The Awakening (Chapter Twelve)
"I wish I had a dress like that for trick-or-treat," she said.
"I like you best as a little white cat," said Elena, dropping a kiss between the white velvet ears attached to Margaret's headband. Then she turned to her aunt, who stood by the door with needle and thread ready. "It's perfect," she said warmly. "We don't have to change a thing."
The girl in the mirror could have stepped out of one of Elena's books on the Italian Renaissance. Her throat and shoulders were bare, and the tight bodice of the ice-blue dress showed off her tiny waist. The long, full sleeves were slashed so that the white silk of the chemise underneath showed through, and the wide, sweeping skirt just brushed the floor all around her. It was a beautiful dress, and the pale clear blue seemed to heighten the darker blue of Elena's eyes.
As she turned away, Elena's gaze fell on the old-fashioned pendulum clock above the dresser. "Oh, no-it's almost seven. Stefan will be here any minute."
"That's his car now," said Aunt Judith, glancing out the window. "I'll go down and let him in."
"That's all right," said Elena briefly. "I'll meet him myself. Good-bye, have a good time trick-or-treating!" She hurried down the stairs.
Here goes, she thought. As she reached for the doorknob, she was reminded of that day, nearly two months ago now, when she'd stepped directly into Stefan's path in European History class. She'd had this same feeling of anticipation, of excitement and tension.
I just hope this turns out better than that plan did, she thought. For the last week and a half, she'd pinned her hopes to this moment, to this night. If she and Stefan didn't come together tonight, they never would.
The door swung open, and she stepped back with her eyes down, feeling almost shy, afraid to see Stefan's face. But when she heard his sharp indrawn breath, she looked up quickly-and felt her heart go cold.
He was staring at her in wonder, yes. But it was not the wondering joy she'd seen in his eyes that first night in his room. This was something closer to shock.
"You don't like it," she whispered, horrified at the stinging in her eyes.
He recovered swiftly, as always, blinking and shaking his head. "No, no, it's beautiful. You're beautiful."
Then why are you standing there looking as if you'd seen a ghost? she thought. Why don't you hold me, kiss me-something!
"You look wonderful," she said quietly. And it was true; he was sleek and handsome in the tux and cape he'd donned for his part. She was surprised he'd agreed to it, but when she'd made the suggestion he'd seemed more amused than anything else. Just now, he looked elegant and comfortable, as if such clothes were as natural as his usual jeans.
"We'd better go," he said, equally quiet and serious.
Elena nodded and went with him to the car, but her heart was no longer merely cold; it was ice. He was further away from her than ever, and she had no idea how to get him back.
Thunder growled overhead as they drove to the high school, and Elena glanced out of the car window with dull dismay. The cloud cover was thick and dark, although it hadn't actually begun to rain yet. The air had a charged, electric feel, and the sullen purple thunderheads gave the sky a nightmarish look. It was a perfect atmosphere for Halloween, menacing and otherworldly, but it woke only dread in Elena. Since that night at Bonnie's, she'd lost her appreciation for the eerie and uncanny.
Her diary had never turned up, although they'd searched Bonnie's house top to bottom. She still couldn't believe that it was really gone, and the idea of a stranger reading her most private thoughts made her feel wild inside. Because, of course, it had been stolen; what other explanation was there? More than one door had been open that night at the McCullough house; someone could have just walked in. She wanted tokill whoever had done it.
A vision of dark eyes rose before her. That boy, the boy she'd almost given in to at Bonnie's house, the boy who'd made her forget Stefan. Was he the one?
She roused herself as they pulled up to the school and forced herself to smile as they made their way through the halls. The gym was barely organized chaos. In the hour since Elena had left, everything had changed. Then, the place had been full of seniors: Student Council members, football players, the Key Club, all putting the finishing touches on props and scenery. Now it was full of strangers, most of them not even human.
Several zombies turned as Elena came in, their grinning skulls visible through the rotting flesh of their faces. A grotesquely deformed hunchback limped toward her, along with a corpse with livid white skin and hollow eyes. From another direction came a werewolf, its snarling muzzle covered with blood, and a dark and dramatic witch.
Elena realized, with a jolt, that she couldn't recognize half these people in their costumes. Then they were around her, admiring the ice-blue gown, announcing problems that had developed already. Elena waved them quiet and turned toward the witch, whose long dark hair flowed down the back of a tight-fitting black dress.
"What is it, Meredith?" she said.
"Coach Lyman's sick," Meredith replied grimly, "so somebody got Tanner to substitute."
"Mr.Tanner ?" Elena was horrified.
"Yes, and he's making trouble already. Poor Bonnie's just about had it. You'd better get over there."
Elena sighed and nodded, then made her way along the twisting route of the Haunted House tour. As she passed through the grisly Torture Chamber and the ghastly Mad Slasher Room, she thought they had almost builttoo well. This place was unnerving even in the light.
The Druid Room was near the exit. There, a cardboard Stonehenge had been constructed. But the pretty little druid priestess who stood among the rather realistic-looking monoliths wearing white robes and an oak-leaf garland looked ready to burst into tears.
"But you'vegot to wear the blood," she was saying pleadingly. "It's part of the scene; you're a sacrifice."
"Wearing these ridiculous robes is bad enough," replied Tanner shortly. "No one informed me I was going to have to smear syrup all over myself."
"It doesn't really get onyou ," said Bonnie. "It's just on the robes and on the altar. You're a sacrifice," she repeated, as if somehow this would convince him.
"As for that," said Mr. Tanner in disgust,
"the accuracy of this whole setup is highly suspect. Contrary to popular belief, the druids didnot build Stonehenge; it was built by a Bronze Age culture that-"
Elena stepped forward. "Mr. Tanner, that isn't really the point."
"No, it wouldn't be, to you," he said. "Which is why you and your neurotic friend here are both failing history."
"That's uncalled for," said a voice, and Elena looked quickly over her shoulder at Stefan.
"Mister Salvatore," said Tanner, pronouncing the words as if they meant Now my day is complete . "I suppose you have some new words of wisdom to offer. Or are you going to give me a black eye?" His gaze traveled over Stefan, who stood there, unconsciously elegant in his perfectly tailored tux, and Elena felt a sudden shock of insight.
Tanner isn't really that much older than we are, she thought. He looks old because of that receding hairline, but I'll bet he's in his twenties. Then, for some reason, she remembered how Tanner had looked at Homecoming, in his cheap and shiny suit that didn't fit well.
I'll bet he never even made it to his own homecoming, she thought. And, for the first time, she felt something like sympathy for him.
Perhaps Stefan felt it, too, for although he stepped right up to the little man, standing face-to-face with him, his voice was quiet. "No, I'm not. I think this whole thing is getting blown out of proportion. Why don't…" Elena couldn't hear the rest, but he was speaking in low, calming tones, and Mr. Tanner actually seemed to be listening. She glanced back at the crowd that had gathered behind her: four or five ghouls, the werewolf, a gorilla, and a hunchback.
"All right, everything's under control," she said, and they dispersed. Stefan was taking care of things, although she was not sure how, since she could see only the back of his head.
The back of his head … For an instant, an image flashed before her of the first day of school. Of how Stefan had stood in the office talking to Mrs. Clarke, the secretary, and of how oddly Mrs. Clarke had acted. Sure enough, when Elena looked at Mr. Tanner now, he wore the same slightly dazed expression. Elena felt a slow ripple of disquiet.
"Come on," she said to Bonnie. "Let's go up front."
They cut straight through the Alien Landing Room and the Living Dead Room, slipping between the partitions, coming out in the first room where visitors would enter and be greeted by a werewolf. The werewolf had taken his head off and was talking to a couple of mummies and an Egyptian princess.
Elena had to admit that Caroline looked good as Cleopatra, the lines of that bronzed body frankly visible through the sheer linen sheath she wore. Matt, the werewolf, could hardly be blamed if his eyes kept straying downward from Caroline's face.
"How's it going here?" said Elena with forced lightness.
Matt started slightly, then turned toward her and Bonnie. Elena had scarcely seen him since the night of Homecoming, and she knew that he and Stefan had drawn apart, too. Because of her. And though Matt could hardly be blamed forthat , either, she could tell how much it hurt Stefan.
"Everything's fine," said Matt, looking uncomfortable.
"When Stefan finishes with Tanner, I think I'll send him up here," Elena said. "He can help bring people in."
Matt lifted one shoulder indifferently. Then he said, "Finishes what with Tanner?" Elena looked at him in surprise. She could have sworn he'd been in the Druid Room a minute ago to see it. She explained.
Outside, thunder rumbled again, and through the open door Elena saw a flash light the night sky. There was another, louder clap of thunder a few seconds later.
"I hope it doesn't rain," Bonnie said.
"Yes," said Caroline, who had been standing silent while Elena spoke to Matt. "It would be such apity if nobody came."
Elena glanced at her sharply and saw open hatred in Caroline's narrow, catlike eyes.
"Caroline," she said impulsively, "look. Can't you and I call it quits? Can't we forget what's happened and start over?"
Under the cobra on her forehead, Caroline's eyes widened and then slitted again. Her mouth twisted, and she stepped closer to Elena.
"I willnever forget," she said, and then she turned and left.
There was a silence, Bonnie and Matt looking at the floor. Elena stepped over to the doorway to feel cool air on her cheeks. Outside she could see the field and the tossing branches of the oak trees beyond, and once again she was overcome with that strange feeling of foreboding. Tonight's the night, she thought wretchedly. Tonight's the night when it all happens. But what "it" was, she had no idea.
A voice sounded through the transformed gym. "All right, they're about to let the line in from the parking lot. Cut the lights, Ed!" Suddenly, gloom descended and the air was filled with groans and maniacal laughter, like an orchestra tuning up. Elena sighed and turned.
"Better get ready to start herding them through," she told Bonnie quietly. Bonnie nodded and disappeared into the darkness. Matt had donned his werewolf head, and was turning on a tape deck that added eerie music to the cacophony.
Stefan came around the corner, his hair and clothing melting into the darkness. Only his white shirtfront showed up clearly. "Everything worked out with Tanner," he said. "Is there anything else I can do?"
"Well, you could work here, with Matt, bringing people in…" Elena's voice trailed off. Matt was bent over the tape deck, minutely adjusting the volume, not looking up. Elena looked at Stefan and saw his face was tight and blank. "Or you could go into the boys' locker room and be in charge of coffee and things for the workers," she finished tiredly.
"I'll go to the locker room," he said. As he turned away, she noticed a slight faltering in his step.
"Stefan? Are you all right?"
"Fine," he said, recovering his balance. "A little tired, that's all." She watched him go, her chest feeling heavier every minute.
She turned to Matt, meaning to say something to him, but at that moment the line of visitors reached the door.
"Show's on," he said, and crouched in the shadows.
Elena moved from room to room, troubleshooting. In years before, she had enjoyed this part of the night the most, watching the gruesome scenes being acted out and the delicious terror of the visitors, but tonight there was a feeling of dread and tension underlying all her thoughts. Tonight's the night, she thought again, and the ice in her chest seemed to thicken.
A Grim Reaper-or at least that was what she supposed the hooded figure in black robes was-passed by her, and she found herself absent-mindedly trying to remember if she had seen it at any of the Halloween parties. There was something familiar about the way the figure moved.
Bonnie exchanged a harassed smile with the tall, slender witch who was directing traffic into the Spider Room. Several junior high boys were slapping at the dangling rubber spiders and shouting and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Bonnie hustled them on into the Druid Room.
Here the strobe lights gave the scene a dreamlike quality. Bonnie felt a grim triumph to see Mr. Tanner stretched out on the stone altar, his white robes heavily stained with blood, his eyes glaring at the ceiling.
"Cool!" shouted one of the boys, racing up to the altar. Bonnie stood back and grinned, waiting for the bloody sacrifice to rear up and scare the wits out of the kid.
But Mr. Tanner didn't move, even when the boy plunged a hand into the pool of blood by the sacrifice's head.
That's strange, Bonnie thought, hurrying up to prevent the kid from grabbing the sacrificial knife.
"Don't do that," she snapped, so he held up his gory hand instead, and it showed red in every sharp flash of the strobe. Bonnie felt a sudden irrational fear that Mr. Tanner was going to wait until she bent over him and then makeher jump. But he just kept staring at the ceiling.
"Mr. Tanner, are you okay? Mr. Tanner? Mr. Tanner!"
Not a movement, not a sound. Not a flicker of those wide white eyes. Don't touch him, something in Bonnie's mind told her suddenly and urgently. Don't touch him don't touch him don't touch…
Under the strobe lights she saw her own hand move forward, saw it grasp Mr. Tanner's shoulder and shake it, saw his head flop bonelessly toward her. Then she saw his throat.
Then she began to scream.
Elena heard the screams. They were shrill and sustained and unlike any other sounds in the Haunted House, and she knew at once that they were no joke.
Everything after that was a nightmare. Reaching the Druid Room at a run, she saw a tableau, but not the one prepared for visitors. Bonnie was screaming, Meredith holding her shoulders. Three young boys were trying to get out of the curtained exit, and two bouncers were looking in, blocking their way. Mr. Tanner was lying on the stone altar, sprawled out, and his face…
"He's dead," Bonnie was sobbing, the screams turning into words. "Oh, God, the blood's real, and he's dead. Itouched him, Elena, and he's dead, he's really dead…"
People were coining into the room. Someone else began screaming and it spread, and then everyone was trying to get out, pushing each other in panic, knocking into the partitions.
"Get the lights on!" Elena shouted, and heard the shout taken up by others. "Meredith, quick, get to a phone in the gym and call an ambulance, call the police… Get those lightson !"
When the lights snapped on, Elena looked around, but she could see no adults, no one entitled to take charge of the situation. Part of her was ice-cold, her mind racing as it tried to think what to do next. Part of her was simply numb with horror. Mr. Tanner… She had never liked him, but somehow that only made it worse.
"Get all the kids out of here. Everybody but staff out," she said.
"No! Shut the doors! Don't let anybody out until the police get here," shouted a werewolf beside her, taking off his mask. Elena turned in astonishment at the voice and saw that it was not Matt, it was Tyler Smallwood.
He'd been allowed back in school only this week, and his face was still discolored from the beating he had taken at Stefan's hands. But his voice had the ring of authority, and Elena saw the bouncers close the exit door. She heard another door close across the gym.
Of the dozen or so people crowded into the Stonehenge area, Elena recognized only one as a worker. The rest were people she knew from school, but none she knew well. One of them, a boy dressed as a pirate, spoke to Tyler.
"You mean… you think somebody in here did it?"
"Somebody in here did it, all right," said Tyler. There was a queer, excited sound to his voice, as if he were almost enjoying this. He gestured to the pool of blood on the rock. "That's still liquid; it can't have happened too long ago. And look at the way his throat's cut. The killer must have done it withthat ." He pointed to the sacrificial knife.
"Then the killer might be here right now," whispered a girl in a kimono.
"And it's not hard to guess who it is," said Tyler. "Somebody who hated Tanner, who was always getting in arguments with him. Somebody who was arguing with him earlier tonight. I saw it."
Soyou were the werewolf in this room, thought Elena dazedly. But what were you doing here in the first place? You're not on staff.
"Somebody who has a history of violence," Tyler was continuing, his lips drawing back from his teeth. "Somebody who, for all we know, is a psychopath who came to Fell's Church just to kill." "Tyler, what are you talking about?" Elena's dazed feeling had burst like a bubble. Furious, she stepped toward the tall, husky boy. "You're crazy!"
He gestured at her without looking at her. "So says his girlfriend-but maybe she's a little prejudiced."
"And maybeyou're a little prejudiced, Tyler," said a voice from behind the crowd, and Elena saw a second werewolf pushing his way into the room. Matt.
"Oh, yeah? Well, why don't you tell us what you know about Salvatore? Where does he come from? Where's his family? Where did he get all that money?" Tyler turned to address the rest of the crowd. "Who knowsanything about him?"
People were shaking their heads. Elena could see, in face after face, distrust blossoming. The distrust of anything unknown, anything different. And Stefan was different. He was the stranger in their midst, and just now they needed a scapegoat.
The girl in the kimono began, "I heard a rumor-"
"That's all anybody's heard, rumors!" Tyler said. "No one really knows a thing about him. But there's one thing Ido know. The attacks in Fell's Church started the first week of school-which was the week Stefan Salvatore came."
There was a swelling murmur at this, and Elena herself felt a shock of realization. Of course, it was all ridiculous, it was just a coincidence. But what Tyler was saying was true. The attacks had started when Stefan arrived.
"I'll tell you something else," shouted Tyler, gesturing at them to be quiet. "Listen to me! I'll tell you something else!" He waited until everyone was looking at him and then said slowly, impressively, "He was in the cemetery the night Vickie Bennett was attacked."
"Sure he was in the cemetery-rearranging your face," said Matt, but his voice lacked its usual strength. Tyler grabbed the comment and ran with it.
"Yes, and he almost killed me. And tonight somebodydid kill Tanner. I don't know whatyou think, but I think he did it. I think he's the one!"
"But where is he?" shouted someone from the crowd.
Tyler looked around. "If he did it, he must still be here," he shouted. "Let's find him."
"Stefan hasn't done anything! Tyler-" cried Elena, but the noise from the crowd overrode her. Tyler's words were being taken up and repeated.Find him… find him . . .find him . Elena heard it pass from person to person. And the faces in the Stonehenge Room were filled with more than distrust now; Elena could see anger and a thirst for vengeance in them, too. The crowd had turned into something ugly, something beyond controlling.
"Where is he, Elena?" said Tyler, and she saw the blazing triumph in his eyes. Hewas enjoying this.
"I don't know," she said fiercely, wanting to hit him. "He must still be here! Find him!" someone shouted, and then it seemed everyone was moving, pointing, pushing, at once. Partitions were being knocked down and shoved aside.
Elena's heart was pounding. This was no longer a crowd; it was a mob. She was terrified of what they would do to Stefan if they did find him. But if she tried to go warn him, she would lead Tyler right to him.
She looked around desperately. Bonnie was still staring into Mr. Tanner's dead face. No help there. She turned to scan the crowd again, and her eyes met Matt's.
He was looking confused and angry, his blond hair ruffled up, cheeks flushed and sweaty. Elena put all her strength of will into a look of pleading.
Please, Matt, she thought. You can't believe all this. You know it isn't true.
But his eyes showed that hedidn't know. There was a tumult of bewilderment and agitation in them.
Please, thought Elena, gazing into those blue eyes, willing him to understand. Oh, please, Matt, only you can save him. Even if you don't believe, please try to trust… please…
She saw the change come over his face, the confusion lifting as grim determination appeared. He stared at her another moment, eyes boring into hers, and nodded once. Then he turned and slipped into the milling, hunting crowd.
Matt knifed through the crowd cleanly until he got to the other side of the gym. There were some freshmen standing near the door to the boys' locker room; he brusquely ordered them to start moving fallen partitions, and when their attention was distracted he jerked the door open and ducked inside.
He looked around quickly, unwilling to shout. For that matter, he thought, Stefan must have heard all the racket going on in the gym. He'd probably already cut out. But then Matt saw the black-clad figure on the white tile floor.
"Stefan! What happened?" For a terrible instant, Matt thought he was looking down on a second dead body. But as he knelt by Stefan's side, he saw movement.
"Hey, you're okay, just sit up slowly… easy. Are you all right, Stefan?"
"Yes," said Stefan. He didn't look okay, Matt thought. His face was dead white and his pupils were dilated hugely. He looked disoriented and sick. "Thank you," he said.
"You may not thank me in a minute. Stefan, you've got to get out of here. Can't you hear them? They're after you."
Stefan turned toward the gym, as if listening. But there was no comprehension on his face. "Who's after me? Why?"
"Everybody. It doesn't matter. What matters is that you've got to get out before they come in here." As Stefan continued simply to stare blankly, he added, "There's been another attack, this time on Tanner, Mr. Tanner. He's dead, Stefan, and they think you didit ."
Now, at last, he saw understanding come to Stefan's eyes. Understanding and horror and a kind of resigned defeat that was more frightening than anything Matt had seen tonight. He gripped Stefan's shoulder hard.
"Iknow you didn't," he said, and at that moment it was true. "They'll realize that, too, when they can think again. But meanwhile, you'd better get out."
"Get out… yes," said Stefan. The look of disorientation was gone, and there was a searing bitterness in the way he pronounced the words. "I will… get out."
"Matt." The green eyes were dark and burning, and Matt found he could not look away from them. "Is Elena safe? Good. Then, take care of her. Please."
"Stefan, what are you talking about? You're innocent; this will all blow over…"
"Just take care of her, Matt."
Matt stepped back, still looking into those compelling green eyes. Then, slowly, he nodded. "I will," he said quietly. And watched Stefan go.