Abby could actually talk," he said, "do you think she'd want you to die with her? Wouldn't it make her happier to know that you, at least, went on living? She doesn't want you to be a vampire. And you're not. You have the human life she envied. It's her gift to you, Owen: refusing to make you like her. She would want you to enjoy that gift."
Owen put his head back on Abby's chest. Alvirez knew he had to try something else. The agent was using argumentation. Owen made decisions based on emotions. How could he reach the boy's heart? What could he say to awaken a desire for life?
"The monster is cruel to her, Owen. It denies her one of the core benefits of human reason: self-knowledge. It won't let her know herself, not at a conscious level, anyway. So you've gone and done that for her. You've thought for her, felt for her, known her, better than she knows herself.
"Do you need me to do that for you, Owen? Do you need me to know you, to feel for you because you're incapable of doing it for yourself? I tell you, you don't really want to die. There's a part of you that craves life, that longs to live enough for both of you. You have that part in you right now. You're satisfying the part of Abby that wants to die. But she wants more than that. She would have you satisfy the part of you that wants to live."
Owen pressed his forehead to Abby's, started crying. Alvirez realized he was wasting his time. There was no way he could talk the boy out of this course of action, not in this extremis of emotion. It was a time for death.
"Maybe other friends of hers did figure it out," Alvirez suggested. "But they didn't love her enough to go through with it. Maybe Constance would have done it, but she wasn't able to figure it out. I can imagine at least a few, perhaps, who started wondering if what Abby really wanted was peace. But they couldn't give up what peace they had so Abby could have some of her own instead.
"I know you might not want to hear this," the agent continued, "but I think there's something inherently selfish about Abby. She's damaged goods. She doesn't have much to offer. She needs you to give way more to her than she can ever give to you. She needs you to do something for her that she can't earn and can never repay, something she can't even ask for. She is utterly helpless. You have to figure out her need and meet it for her sake, not yours. You get only one thing in return: the possibility that you actually helped her, that you succeeded in meeting the one need she truly cared about.
"You wanted to make her whole. But you never realized that might entail breaking yourself in the process. You were willing to do it, though. I'll give you that. But now I guess you're damaged goods, too. I'm done trying. Go ahead and burn." He plopped on the ground next to Owen. The boy paid him no mind.
Alvirez couldn't believe he had stooped to reverse psychology. His mind seemed scattered, unfocused. He so hated the thought of Abby dying. It was inconceivable to imagine the world without her. Life would seem hollow, void, meaningless. An Abby-less world. The agent figured he had some inkling of Owen's inner darkness, understood why the child wanted it to end. But that couldn't be allowed.
"I imagine Abby and the monster as locked in a cold war," Alvirez said, trying to think of something to say as he scooted closer to Owen. "They don't like each other, but they're forced to coexist. Abby uses the monster's strength and wings. The monster uses her intellect and gentleness. I can guess that Abby hates the monster, but I wonder if the monster hates Abby. Maybe it would prefer her to just accept that they're on top of the food chain. That Abby has a conscience probably really annoys the creature. Maybe it wishes she would think of herself as an animal. Animals don't feel guilty after they eat. I know you always want to take away Abby's guilt, but maybe she doesn't want it gone. Maybe she likes tormenting the monster with its deeds." He shifted a little more, kept prattling.
"I think it's interesting you had to prompt her to share the memory of Constance. I think she wanted to share that with you sooner, but she had to wait until you asked. The monster wouldn't let her take the initiative. It wouldn't let her know what she actually wanted to do. How smart is it, though? I think it depends on Abby to do the heavy thinking. By limiting her ability to think it ends up limiting itself. It denies her the ability to reflect, to know herself. It won't let her be introspective, or ask herself why she feels what she feels. But then how was it to know how dangerous it could be to let Abby share the Constance memories?"
Owen started mumbling. "Abby, I love you. I love you so much. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I never even asked you to marry me. I can't believe this is how we end. I'm sorry." Tears poured down his cheeks as he pawed at Abby's chest. It was so much brighter. Was that the vampire's heart pounding in her chest? The agent glanced over his shoulder at the dawn. Just a few minutes to go. He adjusted into his final position.
"Let me ask you something," Alvirez said, ignoring Owen's weeping. "At the moment you actually shot her, did you give any thought to the lives you were saving?"
Owen had nothing to say to this. Once again he lifted Abby's hand to his face.
"Maybe in one way Abby was selfish," the agent suggested. "But in another way you seem to be a lot more self-absorbed. How many people has Abby killed over the centuries? Five thousand? Probably more. And how many will she kill in the future if she doesn't die here? Do you care about those lives?
"This is something you need to think about, Owen. Maybe you don't care about her prospective future victims. But maybe, just maybe, Abby does. Imagine she cares about them. All of them. She would consider her death both proper and worthwhile. Not a cause for mourning at all. A cause, in fact, for rejoicing. She would ask you what the hell you're doing, blubbering when you should be dancing.
"She hates the monster," Alvirez offered. "She wants it dead. She wants it dead even more than she wants to stay alive. There are good people in the world, Owen. People who value the lives of others more highly than they value their own. I say Abby is a good person. For the sake of all those future victims, and the ones before, she desperately seeks the monster's destruction.
"Because she was trying to communicate with you," Alvirez said, "and because you figured out what she was trying to say, that means the two of you defeated the monster together. You saved countless lives together. That might not mean anything to you now. But one day I think it will." Alvirez jumped from his spot and tackled Owen.
"No!" the boy shouted, struggling to get free. Alvirez pinned the child's arms to the side of his body and wrestled him into the dirt. "Let me go!" Owen demanded. Alvirez remained silent, letting the boy fight until he finally gave up. "Why?" Owen pleaded.
"Because I'm a heartless, unromantic son-of-a- !#$%^&*," the agent replied, "and right now that's exactly what you need. Look at her!" he demanded. The sunrise was now just moments away. "Own it, Owen. Face it. You don't know. You have to know. But you don't know. Maybe this is exactly what she's been hoping for. Maybe you're making the biggest mistake of your life. There's no way to know. Not right now, anyway. Feel the uncertainty, Owen. Feel it! She wants you to feel it."
They stared at Abby together, watching as the first rays of sunlight struck her face and hands. Her skin began to blacken. Owen started screaming.
"This is how you save someone," Alvirez declared, shouting in Owen's ear. "You take their pain upon yourself, and you feel it. Feel your heart, Owen. That's her sadness. That's her despair. It was hers, and now it's yours. You're saving her, Owen. Just like you wanted."
Abby burst into flames. Alvirez was no longer wrestling Owen, but comforting him, embracing him, crying with him. The hilltop blazed with unnatural light, consuming their hopes and dreams.
"Now you have nothing," Alvirez said. "And she has everything. And that is love."
Owen entered a bedroom and shut the door. He set a small bucket on the desk provided by his new foster parents. He pulled the lid off gently, exposing the contents.
"The Jenson's seem nice," Owen said. "I think they'll make a good mom and dad. I start school on Monday. Ninth grade, Abby. Can you believe it? I'm going to go to high school. They say Thomas Jefferson's the best. You've got to admire Alvirez' connections.
"I've been thinking a lot this week. I've decided you're not happy you got turned into a vampire. Not happy at all. And I've been wondering, What does Abby want me to do if there are others out there? I think you would want me to do something.
"I don't know what, exactly. Alvirez and I are working on a plan. He only lives an hour from here. Did you know that? I'll actually be able to meet with him now and then. I think he'll keep training me. He'll train me to hunt vampires."
Owen pulled the ring from his pocket and set it on her remains. "I know I haven't formally asked, but you did say getting on the train was like getting engaged. You don't mind me presuming, do you? If it's alright, I'm just going to call you my fiancé. That makes things simpler for everybody.
"There's one thing you have to know, Abby. You're in a private residence now, and no one invited you in. The Jenson's didn't say you could come in. You're in my bedroom, and I didn't say you could come in. I'm really interested to see what you're going to do about that. I can be patient. There's no need to rush. Show me what you're going to do."
Owen sat down beside the desk. He pulled the bucket toward himself, rested his chin on his hands, and began watching Abby's ashes to see if they would bleed.
Thanks so much for reading Let Me In 2! I hope you found the characters interesting and the plot thought-provoking. Perhaps few people will say the story has a happy ending. But Owen really does manage to give up everything for Abby. And we can hope the poor girl rests in peace.
The theme of vampiric suicide is not new. Neither is the idea that the monster will not allow Abby to kill herself. What may perhaps be original is the notion that the monster will not even allow Abby to think or say she wants to die. This turns the story into a mystery and a character study: figuring out what Abby really needs, and then deciding what to do with that knowledge.
At the conclusion of the film X-Men: Last Stand, Wolverine/Logan makes the same decision that Owen makes. For the sake of the woman he loves, he kills the woman he loves. But in the movie, Jean Grey twice articulates her desire to die. To me this strips the movie of much of its potential power. The film would be better if Jean is never able to tell Logan what she really wants. Logan has to figure it out on his own. He has to kill her, never knowing for certain if he is making the right call. It would make his sacrifice much more poignant, for in addition to committing himself to a life without Jean, he is also committing himself to a life of doubt and uncertainty and possibly even madness. That is giving up everything for someone.
There are other stories in which the man loves the girl by giving her up. The movie Hancock and the novel A Tale of Two Cities come immediately to mind. (Can you think of others?) The theme of dying for the girl is more common, of course, but I wonder which is harder: dying for the girl you love, or killing the girl you love? At one point Owen tells Lisa he would die for Abby. Lisa is not impressed. Would she be impressed with what Owen ends up doing instead?
I've taken some digs at Twilight. Let me say up front that I've read all four Twilight books, and find the last one in particular to be entertaining. But the romanticizing of vampirism I simply cannot handle. There is nothing romantic about being a vampire. Abby hates what she is and what she does. Let Me In is such a powerful movie precisely because it does not romanticize vampirism. What's so special about a coven of super-heroes on a restricted diet? But a helpless girl afflicted and tormented by the blood-sucking demon inside her? Now that's interesting.
I find the psychology of Abby's character utterly fascinating – so much so that I've written an entire novel about two men trying to figure her out. She really is an enigma. The direction I take Abby is based primarily on the body language used by actress Chloe Grace Moretz. Her tone of voice is very significant, especially in the lines "Owen, do you like me?" and "I'm nothing." But it's her eyes that really flesh out the inner life of her character. Such empty, vacant, tragic eyes. She looks like someone who is going through hell – and wants it to stop. This is my take on her facial expressions, anyway. I realize others might interpret her body language differently.
As a twelve-year-old, Owen is too young to understand Abby. But if he's an adult when he finally figures her out, I don't think he could give her what she wants. So Owen has to be old enough to reach the critical conclusion, yet young enough to act upon it. The challenge then becomes how to mature Owen quickly but realistically. This is my core motive for giving him so many "grow up fast" experiences – juvie, Brooklyn, Alvirez' training. When a fourteen-year-old boy realizes that Abby wants to die, the reader needs to accept this discovery as plausible. Hopefully it is plausible. Owen has been through a lot. He has grown up fast. But he is still a child, still able to point a gun at a child and pull the trigger. I don't think most adults would be able to do that.
But Alvirez plays a larger role in the story than simply teaching Owen. Owen learns a lot from him, certainly. Yet Alvirez is still the only adult in the book. He is the one who makes the critical discovery about how the monster limits Abby, not Owen. No matter how fast Owen is growing up, I don't think any teenager could connect the dots and realize that Abby doesn't discuss her taboo topics because the monster won't let her. This discovery has to be made, but only an adult can make it. Thus the need for Alvirez.
A basic decision I had to make before starting Let Me In 2 was whether or not to POV Abby (meaning whether or not to show some events from her point of view). I decided not to, for three reasons. First, the movie presents Abby as an enigma, and I really wanted to retain that sense of mystery. To POV Abby lets the reader into her thoughts and feelings. The mystery is undone. Second, this story is all about two people trying to figure out Abby. I wanted the reader to join the characters on their quest rather than know the answers in advance. Third, it is essential for the ending that the reader not know what Abby is really thinking and feeling about Owen's decision.
The movie Let Me In concludes on a train, signifying that the story of Owen and Abby can proceed in many directions. I want to be faithful to this theme of uncertainty expressed by Matt Reeves. In her last moment alive, Abby may be utterly and completely thrilled that a caretaker has finally figured out what she wants – and is willing to do it for her. Or Owen might be making a colossal, tragic mistake. Owen doesn't know. He never knows. And neither do we.