The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 4)

"You're shaking. Let me do it alone," Meredith said, putting a hand on Bonnie's shoulder as they stood together in front of Caroline Forbes's house.

Bonnie started to lean into the pressure, but made herself stop. It was humiliating to be shaking so obviously on a Virginia morning in late July. It was humiliating to be treated like a child, too. But Meredith, who was only six months older, looked more adult than usual today. Her dark hair was pulled back, so that her eyes looked very large and her olive-skinned face with its high cheekbones was shown to its best advantage.

She could practically be my babysitter, Bonnie thought dejectedly. Meredith had high heels on, too, instead of her usual flats. Bonnie felt smaller and younger than ever in comparison. She ran a hand through her strawberry-blond curls, trying to fluff them up a precious half inch higher.

"I'm not scared. I'm c-cold," Bonnie said with all the dignity she could muster.

"I know. You feel something coming from there, don't you?" Meredith nodded at the house before them.

Bonnie looked sideways at it and then back at Meredith. Suddenly Meredith's adultness was more comforting than annoying. But before she looked at Caroline's house again she blurted, "What's with the spike heels?"

"Oh," Meredith said, glancing down. "Just practical thinking. If anything tries to grab my ankle this time, it gets this." She stamped and there was a satisfying clack from the sidewalk.

Bonnie almost smiled. "Did you bring your brass knuckles, too?"

"I don't need them; I'll knock Caroline out again barehanded if she tries anything. But quit changing the subject. I can do this alone."

Bonnie finally let herself put her own small hand on Meredith's slim, long-fingered one. She squeezed. "I know you can. But I'm the one who should. It was me she invited over."

"Yes," Meredith said, with a slight, elegant curl of her lip. "She's always known where to stick in the knife. Well, whatever happens, Caroline's brought it on herself. First we try to help her, for her sake and ours. Then we try to make her get help. After that – "

"After that," Bonnie said sadly, "there's no telling." She looked at Caroline's house again. It looked…skewed…in some way, as if she were seeing it through a distorting mirror. Besides that, it had a bad aura: black slashed across an ugly shade of gray-green. Bonnie had never seen a house with so much energy before.

And it was cold, this energy, like the breath out of a meat locker. Bonnie felt as if it would suck out her own life-force and turn it into ice, if it got the chance.

She let Meredith ring the doorbell. It had a slight echo to it, and when Mrs. Forbes answered, her voice seemed to echo slightly, as well. The inside of the house still had that funhouse mirror look to it, Bonnie thought, but even stranger was the feel. If she shut her eyes she would imagine herself in a much larger place, where the floor slanted sharply down.

"You came to see Caroline," Mrs. Forbes said. Her appearance shocked Bonnie. Caroline's mother looked like an old woman, with gray hair and a pinched white face.

"She's up in her room. I'll show you," Caroline's mother said.

"But Mrs. Forbes, we know where – " Meredith broke off when Bonnie put a hand on her arm. The faded, shrunken woman was leading the way. She had almost no aura at all, Bonnie realized, and was stricken to the heart. She'd known Caroline and her parents for so long – how could their relationships have come to this?

I won't call Caroline names, no matter what she does, Bonnie vowed silently. No matter what. Even…yes, even after what she's done to Matt. I'll try to remember something good about her.

But it was difficult to think at all in this house, much less to think of anything good. Bonnie knew the staircase was going up; she could see each step above her. But all her other senses told her she was going down. It was a horrifying feeling that made her dizzy: this sharp slant downward as she watched her feet climb.

There was also a smell, strange and pungent, of rotten eggs. It was a reeking, rotten odor that you tasted in the air.

Caroline's door was shut, and in front of it, lying on the floor, was a plate of food with a fork and carving knife on it. Mrs. Forbes hurried ahead of Bonnie and Meredith and quickly snatched up the plate, opened the door opposite Caroline's, and placed it in there, shutting the door behind her.

But just before it disappeared, Bonnie thought she saw movement in the heap of food on the fine bone china.

"She'll barely speak to me," Mrs. Forbes said in the same empty voice she'd used before. "But she did say that she was expecting you."

She hurried past them, leaving them alone in the corridor. The smell of rotten eggs – no, of sulfur, Bonnie realized, was very strong.

Sulfur – she recognized the smell from last year's chemistry class. But how did such a horrible smell get into Mrs. Forbes's elegant house? Bonnie turned to Meredith to ask, but Meredith was already shaking her head. Bonnie knew that expression.

Don't say anything.

Bonnie gulped, wiped her watering eyes, and watched Meredith turn the handle of Caroline's door.

The room was dark. Enough light shone from the hallway to show that Caroline's curtains had been reinforced by opaque bedspreads nailed over them. No one was in or on the bed.

"Come in! And shut that door fast!"

It was Caroline's voice, with Caroline's typical waspishness. A flood of relief swept over Bonnie. The voice wasn't a male bass that shook the room, or a howl, it was Caroline-in-a-bad-mood.

She stepped into the dimness before her.