Matt was knocking at the Bryces' door, with Elena at his side. Elena had disguised herself by stuffing all her hair into a Virginia Cavaliers baseball cap and wearing wraparound sunglasses from one of Stefan's drawers. She was also wearing an over-large maroon and navy Pendleton shirt donated by Matt, and a pair of Meredith's outgrown jeans. She felt sure that no one who had known the old Elena Gilbert would ever recognize her, dressed like this.
The door opened very slowly to reveal not Mr. or Mrs. Bryce, nor Jim, but Tamra. She was wearing - well, close to nothing. She had on a thong bikini bottom, but it looked handmade, as if she'd cut a regular bikini bottom with scissors - and it was beginning to come apart. On top she had two round decorations made of cardboard with sequins pasted on and a few strands of colored tinsel. On her head she wore a paper crown, which was clearly where she'd gotten the tinsel. She'd made an attempt to glue strands onto the bikini bottoms as well. The result looked like what it was: a child's attempt to make an outfit for a Las Vegas showgirl or stripper.
Matt immediately turned around and stood facing away, but Tami threw herself at him and plastered herself to his back.
"Matt Honey-butt," she cooed. "You came back. I knew you would. But why'd you bring this ugly old whore with you? How can we - "
Elena stepped forward, then, because Matt had whirled with his hand up. She was sure that Matt had never struck a female in his life, especially a child, but he was also over-sensitive about one or two subjects. Like her.
Elena managed to get between Matt and the surprisingly strong Tamra. She had to hide a smile when contemplating Tami's costume. After all, only a few days ago, she hadn't understood the human nakedness taboo at all. Now she got it, but it didn't seem nearly as important as it once had. People were born with their own perfectly good skins on. There was no real reason, in her mind, to wear false skins over those, unless it was cold or somehow uncomfortable without them. But society said that to be naked was to be wicked. Tami was trying to be wicked, in her own childish way.
"Get your hands off me, you old whore," Tamra snarled as Elena held her away from Matt, and then she added several rather lengthy expletives.
"Tami, where are your parents? Where's your brother?" Elena said. She ignored the obscene words - they were just sounds - but saw that Matt had gone white around the lips.
"You apologize to Elena right now! Apologize for talking that way!" he demanded.
"Elena's a stinking corpse with worms in her eye sockets," Tamra sang glibly. "But my friend says she was a whore when she was alive. A real" - a string of four-letter words that made Matt gasp - "cheap whore.You know. Nothing's cheaper than something that comes free."
"Matt, just don't pay any attention," Elena said under her breath, and she repeated, "Where are your parents and Jim?"
The answer was littered with more expletives, but it amounted to the story - truthful or not - that Mr. and Mrs. Bryce had gone away on vacation for a few days, and that Jim was with his girlfriend, Isobel.
"Okay, then, I guess I'll just have to help you get into some more decent clothes," Elena said. "First, I think you need a shower to get these Christmas doodads off - "
"Just try-hy-hy! Just try-hy-hy!" The answer was somewhere between the whinny of a horse and human speech. "I glued them on with PermaStick!" Tami added and then began giggling on a high and hysterical note.
"Oh, my God - Tamra, do you realize that if there isn't some solvent for this, you may need surgery?"
Tami's answer was foul. There was also a sudden foul smell. No, not a smell, Elena thought: a choking, gutcurdling stench.
"Oops!" Tami gave that high, glassy giggle again. "Pardonmoi . At least it'snatural gas."
Matt cleared his throat. "Elena - I don't think we should be here. With her folks gone and all..."
"They're afraid of me," Tamra giggled. "Aren'tyou ?" - very suddenly in a voice that had dropped several octaves.
Elena looked Tamra in the eye. "No, I'm not. I just feel sorry for a little girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Matt's right, I guess. We have to go."
Tami's whole manner seemed to change. "I'm so sorry.... I didn't realize I had guests of that caliber. Don't go, please, Matt." Then she added in a confidential whisper to Elena, "Is he any good?"
Tami nodded at Matt, who immediately turned his back to her. He looked as if he felt a terrible, repulsive fascination for Tami's ridiculous appearance.
"Him. Is he any good in the sack?"
"Matt, look at this." Elena held up a small tube of glue. "I think she actually did PermaStick that stuff to her skin. We have to call Child Protective Services or whatever, because nobody took her to the hospital right away. Whether her parents knew about this behavior or not, they shouldn't have just left her."
"I just hopethey're all right. Her family," Matt said grimly as they walked out the door, with Tami coolly following them to the car, and shouting lurid details about "what a good time" they had had, "the three of them."
Elena glanced at him uneasily from her place in the passenger seat - with no ID or driver's license, of course, she knew she shouldn't drive. "Maybe we'd better take her to the police first. My God, that poor family!"
Matt said nothing for a long time. His chin was set, his mouth grim. "I feel somehow as if I'm responsible. I mean, I knew there was something wrong with her - I should have told her parents then."
"Now you're sounding like Stefan. You're not responsible for everyone you meet."
Matt gave her a grateful glance, and Elena continued, "In fact I'm going to ask Bonnie and Meredith to do one other thing, which proves you're not. I'm going to ask them to check on Isobel Saitou, Jim's girlfriend.You've never had any contact with her, but Tami might have."
"You mean you think she's got it, too?"
"That's what I hope Bonnie and Meredith will find out."
Bonnie stopped dead, almost losing her hold on Mrs. Forbes's feet. "I am not going into that bedroom."
"You have to. I can't manage her alone," Meredith said. Then she added cajolingly, "Look, Bonnie, if you go in with me, I'll tell you a secret."
Bonnie bit her lip. Then she shut her eyes and let Meredith guide her, step by step, farther into this house
of horror. She knew where the master bedroom was - after all, she had played here since childhood. All the way down the hall, then turn left.
She was surprised when Meredith came to a sudden stop after only a few steps. "Bonnie."
"I don't want to frighten you, but - "
This had the immediate effect of terrifying Bonnie. Her eyes snapped open. "What?What? " Before Meredith could answer she glanced over her shoulder in fear and saw what.
Caroline was behind her. But not standing. She was crawling - no, she was scuttling, the way she had on Stefan's floor. Like a lizard. Her bronze hair, unkempt, hung down over her face. Her elbows and knees stuck out at impossible angles.
Bonnie screamed, but the pressure of the house seemed to choke the scream back down her throat. The only effect it had was to make Caroline look up at her with a quick reptilian movement of her head.
"Oh, my God - Caroline, what happened to your face?"
Caroline had a black eye. Or rather, a purplish-red eye that was so swollen that Bonnie knew it would have to turn black in time. On her jaw was another purple swelling bruise.
Caroline didn't answer, unless you counted the sibilant hiss she gave while scuttling forward.
"Meredith, run! She's right behind me!"
Meredith quickened her pace, looking frightened - all the more frightening to Bonnie because almost nothing could shake her friend. But as they lurched forward, with Mrs. Forbes bouncing between them, Caroline scuttled right under her mother and into the door of her parents' room, the master bedroom.
"Meredith, I won't go in th - " But they were already stumbling through the door. Bonnie shot quick darting glances into every corner. Caroline was nowhere to be seen.
"Maybe she's in the closet," Meredith said. "Now, let me go first and put her head on the far side of the bed. We can adjust her later." She backed around the bed, almost dragging Bonnie with her, and dumped Mrs. Forbes's upper torso so that her head rested on pillows. "Now just pull her and put her legs down on the other side."
"I can't do it. I can't! Caroline'sunder the bed, you know."
"She can't be under the bed. There's only about a five-inch clearance," Meredith said firmly.
"She's there! Iknow it. And" - rather fiercely - "you promised you'd tell me a secret."
"All right!" Meredith gave a complicit glance through her disheveled dark hair. "I telegraphed Alaric yesterday. He's so far out in the boonies that telegraph is the only way to reach him, and it may be days before my message gets to him. I had an idea that we were going to need his advice. I feel bad, asking him to do projects that aren't for his doctorate, but - "
"Who cares about his doctorate? Godbless you!" cried Bonnie thankfully. "You did just right!"
"Then come on and swing Mrs. Forbes' feet around the bottom of the bed. You can do it if you lean in."
The bed was a California king-size. Mrs. Forbes was lying at an angle across it, like a doll thrown on the floor. But Bonnie halted near the foot of the bed. "Caroline's going to grab me."
"No, she won't. Come on, Bonnie. Just get Mrs. Forbes' legs and give one big heave...."
"If I get that close to the bed, she'llgrab me!"
"Why should she?"
"Because she knows what scares me! And now that I've said it, shedefinitely will."
"If she grabs you, I'll come and kick her in the face."
"Your leg's not that long. It would bang on the metal bed-frame thingummy - "
"Oh, for God's sake, Bonnie! Just help meheeeeeeere !" The last word was a full-fledged scream.
"Meredith - " began Bonnie, and then she screamed, too.
"What is it?"
"She's grabbing me!"
"She can't be!She's grabbingme ! Nobody has arms that long!"
"Or that strong! Bonnie!I can't make her let go!"
"Neither can I!"
And then any words were drowned in screaming.
After dropping Tami off with the police, driving Elena around the woods known as the Fell's State Park was...well, a walk in the park. Every so often they would stop. Elena would go a few steps into the trees and stand, Calling - however you did that. Then she came back to the Jaguar, looking discouraged.
"I'm not sure that Bonnie wouldn't be better at this," she said to Matt. "If we can brace ourselves to go out at night."
Matt shuddered involuntarily. "Two nights were enough."
"Do you know, you never told me your story from that first night. Or at least, not when I could understand words, spoken words."
"Well, I was driving around like this, except almost on the other side of the Old Wood - near the Lightning-Split Oak area...?"
"When right in the middle of the road something appears."