The Return: Nightfall

Chapter 22

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Bonnie was disturbed and confused. It was dark.

"All right," a voice that was brusque and calming at once was saying. "That's two possible concussions, one puncture wound in need of a tetanus shot - and - well, I'm afraid I've got to sedate your girl, Jim. And I'm going to need help, but you're not allowed to move at all. You just lie back and keep your eyes shut."

Bonnie opened her own eyes. She had a vague memory of falling forward onto her bed. But she wasn't at home; she was still at the Saitou house, lying on a couch.

As always, when in confusion or fear, she looked for Meredith. Meredith was just returning from the kitchen with a makeshift ice pack. She put it on Bonnie's already wet forehead.

"I just fainted," Bonnie explained, as she herself figured it out. "That's all."

"I know you fainted. You cracked your head pretty hard on the floor," Meredith replied, and for once her face was perfectly readable: worry and sympathy and relief were all visible. She actually had tears pooling in her eyes. "Oh, Bonnie, I couldn't get to you in time. Isobel was in the way, and those tatami mats don't cushion the floor much - and you've been out for almost half an hour! Youscared me."

"I'm sorry." Bonnie fumbled a hand out a blanket she seemed to be wrapped in and gave Meredith's hand a squeeze. It meantvelociraptor sisterhood is still in action . It also meantthank you for caring .

Jim was sprawled on another couch holding an ice pack to the back of his head. His face was greenish-white. He tried to stand up but Dr. Alpert - it was her voice that was both crusty and kind - pushed him back onto the couch.

"You don't need any more exertion," she said. "But I do need an assistant. Meredith, can you help me with Isobel? It sounds as if she's going to be quite a handful."

"She hit me in the back of the head with a lamp," Jim warned them. "Don't ever turn your back on her."

"We'll be careful," Dr. Alpert said.

"You two stayhere ," Meredith added firmly.

Bonnie was watching Meredith's eyes. She wanted to get up to help them with Isobel. But Meredith had that special look of determination that meant it was better not to argue.

As soon as they left, Bonnie tried to stand up. But immediately she began to see the pulsating gray nothingness that meant she was going to pass out again.

She lay back down, teeth gritted.

For a long time there were crashes and shouts from Isobel's room. Bonnie would hear Dr. Alpert's voice raised, and then Isobel's, and then a third voice - not Meredith, who never shouted if she could help it, but what sounded like Isobel's voice, only slowed down and distorted.

Then, finally, there was silence, and Meredith and Dr. Alpert came back carrying a limp Isobel between them. Meredith had a bloody nose and Dr. Alpert's short pepper-and-salt hair was standing on end, but they had somehow gotten a T-shirt onto Isobel's abused body and Dr. Alpert had managed to hang on to her black bag as well.

"Walking wounded, stay where you are. We'll be back to lend you a hand," the doctor said in her terse way.

Next Dr. Albert and Meredith made another trip to take Isobel's grandmother with them.

"I don't like her color," Dr. Albert said briefly. "Or the tick of her tocker. We might as well all go get checked up."

A minute later they returned to help Jim and Bonnie to Dr. Albert's SUV. The sky had clouded over, and the sun was a red ball not far from the horizon.

"Do you want me to give you something for the pain?" the doctor asked, seeing Bonnie eyeing the black bag. Isobel was in the very back of the SUV, where the seats had been folded down.

Meredith and Jim were in the two seats in front of her, with Grandma Saitou between them, and Bonnie - at Meredith's insistence - was in the front with the doctor.

"Um, no, it's okay," Bonnie said. Actually, she had been wondering whether the hospital actually could cure Isobel of infection any better than Mrs. Flowers' herbal compresses could.

But although her head throbbed and ached and she was developing a lump the size of a hard-boiled egg on her forehead, she didn't want to cloud her thinking. There was something nagging at her, some dream or something she'd had while Meredith said she'd been unconscious.

Whatwas it?

"All right then. Seat belts on? Here we go." The SUV pulled away from the Saitou house. "Jim, you said Isobel has a three-year-old sister asleep upstairs, so I called my granddaughter Jayneela to come over here. At least it will be somebody in the house."

Bonnie twisted around to look at Meredith. They both spoke at once.

"Oh, no! She can't go in!Especially not into Isobel's room! Look, please, you have to - " Bonnie babbled.

"I'm really not sure if that's a good idea, Dr. Alpert," Meredith said, no less urgently but much more coherently. "Unless she does stay away from that room and maybe has someone with her - a boy would be good."

"A boy?" Dr. Alpert seemed bewildered, but the combination of Bonnie's distress and Meredith's sincerity seemed to convince her. "Well, Tyrone, my grandson, was watching TV when I left. I'll try to get him."

"Wow!" Bonnie said involuntarily. "That's the Tyrone who's offensive tackle on the football team next year, huh? I heard that they call him the Tyre-minator."

"Well, let's say I think he'll be able to protect Jayneela," Dr. Alpert said after making the call. "But we're the ones with the, ah,overexcited girl in the vehicle with us. From the way she fought the sedative, I'd say she's quite a ¡®terminator' herself."

Meredith's mobile phone beeped out the tune it used for numbers not in its memory, and then announced, "Mrs. T. Flowers is calling you. Will you take the - " In a moment Meredith had hit thetalk button.

"Mrs. Flowers?" she said. The hum of the SUV kept anything Mrs. Flowers might be saying from Bonnie and the others, so Bonnie went back to concentrating on two things: what she knew about the "victims" of the Salem "witches," and what that elusive thought while she was unconscious had been.

All of which promptly flew away when Meredith put down her mobile phone.

"What was it? What?What? " Bonnie couldn't get a clear view of Meredith's face in the dusk, but it looked pale, and when she spoke shesounded pale, too.

"Mrs. Flowers was doing some gardening and she was about to go inside when she noticed that there was something in her begonia bushes. She said it looked as if someone had tried to stuff something down between the bush and a wall, but a bit of fabric stuck up."

Bonnie felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her."What was it?"

"It was a duffel bag, full of shoes and clothes. Boots. Shirts. Pants. All Stefan's."

Bonnie gave a shriek that caused Dr. Alpert to swerve and then recover, the SUV fishtailing.

"Oh, my God; oh, my God - he didn't go!"

"Oh, I think he went all right. Just not of his own free will," Meredith said grimly.

"Damon," Bonnie gasped, and slumped back into her own seat, tears welling up in her eyes and overflowing. "I couldn't help wanting to believe..."

"Head getting worse?" Dr. Alpert asked, tactfully ignoring the conversation that had not included her.

"No - well, yes, it is," Bonnie admitted.

"Here, open the bag and give me a look inside. I've got samples of this and that...all right, here you go. Anybody see a water bottle back there?"

Jim listlessly handed one over. "Thanks," Bonnie said, taking the small pill and a deep gulp. She had to get her head right. If Damon had kidnapped Stefan, then she should be Calling for him, shouldn't she? God only knew where he would end up this time. Why hadn't any of them even thought of it as a possibility?

Well, first, because the new Stefan was supposed to be so strong, and second, because of the note in Elena's diary.

"That's it!" she said, startling even herself. It had all come flooding back, everything that she and Matt had shared....

"Meredith!" she said, oblivious to the side look which Dr. Alpert gave her, "while I was unconscious I talked withMatt . He was unconscious, too - "

"Was he hurt?"

"God, yes. Damon must have been doing something awful. But he said to ignore it, that something had been bothering him about the note Stefan left for Elena ever since he saw it. Something about Stefan talking to the English teacher about how to spelljudgment last year. And he just kept saying,Look for the backup file. Look for the backup...before Damon does ."

She stared at Meredith's dim face, aware as they cruised slowly to stop at an intersection that Dr. Alpert and Jim were both staring at her. Tact had its limits.

Meredith's voice broke the silence. "Doctor," she said, "I'm going to have to ask you something. If you take a left here and another one at Laurel Street and then just drive for about five minutes to Old Wood, it won't be too far out of your way. But it'll let me get to the boardinghouse where the computer Bonnie's talking about is. You may think I'm crazy, but Ineed to get to that computer."

"I know you're not crazy; I'd have noticed it by now." The doctor laughed mirthlessly. "And I have heard some things about young Bonnie here...nothing bad, I promise, but a little difficult to believe. After seeing what I saw today, I think I'm beginning to change my opinion about them." The doctor abruptly took a left turn, muttering, "Somebody's taken the stop sign from this road, too." Then she continued, to Meredith, "I can do what you ask. I'd drive you all the way to the old boardinghouse - "

"No! That would be much too dangerous!"

" - but I've got to get Isobel to a hospital as soon as possible. Not to mention Jim. I think he really does have a concussion. And Bonnie - "

"Bonnie," Bonnie said, enunciating distinctly, "is going to the boardinghouse, too."

"No, Bonnie! I'm going torun , Bonnie, do you understand that? I'm going torun as fast as I can - and I can't let you hold me up." Meredith's voice was grim.

"I won't hold you up, I swear it. You go ahead and run. I'll run, too. My head feels fine, now. If you have to leave me behind, youkeep on running. I'll be coming after you."

Meredith opened her mouth and then closed it again. There must have been something in Bonnie's face that told her any kind of argument would be useless, Bonnie thought. Because that was the truth of the matter.

"Here we are," Dr. Alpert said a few minutes later. "Corner of Laurel and Old Wood." She pulled a small flashlight out of her black bag and shone it in each of Bonnie's eyes, one after another. "Well, it still doesn't look as if you have concussion. But you know, Bonnie, that my medical opinion is that you shouldn't be running anywhere. I just can't force you to accept to take treatment if you don't want it. But I can make you take this." She handed Bonnie the small flashlight. "Good luck."

"Thank you for everything," Bonnie said, for an instant laying her pale hand on Dr. Alpert's long-fingered, dark brown one. "You be careful, too - of fallen trees and of Isobel, and of something red in the road."

"Bonnie, I'm leaving." Meredith was already outside the SUV.

"And lock your doors! And don't get out until you're away from the woods!" Bonnie said, as she tumbled down from the vehicle beside Meredith.

And then they ran. Of course, all that Bonnie had said about Meredith running in front of her, leaving her behind, was nonsense, and they both knew it. Meredith seized Bonnie's hand as soon as Bonnie's feet had touched the road and began running like a greyhound, dragging Bonnie along with her, at times seeming to whirl her over dips in the road.

Bonnie didn't need to be told how important speed was. She wished desperately that they had a car. She wished a lot of things, primarily that Mrs. Flowers lived in the middle of town and not way out here on the wild side.

At last, as Meredith had foreseen, she was winded, and her hand so slick with sweat that it slipped out of Meredith's hand. She bent almost double, hands on her knees, trying to get her breath.

"Bonnie! Wipe your hand! We have to run!"

"Just - give me - a minute - "

"We don't have a minute! Can't youhear it?Come on! "

"I justneed - to get - my breath."

"Bonnie, look behind you. And don't scream!"

Bonnie looked behind her, screamed, and then discovered that she wasn't winded after all. She took off, grabbing Meredith's hand.

She could hear it, now, even above her own wheezing breath and the pounding in her ears. It was an insect sound, not a buzzing but still a sound that her brain filed underbug . It sounded like the whipwhipwhip of a helicopter, only much higher in pitch, as if a helicopter could have insect-like tentacles instead of blades. With that one glance, she had made out an entire gray mass of those tentacles, with heads in front - and all the heads were open to show mouths full of white sharp teeth.

She struggled to turn on the flashlight. Night was falling, and she had no idea how long it would be until moonrise. All she knew was that the trees seemed to make everything darker, and thatthey were after her and Meredith.

The malach.

The whipping sound of tentacles beating the air was much louder now. Much closer. Bonnie didn't want to turn around and see the source of it. The sound was pushing her body beyond all sane limits. She couldn't help hearing over and over Matt's words:like putting my hand in a garbage disposal and turning it on. Like putting my hand in a garbage disposal...

Her hand and Meredith's were covered with sweat again. And the gray mass was definitely overtaking them. It was only half as far away as it had been at first, and the whipping noise was getting higher-pitched.

At the same time her legs felt like rubber. Literally. She couldn't feel her knees. And now they felt like rubber dissolving into gelatin.

Vipvipvipvipveeee...

It was the sound of one of them, closer than the rest. Closer, closer, and then it was in front of them, its mouth open in an oval shape with teeth all around the perimeter.

Just like Matt had said.

Bonnie had no breath to scream with. But she needed to scream. The headless thing with no eyes or features - just that horrible mouth - had turned ahead of them and was coming right for her. And her automatic response - to beat at it with her hands - could cost her an arm. Oh God, it was coming for her face....

"There's the boardinghouse," gasped Meredith, giving her a jerk that lifted her off her feet."Run!"

Bonnie ducked, just as the malach tried to collide with her. Instantly, she felt tentacleswhipwhipwhip into her curly hair. She was abruptly yanked backward to a painful stumble and Meredith's hand was torn out of hers. Her legs wanted to collapse. Her guts wanted her to scream.

"Oh, God, Meredith, it's got me! Run!Don't let one get you!"

In front of her, the boardinghouse was lit up like a hotel. Usually it was dark except for maybe Stefan's window and one other. But now it shone like a jewel, just beyond her reach.

"Bonnie, shut your eyes!"

Meredith hadn't left her. She was still here. Bonnie could feel vine-like tentacles gently brushing her ear, lightly tasting her sweaty forehead, working toward her face, her throat...She sobbed.

And then there was a sharp, loud crack mixed with a sound like a ripe melon bursting, and something damp scattered all over her back. She opened her eyes. Meredith was dropping a thick branch she had been holding like a baseball bat. The tentacles were already sliding out of Bonnie's hair.

Bonnie didn't want to look at the mess behind her.

"Meredith, you - "

"Come on - run!"

And she was running again. All the way up the gravel boardinghouse driveway, all the way up the path to the door. And there, in the doorway, Mrs. Flowers was standing with an old-fashioned kerosene lamp.

"Get in, get in," she said, and as Meredith and Bonnie skittered to a stop, sobbing for air, she slammed the door shut behind them. They all heard the sound that came next. It was like the sound the branch had made - a sharp crack plus a bursting, only much louder, and repeated many times over, like popcorn popping.

Bonnie was shaking as she took her hands away from her ears and slid down to sit on the entry-hall rug.

"What in heaven's name have you girls been doing to yourselves?" Mrs. Flowers said, eyeing Bonnie's forehead, Meredith's swollen nose, and their general state of sweaty exhaustion.

"It takes too - long to explain," Meredith got out. "Bonnie! You can sit down - upstairs."

Somehow or other Bonnie made it upstairs. Meredith went at once to the computer and turned it on, collapsing on the desk chair in front of it. Bonnie used the last of her energy to pull off her top. The back was stained with nameless insect juices. She crumpled it into a ball and threw it into a corner.

Then she fell down on Stefan's bed.

"What exactly did Matt say?" Meredith was getting her breath back.

"He saidLook in the backup - orLook for the backup file or something. Meredith, my head...it isn't good."

"Okay. Just relax. You did great out there."

"I made it because you saved me. Thanks...again...."

"Don't worry about it. But I don't understand," Meredith added in her talking-to-herself murmur. "There's a backup file of this note in the same directory, but it's no different. I don't see what Matt meant."

"Maybe he was confused," Bonnie said reluctantly. "Maybe he was just in a lot of pain and sort of off his head."

"Backup file, backup file...wait a minute! Doesn't Word automatically save a backup in some weird place, like under the administrator directory or somewhere?" Meredith was clicking rapidly through directories. Then she said, in a disappointed voice, "No, nothing there."

She sat back, letting her breath out sharply. Bonnie knew what she must be thinking. Their long and desperate run through danger couldn't all be for nothing. Itcouldn't .

Then, slowly, Meredith said, "There are a lot of temp files in here for one little note."

"What's a temp file?"

"It's just a temporary storage of your file while you're working on it. Usually it just looks like gibberish, though." The clicking started again. "But I must as well be thorough - oh!" She interrupted herself. The clicking stopped.

And then there was dead silence.

"What is it?" Bonnie said anxiously.

More silence.

"Meredith! Talk to me!Did you find a backup file? "

Meredith said nothing. She seemed not even to hear. She was reading with what looked like horrified fascination.
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