The Struggle (Chapter Fourteen)

Bonnie shivered as she waited outside the tall Victorian house. The air was frosty this morning, and although it was almost eight o'clock the sun had never really come up. The sky was just one dense massed bank of gray and white clouds, creating an eerie twilight below.

She had begun to stamp her feet and rub her hands together when the Forbes' door opened. Bonnie moved back a little behind the shrubbery that was her hiding place and watched the family walk to their car. Mr. Forbes was carrying nothing but a camera. Mrs. Forbes had a purse and a folding seat. Daniel Forbes, Caroline's younger brother, had another seat. And Caroline…

Bonnie leaned forward, her breath hissing out in satisfaction. Caroline was dressed in jeans and a heavy sweater, and she was carrying some sort of white drawstring purse. Not big but big enough to hold a small diary.

"There she is, Aunt Judith. On the corner."

The car slowed to a halt, and Bonnie slid into the back seat with Elena.

"She's got a white drawstring purse," she murmured into Elena's ear as Aunt Judith pulled out again.

Tingling excitement swept over Elena, and she squeezed Bonnie's hand. "Good," she breathed. "Now we'll see if she brings it into Mrs. Grimesby's. If not, you tell Meredith it's in the car."

Bonnie nodded agreement and squeezed Elena's hand back.

They arrived at Mrs. Grimesby's just in time to see Caroline going inside with a white bag hanging from her arm. Bonnie and Elena exchanged a look. Now it was up to Elena to see where Caroline left it in the house.

"I'll get out here too, Miss Gilbert," said Bonnie as Elena jumped out of the car. She would wait outside with Meredith until Elena could tell them where the bag was. The important thing was not to let Caroline suspect anything unusual.

Mrs. Grimesby, who answered Elena's knock, was the Fell's Church librarian. Her house looked almost like a library itself; there were bookcases everywhere and books stacked on the floor. She was also the keeper of Fell's Church's historical artifacts, including clothing that had been preserved from the town's earliest days.

Just now the house was ringing with young voices, and the bedrooms were full of students in various stages of undress. Mrs. Grimesby always supervised the costumes for the pageant. Elena was ready to ask to be put in the same room with Caroline, but it wasn't necessary. Mrs. Grimesby was already ushering her in.

Caroline, stripped down to her fashionable underwear, gave Elena what was undoubtedly meant to be a nonchalant look, but Elena detected the vicious gloating beneath. She kept her own eyes on the bundle of clothing Mrs. Grimesby was picking up off the bed.

"Here you are, Elena. One of our most nicely preserved pieces – and all authentic, too, even the ribbons. We believe this dress belonged to Honoria Fell."

"It's beautiful," said Elena, as Mrs. Grimesby shook out the folds of thin white material. "What's it made of?"

"Moravian muslin and silk gauze. Since it's quite cold today you can wear that velvet jacket over it." The librarian indicated a dusty rose garment lying over a chair back.

Elena cast a surreptitious glance at Caroline as she began to change. Yes, there was the bag, at Caroline's feet. She debated making a grab for it, but Mrs. Grimesby was still in the room.

The muslin dress was very simple, its flowing material belted high under the bosom with a pale rose.

"Did it really belong to Honoria Fell?" she asked, thinking of the marble image of that lady lying on her tomb in the ruined church.

"That's the story, anyway," said Mrs. Grimesby. "She mentions a dress like it in her journal, so we're pretty sure."

"She kept a journal?" Elena was startled.

"Oh, yes. I have it in a case in the living room; I'll show it to you on the way out. Now for the jacket – oh, what's that?"

Something violet fluttered to the ground as Elena picked the jacket up.

She could feel her expression freeze. She caught up the note before Mrs. Grimesby could bend over, and glanced at it.

One line. She remembered writing it in her diary on September 4, the first day of school. Except that after she had written it she had crossed it out. These words were not crossed out; they were bold and clear.

Something awful is going to happen today.

Elena could barely restrain herself from rounding on Caroline and shaking the note in her face. But that would ruin everything. She forced herself to stay calm as she crumpled up the little slip of paper and threw it into a wastebasket.

"It's just a piece of trash," she said, and turned back to Mrs. Grimesby, her shoulders stiff. Caroline said nothing, but Elena could feel those triumphant green eyes on her.

Just you wait, she thought. Wait until I get that diary back. I'm going to burn it, and then you and I are going to have a talk.

To Mrs. Grimesby she said, "I'm ready."

"So am I," said Caroline in a demure voice. Elena put on a look of cool indifference as she eyed the other girl. Caroline's pale green gown with long green and white sashes was not nearly as pretty as hers.

"Wonderful. You girls go ahead and wait for your rides. Oh, and Caroline, don't forget your reticule."

"I won't," Caroline said, smiling, and she reached for the drawstring bag at her feet.

It was fortunate that from that position she couldn't see Elena's face, for in that instant the cool indifference shattered completely. Elena stared, dumbfounded, as Caroline began to tie the bag at her waist.

Her astonishment didn't escape Mrs. Grimesby. "That's a reticule, the ancestor of our modern handbag," the older woman explained kindly. "Ladies used to keep their gloves and fans in them. Caroline came by.

"I'm sure it was," Elena managed in a strangled voice. She had to get out of here or something awful was going to happen right now. She was going to start screaming – or knock Caroline down – or explode. "I need some fresh air," she said. She bolted from the room and from the house, bursting outside.

Bonnie and Meredith were waiting in Meredith's car. Elena's heart thumped strangely as she walked to it and leaned in the window.

"She's outsmarted us," she said quietly. "That bag is part of her costume, and she's going to wear it all day."

Bonnie and Meredith stared, first at her and then at each other.

"But… then, what are we going to do?" Bonnie asked.

"I don't know." With sick dismay this realization finally came home to Elena. "I don't know!"

"We can still watch her. Maybe she'll take the bag off at lunch or something…" But Meredith's voice rang hollow. They all knew the truth, Elena thought, and the truth was that it was hopeless. They'd lost. Bonnie glanced in the rearview mirror, then twisted in her seat. "It's your ride."

Elena looked. Two white horses were drawing a smartly renovated buggy down the street. Crepe paper was threaded through the buggy's wheels, ferns decorated its seats, and a large banner on the side proclaimed,The Spirit of Fell's Church.

Elena had time for only one desperate message. "Watch her," she said. "And if there's ever a moment when she's alone…" Then she had to go.

But all through that long, terrible morning, there was never a moment when Caroline was alone. She was surrounded by a crowd of spectators.

For Elena, the parade was pure torture. She sat in the buggy beside the mayor and his wife, trying to smile, trying to look normal. But the sick dread was like a crushing weight on her chest.

Somewhere in front of her, among the marching bands and drill teams and open convertibles, was Caroline. Elena had forgotten to find out which float she was on. The first schoolhouse float, perhaps; a lot of the younger children in costume would be on that.

It didn't matter. Wherever Caroline was, she was in full view of half the town.

The luncheon that followed the parade was held in the high school cafeteria. Elena was trapped at a table with Mayor Dawley and his wife. Caroline was at a nearby table; Elena could see the shining back of her auburn head. And sitting beside her, often leaning possessively over her, was Tyler Smallwood. Elena was in a perfect position to view the little drama that occurred about halfway through lunch. Her heart leaped into her throat when she saw Stefan, looking casual, stroll by Caroline's table.

He spoke to Caroline. Elena watched, forgetting even to play with the untouched food on her plate. But what she saw next made her heart plummet. Caroline tossed her head and replied to him briefly, and then Stefan looked toward Elena as he left, and for a moment their eyes met in wordless communion.

There was nothing he could do, then. Even if his Powers had returned, Tyler was going to keep him away from Caroline. The crushing weight squeezed Elena's lungs so that she could scarcely breathe.

After that she simply sat in a daze of misery and despair until someone nudged her and told her it was time to go backstage.

She listened almost indifferently to Mayor Dawley's speech of welcome. He spoke about the "trying time" Fell's Church had faced recently, and about the community spirit that had sustained them these past months. Then awards were given out, for scholarship, for athletics, for community service. Matt came up to receive Outstanding Male Athlete of the Year, and Elena saw him look at her curiously.

Then came the pageant. The elementary school children giggled and tripped and forgot their lines as they portrayed scenes from the founding of Fell's Church through the Civil War. Elena watched them without taking any of it in. Ever since last night she'd been slightly dizzy and shaky, and now she felt as if she were coming down with the flu. Her brain, usually so full of schemes and calculations, was empty. She couldn't think anymore. She almost couldn't care.

The pageant ended to popping flashbulbs and tumultuous applause. When the last little Confederate soldier was off the stage, Mayor Dawley called for silence.

"And now," he said, "for the students who will perform the closing ceremonies. Please show your appreciation for the Spirit of Independence, the Spirit of Fidelity, and the Spirit of Fell's Church!"

The applause was even more thunderous. Elena stood beside John Clifford, the brainy senior who'd been chosen to represent the Spirit of Independence. On the other side of John was Caroline. In a detached, nearly apathetic way Elena noticed that Caroline looked magnificent: her head tilted back, her eyes blazing, her cheeks flushed with color.

John went first, adjusting his glasses and the microphone before he read from the heavy brown book on the lectern. Officially, the seniors were free to choose their own selections; in practice they almost always read from the works of M. C. Marsh, the only poet Fell's Church had ever produced.

All during John's reading, Caroline was upstaging him. She smiled at the audience; she shook out her hair; she weighed the reticule hanging from her waist. Her fingers stroked the drawstring bag lovingly, and Elena found herself staring at it, hypnotized, memorizing every bead.

John took a bow and resumed his place by Elena. Caroline threw her shoulders back and did a model's walk to the lectern.

This time the applause was mixed with whistles. But Caroline didn't smile; she had assumed an air of tragic responsibility. With exquisite timing she waited until the cafetorium was perfectly quiet to speak.

"I was planning to read a poem by M. C. Marsh today," she said, then, into the attentive stillness, "but I'm not going to. Why read fromthis – " She held up the nineteenth century volume of poetry. " – when there is something much more… relevant… in a book I happened to find?"

Very slightly, almost imperceptibly, Stefan shook his head.

Caroline's fingers were dipping into the bag as if she just couldn't wait. "What I'm going to read is about Fell's Churchtoday , not a hundred or two hundred years ago," she was saying, working herself up into a sort of exultant fever. "It's importantnow , because it's about somebody who's living in town with us. In fact he's right here in this room."

Tyler must have written the speech for her, Elena decided. Last month, in the gym, he'd shown quite a gift for that kind of thing. Oh, Stefan, oh, Stefan, I'm scared… Her thoughts jumbled into incoherence as Caroline plunged her hand into the bag.

"I think you'll understand what I mean when you hear it," Caroline said, and with a quick motion she pulled a velvet-covered book from the reticule and held it up dramatically. "I think it will explain a lot of what's been going on in Fell's Church recently." Breathing quickly and lightly, she looked from the spellbound audience to the book in her hand.

Elena had almost lost consciousness when Caroline jerked the diary out. Bright sparkles ran along the edges of her vision. The dizziness roared up, ready to overwhelm Elena, and then she noticed something.

It must be her eyes. The stage lights and flashbulbs must have dazzled them. She certainly felt ready to faint any minute; it was hardly surprising that she couldn't see properly.

The book in Caroline's hands lookedgreen , not blue.

I must be going crazy… or this is a dream… or maybe it's a trick of the lighting. But look at Caroline's face!

Caroline, mouth working, was staring at the velvet book. She seemed to have forgotten the audience altogether. She turned the diary over and over in her hands, looking at all sides of it. Her movements became frantic. She thrust a hand into the reticule as if she somehow hoped to find something else in it. Then she cast a wild glance around the stage as if what she was looking for might have fallen to the ground.

The audience was murmuring, getting impatient. Mayor Dawley and the high school principal were exchanging tight-lipped frowns.

Having found nothing on the floor, Caroline was staring at the small book again. But now she was gazing at it as if it were a scorpion. With a sudden gesture, she wrenched it open and looked inside, as if her last hope was that only the cover had changed and the words inside might be Elena's.

Then she slowly looked up from the book at the packed cafetorium.

Silence had descended again, and the moment drew out, while every eye remained fixed on the girl in the pale green gown. Then, with an inarticulate sound, Caroline whirled and clattered off the stage. She exploded into comment, argument, discussion. Elena found Stefan. He looked as if jubilation was sneaking up on him. But he also looked as bewildered as Elena felt. Bonnie and Meredith were the same. As Stefan's gaze crossed hers, Elena felt a rush of gratitude and joy, but her predominant emotion was awe.

It was a miracle. Beyond all hope, they had been rescued. They'd been saved.

And then her eyes picked out another dark head among the crowd.

Damon was leaning… no, lounging… against the north wall. His lips were curved into a half smile, and his eyes met Elena's boldly.

Mayor Dawley was beside her, urging her forward, quieting the crowd, trying to restore order. It was no use. Elena read her selection in a dreamy voice to a babbling group of people who weren't paying attention in the slightest. She wasn't paying attention, either; she had no idea what words she was saying. Every so often she looked at Damon.

There was applause, scattered and distracted, when she finished, and the mayor announced the rest of the events for that afternoon. And then it was all over, and Elena was free to go.

She floated offstage without any conscious idea ofwhere she was going, but her legs carried her to the north wall. Damon's dark head moved out the side door and she followed it.

The air in the courtyard seemed deliciously cool after the crowded room, and the clouds above were silvery and swirling. Damon was waiting for her.

Her steps slowed but did not stop. She moved until she was only a foot or so away from him, her eyes searching his face.

There was a long moment of silence and then she spoke. "Why?"

"I thought you'd be more interested inhow. " He patted his jacket significantly. "I got invited in for coffee this morning after scraping up an acquaintance last week."

"But why?"

He shrugged, and for just an instant something like consternation flickered across his finely drawn features. It seemed to Elena that he himself didn't know why – or didn't want to admit it.

"For my own purposes," he said.

"I don't think so." Something was building between them, something that frightened Elena with its power.

"I don't think that's the reason at all."

She moved closer, so that she was almost touching him, and looked at him. "I think," she said, "that maybe you need to be pushed."

His face was only inches away from hers, and Elena never knew what might have happened if at that moment a voice hadn't broken in on them.

"Youdid manage to make it after all! I'm so glad!"

It was Aunt Judith. Elena felt as if she were being whisked from one world to another. She blinked dizzily, stepping back, letting out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

"And so you got to hear Elena read," Aunt Judith continued happily. "You did a beautiful job, Elena, but I don't know what was going on with Caroline. The girls in this town are all acting bewitched lately."

"Nerves," suggested Damon, his face carefully solemn. Elena felt an urge to giggle and then a wave of irritation. It was all very well to be grateful to Damon for saving them, but if not for Damon there wouldn't have been a problem in the first place. Damon had committed the crimes Caroline wanted to pin on Stefan.

"And whereis Stefan?" she said, voicing her next thought aloud. She could see Bonnie and Meredith in the courtyard alone.

Aunt Judith's face showed her disapproval. "I haven't seen him," she said briefly. Then she smiled fondly.

"But I have an idea; why don't you come to dinner with us, Damon? Then afterwards perhaps you and Elena could – "

"Stop it!" said Elena to Damon. He looked politely inquiring.

"What?" said Aunt Judith.

"Stop it!" Elena said to Damon again. "You know what. Just stop it right now!"