The Awakening (Chapter Sixteen)

Elena hurried toward Robert E. Lee, feeling as if she'd been away from it for years. Last night seemed like something from her distant childhood, barely remembered. But she knew that today there would be its consequences to face.

Last night she'd had to face Aunt Judith. Her aunt had been terribly upset when neighbors had told her about the murder, and even more upset that no one seemed to know where Elena was. By the time Elena had arrived home at nearly two in the morning, she had been frantic with worry.

Elena hadn't been able to explain. She could only say that she'd been with Stefan, and that she knew he had been accused, and that she knew was innocent. All the rest, everything else that had happened, she had had to keep to herself. Even if Aunt Judith had believed it, she would never have understood.

And this morning Elena had slept in, and now she was late. The streets were deserted except for her, as she hurried on toward the school. Overhead,, the sky was gray and a wind was rising. She desperately wanted to see Stefan. All night, while she'd been sleeping so heavily, she'd had nightmares about him.

One dream had been especially real. In it she saw Stefan's pale face and his angry, accusing eyes. He held up a book to her and said, "How could you, Elena? How could you?" Then he dropped the book at her feet and walked away. She called after him, pleading, but he went on walking until he disappeared in darkness. When she looked down at the book, she saw it was bound in dark blue velvet. Her diary.

A quiver of anger went through her as she thought again of how her diary had been stolen. But what did the dream mean? What was in her diary to make Stefan look like that?  

She didn't know. All she knew was that she needed to see him, to hear his voice, to feel his arms around her. Being away from him was like being separated from her own flesh.

She ran up the steps of the high school into the nearly empty corridors. She headed toward the foreign-language wing, because she knew that Stefan's first class was Latin. If she could just see him for a moment, she would be all right.

But he wasn't in class. Through the little window in the door, she saw his empty seat. Matt was there, and the expression on his face made her feel more frightened than ever. He kept glancing at Stefan's desk with a look of sick apprehension.

Elena turned away from the door mechanically. Like an automaton, she climbed the stairs and walked to her trigonometry classroom. As she opened the door, she saw every face turn toward her, and she slipped hastily into the empty desk beside Meredith.

Ms. Halpern stopped the lesson for a moment and looked at her, then continued. When the teacher had turned back to the blackboard, Elena looked at Meredith.

Meredith reached over to take her hand. "Are you all right?" she whispered.

"I don't know," said Elena stupidly. She felt as if the very air around her was smothering her, as if there were a crushing weight all around her. Meredith's fingers felt dry and hot. "Meredith, do you know what's happened to Stefan?"

"You meanyou don't know?" Meredith's dark eyes widened, and Elena felt the weight grow even more crushing. It was like being deep, deep under water without a pressure suit.

"They haven't… arrested him, have they?" she said, forcing the words out.

"Elena, it's worse than that. He's disappeared. The police went to the boarding house early this morning and he wasn't there. They came to school, too, but he never showed up today. They said they'd found his car abandoned out by Old Creek Road. Elena, they think he's left, skipped town, because he's guilty."  

"That's not true," said Elena through her teeth. She saw people turn around and look at her, but she was beyond caring. "He's innocent!"  

"I know you think so, Elena, but why else would he leave?"  

"He wouldn't. He didn't." Something was burning inside Elena, a fire of anger that pushed back at the crushing fear. She was breathing raggedly. "He would never have left of his own free will."  

"You mean someone forced him? But who? Tyler wouldn't dare-"  

"Forced him, or worse," Elena interrupted. The entire class was staring at them now, and Ms. Halpern was opening her mouth. Elena stood up suddenly, looking at them without seeing. "God help him if he's hurt Stefan," she said. "Godhelp him." Then she whirled and made for the door.

"Elena, come back! Elena!" She could hear shouts behind her, Meredith's and Ms. Halpern's. She walked on, faster and faster, seeing only what was straight ahead of her, her mind fixed on one thing.

They thought she was going after Tyler Smallwood. Good. They could waste their time running in the wrong direction. She knew what she had to do.

She left the school, plunging into the cold autumn air. She moved quickly, legs eating up the distance between the school and the Old Creek Road. From there she turned toward Wickery Bridge and the graveyard.

An icy wind whipped her hair back and stung her face. Oak leaves were flying around her, swirling in the air. But the conflagration in her heart was searing hot and burned away the cold. She knew now what a towering rage meant. She strode past the purple beeches and the weeping willows into the center of the old graveyard and looked around her with feverish eyes.

Above, the clouds were flowing along like a lead-gray river. The limbs of the oaks and beeches lashed together wildly. A gust threw handfuls of leaves into her face. It was as if the graveyard were trying to drive her out, as if it were showing her its power, gathering itself to do something awful to her.

Elena ignored all of it. She spun around, her burning gaze searching between the headstones. Then she turned and shouted directly into the fury of the wind. Just one word, but the one she knew would bring him.


[The End]