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Matt was knocking at the Bryces’ door, with Elena at his side. Elena had disguised herself by stuffing all her hair into a Virginia Cavaliers baseball cap and wearing wraparound sunglasses from one of Stefan’s drawers. She was also wearing an over-large maroon and navy Pendleton shirt donated by Matt, and a pair of Meredith’s outgrown jeans. She felt sure that no one who had known the old Elena Gilbert would ever recognize her, dressed like this.
The door opened very slowly to reveal not Mr. or Mrs. Bryce, nor Jim, but Tamra. She was wearing – well, close to nothing. She had on a thong bikini bottom, but it looked handmade, as if she’d cut a regular bikini bottom with scissors – and it was beginning to come apart. On top she had two round decorations made of cardboard with sequins pasted on and a few strands of colored tinsel. On her head she wore a paper crown, which was clearly where she’d gotten the tinsel. She’d made an attempt to glue strands onto the bikini bottoms as well. The result looked like what it was: a child’s attempt to make an outfit for a Las Vegas showgirl or stripper.
Matt immediately turned around and stood facing away, but Tami threw herself at him and plastered herself to his back.
“Matt Honey-butt,” she cooed. “You came back. I knew you would. But why’d you bring this ugly old whore with you? How can we – “
Elena stepped forward, then, because Matt had whirled with his hand up. She was sure that Matt had never struck a female in his life, especially a child, but he was also over-sensitive about one or two subjects. Like her.
Elena managed to get between Matt and the surprisingly strong Tamra. She had to hide a smile when contemplating Tami’s costume. After all, only a few days ago, she hadn’t understood the human nakedness taboo at all. Now she got it, but it didn’t seem nearly as important as it once had. People were born with their own perfectly good skins on. There was no real reason, in her mind, to wear false skins over those, unless it was cold or somehow uncomfortable without them. But society said that to be naked was to be wicked. Tami was trying to be wicked, in her own childish way.
“Get your hands off me, you old whore,” Tamra snarled as Elena held her away from Matt, and then she added several rather lengthy expletives.
“Tami, where are your parents? Where’s your brother?” Elena said. She ignored the obscene words – they were just sounds – but saw that Matt had gone white around the lips.
“You apologize to Elena right now! Apologize for talking that way!” he demanded.
“Elena’s a stinking corpse with worms in her eye sockets,” Tamra sang glibly. “But my friend says she was a whore when she was alive. A real” – a string of four-letter words that made Matt gasp – “cheap whore.You know. Nothing’s cheaper than something that comes free.”
“Matt, just don’t pay any attention,” Elena said under her breath, and she repeated, “Where are your parents and Jim?”
The answer was littered with more expletives, but it amounted to the story – truthful or not – that Mr. and Mrs. Bryce had gone away on vacation for a few days, and that Jim was with his girlfriend, Isobel.
“Okay, then, I guess I’ll just have to help you get into some more decent clothes,” Elena said. “First, I think you need a shower to get these Christmas doodads off – “
“Just try-hy-hy! Just try-hy-hy!” The answer was somewhere between the whinny of a horse and human speech. “I glued them on with PermaStick!” Tami added and then began giggling on a high and hysterical note.
“Oh, my God – Tamra, do you realize that if there isn’t some solvent for this, you may need surgery?”
Tami’s answer was foul. There was also a sudden foul smell. No, not a smell, Elena thought: a choking, gutcurdling stench.
“Oops!” Tami gave that high, glassy giggle again. “Pardonmoi . At least it’snatural gas.”
Matt cleared his throat. “Elena – I don’t think we should be here. With her folks gone and all…”
“They’re afraid of me,” Tamra giggled. “Aren’tyou ?” – very suddenly in a voice that had dropped several octaves.
Elena looked Tamra in the eye. “No, I’m not. I just feel sorry for a little girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Matt’s right, I guess. We have to go.”
Tami’s whole manner seemed to change. “I’m so sorry…. I didn’t realize I had guests of that caliber. Don’t go, please, Matt.” Then she added in a confidential whisper to Elena, “Is he any good?”
Tami nodded at Matt, who immediately turned his back to her. He looked as if he felt a terrible, repulsive fascination for Tami’s ridiculous appearance.
“Him. Is he any good in the sack?”
“Matt, look at this.” Elena held up a small tube of glue. “I think she actually did PermaStick that stuff to her skin. We have to call Child Protective Services or whatever, because nobody took her to the hospital right away. Whether her parents knew about this behavior or not, they shouldn’t have just left her.”
“I just hopethey’re all right. Her family,” Matt said grimly as they walked out the door, with Tami coolly following them to the car, and shouting lurid details about “what a good time” they had had, “the three of them.”
Elena glanced at him uneasily from her place in the passenger seat – with no ID or driver’s license, of course, she knew she shouldn’t drive. “Maybe we’d better take her to the police first. My God, that poor family!”
Matt said nothing for a long time. His chin was set, his mouth grim. “I feel somehow as if I’m responsible. I mean, I knew there was something wrong with her – I should have told her parents then.”
“Now you’re sounding like Stefan. You’re not responsible for everyone you meet.”
Matt gave her a grateful glance, and Elena continued, “In fact I’m going to ask Bonnie and Meredith to do one other thing, which proves you’re not. I’m going to ask them to check on Isobel Saitou, Jim’s girlfriend.You’ve never had any contact with her, but Tami might have.”
“You mean you think she’s got it, too?”
“That’s what I hope Bonnie and Meredith will find out.”
Bonnie stopped dead, almost losing her hold on Mrs. Forbes’s feet. “I am not going into that bedroom.”
“You have to. I can’t manage her alone,” Meredith said. Then she added cajolingly, “Look, Bonnie, if you go in with me, I’ll tell you a secret.”
Bonnie bit her lip. Then she shut her eyes and let Meredith guide her, step by step, farther into this house
of horror. She knew where the master bedroom was – after all, she had played here since childhood. All the way down the hall, then turn left.
She was surprised when Meredith came to a sudden stop after only a few steps. “Bonnie.”
“I don’t want to frighten you, but – “
This had the immediate effect of terrifying Bonnie. Her eyes snapped open. “What?What? ” Before Meredith could answer she glanced over her shoulder in fear and saw what.
Caroline was behind her. But not standing. She was crawling – no, she was scuttling, the way she had on Stefan’s floor. Like a lizard. Her bronze hair, unkempt, hung down over her face. Her elbows and knees stuck out at impossible angles.
Bonnie screamed, but the pressure of the house seemed to choke the scream back down her throat. The only effect it had was to make Caroline look up at her with a quick reptilian movement of her head.
“Oh, my God – Caroline, what happened to your face?”
Caroline had a black eye. Or rather, a purplish-red eye that was so swollen that Bonnie knew it would have to turn black in time. On her jaw was another purple swelling bruise.
Caroline didn’t answer, unless you counted the sibilant hiss she gave while scuttling forward.
“Meredith, run! She’s right behind me!”
Meredith quickened her pace, looking frightened – all the more frightening to Bonnie because almost nothing could shake her friend. But as they lurched forward, with Mrs. Forbes bouncing between them, Caroline scuttled right under her mother and into the door of her parents’ room, the master bedroom.
“Meredith, I won’t go in th – ” But they were already stumbling through the door. Bonnie shot quick darting glances into every corner. Caroline was nowhere to be seen.
“Maybe she’s in the closet,” Meredith said. “Now, let me go first and put her head on the far side of the bed. We can adjust her later.” She backed around the bed, almost dragging Bonnie with her, and dumped Mrs. Forbes’s upper torso so that her head rested on pillows. “Now just pull her and put her legs down on the other side.”
“I can’t do it. I can’t! Caroline’sunder the bed, you know.”
“She can’t be under the bed. There’s only about a five-inch clearance,” Meredith said firmly.
“She’s there! Iknow it. And” – rather fiercely – “you promised you’d tell me a secret.”
“All right!” Meredith gave a complicit glance through her disheveled dark hair. “I telegraphed Alaric yesterday. He’s so far out in the boonies that telegraph is the only way to reach him, and it may be days before my message gets to him. I had an idea that we were going to need his advice. I feel bad, asking him to do projects that aren’t for his doctorate, but – “
“Who cares about his doctorate? Godbless you!” cried Bonnie thankfully. “You did just right!”
“Then come on and swing Mrs. Forbes’ feet around the bottom of the bed. You can do it if you lean in.”
The bed was a California king-size. Mrs. Forbes was lying at an angle across it, like a doll thrown on the floor. But Bonnie halted near the foot of the bed. “Caroline’s going to grab me.”
“No, she won’t. Come on, Bonnie. Just get Mrs. Forbes’ legs and give one big heave….”
“If I get that close to the bed, she’llgrab me!”
“Why should she?”
“Because she knows what scares me! And now that I’ve said it, shedefinitely will.”
“If she grabs you, I’ll come and kick her in the face.”
“Your leg’s not that long. It would bang on the metal bed-frame thingummy – “
“Oh, for God’s sake, Bonnie! Just help meheeeeeeere !” The last word was a full-fledged scream.
“Meredith – ” began Bonnie, and then she screamed, too.
“What is it?”
“She’s grabbing me!”
“She can’t be!She’s grabbingme ! Nobody has arms that long!”
“Or that strong! Bonnie!I can’t make her let go!”
“Neither can I!”
And then any words were drowned in screaming.
After dropping Tami off with the police, driving Elena around the woods known as the Fell’s State Park was…well, a walk in the park. Every so often they would stop. Elena would go a few steps into the trees and stand, Calling – however you did that. Then she came back to the Jaguar, looking discouraged.
“I’m not sure that Bonnie wouldn’t be better at this,” she said to Matt. “If we can brace ourselves to go out at night.”
Matt shuddered involuntarily. “Two nights were enough.”
“Do you know, you never told me your story from that first night. Or at least, not when I could understand words, spoken words.”
“Well, I was driving around like this, except almost on the other side of the Old Wood – near the Lightning-Split Oak area…?”
“When right in the middle of the road something appears.”
“Well, it was red in the headlights, but it wasn’t like any fox I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been driving this road since I could drive.”
“Like a werewolf, you mean? But, no – I’ve seen wolves by moonlight and they’re bigger. This was right in between.”
“In other words,” Elena said, narrowing her lapis lazuli eyes, “a custom-made creature.”
“Maybe. It sure was different from the malach that chewed my arm up.”
Elena nodded. Malach could take all sorts of different forms, from what she understood. But they were siblings in one way: they all used Power and they all needed a diet of Power to live. And they could be manipulated by a stronger Power than they had.
And they were venomous enemies of humans.
“So all we really know is that we don’t know anything.”
“Right. That was the place back there, where we saw it. It just suddenly appeared in the middle of the – hey!”
“Go right! Righthere !”
“Just like that! It was just like that!”
The Jaguar screeched almost to a stop, turning right, not into a ditch but into a small lane that no one would notice unless they were looking directly at it.
When the car stopped, they both stared up the lane, breathing hard. Neither had to ask whether the other had seen a reddish creature zip across the road, bigger than a fox but smaller than a wolf.
They looked up at the narrow lane.
“The million-dollar question: should we go in?” Matt asked.
“NoKEEP OUT signs – and hardly any houses on this side of the wood. Across the street and down a way there’s the Dunstans’.”
“So we go in?”
“We go in. Just go slowly. It’s later than I thought.”
Meredith, of course, was the one to calm down first. “Allright , Bonnie,” she said. “Stop it! Now! It’s not going to do any good here!”
Bonnie didn’t think shecould stop it. But Meredith had that special look in her dark eyes; the one that meant she was serious. The look she’d had before laying Caroline out on Stefan’s floor.
Bonnie made a supreme effort and found that somehow she was able to hold in the next shriek. She looked dumbly at Meredith, feeling her own body shake.
“Good. Good, Bonnie. Now.” Meredith swallowed. “Pulling doesn’t do any good, either. So I’m going to try…peeling her fingers off. If anything happens to me; if I get – pulled under the bed or anything, then yourun , Bonnie. And if you can’t run, then you call Elena and Matt. You call until you get an answer.”
Bonnie managed something almost heroic then. She refused to picture Meredith being pulled under the bed. She wouldn’t let herself imagine how that would look as Meredith, struggling, disappeared, or how she would feel, all alone, after that. They’d both left their purses with their mobile phones in the entryway to carry Mrs. Forbes, so Meredith wasn’t saying to call them in any normal sense. She meant Call them.
A sudden radical burst of indignation swept through Bonnie. Why did girls carry purses anyway? Even the efficient, reliable Meredith often did it. Of course Meredith’s purses were usually designer handbags that enhanced her outfits and were full of useful things like small notebooks and keychain flashlights, but still…a boy would have his mobile phone in his pocket.
From now on, I’m wearing a waist pouch, Bonnie thought, feeling as if she were raising a rebel flag for girls everywhere, and for just a moment also feeling her panic recede.
Then she saw Meredith stooping, a hunched figure in the dim light, and at the same moment she felt the grip on her own ankle tighten. Despite herself she glanced down, and saw the outline of Caroline’s tanned fingers and long bronze nails against the creamy white of the rug.
Panic burst out in her again, full force. She made a choked sound that was a strangled scream, and to her own astonishment she spontaneously hit trance and began to Call.
It wasn’t the fact that she was Calling that surprised her. It was what she was saying.
Damon! Damon! We’re trapped at Caroline’s house and she’s gone crazy! Help!
It flowed out of her like an underwater well that had been suddenly tapped, releasing a geyser.
Damon, she’s got me by the ankle – and she won’t let go! If she pulls Meredith under, I don’t know what I’ll do! Help me!
Vaguely, because the trance was good and deep, she heard Meredith say, “Ah-hah! It feels like fingers, but actually it’s a vine. It must be one of those tentacles that Matt told us about. I’m – trying – to break one of the loops – off…”
All at once there was a rustling from under the bed. And not just from one place, either, but a massive whipping and shaking that actually bounced the mattress up and down, even with poor little Mrs. Forbes on it.
There must be dozens of those insects under there.
Damon, it’s thosethings! Lots of them. Oh, God, I think I’m going to faint. And if I faint – and if Caroline pulls me under…Oh, please come and help!
“Damn!” Meredith was saying. “I don’t know how Matt managed to do this. It’s too tight, and – and I think there’s more than one tentacle here.”
It’s all over,Bonnie sent in quiet conclusion, feeling herself start to go at the knees.We’re going to die.
“Undoubtedly – that’s the problem with humans. But not justyet ,” a voice said from behind her, and a strong arm went around her, taking up her weight easily. “Caroline, the fun’s over. I mean it. Letgo!”
“Damon?” Bonnie gasped. “Damon? You came!”
“All that wailing gets on my nerves. It doesn’t mean – “
But Bonnie wasn’t listening. She wasn’t even thinking. She was still half in trance and not responsible (she decided later) for her own actions. She wasn’therself . It was someone else who went into rapture when the grip on her ankle loosened, and someone else who whirled around in Damon’s grip and threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth.
It was someone else, too, who felt Damon startle, with his arms still around her, and who noticed that he made no attempt to pull away from the kiss. That person also noticed, when at last she leaned back, that Damon’s skin, pale in the dim light, looked almost as if he had flushed.
And that was when Meredith straightened up slowly, painfully, from the other side of the bed, which was still jouncing up and down. She hadn’t seen anything of the kiss, and looked at Damon as if she couldn’t believe he was really here.
She was at a great disadvantage, and Bonnie knew she knew it. This was one of those situations where anyone else would have been too flustered to speak, or even stammer.
But Meredith just took a deep breath and then said quietly, “Damon. Thank you. Do you think – would it be too much trouble to make the malach let go of me, as well?”
Now Damon looked like his old self. He gave a brilliant smile aimed at something no one else could see and said sharply, “And as for the rest of you down there – heel!” He snapped his fingers.
The bed stopped moving instantly.
Meredith stepped away, and closed her eyes for a moment in relief.
“Thank you again,” she said, with the dignity of a princess, but fervently. “And now, do you think you could do anything about Caro – “
“Right now,” Damon cut in even more roughly than usual, “I have to run.” He glanced at the Rolex on his wrist. “It’s past 4:44, and I had an appointment I’m already late for. Come around here and prop up this dizzy bundle. She’s not quite ready to stand by herself.”
Meredith hastened to switch places with him. At that point, Bonnie discovered that her legs were no longer wobbling.
“Wait a minute, though,” Meredith said rapidly. “Elenaneeds to talk to you – desperately – “
But Damon was gone, as if he’d mastered the art of simply disappearing, not even waiting for Bonnie’s thanks. Meredith looked astonished, as if she’d been certain that the mention of Elena’s name would stop him, but Bonnie had something else on her mind.
“Meredith,” Bonnie whispered, putting two fingers to her lips in amazement. “I kissed him!”
“Before you stood up. I – don’t even know how it happened but I did it!”
She expected some kind of explosion from Meredith. Instead, Meredith looked at her thoughtfully and murmured, “Well, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to do, after all. What I don’t understand is why he turned up in the first place.”
“Uh. That was me, too. I Called him. I don’t know how that happened either – “
“Well, there’s no point in trying to figure it out in here.” Meredith turned toward the bed. “Caroline, are you coming out of there? Are you going to stand up and have a normal conversation?”
There was a menacing and reptilian hiss from under the bed, along with the whipping of tentacles and another noise that Bonnie had never heard before but which terrified her instinctively, like the snapping of giant pincers.
“That’s answer enough for me,” she said, and grabbed Meredith to drag her out of the room.
Meredith didn’t need dragging. But for the first time today they heard Caroline’s taunting voice, lifted childishly high.
“Bonnie and Damon sitting in a tree
First comes love, then comes marriage;
Then there comes a vampire in a baby carriage.”
Meredith paused in the hallway. “Caroline, you know that that isn’t going to help matters. Come out – “
The bed went into a frenzy, bucking and heaving. Bonnie turned and ran, and she knew Meredith was right behind her. They still didn’t manage to outpace the singsong words:
“You’re notmy friends; you’re thewhore’s friends. Just you wait! Just youwait !”
Bonnie and Meredith grabbed their purses and left the house.
“What time is it?” Bonnie asked, when they were safely in Meredith’s car.
“It seemed like so much longer!”
“I know, but we’ve got hours of daylight left. And, come to that, I have a text message from Elena.”
“I’ll tell you about it. But first – ” It was one of the few times Bonnie had seen Meredith look awkward. Finally she blurted, “How was it?”
“How was what?”
“Kissing Damon, you nitwit!”
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