The Return: Midnight (Chapter 30)

"Strip to your underwear and get in on the other side,"Damon said. His voice was neither angry nor fatuous.

He added shortly, "Elena is dying."

The last three words seemed to affect Stefan particularly, although Elena couldn't parse them. Stefan wasn't moving, just breathing hard, his eyes wide. "Bonnie and I have been gathering hay and fuel and we're All right."

"You've been exercising – moving about – wearing clothes that kept you warm. She's been dunked in ice water and sitting Still – high up in the wind. I got the other thurg to break off wood from the dead trees around here and try it on the fire. Now get the hel in, Stefan, and give her some body warmth, or I'm going to make her a vampire."

"Nnn,"Elena tried to say, but Stefan didn't seem to understand.

Damon, however, said, "Don't worry. He's going to warm you up from the other side. You won't have to become a vampire just yet. For God's sake,"he added suddenly, explosively,

"some prince you picked!"

Stefan's voice was quiet and tense. "You tried putting her in a thermal envelope?"

"Of course I tried, you idiot! No magic works beyond the Mirror except telepathy."

Elena had no sense of time going by, but suddenly there was a familiar body pressed against hers from the other side.

And somewhere directly in her mind: Elena? Elena? You're All right, aren't you, Elena? I don't care whether you're playing a joke on me. But you're real y All right, aren't you?

Just tell me that, love.

Elena wasn't able to answer at all.

Dimly, fragments of sound came to her ears: "Bonnie…on top of her and…pack ourselves back on either side."

And dul feelings stirred her sense of touch: a smal body, almost weightless, like a thick blanket, pressing down on her.

Someone sobbing, tears dripping on her neck from above.

And warmth on either side.

I'm asleep with the other kittens, she thought, dozing. Maybe we'l have a nice dream.

"I wish we could know how they're doing,"Meredith said, on a pause from one of her pacing bouts.

"I wish they knew how we're doing,"Matt said wearily as he taped another note card amulet onto a window. And another.

"Do you know, my dears, I kept hearing a child crying last night in my dreams,"Mrs. Flowers said slowly.

Meredith turned, startled. "So did I! Right out on the front porch, it sounded like. But I was too tired to get up."

"It might mean something – or nothing at all."Mrs. Flowers frowned. She was boiling tap water for tea. The electricity was sporadic. Matt and Saber had driven back to the boardinghouse earlier that day so that Matt could gather Mrs.

Flowers's most important instruments – her herbs for teas, compresses, and poultices. He hadn't had the heart to tel her about the state of the boardinghouse, or what those maggot malach had done to it. He'd had to find a loose board from the garage to get from the hal to the kitchen.

There was no third floor anymore and very little second.

At least he hadn't run into Shinichi.

"What I'm saying is that maybe there's some real kid out there,"Meredith said.

"At night alone? Sounds like a Shinichi zombie,"Matt said.

"Maybe. But maybe not. Mrs. Flowers, do you have any idea of when you hear the crying? Early in the night or late?"

"Let me think, dear. It seems to me that I hear it whenever I wake up – and old people wake up quite frequently."

"I usual y hear it toward the morning – but I usual y sleep without dreaming for the first few hours and wake up early."

Mrs. Flowers turned to Matt. "What about you, Matt, dear?

Do you ever hear a sound like crying?"

Matt, who deliberately overworked himself these days to try to get a solid six hours of sleep at night, said, "I've heard the wind kind of moaning and sobbing around midnight, I guess."

"It sounds as if we have an al -night ghost, my dears,"Mrs.

Flowers said calmly and poured them each a mug of tea.

Matt saw Meredith glance at him uneasily – but Meredith didn't know Mrs. Flowers as well as he did.

"You don't real y think it's a ghost,"he said now.

"No, I don't. Ma ma hasn't said a word about it, and then it's your house, Matt, dear. No gruesome murders or hideous secrets in its past, I should think. Let me see…"She shut her eyes and let Matt and Meredith go on with their tea. Then she opened her eyes and gave them a puzzled smile.

"Ma ma says 'search the house for your ghost. Then listen well to what it has to say.'"

"Okay,"Matt said poker-faced. "Since it's my house, I guess I'd better search for it. But when? Should I set an alarm?"

"I think the best way would be to arrange a watch rota," Mrs. Flowers said.

"Okay,"Meredith agreed promptly. "I'l take the middle watch, from midnight to four; Matt can have the first one; and Mrs.

Flowers, you can have the early-morning one, and get a nap in the afternoon if you want."

Matt felt uneasy. "Why don't we just break it up into two watches and the two of you can share one? I'l take the other."

"Because, dear Matt,"Meredith said, "we don't want to be treated like 'ladies.'And don't argue" – she hefted the fighting stave – "because I'm the one with the heavy equipment."

Something was shaking the room. Shaking Matt with it. Stillhalf-asleep, he put his hand under his pil ow and pul ed out the revolver. A hand grabbed it and he heard a voice.

"Matt! It's me, Meredith! Wake up, wil you?"

Groggily, Matt reached for the lamp switch. Again, strong, slim cold fingers prevented him from doing what he wanted.

"No light,"Meredith whispered. "It's very faint, but if you come with me quietly, you can hear it. The crying."

That woke Matt up the rest of the way. "Right now?"

"Right now."

Doing his best to walk quietly through the dark hal s, Matt fol owed Meredith to the downstairs living room.

"Sh!"Meredith warned. "Listen."

Matt listened. He could hear some sobbing All right, and maybe some words, but they didn't sound al that ghostly to him. He put his ear to the wal and listened. The crying was louder.

"Do we have a flashlight?"Matt asked.

"I have two, my dears. But this is a very dangerous time of night."Mrs. Flowers was a shadow against darkness.

"Please give the flashlights to us,"said Matt. "I don't think our ghost is very supernatural. What time is it, anyway?"

"About twelve forty A.M.,"Meredith answered. "But why do you think it isn't supernatural?"

"Because I think it's living in our basement,"Matt said. "I think it's Cole Reece. The kid who ate his guinea pig."

Ten minutes later, with the stave, two flashlights, and Saber, they had caught their ghost.

"I didn't mean anything bad,"Cole sobbed, when they had lured him upstairs with promises of candy and "magic"tea that would let him sleep.

"I didn't hurt anything, honest,"he choked, wolfing down Hershey bar after Hershey bar from their emergency rations.

"I'm scared that he's onto me. Because after you hit me with that sticky note, I haven't been able to hear him in my head anymore. And then you came here" – he gestured around Matt's house – "and you had amulets and I figured it would be better to stay inside them. Or it could be my Last Midnight too."

He was babbling. But something about the last words made Matt say, "What do you mean…'your Last Midnight too'?"

Cole looked at him in terror. The rim of melted Hershey bar around his lips made Matt remember the last time he'd seen the boy.

"You know, don't you?"Cole faltered. "About the midnights?

The countdown? Twelve days til the Last Midnight? Eleven days til the Last Midnight? And now…tonight is one day til the Last Midnight…"He began to sob again, even while cramming chocolate into his mouth. It was clear that he was starving.

"But what happens on the Last Midnight?"Meredith asked.

"You know, don't you? That that's the time when… you know."Maddeningly Cole seemed to think they were testing him.

Matt put his hands on Cole's shoulders, and to his horror felt bones under his fingers. The kid really was starving, he thought, forgiving him al the Hershey bars. His eyes met Mrs.

Flowers's eyes and she immediately went to the kitchen.

But Cole wasn't answering; he was mumbling incoherently.

Matt forced himself to apply pressure to those bony shoulders.

"Cole, talk louder! What's this Last Midnight about?"

"You know. That's when…al the kids… you know, they wait up and at midnight…they get knives or guns. You know. And we go into our parents'room while they're asleep and…"Cole broke down again, but Matt noticed he had slipped into saying "we"and "our"by the end.

Meredith spoke in her calm, steady voice. "The children are going to kil their parents, is that right?"

"He showed us where to slash or stab. Or if there's a gun – "

Matt had heard enough. "You can stay – in the basement,"he said. "And here are some amulets. Put them on you if you feel like you're in danger."He gave Cole a whole packet of Post-it Notes.

"Just don't be afraid,"Meredith added, as Mrs. Flowers came in with a plate of sausages and fried potatoes for Cole. At any other time the smel would have made Matt hungry.

"It's just like that island in Japan,"he said. "Shinichi and Misao made it happen there, and they're going to do it again."

"I say time's running out. Actual y it's already the Last Midnight day – it's nearly one thirty in the morning,"Meredith said. "We have less than twenty-four hours. We should either get out of Fel 's Church or do something to arrange a confrontation."

"A confrontation? Without Elena or Damon or Stefan?"Matt said. "We'l be murdered. Don't forget Sheriff Mossberg."

"He didn't have this."Meredith tossed the fighting stave into the air, caught it neatly, and put it at her side.

Matt shook his head. "Shinichi wil Stillkil you. Or some little kid wil , with the semi-automatic from Daddy's closet."

"We have to do something."

Matt thought. His head was pounding. Final y he said, head lowered, "When I got the herbs I got Misao's star bal , too."

"You're kidding. Shinichi still didn't find it?"

"No. And maybe we could do something with it."

Matt looked at Meredith, who looked at Mrs. Flowers. Mrs.

Flowers said, "What about pouring out the liquid in different places in Fel 's Church? Just a drop here and a drop there?

We could ask the Power in it to protect the town. Maybe it would listen."

Meredith said, "That was the exact reason we wanted to get Shinichi's and Misao's star bal s in the first place. The star bal s control their owners, according to legend."

Matt said, "It may be old-ways thinking, but I agree."

Meredith said, "Then let's do it right now."

While the other two waited, Matt got Misao's star bal . It had a very, very little liquid on the bottom.

"After the Last Midnight she plans to fil it to the top with the energy of the new lives that get taken,"Meredith said.

"Well, she's not going to get a chance to do that,"Matt said flatly. "When we're done we'l destroy the container."

"But we probably should hurry,"Meredith added. "Let's get some weapons together: something silver, something long and heavy, like a fire iron. Shinichi's little zombies are not going to be happy – and who knows who's on his side?"