Home > The Struggle (The Vampire Diaries #2)(9)

The Struggle (The Vampire Diaries #2)(9)
Author: L.J. Smith

"Bonnie, calm down." As always, other people's hysteria made Elena feel more in control. "Yes, he's the killer, and we all three have to be on guard against him. That's why I'm telling you. Never, never ask him into your house."

Elena stopped, regarding the faces of her friends. They were staring at her, and for a moment she had the sickening feeling that they didn't believe her. That they were going to question her sanity.

"Yes. I'm sure. He's the murderer and the one who put Stefan in the well, and he might be after one of us next. And I don't know if there's any way to stop him."

"Well, then," said Meredith, lifting her eyebrows. "No wonder you and Stefan were in such a hurry to leave the party."

Caroline gave Elena a vicious smirk as Elena walked into the cafeteria. But Elena was almost beyond noticing.

One thing she noticed right away, though. Vickie Bennett was there.

Vickie hadn't been to school since the night Matt and Bonnie and Meredith had found her wandering on the road, raving about mist and eyes and something terrible in the graveyard. The doctors who checked her afterward said there was nothing much wrong with her physically, but she still hadn't returned to Robert E. Lee. People whispered about psychologists and the drug treatments they were trying.

She didn't look crazy, though, Elena thought. She looked pale and subdued and sort of crumpled into her clothing. And when Elena passed her and she looked up, her eyes were like a startled fawn's.

It was strange to sit at a half-empty table with only Bonnie and Meredith for company. Usually people were crowding to get seats around the three of them.

"We didn't finish talking this morning," Meredith said. "Get something to eat, and then we'll figure out what to do about those notes."

"I'm not hungry," said Elena flatly. "And whatcan we do? If it's Damon, there's no way we can stop him. Trust me, it's not a matter for the police. That's why I haven't told them he's the killer. There isn't any proof, and besides, they would never... Bonnie, you're not listening."

"Sorry," said Bonnie, who was staring past Elena's left ear. "But something weird is going on up there."

Elena turned. Vickie Bennett was standing at the front of the cafeteria, but she no longer seemed crumpled and subdued. She was looking around the room in a sly and assessing manner, smiling.

"Well, she doesn't look normal, but I wouldn't say she was beingweird , exactly," Meredith said. Then she added, "Wait a minute."

Vickie was unbuttoning her cardigan. But it was theway she was doing it - with deliberate little flicks of her fingers, all the while looking around with that secretive smile - that was odd. When the last button was undone, she took the sweater daintily between forefinger and thumb and slid it down over first one arm and then the other. She dropped the sweater on the floor.

"Weird is the word," confirmed Meredith.

Students crossing in front of Vickie with laden trays glanced at her curiously and then looked back over their shoulders when they had passed. They didn't actually stop walking, though, until she took off her

She did it gracefully, catching the heel of one pump on the toe of the other and pushing it off. Then she kicked off the second pump.

"She can't keep going," murmured Bonnie, as Vickie's fingers moved to the simulated pearl buttons on her white silk blouse.

Heads were turning; people were poking one another and gesturing. Around Vickie a small group had gathered, standing far enough back that they didn't interfere with everyone else's view.

The white silk blouse rippled off, fluttering like a wounded ghost to the floor. Vickie was wearing a lacy off-white slip underneath.

There was no longer any sound in the cafeteria except the sibilance of whispers. No one was eating. The group around Vickie had gotten larger.

Vickie smiled demurely and began to unfasten clasps at her waist. Her pleated skirt fell to the floor. She stepped out of it and pushed it to one side with her foot.

Somebody stood up at the back of the cafeteria and chanted, "Take itoff! Take itoff!" Other voices joined in.

"Isn't anybody going to stop her?" fumed Bonnie.

Elena got up. The last time she'd gone near Vickie the other girl had screamed and struck out at her. But now, as she got close, Vickie gave her the smile of a conspirator. Her lips moved, but Elena couldn't make out what she was saying over the chanting.

"Come on, Vickie. Let's go," she said.

Vickie's light brown hair tossed and she plucked at the strap of her slip.

Elena stooped to pick up the cardigan and wrap it around the girl's slender shou lders. As she did, as she touched Vickie, those half-closed eyes opened wide like a startled fawn's again. Vickie stared about her wildly, as if she'd just been awakened from a dream. She looked down at herself and her expression turned to disbelief. Pulling the cardigan around her more tightly, she backed away, shivering.

The room was quiet again.

"It's okay," said Elena soothingly. "Come on."

At the sound of her voice, Vickie jumped as if touched by a live wire. She stared at Elena, and then she exploded into action.

"You're one of them! I saw you! You're evil!"

She turned and ran barefoot out of the cafeteria, leaving Elena stunned.

Chapter Eight

"What?" said Elena dully.

"Well, the way she ended up, in her slip. She looked just like she did when we found her on the road, only then she was all scratched up, too."

"Cat scratches, we thought," said Meredith, finishing the last bite of her cake. She seemed to be in one of her quiet, thoughtful moods; right now she was watching Elena closely. "But that doesn't seem very likely."

Elena looked straight back at her. "Maybe she fell in some brambles," she said. "Now, if you guys are finished eating, do you want to see that first note?"

They left their dishes in the sink and climbed the stairs to Elena's room. Elena felt herself flush as the other girls read the note. Bonnie and Meredith were her best friends, maybe her only friends now. She'd read them passages from her diary before. But this was different. It was the most humiliating feeling she'd ever had. "Well?" she said to Meredith.

"The person who wrote this is five feet eleven inches tall, walks with a slight limp, and wears a false mustache," Meredith intoned. "Sorry," she added, seeing Elena's face. "Not funny. Actually, there's not much to go on, is there? The writing looks like a guy's, but the paper looks feminine."

"And the whole thing has sort of a feminine touch," put in Bonnie, bouncing slightly on Elena's bed. "Well, it does," she said defensively. "Quoting bits of your diary back at you is the kind of thing a woman would think of. Men don't care about diaries."

"You just don't want it to be Damon," said Meredith. "I would think you'd be more worried about him being a psycho killer than a diary thief."

"I don't know; killers are sort of romantic. Imagine your dying with his hands around your throat. He'd strangle the life out of you, and the last thing you'd see would be his face." Putting her own hands to her throat, Bonnie gasped and expired tragically, ending up draped across the bed. "He can have me anytime," she said, eyes still closed.

It was on Elena's lips to say, "Don't you understand, this isserious ," but instead she hissed in a breath. "Oh,God ," she said, and ran to the window. The day was humid and stifling, and the window had been opened. Outside on the skeletal branches of the quince tree was a crow.

Elena threw the sash down so hard that the glass rattled and tinkled. The crow gazed at her through the trembling panes with eyes like obsidian. Rainbows glimmered in its sleek black plumage.

"Why did yousay that?" she said, turning to Bonnie.

"Hey, there's nobody out there," said Meredith gently. "Unless you count the birds."

Elena turned away from them. The tree was empty now.

"I'm sorry," said Bonnie in a small voice, after a moment. "It's just that it all doesn't seem real sometimes, even Mr. Tanner's being dead doesn't seem real. And Damon did look... well, exciting. But dangerous. I

"And besides, he wouldn't squeeze your throat; he'd cut it," Meredith said. "Or at least that was what he did to Tanner. But the old man under the bridge had his throat ripped open, as if some animal had done it." Meredith looked to Elena for clarification. "Damon doesn't have an animal, does he?"

"No. I don't know." Suddenly, Elena felt very tired. She was worried about Bonnie, about the consequences of those foolish words.

"I can do anything to you, to you and the ones you love," she remembered. What might Damon do now? She didn't understand him. He was different every time they met. In the gym he'd been taunting, laughing at her. But the next time she would swear that he'd been serious, quoting poetry to her, trying to get her to come away with him. Last week, with the icy graveyard wind lashing around him, he'd been menacing, cruel. And underneath his mocking words last night, she'd felt the same menace. She couldn't predict what he'd do next.

But, whatever happened, she had to protect Bonnie and Meredith from him. Especially since she couldn't warn them properly. And what was Stefan up to? She needed him right now, more than anything. Wherewas he?

It started that morning.

"Let me get this straight," Matt said, leaning against the scarred body of his ancient Ford sedan when

Stefan approached him before school. "You want to borrow my car."

"Yes," Stefan said.

"And the reason you want to borrow it is flowers. You want to get some flowers for Elena."

"Yes."

"And these particular flowers, these flowers you've just got to get, don't grow around here."

"They might. But their blooming season is over this far north. And the frost would have finished them off anyway."

"So you want to go down south - how far south you don't know - to find some of these flowers that you've just got to give to Elena."

"Or at least some of the plants," Stefan said. "I'd rather have the actual flowers though."

"And since the police still have your car, you want to borrow mine, for however long it takes you to go down south and find these flowers that you've just got to give to Elena."

"I figure driving is the least conspicuous way to leave town," Stefan explained. "I don't want the police to follow me."

"Uh huh. And that's why you want my car."

"Am I going to give my car to the guy who stole my girlfriend and now wants to take a jaunt down south to get her some kind of special flowers she's just got to have? Are you crazy?" Matt, who had been staring out over the roofs of the frame houses across the street, turned at last to look at Stefan. His blue eyes, usually cheerful and straightforward, were full of utter disbelief, and surmounted by twisted, puckered brows.

Stefan looked away. He should have known better. After everything Matt had already done for him, to expect more was ridiculous. Especially these days, when people flinched from the sound of his step and avoided his eyes when he came near. To expect Matt, who had the best of reasons to resent him, to do him such a favor with no explanation, on the basis of faith alone, reallywas insane.

"No, I'm not crazy," he said quietly, and turned to go.

"Neither am I," Matt had said. "And I'd have to be crazy to turn my car over to you. Hell, no. I'm going with you."

By the time Stefan had turned back around, Matt was looking at the car instead of him, lower lip thrust forward in a wary, judicious pout.

"After all," he'd said, rubbing at the flaking vinyl of the roof, "you might scratch the paint or something."

Elena put the phone back on the hook.Somebody was at the boarding house, because somebody kept picking up the phone when it rang, but after that there was only silence and then the click of disconnection. She suspected it was Mrs. Flowers, but that didn't tell her anything about where Stefan was. Instinctively, she wanted to go to him. But it was dark outside, and Stefan had warned her specifically not to go out in the dark, especially not anywhere near the cemetery or the woods. The boarding house was near both.

"No answer?" said Meredith as Elena came back and sat down on the bed.

"She keeps hanging up on me," Elena said, and muttered something under her breath.

"Did you say she was a witch?"

"No, but it rhymes with that," said Elena.

"Look," said Bonnie, sitting up. "If Stefan's going to call, he'll call here. There's no reason for you to come and stay the night with me."

Therewas a reason, although Elena couldn't quite explain it even to herself. After all, Damon had kissed Bonnie at Alaric Saltzman's party. It was Elena's fault that Bonnie was in danger in the first place. Somehow she felt that if she were at least on the scene, she might be able to protect Bonnie.

"My mom and dad and Mary are all home," Bonnie persisted. "And we lock all our doors and windows and everything since Mr. Tanner was murdered. This weekend Dad even put on extra locks. I don't see whatyou can do."

She left a message for Stefan with Aunt Judith, telling him where she was. There was still a lingering constraint between her and her aunt. And there would be, Elena thought, until Aunt Judith changed her mind about Stefan.

At Bonnie's house, she was given a room that had belonged to one of Bonnie's sisters who was now in college. The first thing she did was check the window. It was closed and locked, and there was nothing outside that someone could climb, like a drainpipe or tree. As inconspicuously as possible, she also checked Bonnie's room and any others she could get into. Bonnie was right; they were all sealed up tight from the inside. Nothing from the outside could get in.

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