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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 18)

Matt woke, fuzzily, to find himself still behind the steering wheel of Elena's car. He stumbled into his house, almost forgetting to lock the car, and then fumbling with keys to unlock the back door. The house was dark; his parents were asleep. He made it up to his bedroom and collapsed on the bed without even taking off his shoes.

When he woke again, he was startled to find it was nineA.M . and his mobile phone was ringing in his jeans pocket.

"Mer'dith?"

"We thought you were coming over early this morning."

"I am, but I've got to figure outhow first," Matt said – or rather, croaked. His head felt twice its usual size and his arm at least four times too big. Even so, something in the back of his mind was calculating how to get to the boardinghouse without taking the Old Wood Road at all. Finally a few neurons lit up and showed him.

"Matt? Are you still there?"

"I'm not sure. Last night…God, I don't evenremember most of last night. But on the way home – look, I'll tell you when I get there. First I have to call the police."

"Thepolice ?"

"Yeah…look…just give me an hour, okay? I'll be there in an hour."

When he finally arrived at the boardinghouse, it was closer to eleven than to ten. But a shower had cleared his head, even if it hadn't done much for his throbbing arm. When he did appear, he was engulfed in worried femininity.

"Matt,what happened ?"

He told them everything he could remember. When Elena, with set lips, undid the Ace bandage he had wrapped around his arm, they all winced. The long scratches were clearly badly infected.

"They're poisonous, then, these malach."

"Yes," Elena said tersely. "Poisonous to body and mind."

"And you think one of these can getinside people?" Meredith asked. She was doodling on a notebook page, trying to draw something that looked like what Matt had described.

"Yes."

For just a moment Elena's and Meredith's eyes met – then both looked down. At last Meredith said, "And how do we know whether one is inside…someone…or not?"

"Bonnie should be able to tell, in trance," Elena said evenly. "Even I might be able to tell, but I'm not going to use White Power for that. We're going down to see Mrs. Flowers."

She said it in that special way that Matt had learned to recognize long ago, and it meant that no argument would do any good. She was putting her foot down, and that was that.

And the truth was that Matt didn't feel very much like arguing. He hated to complain – he'd played through football games with a broken collarbone, a sprained knee, a turned ankle – but this was different. His arm felt in danger of exploding.

Mrs. Flowers was downstairs in the kitchen, but on the family room table were four glasses of iced tea.

"I'll be right with you," she called through the swinging half-door that divided the kitchen from where they were standing. "Drink the tea, especially the young man who's injured. It'll help him relax."

"Herbal tea," Bonnie whispered to the others, as if this were some trade secret.

The tea wasn't all that bad, although Matt would've preferred a Coke. But when he thought of it as medicine, and with the girls all watching him like hawks, he managed to get over half of it down before the landlady came out.

She was wearing her gardening hat – or at least a hat with artificial flowers on it that looked as if it had been used for gardening. But on a cookie tray, she had a number of instruments, all gleaming as if they'd just been boiled.

"Yes, dear, I am," she said to Bonnie, who had stood up in front of Matt protectively. "I used to be a nurse, just like your sister. Women weren't encouraged to be doctors then. But all my life I've been a witch. Gets kind of lonely, doesn't it?"

"It wouldn't be so lonely," Meredith said, looking puzzled, "if you lived closer to town."

"Ah, but then I'd have people staring at my house all the time, and children daring each other to run and touch it, or to throw a stone through my window, or adults peering at me every time I went shopping.

And how could I ever keep my garden in peace?"

It was the longest speech any of them had ever heard her make. It took them so by surprise that it was a moment before Elena said, "I don't see how you can keep your garden in peace outhere . What with all the deer and rabbits and other animals."

"Well, most of it isfor the animals, you see." Mrs.

Flowers smiled beatifically and her face seemed to light up from within. "They surely enjoy it. But they don't enjoy the herbs I grow for putting on scrapes and cuts and sprains and such. And perhaps they know I'm a witch, too, since they always leave me a bit of the garden for myself and maybe a guest or two."

"Why are you telling me all of this now?" Elena demanded. "Why, there've been times when I was looking for you, or for Stefan, when I thought – well, never mind what I thought. But I wasn't always sure you were our friend."

"The truth is that I've gotten solitary and unsociable in my old age. But now you've lost your young man, haven't you? I wish I had gotten up a little earlier this morning. Then I might have been able to speak to him. He left the money for a year's rental of the room on the kitchen table. I've always had a soft spot for him, and that's the truth."

Elena's lips were trembling. Matt hastily and heroically lifted his wounded arm. "Can you help at all with this?" he asked, peeling the Ace bandage away again.

"Oh, my, my. And what sort of critter gave you these?" Mrs. Flowers said, examining the scratches while the three girls winced.

"We think it was a malach," Elena said quietly. "Do you know anything about those?"

"I've heard the word, yes, but I don't know anything specific. How long ago did you get them?" she asked Matt. "They look more like tooth marks than claw marks."

"They are," Matt said grimly, and he described the malach to her as best he could. It was partly to keep himself distracted, because Mrs. Flowers had picked up one of the gleaming instruments from the cookie tray and was starting to do things to his red and swollen arm.

"Hold as still as you can on this towel," she said. "These have already scabbed over, but they need to be opened and drained and cleaned out properly. It's going to hurt. Why don't one of you young women hold his hand to help keep his arm steady?"

Elena started to stand but Bonnie beat her to it, almost leaping over Meredith to take Matt's hand in both of her own.

The draining and cleaning were painful, but Matt managed to bear it without making a sound, even giving Bonnie a sort of sickly grin as blood and pus trickled out of his arm. The lancing hurt at first, but the release of pressure felt good, and when the wounds were drained and clean and then packed with a cold herbal compress, they felt blessedly cool and ready to heal properly.

It was while he was trying to thank the old woman that he noticed Bonnie staring at him. In particular, at his neck. Suddenly she giggled.

"What? What's funny?"

"The bug," she said. "It gave you a hickey. Unless you did something else last night that you didn't tell us about."

Matt could feel himself flush as he pulled his collar up higher. "I did tell you about it, and it was the malach. It had a sort of tentacle with suckers around my neck. It was trying to strangle me!"

"I remember now," Bonnie said meekly. "I'm sorry."

Mrs. Flowers even had an herbal ointment for the mark the sucker tentacle had left – and one for Matt's scraped knuckles. After she'd applied them, Matt felt so good that he was able to look sheepishly at Bonnie, who was watching him with big brown eyes.

"I know, it does look like a hickey," he said. "I saw it this morning in the mirror. And I've got another one lower down, but at least my collar covers that one." He snorted and reached into his shirt to apply more ointment. The girls laughed – a release of the tension that they'd all been feeling.

Meredith had started back up the narrow stairway to what everyone still thought of as Stefan's room, and Matt automatically followed her. He didn't realize that Elena and Bonnie were hanging back until he was halfway up the stairs, and then Meredith motioned him onward.

"They're just conferring," Meredith said, in her quiet, no-nonsense voice.

"Aboutme ?" Matt swallowed. "It's about that thing Elena saw inside Damon, right? The invisible malach. And whether or not I've got one – inside me – right now."

Meredith, never one to soft-pedal anything, simply nodded. But she put a hand briefly on his shoulder as they entered the dim, high-ceilinged bedroom.

Shortly after, Elena and Bonnie came up, and Matt could tell at once by their faces that the worst-case scenario wasn't true. Elena saw his expression and immediately went to him and hugged him. Bonnie followed, more shyly.

"Feel okay?" Elena said, and Matt nodded.

"I feel fine," he said. Like wrestling alligators, he thought. Nothing was nicer than hugging soft, soft girls.

"Well, the consensus is that you don't have anything inside you that doesn't belong there. Your aura seems clear and strong now that you're not in pain."

"Thank God," Matt said, and he meant it.

It was at that moment that his mobile phone rang. He frowned, puzzled at the number displayed, but he answered it.

"Matthew Honeycutt?"

"Yes."

"Hold, please."

A new voice came on: "Mr. Honeycutt?"

"Uh, yeah, but – "

"This is Rich Mossberg of the Fell's Church Sheriff's Department. You called this morning to report a fallen tree midway down Old Wood Road?"

"Yes, I – "

"Mr. Honeycutt, we don't like prank calls of this sort. We frown upon them, in fact. It takes up the valuable time of our officers, and besides, it happens to be a crime to make a false report to the police. If I wanted to, Mr. Honeycutt, I could charge you with this crime and make you answer to a judge. I don't see just what you find so amusing about it."

"I wasn't – I don't findanything amusing about it! Look, last night – " Matt's voice trailed off. What was he going to say?Last night I was waylaid by a tree and a monster bug? A small voice inside him added that the Fell's Church Sheriff's officers seemed to spend most of their valuable time hanging around the Dunkin' Donuts in the city square, but the next words he heard shut it up.

"In fact, Mr. Honeycutt, under the authority of Virginia State Code, Section 18.2-461, making a false police report is punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor. You could be looking at a year in jail or a twenty-five-thousand-dollar fine. Do you findthat amusing, Mr. Honeycutt?"

"Look, I – "

"Do you, in fact,have twenty-five thousand dollars, Mr. Honeycutt?"

"No, I – I – " Matt waited to be cut off and then he realized that he wasn't going to be. He was sailing off the edge of the map into some unknown region. What to say?The malach took the tree away – or maybe it moved by itself ? Ludicrous. Finally, in a creaky voice he managed, "I'm sorry they didn't find the tree. Maybe…somehow it got moved."

"Maybe somehow it got moved," the sheriff repeated expressionlessly. "In fact maybe somehow it moved itself the way that all those stop signs and yield signs keep moving themselves away from intersections. Does that ring a bell, Mr. Honeycutt?"

"No!" Matt felt himself flush deeply. "I would never move any kind of street sign." By now the girls were clustered around him, as if they could somehow help by appearing as a group. Bonnie was gesturing vigorously, and her indignant expression made it clear that she wanted to tell the sheriff off personally.

"In fact, Mr. Honeycutt," Sheriff Mossberg cut in, "we called your home number first, since that's the phone you used to place the report. And your mother said that she hadn't seen you at all last night."

Matt ignored the little voice that wanted to snap,Is that a crime? "That was because I got held up – "

"By a self-propelled tree, Mr. Honeycutt? In fact we had already had another call about your house last night. A member of Neighborhood Watch reported a suspicious car roughly in front of your house.

According to your mother, you recently totaled your own car, isn't that right, Mr. Honeycutt?"

Matt could see where this was going and he didn't like it. "Yes," he heard himself say, while his mind worked desperately for a plausible explanation. "I was trying to avoid running over a fox. And – "

"Yet there was a report of a brand new Jaguar lingering in front of your house, just far enough away from the streetlight to be – inconspicuous. A car so new that it had no license plates. Was that, in fact, your car, Mr. Honeycutt?"

"Mr. Honeycutt's my father!" Matt said desperately. "I'm Matt. And it was my friend's car – "

"And your friend's name is…?"

Matt stared at Elena. She was making wait gestures, obviously trying to think. To sayElena Gilbert would be suicidal. The police, of all people, knew that Elena Gilbert was dead. Now Elena was pointing around the room and mouthing words at him.

Matt shut his eyes and said the words, "Stefan Salvatore. But he gave the car to his girlfriend?" He knew he was ending his sentence so that it sounded like a question, but he could hardly believe Elena's coaching.

Now the sheriff was beginning to sound tired and exasperated. "Areyou askingme , Matt? So you were driving the brand-new car of your friend's girlfriend. And her name is…?"

There was a brief moment when the girls seemed to disagree and Matt hung in limbo. But then Bonnie threw her arms up and Meredith moved forward, pointing to herself.

"Meredith Sulez," Matt said weakly. He heard the hesitation in his own voice and he repeated, huskily but with more conviction, "Meredith Sulez."

Now Elena was whispering rapidly in Meredith's ear.

"And the car was purchased where? Mr. Honeycutt?"

"Yes," Matt said. "Just a second – " He put the phone into Meredith's outstretched hand.

"This is Meredith Sulez," Meredith said smoothly, in the polished, relaxed tones of a classical music disk jockey.

"Miss Sulez, you've heard the conversation so far?"

"Ms.Sulez, please, Sergeant. I have."

"Did you, in fact, lend your car to Mr. Honeycutt?"

"I did."

"And where is Mr." – there was a shuffling of paper – "Stefan Salvatore, the original owner of the car?"

He's not asking her where they bought it, Matt thought. He must know.

"My boyfriend is away from town right now," Meredith said, still in the same refined, unflappable voice. "I don't know when he'll be back. When he is, shall I have him call you?"

"That might be wise," Sheriff Mossberg said dryly. "These days very few cars are bought with cash on the line, especially brand-new Jaguars. I'd like your driver's license number, also. And, in fact, I'd very much like to speak to Mr. Salvatore when he returns."

"That may be very soon," Meredith said, a bit slowly, but following Elena's coaching. Then she recited her driver's license number from memory.

"Thank you," Sheriff Mossberg said briefly. "That will be all for – "

"May I just say one thing? Matt Honeycutt would never, ever remove stop signs or yield signs. He's a very conscientious driver and was a leader in his high school class. You can speak to any of Robert E. Lee High School's teachers or even the principal if she's not on vacation. Any one of them will tell you the same thing."

The sheriff didn't seem to be impressed. "You can tell him from me that I'll be keeping an eye on him in the future. In fact it might be a good idea if he stopped in the Sheriff's Department today or tomorrow," he said, and then the phone went dead.

Matt burst out, "Stefan's girlfriend? You, Meredith? What if the car dealer says the girl was a blond? How are we going to work that out?"

"We aren't," Elena said simply from behind Meredith. "Damon is. All we have to do is to find him. I'm sure he can take care of Sheriff Mossberg with a little mind control – if the price is right. And don't worry about me," she added gently. "You're frowning, but everything is going to be fine."

"You believe that?"

"I'm sure of it." Elena gave him another hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"I'm supposed to stop by the Sheriff's Department today or tomorrow, though."

"But not alone!" Bonnie said, and her eyes were sparkling with indignation. "And when Damon goes with you, Sheriff Mooseburger will end up being your best friend."

"All right," Meredith said. "So what are we doing today?"

"The problem," Elena returned, tapping an index finger against her upper lip, "is that we've got too many problems at once and I don't want anybody – and I mean anybody – going out alone. It's clear that there are malach in the Old Wood, and that they're trying to do unfriendly-type things to us. Kill us, for one."

Matt basked in the warm relief of being believed. The conversation with Sheriff Mossberg had shaken him more than he wanted to show.

"So we make up task forces," Meredith said, "and we split the jobs between them. What problems do we need to plan for?"

Elena ticked off the problems with her fingers. "One problem is Caroline. I really think someone should try to see her, at the very least to try and find out if she has one of thosethings inside her. Another problem is Tami – and who knows who else? If Caroline is…contagious somehow, she might have spread it to some other girl – or guy."

"Okay," Meredith said, "and what else?"

"Someone needs to contact Damon. Try to find out from him anything he knows about Stefan leaving, and also try to get him to go in to headquarters with us to influence Sheriff Mossberg."

"Well, you'd better be on that last team, since you're the only one Damon's likely to talk to," said Meredith. "And Bonnie should be on it, so she can keep – "

"No. No Calling today," Bonnie pleaded. "I'm so sorry, Elena, but I just can't, not without a day of rest between. And besides, if Damon wants to talk to you, all you need to do is to walk – notinto the forest, butnear it – and call to him yourself. He knows everything that's going on. He'll know you're there."

"Then I should go with Elena," Matt reasoned. "Since that sheriff is my problem. I'd like to go by the place where I saw the tree – "

At once there was a protest from all three girls.

"I said I'dlike to," Matt said. "Not that we should plan for it. That's one spot we know is too dangerous."

"All right," Elena said. "So Bonnie and Meredith will visit Caroline, and you and I will go Damon hunting, all right? I'd rather go Stefan hunting, but we just don't have enough information yet."

"Right, but before you go, maybe stop by Jim Bryce's house. Matt has an excuse to stop by anytime – he knows Jim. And you can check on Tami's progress as well," Meredith suggested.

"Sounds like plans A, B, and C," Elena said, and then, spontaneously, they all laughed.

It was a clear day, with a hot sun shining overhead.

In the sunlight, despite the minor annoyance of Sheriff Mossberg's call, they all felt strong and capable.

None of them had any idea that they were about to walk into the worst nightmare of their lives.

Bonnie stood back as Meredith knocked at the front door of the Forbes home.

After a while of no answer and silence inside, Meredith knocked again.

This time Bonnie could hear whisperings and Mrs. Forbes hissing something, and Caroline's distant laughter.

Finally, just as Meredith was about to ring the bell – the height of discourtesy between neighbor and neighbor in Fell's Church – the door opened. Bonnie neatly slipped a foot in, keeping it from being shut again.

"Hi, Mrs. Forbes. We just…" Meredith faltered. "We just wanted to see if Caroline was any better," she finished in a tinny-sounding voice. Mrs. Forbes looked as if she'd seen a ghost – and she'd spent all night running from it.

"No, she's not. Not better. She's still – sick." The woman's voice was hollow and distant and her eyes scanned the ground just over Bonnie's right shoulder. Bonnie felt fine hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stand up.

"Okay, Mrs. Forbes." Even Meredith sounded false and hollow.

Then someone said suddenly, "Areyou all right?" and Bonnie realized it was her own voice.

"Caroline…isn't well. She's…not seeing anyone," whispered the woman.

An iceberg seemed to glide down Bonnie's spine. She wanted to turn and run from this house and its aura of malevolence. But at that moment Mrs. Forbes suddenly slumped. Meredith was barely able to break her fall.

"She's fainted," Meredith said tersely.

Bonnie wanted to say,Well, put her on the rug inside and run! But they could hardly do that.

"We've got to take her inside," Meredith said flatly. "Bonnie, are you okay to go?"

"No," Bonnie said just as flatly, "but what choice do we have?"

Mrs. Forbes, small as she was, was heavy. Bonnie held her feet and followed Meredith, step by reluctant step, into the house.

"We'll just put her on her bed," Meredith said. Her voice was shaky. There was something about the house that was terribly unsettling – as if waves of pressure kept bearing down on them.

And then Bonnie saw it. Just a glimpse as they stepped into the living room. It was down the hallway, and it could have been the play of light and shadow there, but it looked for all the world like a person. A person scuttling like a lizard – but not on the floor. On the ceiling.

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