"... And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the class of '92!"
Bonnie threw her cap into the air along with everyone else. We made it, she thought. Whatever happens tonight, Matt and Meredith and I made it to graduation. There had been times this last school year when she had seriously doubted they would.
Considering Sue's death, Bonnie had expected the graduation ceremony to be listless or grim. Instead, there was a sort of frenzied excitement about it. As if everyone was celebrating being alive-before it was too late.
It turned into rowdiness as parents surged forward and the senior class of Robert E. Lee fragmented in all directions, whooping and acting up. Bonnie retrieved her cap and then looked up into her mother's camera lens.
Act normal, that's what's important, she told herself. She caught a glimpse of Elena's aunt Judith and Robert Maxwell, the man Aunt Judith had recently married, standing on the sidelines. Robert was holding Elena's little sister, Margaret, by the hand. When they saw her, they smiled bravely, but she felt uncomfortable when they came her way.
"Oh, Miss Gilbert-I mean, Mrs. Maxwell-you shouldn't have," she said as Aunt Judith handed her a small bouquet of pink roses.
Aunt Judith smiled through the tears in her eyes. "This would have been a very special day for Elena," she said. "I want it to be special for you and Meredith, too."
"Oh, Aunt Judith." Impulsively, Bonnie threw her arms around the older woman. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "You know how much."
"We all miss her," Aunt Judith said. Then she pulled back and smiled again and the three of them left. Bonnie turned from looking at them with a lump in her throat to look at the madly celebrating crowd.
There was Ray Hernandez, the boy she'd gone to Homecoming with, inviting everybody to a party at his house that night. There was Tyler's friend Dick Carter, making a fool of himself as usual. Tyler was smiling brazenly as his father took picture after picture. Matt was listening, with an unimpressed look, to some football recruiter from James Mason University. Meredith was standing nearby, holding a bouquet of red roses and looking pensive.
Vickie wasn't there. Her parents had kept her home, saying she was in no state to go out. Caroline wasn't there either. She was staying in the apartment in Heron. Her mother had told Bonnie's mother she had the flu, but Bonnie knew the truth. Caroline was scared.
And maybe she's right, Bonnie thought, moving toward Meredith. Caroline may be the only one of us to make it through next week.
Look normal, act normal. She reached Meredith's group. Meredith was wrapping the red-and-black tassel from her cap around the bouquet, twisting it between elegant, nervous fingers.
"Be careful with that; you'll ruin it," she said aloud.
Meredith's look of thoughtful melancholy didn't change. She went on staring at the tassel, kinking it up. "It doesn't seem fair," she said, "that we should get these and Elena shouldn't. It's wrong."
"I know; it's awful," Bonnie said. But she kept her tone light. "I wish there was something we could do about it, but we can't."
"It's all wrong," Meredith went on, as if she hadn't heard. "Here we are out in the sunlight, graduating, and there she is under that-stone."
"I know, I know," Bonnie said in a soothing tone. "Meredith, you're getting yourself all upset. Why don't you try to think about something else? Look, after you go out to dinner with your parents, do you want to go to Raymond's party? Even if we're not invited, we can crash it."
"No!" Meredith said with startling vehemence. "I don't want to go to any party. How can you even think of that, Bonnie? How can you be so shallow?"
"Well, we've got to do something ..."
"I'll tell you what I'm doing. I'm going up to the cemetery after dinner. I'm going to put this on Elena's grave. She's the one who deserves it." Meredith's knuckles were white as she shook the tassel in her hand.
"Meredith, don't be an idiot. You can't go up there, especially at night. That's crazy. Matt would say the same thing."
"Well, I'm not asking Matt. I'm not asking anybody. I'm going by myself."
"You can't. God, Meredith, I always thought you had some brains-"
"And I always thought you had some sensitivity. But obviously you don't even want to think about Elena. Or is it just because you want her old boyfriend for yourself?"
Bonnie slapped her.
It was a good hard slap, with plenty of energy behind it. Meredith drew in a sharp breath, one hand to her reddening cheek. Everyone around them was staring.
"That's it for you, Bonnie McCullough," Meredith said after a moment, in a voice of deadly quiet. "I don't ever want to speak to you again." She turned on her heel and walked away:
"Never would be too soon for me!" Bonnie shouted at her retreating back.
Eyes were hastily averted as Bonnie looked around her. But there was no question that she and Meredith had been the center of attention for several minutes past. Bonnie bit the inside of her cheek to keep a straight face and walked over to Matt, who had lost the recruiter.
"Do you think the slap was too much? We didn't really plan that; I was just sort of going with the moment. Maybe it was too obvious..."
"It was fine, just fine." Matt was looking preoccupied. Not that dull, apathetic, turned-in look of the last few months, but distinctly abstracted.
"What is it? Something wrong with the plan?" Bonnie said.
"No, no. Listen, Bonnie, I've been thinking. You were the one to discover Mr. Tanner's body in the Haunted House last Halloween, right?"
Bonnie was startled. She gave an involuntary shiver of distaste. "Well, I was the first one to know he was dead, really dead, instead of just playing his scene. Why on earth do you want to talk about that now?"
"Because maybe you can answer this question. Could Mr. Tanner have got a knife in Damon?"
"Well, could he?"
"I..." Bonnie blinked and frowned. Then she shrugged. "I suppose so. Sure. It was a Druid sacrifice scene, remember, and the knife we used was a real knife. We talked about using a fake one, but since Mr. Tanner was going to be lying right there beside it, we figured it was safe enough. As a matter of fact..." Bonnie's frown deepened. "I think when I found the body, the knife was in a different place from where we'd set it in the beginning. But then, some kid could have moved it. Matt, why are you asking?"
"Just something Damon said to me," Matt said, staring off into the distance again. "I wondered if it could be the truth."
"Oh." Bonnie waited for him to say more, but he didn't. "Well," she said finally, "if it's all cleared up, can you come back to Earth, please? And don't you think you should maybe put your arm around me? Just to show you're on my side and there's no chance you're going to show up at Elena's grave tonight with Meredith?"
Matt snorted, but the faraway look disappeared from his eyes. For just a brief instant he put his arm around her and squeezed.
D..j. vu, Meredith thought as she stood at the gate to the cemetery. The problem was, she couldn't remember exactly which of her previous experiences in the graveyard this night reminded her of. There had been so many.
In a way, it had all started here. It had been here that Elena had sworn not to rest until Stefan belonged to her. She'd made Bonnie and Meredith swear to help her, too -in blood. How suitable, Meredith thought now.
And it had been here that Tyler had assaulted Elena the night of the Homecoming dance. Stefan had come to the rescue, and that had been the beginning for them. This graveyard had seen a lot.
This graveyard had been the beginning, and the end as well. And maybe there would be another end tonight.
Meredith started walking.
I wish you were here now, Alaric, she thought. I could use your optimism and your savvy about the supernatural-and I wouldn't mind your muscles, either.
Elena's headstone was in the new cemetery, of course, where the grass was still tended and the graves marked with wreaths of flowers. The stone was very simple, almost plain looking, with a brief inscription. Meredith bent down and placed her bouquet of roses in front of it. Then, slowly, she added the red-and-black tassel from her cap. In this dim light, both colors looked the same, like dried blood. She knelt and folded her hands quietly. And she waited.
All around her the cemetery was still. It seemed to be waiting with her, breath held in anticipation. The rows of white stones stretched on either side of her, shining faintly. Meredith listened for any sound.
And then she heard one. Heavy footsteps.
With her head down, she stayed quiet, pretending she noticed nothing.
The footsteps sounded closer, not even bothering to be stealthy.
Meredith looked around quickly. "Oh-Tyler," she said. "You scared me. I thought you were-never mind."
"Yeah?" Tyler's lips skinned back in an unsettling grin. "Well, I'm sorry you're disappointed. But it's me, just me and nobody else."
"What are you doing here, Tyler? No good parties?"
"I could ask you the same question." Tyler's eyes dropped to the headstone and the tassel and his face darkened. "But I guess I already know the answer. You're here for her. Elena Gilbert, A Light in Darkness," he read sarcastically.
"That's right," Meredith said evenly. " 'Elena' means light, you know. And she was certainly surrounded by darkness. It almost beat her, but she won in the end."
"Maybe," Tyler said, and worked his jaw meditatively, squinting. "But you know, Meredith, it's a funny thing about darkness. There's always more of it waiting in the wings."
"Like tonight," Meredith said, looking up at the sky. It was clear and dotted with faint stars. "It's very dark tonight, Tyler. But sooner or later the sun will come up."
Just like he showed Elena, Meredith thought. In a way she was enjoying this verbal fencing, but she never lost sight of what she had come here for. Her cold fingers dipped into her jacket pocket and found the tiny sprig of vervain there. "That's all right, Tyler. I think I'd prefer to stay here."
"You sure about that? A cemetery's a dangerous place to be alone."
Unquiet spirits, Meredith thought. She looked right at him. "I know."
He was grinning again, displaying teeth like tombstones. "Anyway, you can see it from here if you have good eyes. Look that way, toward the old graveyard. Now, do you see something sort of shining red in the middle?"
"No." There was a pale luminosity over the trees in the east. Meredith kept her eyes on it.
"Aw, come on, Meredith. You're not trying. Once the moon's up you'll see it better."
"Tyler, I can't waste any more time here. I'm going."
"No, you're not," he said. And then, as her fingers tightened on the vervain, encompassing it in her fist, he added in a wheedling voice, "I mean, you're not going until I tell you the story of that headstone, are you? It's a great story. See, the headstone is made of red marble, the only one of its kind in the whole graveyard. And that ball on top-see it?-that must weigh about a ton. But it moves. It turns whenever a Smallwood is going to die. My grandfather didn't believe that; he put a scratch on it right down the front. He used to come out and check it every month or so. Then one day he came and found the scratch in the rear. The ball had turned completely backward. He did everything he could to turn it around, but he couldn't. It was too heavy. And that night, in bed, he died. They buried him under it."
"He probably had a heart attack from overexertion," Meredith said caustically, but her palms were tingling.
"You're funny, aren't you? Always so cool. Always so together. Takes a lot to make you scream, doesn't it?"
"I'm leaving, Tyler. I've had enough."
He let her walk a few paces, then said, "You screamed that night at Caroline's, though, didn't you?"
Meredith turned back. "How do you know that?"
Tyler rolled his eyes. "Give me credit for a little intelligence, okay? I know a lot, Meredith. For instance, I know what's in your pocket."
Meredith's fingers stilled. "What do you mean?"
Meredith backed away a step.
"You think that's going to help you, don't you? But I'm going to tell you a secret."
Meredith's eyes measured the distance between herself and the path. She kept her face calm, but a violent shaking was beginning inside her. She didn't know if she was going to be able to pull this off.
"You're not going anywhere, babe," Tyler said, and a large hand clasped Meredith's wrist. It was hot and damp where she could feel it below her jacket cuff. "You're going to stay right here for your surprise." His body was hunched now, his head thrust forward, and there was an exultant leer on his lips.
"Let me go, Tyler. You're hurting me!" Panic flashed down all Meredith's nerves at the feel of Tyler's flesh against hers. But the hand only gripped harder, grinding tendon against bone in her wrist.
"This is a secret, baby, that nobody else knows," Tyler said, pulling her close, his breath hot in her face. "You came here all decked out against vampires. But I'm not a vampire."
Meredith's heart was pounding. "Let go!"
"First I want you to look over there. You can see the headstone now," he said, turning her so that she couldn't help but look. And he was right; she could see it, like a red monument with a shining globe on top. Or-not a globe. That marble ball looked like... it looked like...
"Now look east. What do you see there, Meredith?" Tyler went on, his voice hoarse with excitement.
It was the full moon. It had risen while he'd been talking to her, and now it hung above the hills, perfectly round and enormously distended, a huge and swollen red ball.
And that was what the headstone looked like. Like a full moon dripping with blood.
"You came here protected against vampires, Meredith," Tyler said from behind her, even more hoarsely. "But the Smallwoods aren't vampires at all. We're something else."
And then he growled.
No human throat could have made the sound. It wasn't an imitation of an animal; it was real. A vicious guttural snarl that went up and up, snapping Meredith's head around to look at him, to stare in disbelief. What she was seeing was so horrible her mind couldn't accept it...
"I told you it was a surprise. How do you like it?" Tyler said. His voice was thick with saliva, and his red tongue lolled among the rows of long canine teeth. His face wasn't a face anymore. It jutted out grotesquely into a muzzle, and his eyes were yellow, with slitlike pupils. His reddish-sandy hair had grown over his cheeks and down the back of his neck. A pelt. "You can scream all you want up here and nobody's going to hear you," he added.
Every muscle in Meredith's body was rigid, trying to get away from him. It was a visceral reaction, one she couldn't have helped if she wanted to. His breath was so hot, and it smelled feral, like an animal. The nails he was digging into her wrist were stumpy blackened claws. She didn't have the strength to scream again.
"There's other things besides vampires with a taste for blood," Tyler said in his new slurping voice. "And I want to taste yours. But first we're going to have some fun."
Although he still stood on two feet, his body was humped and strangely distorted. Meredith's struggles were feeble as he forced her to the ground. She was a strong girl, but he was far stronger, his muscles bunching under his shirt as he pinned her.
"You've always been too good for me, haven't you? Well, now you're going to find out what you've been missing."
I can't breathe, Meredith thought wildly. His arm was across her throat, blocking her air. Gray waves rolled through her brain. If she passed out now...
"You're going to wish you died as fast as Sue." Tyler's face floated above her, red as the moon, with that long tongue lolling. His other hand held her arms above her head. "You ever hear the story of Little Red Riding Hood?"
The gray was turning into blackness, speckled with little lights. Like stars, Meredith thought. I'm falling in the stars...
"Tyler, take your hands off her! Let go of her, now!" Matt's voice shouted.
Tyler's slavering snarl broke off into a surprised whine. The arm against Meredith's throat released pressure, and air rushed into her lungs.
Footsteps were pounding around her. "I've been waiting a long time to do this, Tyler," Matt said, jerking the sandy-red head back by the hair. Then Matt's fist smashed into Tyler's newly grown muzzle. Blood spurted from the wet animal nose.
The sound Tyler made froze Meredith's heart in her chest. He sprang at Matt, twisting in midair, claws outstretched. Matt fell back under the assault and Meredith, dizzy, tried to push herself up off the ground. She couldn't; all her muscles were trembling uncontrollably. But someone else picked Tyler off Matt as if Tyler weighed no more than a doll.
"Just like old times, Tyler," Stefan said, setting Tyler on his feet and facing him.
Tyler stared a minute, then tried to run.
He was fast, dodging with animal agility between the rows of graves. But Stefan was faster and cut him off.
Stefan was dragging Tyler back. "I always knew you were a jerk," he said, shoving Tyler against a headstone, "but I didn't know you were this stupid. I'd have thought you would have learned not to jump girls in graveyards, but no. And you had to brag about what you did to Sue, too. That wasn't smart, Tyler."
Meredith looked at them as they faced each other. So different, she thought. Even though they were both creatures of darkness in some way. Stefan was pale, his green eyes blazing with anger and menace, but there was a dignity, almost a purity about him. He was like some stern angel carved in unyielding marble. Tyler just looked like a trapped animal. He was crouched, breathing hard, blood and saliva mingling on his chest. Those yellow eyes glittered with hate and fear, and his fingers worked as if he'd like to claw something. A low sound came out of his throat.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to beat you up this time," Stefan said. "Not unless you try to get away. We're all going up to the church to have a little chat. You like to tell stories, Tyler; well, you're going to tell me one now."
Tyler sprang at him, vaulting straight from the ground for Stefan's throat. But Stefan was ready for him. Meredith suspected that both Stefan and Matt enjoyed the next few minutes, working off their accumulated aggressions, but she didn't, so she looked away.
In the end, Tyler was trussed up with nylon cord. He could walk, or shuffle at least, and Stefan held the back of his shirt and guided him urgently up the path to the church.
Inside, Stefan pushed Tyler onto the ground near the open tomb. "Now," he said, "we are going to talk. And you're going to cooperate, Tyler, or you're going to be
very, very sorry."