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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 31)

"I'm feeling much better," Elena told Dr. Meggar. "I'd like to take a walk around the estate." She tried not to bounce up and down on the bed. "I've been eating steak and drinking milk and I even took that vile cod liver oil you sent. Also I have a very firm grasp of reality: I'm here to rescue Stefan and the little boy inside Damon is a metaphor for his unconscious, which the blood we shared allowed me to 'see.'" She bounced once, but covered it by reaching for a glass of water. "I feel like a happy puppy pulling at the leash." She exhibited her newly designed slave bracelets: silver with lapis lazuli inserts in fluid designs. "If I die suddenly, I am prepared."

Dr. Meggar's eyebrows worked up and down. "Well, I can't find anything wrong with your pulse or your breathing. I don't see how a nice afternoon walk can hurt you. Damon's certainly up and walking. But don't you go giving Lady Ulma any ideas. She still needs months of bed rest."

"She has a nice little desk made from a breakfast tray," Bonnie explained, gesturing to show size and width. "She designs clothes on that." Bonnie leaned forward, wide-eyed. "And you know what? Her dresses are magic."

"I wouldn't expect anything less," grunted Dr. Meggar.

But the next moment Elena remembered something unpleasant. "Even when we get the keys," she said, "we have to plot the actual jailbreak."

"What's a jailbreak?" Lakshmi asked excitedly.

"It's like this – we've got the keys to Stefan's cell, but we still need to figure out how we're going to get into the prison, and how we're going to smuggle him out."

Lakshmi frowned. "Why not just go in with the line and take him out the gate?"

"Because," Elena said, trying for patience, "they won't let us just walk in and get him." She narrowed her eyes as Lakshmi put her head in her hands. "What're you thinking, Lakshmi?"

"Well, first you say that you're going to have the key in your hand when you go to the prison, then you act like they're not going to let him out of the prison."

Meredith shook her head, bewildered. Bonnie put a hand to her forehead as if it ached. But Elena slowly leaned forward.

"Lakshmi," she said, very quietly, "are you saying that if we have a key to Stefan's cell it's basically a pass in and out of prison?"

Lakshmi brightened up. "Of course!" she said. "Otherwise, what would a key be good for? They could just lock him in another cell."

Elena could hardly believe the wonder of what she had just heard, so she immediately began trying to poke holes in it. "That would mean we could go straight from Bloddeuwedd's party to the prison and just take Stefan out," she said with as much sarcasm as she could inject into her voice. "We could just show our key and they'd let us take him away."

Lakshmi nodded eagerly. "Yes!" she said joyfully, the sarcasm having gone right over her head. "And, don't be mad, okay? But I wondered why you never went to visit him."

"We can visit him?"

"Sure, if you make an appointment."

By now Meredith and Bonnie had come to life and were supporting Elena on either side. "How soon can we send someone to make an appointment?" Elena said through her teeth, because it was taking all her effort to speak – her entire weight was resting on her two friends. "Who can we send to make an appointment?" she whispered.

"I'll go," Damon said from the crimson darkness behind them. "I'll go tonight – give me five minutes."

Matt could feel that he had on his most cross and stubborn expression.

"C'mon," Tyrone said, looking amused. They were both gearing up for a trip into the thicket. This meant putting on two of the mothball-clove-recipe coats each and then using duct tape to fasten the gloves to the coats. Matt was sweating already.

But Tyrone was a good guy, he thought. Here Matt had come out of nowhere and said, "Hey, you know that bizarre thing you saw with poor Jim Bryce last week? Well, it's all connected to something even more bizarre – all about fox spirits and the Old Wood, and Mrs. Flowers says that if we don't figure out what's going on, we're going to be in real trouble. And Mrs. Flowers isn't just a batty old lady at the boardinghouse, even though everybody says so."

"Of course she isn't," Dr. Alpert's brusque voice had said from the doorway. She put down her black bag – still a country doctor, even when the town was in crisis – and addressed her son. "Theophilia Flowers and I have known each other a long time – and Mrs. Saitou, too. They were both always helping people. That's their nature."

"Well – " Matt had seen an opportunity and jumped at it. "Mrs. Flowers is the one who needs help now. Really, really needs help."

"Then what're you sitting there for, Tyrone? Hurry up and go help Mrs. Flowers." Dr. Alpert had ruffled her own iron-gray hair with her fingers, then ruffled her son's black hair fondly.

"I was, Mom. We were just leaving when you came in."

Tyrone, seeing Matt's grim horror-story of a car, had politely offered to drive them to Mrs. Flowers's house in his Camry. Matt, afraid of a terminal blowout at some crucial moment, was only too happy to accept.

He was glad that Tyrone would be the lynchpin of the Robert E. Lee High football team in the coming year. Ty was the kind of guy you could count on – as witness his immediate offer of help today. He was a good sport, and absolutely straight and clean. Matt couldn't help but see how drugs and drinking had ruined not only the actual games, but the sportsmanship of the other teams on campus.

Tyrone was also a guy who could keep his mouth shut. He hadn't even peppered Matt with questions as they drove back to the boardinghouse, but he did give a wolf whistle, not at Mrs. Flowers, but at the bright yellow Model T she was driving into the old stables.

"Whoa!" he said, jumping out to help her with a grocery bag, while his eyes drank in the Model T from fender to fender. "That's a Model T Fordor Sedan! This could be one beautiful car if – " He stopped abruptly and his brown skin burned with a sunset glow.

"Oh, my, don't be embarrassed about the Yellow Carriage!" Mrs. Flowers said, allowing Matt to take another bag of groceries back through the kitchen garden and into the kitchen of the house. "She's served this family for nearly a hundred years, and she's accumulated some rust and damage. But she goes almost thirty miles an hour on paved roads!" Mrs. Flowers added, speaking not only proudly, but with the somewhat awed respect owed to high-speed travel.

Matt's eyes met Tyrone's and Matt knew there was only one shared thought hanging in the air between them.

To restore to perfection the dilapidated, worn, but still beautiful car that spent most of its time in a converted stable.

"We could do it," Matt said, feeling that, as Mrs. Flowers's representative, he should make the offer first.

"We sure could," Tyrone said dreamily. "She's already in a double garage – no problems about room."

"We wouldn't have to strip her down to the frame…she really rides like a dream."

"You're kidding! We could clean the engine, though: have a look at the plugs and belts and hoses and stuff. And" – dark eyes gleaming suddenly – "my dad has a power sander. We could strip the paint and repaint it the exact same yellow!"

Mrs. Flowers suddenly beamed. "That was what dear Mama was waiting for you to say, young man," she said, and Matt remembered his manners long enough to introduce Tyrone.

"Now, if you had said, 'We'll paint her burgundy' or 'blue' or any other color, I'm sure she would have objected," Mrs. Flowers said as she began to make ham sandwiches, potato salad, and a large kettle of baked beans. Matt watched Tyrone's reaction to the mention of "Mama" and was pleased: there was an instant of surprise, followed by an expression like calm water. His mother had said Mrs. Flowers wasn't a batty old lady: therefore she wasn't a batty old lady. A huge weight seemed to roll off Matt's shoulders. He wasn't alone with a fragile elderly woman to protect. He had a friend who was actually a little bigger than he was to rely on.

"Now both of you, have a ham sandwich, and I'll make the potato salad while you're eating. I know that young men" – Mrs. Flowers always spoke of men as if they were a special kind of flower – "need lots of good hearty meat before going into battle, but there's no reason to be formal. Let's just dig right in as things are done."

They had happily obeyed. Now they were preparing for battle, feeling ready to fight tigers, since Mrs. Flowers's idea of dessert was a pecan pie split between the boys, along with huge cups of coffee that cleared the brain like a power sander.

Tyrone and Matt drove Matt's junker to the cemetery, followed by Mrs. Flowers in the Model T. Matt had seen what the trees could do to cars and he wasn't going to subject Tyrone's whistle-clean Camry to the prospect. They walked down the hill to Matt and Sergeant Mossberg's hide, each of the boys giving a hand to help the frail Mrs. Flowers over rough bits. Once, she tripped and would have fallen, but Tyrone dug the toes of his DC shoes into the hill and stood like a mountain as she tumbled against him.

"Oh, my – thank you, Tyrone dear," she murmured and Matt knew that "Tyrone dear" had been accepted into the fold.

The sky was dark except for one streak of scarlet as they reached the hide. Mrs. Flowers took out the sheriff's badge, rather clumsily, due to the gardening gloves she was wearing. First she held it to her forehead, then she slowly drew it away, still holding it in front of her at eye-level. "He stood here and then he bent down and squatted here," she said, getting down in what was – in fact – the correct side of the hide. Matt nodded, hardly knowing what he was doing, and Mrs. Flowers said without opening her eyes, "No coaching, Matt dear. He heard someone behind him – and whirled, drawing his gun. But it was only Matt, and they spoke in whispers for a while.

"Then he suddenly stood up." Mrs. Flowers stood suddenly and Matt heard all sorts of alarming little pops and crackles in her delicate old body. "He went walking – striding – down into that thicket. That evil thicket."

She set off for the thicket as Sheriff Rich Mossberg had when Matt had watched him. Matt and Tyrone went hurrying after her, ready to stop her if she showed any signs of entering the remnant of Old Wood that still lived.

Instead, she walked around it, with the badge held to eye height. Tyrone and Matt nodded at each other and without speaking, each took one of her arms. This way they skirted the edge of the thicket, all the way around, with Matt going first, Mrs. Flowers next, and Tyrone last. At some point Matt realized that tears were making their way down Mrs. Flowers's withered cheeks.

At last, the fragile old woman stopped, took out a lacy handkerchief – after one or two tries – and wiped her eyes with a gasp.

"Did you find him?" Matt asked, unable to hold in his curiosity any longer.

"Well – we'll have to see. Kitsune seem to be very, very good at illusions. Everything I saw could have been an illusion. But" – she heaved a sigh – "one of us is going to have to step into the Wood."

Matt gulped. "That'll be me, then – "

He was interrupted. "Hey, no way, man. You know their ops, whatever they are. You've got to get Mrs. Flowers out of this – "

"No, I can't risk just asking you to come over here and get hurt – "

"Well, what am I doing out here, then?" Tyrone demanded.

"Wait, my dears," Mrs. Flowers said, sounding as if she were about to cry. The boys shut up immediately, and Matt felt ashamed of himself.

"I know a way that you both can help me, but it's very dangerous. Dangerous for the two of you. But perhaps if we only have to do it once, we can cut the risk of danger and increase our chance of finding something."

"What is it?" Tyrone and Matt said almost simultaneously.

A few minutes later, they were prepped for it. They were lying side by side, facing the wall formed by the tall trees and tangled underbrush of the thicket. They were not only roped together, but they had Mrs. Saitou's Post-it notes placed all over their arms.

"Now when I say 'three' I want you both to reach in and grab at the ground with your hands. If you feel something, keep hold of it and pull your arm out. If you don't feel anything, move your hand a little and then pull it out as fast as you can. And by the way," she added calmly, "if you feel anything trying to pull you in or immobilize your arm, yell and fight and kick and scream, and we'll help you to get out."

There was a long, long minute of silence.

"So basically, you think there are things all around on the ground in the thicket, and that we might get hold of them just by reaching in blindly," Matt said.

"Yes," Mrs. Flowers said.

"All right," said Tyrone, and once again Matt glanced at him approvingly. He hadn't even asked "What kind of things could pull us into the Wood?"

Now they were in position and Mrs. Flowers was counting "One, two, three," and then Matt had thrust his right arm in as far as it would go and was sweeping his arm while groping.

He heard a shout from beside him. "Got it!" And then instantly: "Something's pulling me in!"

Matt pulled his own arm out of the thicket before trying to help Tyrone. Something dropped down on it, but it hit a Post-it note and it felt as if he'd been whacked by a piece of a Styrofoam.

Tyrone was thrashing wildly and had already been dragged in to his shoulders. Matt grabbed him by the waist and used all his strength to haul backward. There was a moment of resistance – and then Tyrone came popping out as if suddenly released like a cork. There were scratches on his face and neck, but none where the overcoats had covered him or where the Post-it notes were.

Matt felt a desire to say "Thank you," but the two women who had made him amulets were far away, and he felt stupid saying it to Tyrone's coat. In any case, Mrs. Flowers was fluttering and thanking people enough for three.

"Oh, my, Matt, when that big branch came down I thought your arm would be broken – at least. Thank the dear Lord that the Saitou women make such excellent amulets. And, Tyrone dear, please take a swig out of this canteen – "

"Uh, I don't really drink much – "

"It's just hot lemonade, my own recipe, dear. If it weren't for both you boys, we wouldn't have succeeded. Tyrone, you found something, yes? And then you were caught and would never have been released if Matt hadn't been here to save you."

"Oh, I'm sure he'd've got out," Matt said hurriedly, because it must be embarrassing for anybody like The Tyreminator to admit they needed help.

Tyrone, however, just said soberly, "I know. Thanks, Matt."

Matt felt himself blush.

"But I didn't get anything after all," Tyrone said disgustedly. "It felt like a piece of old pipe or something – "

"Well, let's have a look," Mrs. Flowers said very seriously.

She turned the strongest flashlight on the object Tyrone had risked so much to bring out of the thicket.

At first Matt thought it was a gigantic rawhide dog bone. But then an all-too-familiar shape made him look closer.

It was a femur, a human femur. The biggest bone in the body, the one from the leg. And it was still white. Fresh.

"It doesn't seem to be plastic," Mrs. Flowers said in a voice that seemed very far away.

It wasn't plastic. Matt could see where little tiny bits had curled up and away from the exterior. It wasn't rawhide, either. It was…well, real. A real human leg bone.

But that wasn't the most horrifying thing; the thing that sent Matt spiraling out into darkness.

The bone was polished clean and marked with the imprints of dozens of tiny little teeth.

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