The Awakening (Chapter Eleven)
"Elena! What are you doing out here?" It was Meredith and Bonnie, hurrying down the hall toward her.
"Where have you been?" she said fiercely.
Meredith grimaced. "We couldn't find Shelby. And when we finally did find him, he was asleep. I'm serious," she added at Elena's incredulous look. "Asleep. And then we couldn't get him to wake up. It wasn't until the lights went back on that he opened his eyes. Then we started back to you. But what are you doinghere ?"
Elena hesitated. "I got tired of waiting," she said as lightly as she could. "I think we've done enough work for one day, anyway."
"Now you tell us," said Bonnie.
Meredith said nothing, but she gave Elena a keen, searching look. Elena had the uncomfortable feeling that those dark eyes saw beneath the surface.
All that weekend and throughout the following week, Elena worked on plans for the Haunted House. There was never enough time to be with Stefan, and that was frustrating, but even more frustrating was Stefan himself. She could sense his passion for her, but she could also sense that he was fighting it, still refusing to be completely alone with her. And in many ways he was just as much a mystery to her as he had been when she first saw him.
He never spoke about his family or his life before coming to Fell's Church, and if she asked any questions he turned them aside. Once she had asked him if he missed Italy, if he was sorry he'd come here. And for an instant his eyes had lightened, the green sparkling like oak leaves reflected in a running stream. "How could I be sorry, whenyou are here?" he said, and kissed her in a way that put all inquiries out of her mind. In that moment, Elena had known what it was like to be completely happy. She'd felt his joy, too, and when he pulled back she had seen that his face was alight, as if the sun shone through it.
"Oh, Elena," he'd whispered.
The good times were like that. But he had kissed her less and less frequently of late, and she felt the distance between them widening.
That Friday, she and Bonnie and Meredith decided to sleep over at the McCulloughs'. The sky was gray and threatening to drizzle as she and Meredith walked to Bonnie's house. It was unusually chilly for mid-October, and the trees lining the quiet street had already felt the nip of cold winds. The maples were a blaze of scarlet, while the ginkgoes were radiant yellow.
Bonnie greeted them at the door with: "Everybody's gone! We'll have the whole house to ourselves until tomorrow afternoon, when my family gets back from Leesburg." She beckoned them inside, grabbing for the overfed Pekingese that was trying to get out. "No, Yangtze, stay in. Yangtze, no, don't! No!"
But it was too late. Yangtze had escaped and was dashing through the front yard up to the single birch tree, where he yapped shrilly up into the branches, rolls of fat on his back jiggling.
"Oh, what's he afternow ?" said Bonnie, putting her hands over her ears. "It looks like a crow," said Meredith.
Elena stiffened. She took a few steps toward the tree, looking up into the golden leaves. And there it was. The same crow she had seen twice before. Perhaps three times before, she thought, remembering the dark shape winging up from the oak trees in the cemetery.
As she looked at it she felt her stomach clench in fear and her hands grow cold. It was staring at her again with its bright black eye, an almost human stare. That eye… where had she seen an eye like that before?
Suddenly all three girls jumped back as the crow gave a harsh croak and thrashed its wings, bursting out of the tree toward them. At the last moment it swooped down instead on the little dog, which was now barking hysterically. It came within inches of canine teeth and then soared back up again, flying over the house to disappear into the black walnut trees beyond.
The three girls stood frozen in astonishment. Then Bonnie and Meredith looked at each other, and the tension shattered in nervous laughter.
"For a moment I thought he was coming for us," said Bonnie, going over to the outraged Pekingese and dragging him, still barking, back into the house.
"So did I," said Elena quietly. And as she followed her friends inside, she did not join in the laughter.
Once she and Meredith had put their things away, however, the evening fell into a familiar pattern. It was hard to keep hold of her uneasiness sitting in Bonnie's cluttered living room beside a roaring fire, with a cup of hot chocolate in her hand. Soon the three of them were discussing the final plans for the Haunted House, and she relaxed.
"We're in pretty good shape," said Meredith at last. "Of course, we've spent so much time figuring out everyone else's costumes that we haven't even thought about our own."
"Mine's easy," said Bonnie. "I'm going to be a druid priestess, and I only need a garland of oak leaves in my hair and some white robes. Mary and I can sew it in one night."
"I think I'll be a witch," said Meredith thoughtfully. "All that takes is a long black dress. What about you, Elena?"
Elena smiled. "Well, it was supposed to be a secret, but… Aunt Judith let me go to a dressmaker. I found a picture of a Renaissance gown in one of the books I used for my oral report, and we're having it copied. It's Venetian silk, ice blue, and it's absolutely beautiful."
"It sounds beautiful," Bonnie said. "And expensive."
"I'm using my own money from my parents' trust. I just hope Stefan likes it. It's a surprise for him, and… well, I just hope he likes it."
"What's Stefan going to be? Is he helping with the Haunted House?" said Bonnie curiously.
"I don't know," Elena said after a moment. "He doesn't seem too thrilled with the whole Halloween thing."
"It's hard to see him all wrapped up in torn sheets and covered with fake blood like the other guys," agreed Meredith. "He seems… well, too dignified for that."
"I know!" said Bonnie. "I know exactly what he can be, and he'll hardly have to dress up at all. Look, he's foreign, he's sort of pale, he has that wonderful brooding look… Put him in tails and you've got a perfect Count Dracula!"
Elena smiled in spite of herself. "Well, I'll ask him," she said.
"Speaking of Stefan," said Meredith, her dark eyes on Elena's, "how are things going?"
Elena sighed, looking away into the fire. "I'm… not sure," she said at last, slowly. "There are times when everything is wonderful, and then there are other times when…"
Meredith and Bonnie exchanged a glance, and then Meredith spoke gently. "Other times when what?"
Elena hesitated, debating. Then she came to a decision. "Just a sec," she said, and got up and hurried up the stairs. She came back down with a small blue velvet book in her hands.
"I wrote some of it down last night when I couldn't sleep," she said. "This says it better than I could now." She found the page, took a deep breath, and began:
"I feel awful tonight. AndIhave to share it with someone .
"Something is going wrong with Stefan and me. There is this terrible sadness inside him that I can't reach, and it's driving us apart. I don't know what to do.
"I can't bear the thought of losing him. But he's so very unhappy about something, and if he won't tell me what it is, if he won't trust me that much, I don't see any hope for us.
"Yesterday when he was holding me I felt something smooth and round underneath his shirt, something on a chain. I asked him, teasingly, if it was a gift from Caroline. And he just froze and wouldn't talk anymore. It was as if he were suddenly a thousand miles away, and his eyes… there was so much pain in his eyes that I could hardly stand it."
Elena stopped reading and traced the last lines written in the journal silently with her eyes. I feel as if someone has hurt him terribly in the past and he's never got over it. But I also think there's something he's afraid of, some secret he's afraid I'll find out. If I only knew what that was, I could prove to him that he can trust me. That he can trust me no matter what happens, to the end .
"If only I knew," she whispered.
"If only you knew what?" said Meredith, and Elena looked up, startled. "Oh-if only I knew what was going to happen," she said quickly, closing the diary. "I mean, if I knew we were going to break up eventually, I suppose I'd just want to get it over with. And if I knew it was going to turn out all right in the end, I wouldn't mind anything that happens now. But just going day after day without being sure is awful."
Bonnie bit her lip, then sat up, eyes sparkling. "I can show you a way to find out, Elena," she said. "My grandmother told me the way to find out who you're going to marry. It's called a dumb supper."
"Let me guess, an old druid trick," said Meredith.
"I don't know how old it is," said Bonnie. "My grandmother says there have always been dumb suppers. Anyway, it works. My mother saw my father's image when she tried it, and a month later they were married. It's easy, Elena; and what have you got to lose?"
Elena looked from Bonnie to Meredith. "I don't know," she said. "But, look, you don't really believe…"
Bonnie drew herself up with affronted dignity. "Are you calling my mother a liar? Oh, come on, Elena, there's no harm in trying. Why not?"
"What would I have to do?" said Elena doubtfully. She felt strangely intrigued, but at the same time rather frightened.
"It's simple. We have to get everything ready before the stroke of midnight…"
Five minutes before midnight, Elena stood in the McCulloughs' dining room, feeling more foolish than anything else. From the backyard, she could hear Yangtze's frantic barking, but inside the house there was no sound except the unhurried tick of the grandfather clock. Following Bonnie's instructions, she had set the big black walnut table with one plate, one glass, and one set of silverware, all the time not saying a word. Then she had lit a single candle in a candleholder in the center of the table, and positioned herself behind the chair with the place setting.
According to Bonnie, on the stroke of midnight she was supposed to pull the chair back and invite her future husband in. At that point, the candle would blow out and she would see a ghostly figure in the chair.
Earlier, she'd been a little uneasy about this, uncertain that she wanted to see any ghostly figures, even of her husband-to-be. But just now the whole thing seemed silly and harmless. As the clock began to chime, she straightened up and got a better grip on the chair back. Bonnie had told her not to let go until the ceremony was over.
Oh, thiswas silly. Maybe she wouldn't say the words… but when the clock started to toll out the hour, she heard herself speaking.
"Come in," she said self-consciously to the empty room, drawing out the chair. "Come in, come in…"
The candle went out.
Elena started in the sudden darkness. She'd felt the wind, a cold gust that had blown out the candle. It came from the French doors behind her, and she turned quickly, one hand still on the chair. She would have sworn those doors were shut.
Something moved in the darkness.
Terror washed through Elena, sweeping away her self-consciousness and any trace of amusement. Oh, God, what had she done, what had she brought on herself? Her heart contracted and she felt as if she had been plunged, without warning, into her most dreadful nightmare. It was not only dark but utterly silent; there was nothing to see and nothing to hear, and she was falling…
"Allow me," said a voice, and a bright flame sputtered in the darkness.
For a terrible, sickening instant she thought it was Tyler, remembering his lighter in the ruined church on the hill. But as the candle on the table sprang to life, she saw the pale, long-fingered hand that held it. Not Tyler's beefy red fist. She thought for an instant it was Stefan's, and then her eyes lifted to the face.
"You!" she said, astounded. "What do you think you're doing here?" She looked from him to the French doors, which were indeed open, showing the side lawn. "Do you always just walk into other people's houses uninvited?"
"But you asked me to come in." His voice was as she remembered it, quiet, ironical and amused. She remembered the smile, too. "Thank you," he added, and gracefully sat down in the chair she had drawn out.
She snatched her hand off the back. "I wasn't invitingyou ," she said helplessly, caught between indignation and embarrassment. "What were you doing hanging around outside Bonnie's house?"
He smiled. In the candlelight, his black hair shone almost like liquid, too soft and fine for human hair. His face was very pale, but at the same time utterly compelling. And his eyes caught her own and held them.
" 'Helen, thy beauty is to me/Like those Nicean barks of yore/That gently, over a perfumed sea…' "
"I think you'd better leave now." She didn't want him to talk anymore. His voice did strange things to her, made her feel oddly weak, started a melting in her stomach. "You shouldn't be here. Please." She reached for the candle, meaning to take it and leave him, fighting off the dizziness that threatened to overcome her.
But before she could grasp it, he did something extraordinary. He caught her reaching hand, not roughly but gently, and held it in his cool slender fingers. Then he turned her hand over, bent his dark head, and kissed her palm.
"Don't…" whispered Elena, stunned.
"Come with me," he said, and looked up into her eyes.
"Please don't…" she whispered again, the world swimming around her. He was mad; what was he talking about? Come with him where? But she felt so dizzy, so faint.
He was standing, supporting her. She leaned against him, felt those cool fingers on the first button of the shirt at her throat, "Please, no…"
"It's all right. You'll see." He pulled the shirt away from her neck, his other hand behind her head.
"No." Suddenly, strength returned to her, and she jerked away from him, stumbling against the chair. "I told you to leave, and I meant it. Get out-now!"
For an instant, pure fury surged in his eyes, a dark wave of menace. Then they went calm and cold and he smiled, a swift, brilliant smile that he turned off again instantly.
"I'll leave," he said. "For the moment."
She shook her head and watched him go out the French doors without speaking. When they had shut behind him, she stood in the silence, trying to get her breath.
The silence… but it shouldn't be silent. She turned toward the grandfather clock in bewilderment and saw that it had stopped. But before she could examine it closely, she heard Meredith's and Bonnie's raised voices.
She hurried out into the hall, feeling the unaccustomed weakness in her legs, pulling her shirt back up and buttoning it. The back door was open, and she could see two figures outside, stooping over something on the lawn.
"Bonnie? Meredith? What's wrong?"
Bonnie looked up as Elena reached them. Her eyes were filled with tears. "Oh, Elena, he's dead."
With a chill of horror, Elena stared down at the little bundle at Bonnie's feet. It was the Pekingese, lying very stiffly on his side, eyes open. "Oh, Bonnie," she said.
"He was old," said Bonnie, "but I never expected him to go this quickly. Just a little while ago, he was barking."
"I think we'd better go inside," said Meredith, and Elena looked up at her and nodded. Tonight was not a night to be out in the dark. It was not a night to invite things inside, either. She knew that now, although she still didn't understand what had happened.
It was when they got back in the living room that she found her diary was missing.
Stefan lifted his head from the velvet-soft neck of the doe. The woods were filled with night noises, and he couldn't be sure which had disturbed him.
With the Power of his mind distracted, the deer roused from its trance. He felt muscles quiver as she tried to get her feet under her.
Go, then, he thought, sitting back and releasing her entirely. With a twist and a heave, she was up and running.
He'd had enough. Fastidious, he licked at the corners of his mouth, feeling his canine teeth retract and blunt, oversensitive as always after a prolonged feed. It was hard to know what enough was anymore. There had been no spells of dizziness since the one beside the church, but he lived in fear of their return.
He lived in one specific fear: that he would come to his senses one day, his mind reeling with confusion, to find Elena's graceful body limp in his arms, her slim throat marked with two red wounds, her heart stilled forever. That was what he had to look forward to.
The blood lust, with all its myriad terrors and pleasures, was a mystery to him even now. Although he had lived with it every day for centuries, he still did not understand it. As a living human, he would no doubt have been disgusted, sickened, by the thought of drinking the rich warm stuff directly from a breathing body. That is, if someone had proposed such a thing to him in so many words.
But no words had been used that night, the night Katherine had changed him.
Even after all these years, the memory was clear. He had been asleep when she appeared in his chamber, moving as softly as a vision or a ghost. He had been asleep, alone…
She was wearing a fine linen shift when she came to him.
It was the night before the day she had named, the day when she would announce her choice. And she came to him.
A white hand parted the curtains around his bed, and Stefan woke from sleep, sitting up in alarm. When he saw her, pale golden hair gleaming about her shoulders, blue eyes lost in shadow, he was struck silent with amazement.
And with love. He had never seen anything more beautiful in his life. He trembled and tried to speak, but she put two cool fingers over his lips.
"Hush," she whispered, and the bed sank under new weight as she got in.
His face flamed, his heart was thundering with embarrassment and with excitement. There had never been a woman in his bed before. And this was Katherine, Katherine whose beauty seemed to come from heaven, Katherine whom he loved more than his own soul.
And because he loved her, he made a great effort. As she slipped under the sheets, drawing so near to him that he could feel the cool freshness of night air in her thin shift, he managed to speak.
"Katherine," he whispered. "We-I can wait. Until we are married in the church. I will have my father arrange it next week. It-it will not be long…"
"Hush," she whispered again, and he felt that coolness on his skin. He couldn't help himself; he put his arms around her, holding her to him.
"What we do now has nothing to do with that," she said, and reached out her slim fingers to stroke his throat.
He understood. And felt a flash of fear, which disappeared as her fingers went on stroking. He wanted this, wanted anything that would let him be with Katherine.
"Lie back, my love," she whispered. My love. The words sang through him as he lay back on the pillow, tilting his chin back so that his throat was exposed. His fear was gone, replaced by a happiness so great that he thought it would shatter him.
He felt the soft brush of her hair on his chest, and tried to calm his breathing. He felt her breath on his throat, and then her lips. And then her teeth.
There was a stinging pain, but he held himself still and made no sound, thinking only of Katherine, of how he wished to give to her. And almost at once the pain eased, and he felt the blood being drawn from his body. It was not terrible, as he had feared. It was a feeling of giving, of nurturing.
Then it was as if their minds were merging, becoming one. He could feel Katherine's joy in drinking from him, her delight in taking the warm blood that gave her life. And he knew she could feel his delight in giving. But reality was receding, the boundaries between dreams and waking becoming blurred. He could not think clearly; he could not think at all. He could onlyfeel , and his feelings were spiraling up and up, carrying him higher and higher, breaking his last ties with earth.
Sometime later, without knowing how he had gotten there, he found himself in her arms. She was cradling him like a mother holding an infant child, guiding his mouth to rest on the bare flesh just above the low neck of her night shift. There was a tiny wound there, a cut showing dark against the pale skin. He felt no fear or hesitation, and when she stroked his hair encouragingly, he began to suck.
Cold and precise, Stefan brushed dirt off his knees. The human world was asleep, lost in stupor, but his own senses were knife-keen. He should have been sated, but he was hungry again; the memory had wakened his appetite. Nostrils flaring wide to catch the musky scent of fox, he began to hunt.