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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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."