I'm sorry it's been so long, and I can't really explain why I haven't written—except that there are so many things I feel frightened to talk about, even to you.
First, the most terrible thing happened. The day that Bonnie and Meredith and I were at the cemetery, an old man was attacked there, and almost killed. The police still haven't found the person who did it. People think the old man was crazy, because when he woke up he started raving about "eyes in the dark" and oak trees and things. But I remember what happened t us that night, and I wonder. It scares me.
Everyone was scared for a while, and all the kids had to stay inside after dark or go out in groups. But it's been about three weeks now, and no more attacks, so the excitement is dying down. Aunt Judith says it must have been another vagrant that did it. Tyler Smallwood's father even suggested that the old man might have done it to himself—though I would like to see somebody bite himself in the throat.
But mostly what I've been busy with is Plan B. As far as it goes, it's been going well. I've gotten several letters and a bouquet of red roses from "Jean-Claude" (Meredith's uncle is a florist), and everybody seems to have forgotten that I was ever interested in Stefan. So my social position's secure. Even Caroline hasn't been making any trouble.
In fact, I don't know what Caroline is doing these days, and I don't care. I never see her at lunch or after school anymore; she seems to have drawn away from her old crowd completely.
There's only one thing I do care about right now. Stefan.
Even Bonnie and Meredith don't realize how important he is to me. I'm afraid to tell them; I'm afraid they'll think I'm crazy. At school I wear a mask of calm and control, but on the inside—well, every day it just gets worse.
Aunt Judith has started to worry about me. She says I don't eat enough these days, and she's right. I can't seem to concentrate on my classes, or even on anything fun like the Haunted House fund-raiser. I can't concentrate on anything but him. And I don't even understand why.
He hasn't spoken to me since that horrible afternoon. But I'll tell you something strange. Last week in history class, I glanced up and caught him looking at me. We were sitting a few seats apart, and he was turned completely sideways in his desk, just looking. For a moment I felt almost frightened, and my heart started pounding, and we just stared at each other—and then he looked away. But since then it's happened twice more, and each time I felt his eyes on me before I saw them. This is the literal truth. I know it's not my imagination.
He isn't like any boy I've ever known.
He seems so isolated, so lonely. Even though it's his own choice. He's made quite a hit on the football team, but he doesn't hang around with any of the guys, except maybe Matt. Matt's the only one he talks to. He doesn't hang around with any girls, either, that I can see, so maybe the narc rumor is doing some good. But it's more like he's avoiding other people than they're avoiding him. He disappears in between classes and after football practice, and I've never once seen him in the cafeteria. He's never invited anybody to his room at the boarding house. He never visits the coffee shop after school.
So how can I ever get him someplace where he can't run from me? This is the real problem with Plan B. Bonnie says, "Why not get stuck in a thunderstorm with him, so you have to huddle together to conserve body warmth?" And Meredith suggested that my car could break down in front of the boarding house. But neither of those ideas is practical, and I'm going insane trying to come up with something better.
Every day it's getting worse for me. I feel as if I were a clock or something, winding up tighter and tighter. If I don't find something to do soon, I'll—
I was going to say "die."
The solution came to her quite suddenly and simply.
She felt sorry about Matt; she knew he'd been hurt by the Jean-Claude rumor. He'd hardly spoken to her since the story had broken, usually passing her with a quick nod. And when she ran into him one day in an empty hall outside of Creative Writing, he wouldn't meet her eyes.
"Matt—" she began. She wanted to tell him that it wasn't true, that she would never have started seeing another boy without telling him first. She wanted to tell him that she'd never meant to hurt him, and that she felt terrible now. But she didn't know how to begin. Finally, she just blurted out, "I'm sorry!" and turned to go in to class.
"Elena," he said, and she turned back. He was looking at her now, at least, his eyes lingering on her lips, her hair. Then he shook his head as if to say the joke was on him. "Is this French guy for real?" he finally demanded.
"No," said Elena immediately and without hesitation. "I made him up," she added simply, "to show everybody I wasn't upset about—" She broke off.
"About Stefan. I get it." Matt nodded, looking both grimmer and somewhat more understanding. "Look, Elena, that was pretty lousy of him. But I don't think he meant it personally. He's that way with everybody—"
"No. He talks to me, sometimes, but not about anything personal. He never says anything about his family or what he does outside of school. It's like—like there's a wall around him that I can't get through. I don't think he'll ever let anybody get through that wall. Which is a damn shame, because I think that behind it he's miserable."
Elena pondered this, fascinated by a view of Stefan she'd never considered before. He always seemed so controlled, so calm and undisturbed. But then, she knew she seemed that way herself to other people. Was it possible that underneath he was as confused and unhappy as she was?
It was then that the idea came, and it was ridiculously simple. No complicated schemes, no thunderstorms or cars breaking down.
"Matt," she said, slowly, "don't you think it would be a good thing if somebody did get behind that wall? A good thing for Stefan, I mean? Don't you think that would be the best thing that could happen to him?" She looked up at him intensely, willing him to understand.
He stared at her a moment, then shut his eyes briefly and shook his head in disbelief. "Elena," he said, "you are incredible. You twist people around your little finger, and I don't think you even know you're doing it. And now you're going to ask me to do something to help you ambush Stefan, and I'm such a dumb sucker I might even agree to do it."
"You're not dumb, you're a gentleman. And I do want to ask you a favor, .but only if you think it's right. I don't want to hurt Stefan, and I don't want to hurt you."
"No. I know how that must sound, but it's true. I only want—" She broke off again. How could she explain what she wanted when she didn't even understand it herself?
"You only want everybody and everything revolving around Elena Gilbert," he said bitterly. "You only want everything you don't have."
Shocked, she stepped back and looked at him. Her throat swelled, and warmth gathered in her eyes.
"Don't," he said. "Elena, don't look like that. I'm sorry." He sighed. "All right, what is it I'm supposed to do? Hog-tie him and dump him on your doorstep?"
"No," said Elena, still trying to make the tears go back where they belonged. "I only wanted you to get him to come to the Homecoming Dance next week."
Mart's expression was odd. "You just want him to be at the dance."
"All right. I'm pretty sure he'll be there. And, Elena… there really isn't anybody but you I want to take."
"All right," said Elena after a moment. "And, well, thank you."
Matt's expression was still peculiar. "Don't thank me, Elena. It's nothing… really." She was puzzling over that when he turned away and walked down the hall.
"Hold still," said Meredith, giving Elena's hair a reproving twitch.
"I still think," said Bonnie from the window seat, "that they were both wonderful."
"Who?" Elena murmured absently.
"As if you didn't know," said Bonnie. "Those two guys of yours who pulled off the last-minute miracle at the game yesterday. When Stefan caught that last pass, I thought I was going to faint. Or throw up."
"Oh, please," said Meredith.
"And Matt—that boy is simply poetry in motion…"
"And neither of them is mine," Elena said flatly. Under Meredith's expert fingers, her hair was becoming a work of art, a soft mass of twisted gold. And the dress was all right; the iced-violet color brought out the violet in her eyes. But even to herself she looked pale and steely, not softly flushed with excitement but white and determined, like a very young soldier being sent to the front lines.
Standing on the football field yesterday when her name was announced as Homecoming Queen, there had been only one thought in her mind. He couldn't refuse to dance with her. If he came to the dance at all, he couldn't refuse the Homecoming Queen. And standing in front of the mirror now, she said it to herself again.
"Tonight anyone you want will be yours," Bonnie was saying soothingly. "And, listen, when you get rid of Matt, can I take him off and comfort him?"
Meredith snorted. "What's Raymond going to think?"
"Oh, you can comfort him. But, really, Elena, I like Matt. And once you home in on Stefan, your threesome is going to get a little crowded. So…"
"Oh, do whatever you want. Matt deserves some consideration." He's certainly not getting it from me, Elena thought. She still couldn't exactly believe what she was doing to him. But just now she couldn't afford to second-guess herself; she needed all her strength and concentration.
"There." Meredith put the last pin in Elena's hair. "Now look at us, the Homecoming Queen and her court—or part of it, anyway. We're beautiful."
"Is that the royal 'we'?" Elena said mockingly, but it was true. They were beautiful. Meredith's dress was a pure sweep of burgundy satin, gathered tight at the waist and pouring into folds from the hips. Her dark hair hung loose down her back. And Bonnie, as she stood up and joined the others in front of the mirror, was like a shimmering party favor in pink taffeta and black sequins.
As for herself… Elena scanned her image with an experienced eye and thought again, The dress is all right. The only other phrase that came to mind was crystallized violets. Her grandmother had kept a little jar of them, real flowers dipped in crystallized sugar and frozen.
They went downstairs together, as they had for every dance since the seventh grade—except that before, Caroline had always been with them. Elena realized with faint surprise that she didn't even know who Caroline was going with tonight.
Aunt Judith and Robert—soon to be Uncle Robert—were in the living room, along with Margaret in her pajamas.
"Oh, you girls all look lovely," said Aunt Judith, as fluttery and excited as if she were going to the dance herself. She kissed Elena, and Margaret held up her arms for a hug.
"You're pretty," she said with four-year-old simplicity.
Robert was looking at Elena, too. He blinked, opened his mouth, and closed it again.
"What's the matter, Bob?"
"On." He looked at Aunt Judith, seeming embarrassed. "Well, actually, it just occurred to me that Elena is a form of the name Helen. And for some reason I was thinking of Helen of Troy."
"Beautiful and doomed," said Bonnie happily.
"Well, yes," said Robert, not looking happy at all. Elena said nothing.
The doorbell rang. Matt was on the step, in his familiar blue sports coat. With him were Ed Goff, Meredith's date, and Raymond Hernandez, Bonnie's. Elena looked for Stefan.
"He's probably already there," said Matt, interpreting her glance. "Listen, Elena—"
But whatever he had been about to say was cut off in the chatter from the other couples. Bonnie and Raymond went with them in Matt's car, and kept up a constant stream of witticisms all the way to the school.
Music drifted out the open doors of the auditorium. As Elena stepped out of the car, a curious certainty rushed over her. Something was going to happen, she realized, looking at the square bulk of the school building. The peaceful low gear of the last few weeks was about to slip into high.
I'm ready, she thought. And hoped it was true.
Inside, it was a kaleidoscope of color and activity. She and Matt were mobbed the instant they came in, and compliments rained down on both of them. Elena's dress… her hair… her flowers. Matt was a legend in the making: another Joe Montana, a sure bet for an athletic scholarship.
In the dizzying whirl that should have been life and breath to her, Elena kept searching for one dark head.
Tyler Smallwood was breathing heavily on her, smelling of punch and Brut and Doublemint gum. His date was looking murderous. Elena ignored him in the hopes that he would go away.
Mr. Tanner passed by with a soggy paper cup, looking as if his collar was strangling him. Sue Carson, the other senior homecoming princess, breezed up and cooed over the violet dress. Bonnie was already out on the dance floor, shimmering under the lights. But nowhere did Elena see Stefan.
One more whiff of Doublemint and she was going to be sick. She nudged Matt and they escaped to the refreshment table, where Coach Lyman launched into a critique of the game. Couples and groups came up to them, spending a few minutes and then retreating to make room for the next in line. Just as if we really were royalty, thought Elena wildly. She glanced sideways to see if Matt shared her amusement, but he was looking fixedly off to his left.
She followed his gaze. And there, half concealed behind a cluster of football players, was the dark head she'd been looking for. Unmistakable, even in this dim light. A thrill went through her, more of pain than anything else.
"Now what?" said Matt, his jaw set. "The hog-tying?"
"No. I'm going to ask him to dance, that's all. I'll wait until we've danced first, if you want."
He shook his head, and she set out toward Stefan through the crowd.
Piece by piece, Elena registered information about him as she approached. His black blazer was of a subtly different cut than the other boys', more elegant, and he wore a white cashmere sweater under it. He stood quite still, not fidgeting, a little apart from the groups around him. And, although she could see him only in profile, she could see he wasn't wearing his glasses.
He took them off for football, of course, but she'd never seen him close up without them. It made her feel giddy and excited, as if this were a masquerade and the unmasking time had come.
She focused on his shoulder, the line of his jaw, and then he was turning toward her.
In that instant, Elena was aware that she was beautiful. It wasn't just the dress, or the way her hair was done. She was beautiful in herself: slender, imperial, a thing made of silk and inner fire. She saw his lips part slightly, reflexively, and then she looked up into his eyes.
"Hello." Was that her own voice, so quiet and self-assured? His eyes were green. Green as oak leaves in summer. "Are you having a good time?" she said.
I am now. He didn't say it, but she knew it was what he was thinking; she could see it in the way he stared at her. She had never been so sure of her power. Except that actually he didn't look as if he were having a good time; he looked stricken, in pain, as if he couldn't take one more minute of this.
The band was starting up, a slow dance. He was still staring at her, drinking her in. Those green eyes darkening, going black with desire. She had the sudden feeling that he might jerk her to him and kiss her hard, without ever saying a word.
"Would you like to dance?" she said softly. I'm playing with fire, with something I don't understand, she thought suddenly. And in that instant she realized that she was frightened. Her heart began to pound violently. It was as if those green eyes spoke to some part of her that was buried deep beneath the surface—and that part was screaming "danger" at her. Some instinct older than civilization was telling her to run, to flee.
She never moved. The same force that was terrifying her was holding her there. This is out of control, she thought suddenly. Whatever was happening here was beyond her understanding, was nothing normal or sane. But there was no stopping it now, and even while frightened she was reveling in it. It was the most intense moment she'd ever experienced with a boy, but nothing at all was happening. He was just gazing at her, as if hypnotized, and she was gazing back, while the energy shimmered between them like heat lightning. She saw his eyes go darker, defeated, and felt the wild leap of her own heart as he slowly stretched out one hand.
And then it all shattered.
"Why, Elena, how sweet you look," said a voice, and Elena's vision was dazzled with gold. It was Caroline, her auburn hair rich and glossy, her skin tanned to a perfect bronze. She was wearing a dress of pure gold lame that showed an incredibly daring amount of that perfect skin. She slipped one bare arm through Stefan's and smiled lazily up at him. They were stunning together, like a couple of international models slumming at a high school dance, far more glamorous and sophisticated than anyone else in the room.
"And that little dress is so pretty," continued Caroline, while Elena's mind kept on running on automatic. That casually possessive arm linked with Stefan's told her everything: where Caroline had been at lunch these past weeks, what she had been up to all this time. "I told Stefan we simply had to stop by for a moment, but we're not going to stay long. So you don't mind if I keep him to myself for the dances, do you?"
Elena was strangely calm now, her mind a humming blank. She said no, of course she didn't mind, and watched Caroline move away, a symphony in auburn and gold. Stefan went with her.
There was a circle of faces around Elena; she turned from them and came up against Matt.
"You knew he was coming with her."
"I knew she wanted him to. She's been following him around at lunchtime and after school, and kind of forcing herself on him. But…"
"I see." Still held in that queer, artificial calm, she scanned the crowd and saw Bonnie coming toward her, and Meredith leaving her table. They'd seen, then. Probably everyone had. Without a word to Matt, she moved toward them, heading instinctively for the girls' rest room.
It was packed with bodies, and Meredith and Bonnie kept their remarks bright and casual while looking at her with concern.
"Did you see that dress?" said Bonnie, squeezing Elena's fingers secretly. "The front must be held on with superglue. And what's she going to wear to the next dance? Cellophane?"
"Handiwrap," said Meredith. She added in a low voice, "Are you okay?"
"Yes." Elena could see in the mirror that her eyes were too bright and that there was one spot of color burning on each cheek. She smoothed her hair and turned away.
The room emptied, leaving them in privacy. Bonnie was fiddling nervously with the sequined bow at her waist now. "Maybe it isn't such a bad thing after all," she said quietly. "I mean, you haven't thought about anything else but him in weeks. Nearly a month. And so maybe it's just for the best, and you can move on to other things now, instead of… well, chasing him."
Et tu, Brute? thought Elena. "Thank you so much for your support," she said aloud.
"Now, Elena, don't be like that," Meredith put in. "She isn't trying to hurt you, she just thinks—"
"And I suppose you think so, too? Well, that's fine. I'll just go out and find myself some other things to move on to. Like some other best friends." She left them both staring after her.
Outside, she threw herself into the whirl of color and music. She was brighter than she had ever been at any dance before. She danced with everyone, laughing too loudly, flirting with every boy in her path.
They were calling her to come up and be crowned. She stood on the stage, looking down on the butterfly-bright figures below. Someone gave her flowers; someone put a rhinestone tiara on her head. There was clapping. It all passed as if in a dream.
She flirted with Tyler because he was closest when she came off the stage. Then she remembered what he and Dick had done to Stefan, and she broke off one of the roses from her bouquet and gave it to him. Matt was looking on from the sidelines, his mouth tight. Tyler's forgotten date was almost in tears.
She could smell alcohol along with the mint on Tyler's breath now, and his face was red. His friends were around her, a shouting, laughing crowd, and she saw Dick pour something from a brown paper bag into his glass of punch.
She'd never been with this group before. They welcomed her, admiring her, the boys vying for her attention. Jokes flew back and forth, and Elena laughed even when they didn't make sense. Tyler's arm circled her waist, and she just laughed harder. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Matt shake his head and walk away. The girls were getting shrill, the boys rowdy. Tyler was nuzzling moistly at her neck.
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