The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 28)

Matt had no idea what time it was, but it was deep dusk under the trees. He was lying sideways in Elena's new car, as if he'd been tossed in and forgotten. His entire body was in pain.

This time he awoke and immediately thought, Elena. But he couldn't see the white of her camisole anywhere, and when he called, first softly, then shouting, he got no answer.

So now he was feeling his way around the clearing, on hands and knees. Damon seemed to have gone and that gave him a spark of hope and courage that lit up his mind like a beacon. He found the discarded Pendleton shirt – considerably trampled. But when he couldn't find another soft warm body in the clearing, his heart crashed down somewhere around his boots.

And then he remembered the Jaguar. He fumbled frantically in one pocket for the keys, came up empty, and finally discovered, inexplicably, that they were in the ignition.

He lived through the agonizing moment when the car wouldn't start, and then was shocked to see the brightness of its headlights. He puzzled briefly about how to turn the car while making sure he wasn't running a limp Elena over, then dug through the glove compartment box, flinging out manuals and pairs of sunglasses. Ah, and one lapis lazuli ring. Someone was keeping a spare here, just in case. He put it on; it fit well enough.

At last his fingers closed over a flashlight, and he was free to search the clearing as thoroughly as he wanted to.

No Elena.

No Ferrari either.

Damon had taken her somewhere.

All right, then, he would track them. To do that he had to leave Elena's car behind, but he had already seen what these monsters could do to cars, so that wasn't saying much.

He would have to be careful with the flashlight, too. Who knew how much charge the batteries had left?

For the hell of it, he tried calling Bonnie's mobile phone, and then her home phone, and then the boardinghouse. No signal, even though according to the phone itself, there should have been. No need to question why, either – this was the Old Wood, messing with things as usual. He didn't even ask himself why it was Bonnie's number he called first, when Meredith would probably be more sensible.

He found the tracks of the Ferrari easily. Damon had sped out of here like a bat…Matt smiled grimly as he finished the sentence in his mind.

And then he'd driven as if to get out of the Old Wood. This was easy, it was clear that either Damon had been going too fast for proper control or that Elena had been fighting, because in a number of places, mainly around corners, the tire tracks showed up clearly against the soft ground beside the road.

Matt was especially careful not to step on anything that might be a clue. He might have to backtrack at some point. He was careful, too, to ignore the quiet noises of the night around him. He knew the malach were out there, but he refused to let himself think about them.

And he never even asked himself why he was doing this, deliberately going into danger instead of retreating from it, instead of trying to drive the Jaguar out of the Old Wood. After all, Stefan hadn't left him as bodyguard.

But then you couldn't trust anything that Damon might say, he thought.

And besides – well, he'd always kept one eye out for Elena, even before their first date. He might be clumsy, slow, and weak in comparison to their enemies now, but he would always try.

It was pitch-dark now. The last remnants of twilight had left the sky, and if Matt looked up he could see clouds and stars – with trees leaning in ominously from either side.

He was getting toward the end of the road. The Dunstans' house should be coming up on the right pretty soon. He'd ask them if they'd seen –


At first his mind flew to ridiculous alternatives, like dark red paint. But his flashlight had caught reddish brown stains on the roadside just as the road made a sharp curve. That wasblood on the road there. And not just a little blood.

Being careful to walk well around the red-brown marks, running his flashlight over and over the far side of the road, Matt began to put together what must have happened.

Elena had jumped.

Either that or Damon had pushed her out of a speeding car – and after all the trouble he'd taken to get her, that didn't make much sense. Of course, he might have already bled her until he was satisfied – Matt's fingers went up to his sore neck instinctively – but then, why take her in the car at all?

To kill her by pushing her out?

A stupid way to do it, but maybe Damon had been counting on his little pets to take care of the body.

Possible, but not very likely.

Whatwas likely?

Well, the Dunstans' house was coming up on this side of the road, but you couldn't see it from here. And it would be just like Elena to jump out of a speeding car as it rounded a sharp corner. It would take brains, and guts, and a breathtaking trust in sheer luck that it wouldn't kill her.

Matt's flashlight slowly traced the devastation of a long hedge of rhododendron bushes just off the road.

My God, that's what she did. Yeah. She jumped out and tried to roll. Jeez, she was lucky not to break her neck. But she kept rolling, grabbing at roots and creepers to stop herself. That's why they're all torn up.

A bubble of elation was rising in Matt. He was doing it. He was tracking Elena. He could see her fall as clearly as if he'd been there.

But then she got flipped by that tree root, he thought as he continued to follow her trail. That would have hurt. And she'd slammed down and rolled on the concrete for a bit – that must have been agony; she'd left a lot of blood here, and then back into the bushes.

And then what? The rhododendron showed no more signs of her fall. What had happened here? Had Damon reversed the Ferrari fast enough and gotten her back?

No, Matt decided, examining the earth carefully. There was only one set of footprints here, and it was Elena's. Elena had gotten up here – only to fall down again, probably from injury. And then she'd managed to get up again, but the marks were weird, a normal footprint on one side and a deep but small indentation on the other.

A crutch. She found herself a crutch. Yeah, and that dragging mark was the mark of her bad foot. She walked up to this tree, and then around it – or hopped, actually, that's what it looked like. And then she'd headed for the Dunstans'.

Smart girl. She was probably unrecognizable by now, and anyway, who cared if they noticed the resemblance between her and the late, great Elena Gilbert? She could be Elena's cousin from Philadelphia.

So she'd gone, one, two, three…eight steps – and there was the Dunstan house. Matt could see lights. Matt could smell horses. Excitedly, he ran the rest of the way – taking a few falls that didn't do his aching body any good, but still heading straight for the back porch light. The Dunstans weren't front porch people.

When he got to the door, he pounded on it almost frenziedly. He'd found her. He'd found Elena!

It seemed a long time before the door opened a crack. Matt automatically wedged his foot in the crack while thinking, Yes, good, you're cautious people. Not the type to let a vampire in after you'd just seen a girl covered in blood.

"Yes? What do you want?"

"It's me, Matt Honeycutt," he said to the eye that he could see peering out of the slit of open door. "I've come for El – for the girl."

"What girl are you talking about?" the voice said gruffly.

"Look, you don't have to worry. It's me – Jake knows me from school. And Kristin knows me, too. I've come to help."

Something in the sincerity of his voice seemed to strike a chord in the person behind the door. It was opened to reveal a large, dark-haired man who was wearing an under-shirt and needed a shave. Behind him, in the living room was a tall, thin, almost gaunt woman. She looked as if she had been crying. Behind both of them was Jake, who'd been a year senior to Matt at Robert E. Lee High.

"Jake," Matt said. But he got no answer back except a dull look of anguish.

"What's wrong?"Matt demanded, terrified. "A girl came by here a while ago – she was hurt – but – but – you let her in, right?"

"No girl's come by here," said Mr. Dunstan flatly.

"She had to have. I followed her trail – she left a trail inblood , do you understand, almost up to your door ." Matt wasn't letting himself think. Somehow, if he kept telling the facts loudly enough, they would produce Elena.

"More trouble," Jake said, but in a dull voice that went with his expression.

Mrs. Dunstan seemed the most sympathetic. "We heard a voice out in the night, but when we looked, there was no one there. And we have troubles of our own."

It was then, right on cue, that Kristin burst into the room. Matt stared at her with a feeling of d��¦j���� vu. She was dressed up something like Tami Bryce. She had cut off the bottoms of her jeans shorts until they were practically nonexistent. On top she was wearing a bikini top, but with – Matt hastily turned his eyes away – two big round holes cut just where Tami had had round pieces of cardboard. And she'd decorated herself with glitter glue.

God! She's only, what, twelve? Thirteen? How could she possibly be acting this way?

But the next moment, his whole body was vibrating in shock. Kristin had pasted herself against him and was cooing, "Matt Honey-butt! You came to see me!"

Matt breathed carefully to get over his shock.Matt Honey-butt . She couldn't know that. She didn't even go to the same school as Tami did. Why would Tami have called her and – told her something like that?

He shook his head, as if to clear it. Then he looked at Mrs. Dunstan, who had seemed kindest. "Can I use your phone?" he asked. "I need – Ireally need to make a couple of calls."

"The phone's been down since yesterday," Mr. Dunstan said harshly. He didn't try to move Kristin away from Matt, which was odd because he was clearly angry. "Probably a fallen tree. And you know mobile phones don't work out here."

"But – " Matt's mind spun into overdrive. "You really mean that no teenage girl came up to your house asking for help? A girl with blond hair and blue eyes? I swear, I'm not the one who hurt her. I swear I want to help her."

"Matt Honey-butt? I'm making a tattoo, just for you." Still pressed up behind him, Kristin extended her left arm. Matt stared at it, horrified. She had obviously used needles or a pin to prick holes in her left forearm, and then opened a fountain pen's cartridge of ink to supply the dark blue color. It was your basic prison-type tattoo, done by a child. The straggling letters M A T were already visible, along with a smudge of ink that was probably going to be another T.

No wonder they weren't thrilled about letting me in, Matt thought, dazed. Now Kristin had both arms around his waist, making it hard to breathe. She was on tiptoe, talking to him, whispering rapidly some of the obscene things Tami had said.

He stared at Mrs. Dunstan. "Honest, I haven't even seen Kristin for – it must be nearly a year. We had an end of the year carnival, and Kristin helped with the pony rides, but…"

Mrs. Dunstan was nodding slowly. "It's not your fault. She's been acting the same way with Jake. Her own brother. And with – with her father. But I'm tellingyou the truth; we haven't seen any other girl. No one but you has come to the door today."

"Okay." Matt's eyes were watering. His brain, attuned first of all to his own survival, was telling him to save his breath, not to argue. Telling him to say, "Kristin – I really can't breathe – "

"But Ilove you, Matt Honey-butt. I don't want you toever leave me. Especially for that old whore. That old whore with worms in her eye-sockets…"

Again Matt felt the sense of the world rocking. But he couldn't gasp. He didn't have the air. Pop-eyed, he turned helplessly toward Mr. Dunstan, who was closest.

"Can't – breathe – "

How could a thirteen-year-old be so strong? It was taking both Mr. Dunstan and Jake to pry her off him. No, even that wasn't working. He was beginning to see a gray network pulsating before his eyes. He needed air.

There was a sharp crack that ended with a meaty sound. And then another. Suddenly he could breathe again.

"No, Jacob! No more!" Mrs. Dunstan cried. "She let him go – don't hit her anymore!"

When Matt's vision cleared, Mr. Dunstan was doing up his belt. Kristin was wailing, "Just youwaaa -hate! Just youwaa-haate! You'll besor- ry!" Then she rushed from the room.

"I don't know if this helps or makes it worse," Matt said when he'd gotten his breath back, "but Kristin isn't the only girl acting this way. There's at least one other one in the town – "

"All I care about is my Kristin," Mrs. Dunstan said. "And that…thingisn't her."

Matt nodded. But there was something he needed to do now. He had to find Elena.

"If a blond girl does come to the door and asks for help, will you please let her in?" he asked Mrs. Dunstan. "Please? But don't let any guys in – not even me if you don't want," he blurted.

For a moment his eyes and Mrs. Dunstan's eyes met, and he felt a connection. Then she nodded and hastened to get him out of the house.

All right, Matt thought. Elena was headed for here, but she didn't quite get here. So look at the signs.

He looked. And what the signs showed him was that, within a few feet of the Dunstan property, she had inexplicably turned sharply right, deeply into the forest.

Why? Had something scared her? Or had she – Matt felt sick to his stomach – somehow been tricked into hobbling on and on, until at last she left all human help behind?

All he could do was to follow her into the woods.