✻ ✻ ✻
The cold shock. You always got it when you tumbled suddenly into icy water. It was the worst part, but what most people didnʼt know was that it went away. After about two or three minutes it went away.
But you had to be able to live through those minutes. You couldnʼt die of panic or heart attack. You couldnʼt let the current drag you away if youʼd fallen through one little hole, because then you lost all hope.
Elena meant light. Heʼd looked her name up after his first date with her. He even knew what her birthstone was: pearl. And she was wearing a seed-pearl bracelet that looked as if it had come from an ancient Grace Kelly film. Princess. Princess Grace.
Matt had no idea why he should think about it now. But he would lose the light and the pearl-sheathed light-bringer both if he didnʼt keep his head.
And he was too tired to think.
“Never think in an emergency, kid, got it?”
That was what Uncle Joe had said, frail as a bird on his hospital bed, hands shaking, but with a gleam in his eye.
“Think before the emergency, get it? Know the boy scout motto. Yʼknow the boy scout motto, kid?”
“Thatʼs it. Yʼ got it.” Scratching at the stubble on his chin, Uncle Joe nodded. “I ainʼt always been a model boy scout, okay, kid? But I was prepared. That time I went ice-fishing in Alaska, yʼknow. Well, first, I read this Book.”
Uncle Joe didnʼt read a lot, and you could hear the capitals when he said Book. Well, you could hear them in everything except the one most people would have capitalized. The Holy Book. The Bible. But Uncle Joe had been a lot of foreign places and had a religion of his own that he never really explained to anyone. Still, if it had a first holy precept it would have been: “Be ye Prepared for Anything.”
And then Uncle Joe had explained that when he had fallen into the freezing water, he had lost all sense of direction and had started swimming straight down. And he had remembered a passage in the Book, and how it had said “look for the light.”
“Look for the light, get it, kiddo? And I looked and”—-as a nurse passed by—“durned if I wasnʼt backasswards.”
Look for the light, Matt thought, realizing that even his thoughts were slow and dim. But how could moonlight ever reach him under water like this? Even the brightest moonlight . . .
Elena is the light.
Look for Elena, his increasingly slow thoughts told him. Look for her light.
At first it seemed that every way he looked, turning painfully while trying to stay in place, there was nothing but darkness. No light winked. But then when he looked back over his shoulder he seemed to see a faint glow.
It was very faint, in the blackest night that he had ever known. But he needed to breathe now. Whether it was the light of an earthly moon or the light that those people with near-death experiences described, it was what he was heading for.
Mat swam. With every muscle aching, and that girl who had died in Wickery Pond holding on to both of his feet, trying to pull him down with her, Matt made himself swim. He swam for his life.
And the dim glow blossomed like a flower, getting brighter and more silvery and there was still no air and he was going to gasp now, to take water into his lungs, and when he did, he was going to drown——and then something poked his shoulder.
It was a stick.
It was a stick. Elenaʼs stick. And Matt had hold of it, pulling
strongly, and somehow he was being pulled up by it, too.
There was someone else in the world and they were helping him!
Elena! Elena was pulling him home!
And then Matt broke through the surface of something like a giant sheet of glass and freezing air hit his face and then there was air rushing into his lungs, delicious, delicious air.
“Matt! Oh, Matt! Oh, thank God! Oh, dear God!”
Matt was thanking God, too, but in his mind because his body was busy breathing, which was the most wonderful exciting excruciating thing ever because he kept coughing up icy water, but the air that went in was better than one thousand cups of raspberry cocoa.
But then he felt his neck wobble and his head fell into the water, facedown. He couldnʼt even hold his head up on his own.
Hands pulled him up by the hair. Hands pulled up his arms, first one, then the other, to lie on the ice at the edge of the hole.
“Matt! Matthew Honeycutt! You look at me!” The voice was like a whiplash and Matt blinked and focused.
What he saw was the Princess Elenaʼs face, but she didnʼt look much like a princess. There was a scratch on her forehead and dark tear- lines streaking her cheeks. She was blue-white with the cold and her teeth were chattering uncontrollably. Her golden hair was soaked, hanging in utter dishabille about her shoulders.
Jeez, she must have had some mascara on, Matt thought, knowing he was disoriented, but focusing on that bit of trivia anyway. Or maybe eyeliner, like those ancient Egyptians. I couldnʼt even tell before.
“Matthew Honeycutt,” she said again, and this time with a sudden refocusing, Matt saw another facet of her. Her blue-white face seemed merely a trick of the light. The scratch was to show that she was no inhuman angel. The chattering teeth, the dripping hair were evidence of what this princess had endured on her journey to save life. And the dark tears were more like the adorable stains on the face of a child, tracks that should be wiped away by a kindly hand or kissed by a mother smelling of cookies.
“Do you know who you are?” the princess in front of him said, and again, Matt glimpsed another facet, a nurse who had traveled many miles under abominable conditions to help a fighting soldier. Her professional aplomb couldnʼt quite conceal a special interest in this one.
“Matt. Iʼm Matt,” he said. He looked at his arms, heavy even in shirtsleeves lying like two crooked white logs on the dirty ice. “Elena,” he added, getting the words out, with difficulty, “I have to . . . pull up now. Or else . . .” His head wobbled again on his neck. Somewhere, far away but perfectly audible, children were keening, crying.
“Liddy,” he said. “Ponytail girl. We got . . . her out?”
“Lindie,” Elena said sharply, the professional nurse at once. “Do you remember her?”
“She . . . squeezed my hand . . . then she fell through . . .”
“You got her out, Matt. You pulled her out safe and sheʼs still safe, and help is coming. Do you hear me? Help is coming. All the kidsʼ parents and the police.”
Dully, Matt could feel hands on his face. Elena was holding his head out of the water. She was pinching with sharp nails, but he felt . . . comfortably numb.
“I have to pull,” he said. It was all he could focus on. “Head and shoulders out of water.”
Elena nodded. Now the facet he saw was all confidence and helpfulness. “Iʼll pull when you pull yourself,” she said. She gripped him under his arms. “After a three count? One, two, three, pull!”
Together, with all their strength, they pulled him up . . . about an inch.
“One, two, three, pull!”
They tried again . . . and again—four times in all.
And gained maybe another half inch.
The trouble was that Matt was too dense. And Elena was a strong girl, but the bitter chill of the wind, the walk on the pond, the “adventures” with the children, the saving of Lindie, and, finally, heaving Matt up this far had sapped her strength until Matt could she was fighting unconsciousness from cold herself.
And then the ice kept crumbling. Together, Elena and he were moving him, but only forward on increasingly mushy ice. God, at any moment the ice could break—and then Elena . . .
“Get up,” Matt told Elena, feeling surprisingly lucid. “Look, Iʼm gonna . . . say something . . . canʼt even think of a way . . . tʼmake it less corny. Even Uncle Joe . . . didnʼt have enough imagination . . . ”
“Then tell Uncle Joe to shut up,” she said, and for a moment he was back at the hospital, angry with the sharp-tongued nurse, a guy who had always banged his cart against the waste container in Uncle Joeʼs room just when Uncle Joe had fallen asleep.
Elenaʼs voice. Matt was back in reality. “We have tʼsay . . .”
“Tell Uncle Joe to shut up!”
“I canʼt. He wonʼt . . . let me. Mom . . . I mean, ʼLena, no, Eh-leh-
na,” he pronounced it carefully with a tongue that felt too large. “You have to . . . get up. Get in shelter. You have to . . . to save your life. Save yourself.” The corny line finally said, Matt shut his eyes, just for a moment, and the next thing he knew his face was in the water. Then sharp tongs were pulling it up. Sharp—fingernails.
“Matt! Stop being a jerk! You donʼt die of hypothermia this quickly. It feels bad, but you donʼt die. You donʼt die.”
But Iʼm in the water wearing only the remains of a shirt and trousers—if the current hasnʼt pulled them off, Matt thought to Elena. It was so much easier to just think things than it was to say them. And—I remember, Uncle Joe, yep, I got it: water chills you twenty-five times faster than air. So Elena has to get up. Sheʼs the one who has a chance.
He was so satisfied with this logic that he felt his eyes shut again.
“Save myself? So you want me to just leave you and save myself? And maybe Lassie will come save you? Or maybe Britches? Thatʼs the stupidest name for a pet I ever heard. Laugh? I almost!”
Matt felt his face come out of the water. Someone was hurting Britches, the best old Labrador Retriever ever born—or dead. That did it. That made him mad.
“Caroline, you brat!” he heard himself say, and it wasnʼt just thinking it. He said it good and loud.
“Good,” a voice told him, but this voice was tender and firm, “I thought Iʼd lost you for a moment. Matt, I know it hurts to be in the water. But help should be here any minute. Any minute. Donʼt give up now. I donʼt know if I can hold you up much longer.” Elena was breathing hard, as if she were climbing a mountain. And Matt noticed that the hands holding his head up were trembling.
He giggled foolishly. There was something he should say, something he should insist on. But heʼd forgotten it. Uncle Joe had become a positive personality tonight, even if he was dead as a doornail. Matt was looking to him for help, and he got it immediately. He shouted it triumphantly.
“Bubala bubala Bubala bubala Bubala bubala BUM!”
That was what Uncle Joe had always said, scratching his stubble, when he couldnʼt remember what he had been talking about. It always gave him immense pleasure to see peopleʼs reactions to it. Matt had told Elena the story on their second or third date and she had laughed hysterically. Now, dizzily, hazily, Matt opened his eyes to see who was there and what they thought of it, eh?
He saw a very beautiful girl, maybe some kind of snow girl. Her hair was wet and chunks of ice were frozen on it. She was looking at him with eyes that were dark blue, but the moon was shining full on her face and the moonlight showed that, splattered across the deep blue, there was gold. Blue and gold eyes . . . should make green. But these eyes were like lapis lazuli. The golden speckles and splatters didnʼt mix with the blue.
“Elena Gilbert,” he whispered. The snow girl nodded weakly. “Our anniversary date?” Another weak nod.
“And this . . . is the end,” Matt said. He meant just to slide out of her fingers and go under like that, but what she said next stopped him.
“No! Youʼre not dying, like Uncle Joe was. Youʼre just cold. You can take it. Besides . . . are you leaving this time without—kissing me goodnight?”
Matt felt some deep inner response. He should think about this, he realized suddenly and gravely. End their important tenth date without at least trying to kiss her?
“No boyʼs done that for years,” she whispered sorrowfully. “And now youʼd rather die than do it one more time?”
“No,” Mattʼs whisper was husky and dry. He tried to put his tongue out to lick his lips, but he couldnʼt feel with his lips very well.
“Okay, then. Iʼm going to kiss you. But if you give up I wonʼt be together with you.”
Sheʼs keeping me listening, keeping me aware, Matt thought.
Like I used to talk to Uncle Joe. He had so little time after they found the cancer—it had spread so far . . . I wanted every minute to be some special memory.
“O-kay,” Elena said, and there was a touch of the diva back in her voice as she spoke. “Now Iʼm going to put your hands under my armpits. Thatʼs the warmest place Iʼve got left. But Iʼm telling you, Matt Honeycutt, that if those hands try to feel their way down onto something lower and curvier that Iʼm going to push your head under water. Mm-kay?”
“Got it . . . boss-lady,” Matt said, half humble and half-laughing. “Sorry . . . I mean, ʻboss-womanʼ . . . of course.”
“Of course,” Elena hummed. “But just ʻBossʼ will do.”
Meanwhile, she was stuffing his white, clawed hands under her armpits. Matt was amazed to feel a bit of life return to them, something that was not exactly warmth but the shadow of warmth. He could feel them unclaw.
Elena was gripping him by the elbows, keeping his hands in place. Slowly, Matt began to feel something else. Pins and needles, the agony of life coming back into lifeless flesh. He knew that his eyes and his nose were running, but he didnʼt care. He was too grateful for this gift of pain that made him feel almost alive.
And certainly more alert.
“Do I still get a kiss?” he asked, giddily.
“Yes, but first weʼre going to do a little wiper-oo.” Elena said. Keep
your hands where they are—this will just take a second.”
She reached down and tore at one of the pearly bottom of her dress.
The material ripped off easily and then Matt was having a face bath from a catʼs scratchy tongue. That was what it felt like. But that was good, too; it was good to feel his face, to know his skin was there.
“All better now. You look great,” Elena announced in her sweetest drawl and Matt realized that he was going to be kissed by the most beautiful liar whoʼd ever walked the earth.
She pushed forward slowly, slowly, eyes shut but eyelashes flickering occasionally to refine her aim, lips indrawn to gather heat from her mouth. And then warm lips were touching Mattʼs, and he went straight to heaven, with no need to pass go or to collect a hundred dollar bill.
Elena Gilbert was kissing him for the last time.
Granted the circumstances were not ideal. Mattʼs lips were numb and what he felt of the kiss was simply a gentle, warm bumping. But suddenly he could smell again and Elenaʼs perfume went to his head where it made him as dizzy as if heʼd had a glass of champagne.
“Now then,” Elena said, relaxing, lying on his arms, molding her slender self to him, “We can stay up a bit longer, canʼt we?”
“Yes,” Matt said, with all the breath left in them.
His strength was gone. Her strength was gone. But Elena had something besides physical strength. She had a power of sheer will that went beyond physical strength, that rose above it. That power was what was holding them both up now.
Time lost meaning. Matt would feel himself resting—and then Elenaʼs voice would call him back, or Elenaʼs nails would prick his face pulling at him, or—if he was lucky and hadnʼt slipped down too far, soft chilled lips would touch his.
It wasnʼt a bad way to go, he decided. Things had turned into a sort of loop so that sometimes he was dressing up to meet Elena for his first date with her, sometimes he was driving to her house, sometimes he heard the laughter of three lovely girls as they looked him up and down, demanding that he prove himself worthy. Sometimes they were in a restaurant, eating delicious hot, oh, hot hot chocolate soufflé along with hot coffee. Hot water sounded delicious to him right now. He could drink a bubble bath full.
It probably lasted no more than five or ten minutes. But it seemed . . . it was much, much longer, in real time, as counted by the number of dizzy thoughts that went through his head.
“Matt?” Every ten seconds or so Elena asked that, getting her strength from somewhere beyond his understanding. And every time she said “Matt?” he woke up a little to give back to her a “Yes.” If he didnʼt do it right away, he would feel the dimmest of prickles on the sides of his face and he would know that Elena was using the last of her precious energy to try to lift him out of the water. So Matt stayed in a zone, where he could still say, “Yes,” with lips as numb as if heʼd just had a trip to the dentist, and lower body gone.
The noise started out in a roaring in his ears that sounded like a waterfall, and he had confused, icy black thoughts of going over the edge. Then he heard Elenaʼs voice in a kind of whispered glad cry.
“Matt! Theyʼre here! I told you theyʼd come. Matt, theyʼre here!”
Although Matt only half understood it at the time, it was the amateurs who had arrived first. The paramedics, the sheriffs, were still yet to come. But four sobbing children, all terrified to move from the bank of the pond, all huddled like puppies around a damp little girl in wet blankets, sharing their body warmth with her, told of the boy who had pulled Lindie out and had gone under, and of Elena Gilbert, the Elena Gilbert, who had pulled him out.
“His name is Matt,” one of the girls offered shyly.
And that was when Matt heard something other than the background roar.
“Matt Honeycutt!” a voice bawled from the side of the pond. “Itʼs Dr. Alpert, and Iʼm here to help you out.”
Matt turned watering eyes to see what the adults would do. They had an aluminum ladder, and that was good. That was a good improvisation for spreading weight around. And now they were unhitching the ladder, and now they were sliding it out toward him.
But he didnʼt realize who was sliding on the ladder coming toward them until he saw white eyes and a white, grim smile glinting at him in darkness. Then, in the moonlight, he could make out the outlines of the old town doctor, not the clinic doctor, but the old-fashioned one who still made house calls.
“Well, now, well, now,” she said, taking his wrist in her dark- brown hand. “So this is what young people do for dates these days. Me, Iʼd stick to the movies and buttered popcorn of my day, I think.”
“We already did it tonight,” Elena said, in a croaking whisper.
Matt laughed, but only inside. Something in him was hurting because he could hear from Elenaʼs voice how much she hurt.
“Young folks will get into such shenanigans,” the doctor said, and suddenly Mattʼs eyes were focusing on her in the moonlight and he was realizing that despite the cold, her forehead was covered with little sweat drops. She had passed a rope around him, and she was beginning to tie a knot.
For a moment there was only the sound of hard breathing, from both Matt and Elena. And then, almost simultaneously, they cried, “No!”
The doctor gave them a weak smile. “I never was much good at tying rope-sized knots,” she said. “Now, if this were a little suture—”
“Are there other grown-ups out there?” Matt gasped.
“Three of us, and would you believe, Iʼm the lightest?” The doctor wriggled her substantial hips. “Thatʼs why they sent me out. Theyʼre going to pull, once I tie this rope around you.”
”The knot—it has to be strong enough to hold him while they pull him through the ice,” Elena said forcefully. Matt had no idea where she got the force from and even less idea where she got the knowledge. Maybe she just knew everything. All he could do was whisper, “And if it tightens as they pull—my chest—”
Dr. Alpert was nodding already. “Your ribs,” she said worriedly. “Crack, crack.” Matt hated to admit to seeing concern on a grown-upʼs face, but there it was.
“I wish Iʼd been a girl scout. They teach you how to light fires and tie knots and things. But when I was young, things were . . . well, different.” Dr. Alpert gave a rueful smile. She was still trying her best to tie a knot in the rope.
“Wish Iʼd been a girl scout . . .” A girl scout . . . A boy scout . . .
Matt gasped suddenly and forced himself to speak clearly. “What we need is a bowline. A bowline knot.” He pulled his hands out as Elena lifted herself up, but his fingers had clawed again. “I . . . canʼt . . .” he realized and inside him there was a terrible crashing as all his hope fell into darkness, smashing down the entire way. He couldnʼt use his hands . . .
“But you can tell her how,” Elena was saying, as if she could read his mind. Her eyes were fixed on his as if she could make the words come out by sheer will alone.
BUBALA BUBALA BUM!
For a moment, Matt was afraid heʼd said it out loud. But the two others were still looking at him, with intense and hopeful speculation.
“Totie...abowlineknot... well,firsttaketheropeoffofme. Now, you make a loop . . . with plenty of rope left . . . on the right of it. . . more than that . . . more . . .” and on until he said, “Now you . . . can lassoo . . . that big loop over me. It wonʼt slip . . . it will only . . . swell in the water . . . and it wonʼt break my chest.”
Elenaʼs cheer was loud enough to be heard by those on the edge of the pond, and Matt heard a shrill echo of applause.
Suddenly everything was moving fast again.
“All right, Iʼm sliding back,” Dr Alpert said. “Elena, can you roll to the shore?”
“I have to,” Elena said simply. “I will.”
Matt had been looking back and forth, listening to this conversation. Now, as he looked Elenaʼs way, he was bumped softly on the lips.
“See you on solid ground,” Elena whispered, in a tiny whisper, just for him. And then she was rolling away in her pearl-white sheath, with her wet hair sticking icily to her back.
When Matt looked away he saw that the doctor had gone, too.
But now the ladder was being pulled. Matt thought he could help himself a little, by grabbing hold of the last rung, but his hands wouldnʼt stay closed around it.
He was all alone, and the shouting and cheering seemed far away.
Then he felt a tug on the rope. He tried to tug back, to show he was ready. He wrapped his arms around the rope, which was around his chest, under his arms. And then . . .
He was suddenly plowing through icy water breaking ice with his face, with his head, with his outstretched hands. And then somehow miraculously he was out of the water, sliding out as smoothly as a seal, and coasting on good ice until he reached the edge of the pond. Then strong hands were pulling him out of the water entirely.
And then everything turned into a flurry. Someone was giving him a sippy cup, the kind kids drink out of, but there was coffee inside. Hot coffee. He heard a voice say, “Donʼt let him burn himself,” and another answer, “Itʼs only lukewarm.” But it felt hot and he drank it in desperate gulps.
Some pioneer spirit had built a bonfire. Matt tried to stumble toward it and was caught by kindly calloused hands and led there. Elena was sitting by it already.
And she had changed again. By the look of her hair, she must have found somebody and borrowed a brush. Or found somebody to brush it for her, more likely, Matt thought entirely without prejudice— whoever it was, was one lucky chump. He himself would have happily brushed it for hours and let her charge him, on top of it. Charge him a hundred dollars.
He shook his head at such thoughts. But just then Elena turned around and the feeling he had on seeing her was an actual physical shock. Her face was pale and drawn, but it suited her, her eyes were dewy and wondering, and as she saw him she held one slim pale arm out of the blanket—and then he was sitting beside her.
“Matt!” It was the beginning of something, some explanation, but there was a wrong look in her eyes. They should have held only joy and celebration and instead they were wholly anxious, questioning—and holding back something unfinished.
He could only think of one reason. He sucked his breath in. “Lindie didnʼt make it.”
“Oh, yes, oh yes, she did!” Elena cried in one sweet rush. “Her parents—theyʼre driving her to the hospital just in case. People say theyʼll take us, too, when the paramedics get here.”
“Then, what? Somethingʼs wrong. Whatʼs wrong?” Just as the moonlight had shone down on her with silvery light earlier, the bonfire outlined her with red-gold now. When she turned toward it, her eyes were violet.
“I have to know,” she whispered, just as someone came along with cocoa for them—in sippy cups. Well, fine, nobody had perfectly steady hands right now.
“What?” he whispered back.
“The bowline. Who taught you . . . the bowline knot?”
“Huh?” That was what was making her look so haunted? He shook his head. “It was a long time ago. Iʼm not even sure we made it right.”
“It held!” Elena flared.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, as if saying “there, there.” He took a swig of cocoa-nectar. “It held. Well, it was so long ago, but I guess . . .” He paused. He felt his own eyes go round. “It was . . . it was . . .”
“I knew it!” Elena cried, clapping her hands. Two big tears ran down her cheeks. Then almost like some strange prayer: “Uncle Joe! It was Uncle Joe!”
This time Matt didnʼt need a kick in the behind to know what to do. He took the slim, weeping girl in his arms, and he felt the warmth of the fire-heated blankets around her.
“Youʼre not warmed up yet,” he said, almost accusingly.
“I stayed by the pond to watch them bring you in,” she murmured.
Damn fool, Matt thought, but there was a lump in his throat as he thought it. Anyway, it was a good excuse to hold her closer.
“Hey, somebody drove my car over to here,” he discovered, seeing the Junk Heap flashing in the firelight.
“Some girls brought it just a few minutes ago,” a tall man, who was just a pair of legs standing away from the firelight said. “You shouldnʼt go around leaving it with the keys in the ignition.”
“No,” Elena agreed, letting Matt hold her softness as hard as he wanted. And then, “Our coats were in that car.”
“And here they are,” announced a seductive feminine voice. “Safe and sound at last.” A tall and feline girl with a mane of tousled bronze hair knelt to wrap Elenaʼs fur-trimmed coat around her.
“Caroline,” Elena murmured. “Thank you.”
“And yours, sir,” Another tall girl, this one with dark hair and eyes. “Uh—Meredith,” Matt said, instantly tongue-tied.
She smiled at him. “Weʼre just sorry we didnʼt hear about what happened sooner,” she said.
A small feminine figure, seeming even smaller by comparison to the long elegant legs of the first two girls, threw herself bodily on Elena.
“Ooooh, God! I thought you were lost forever,” she sobbed, strawberry hair blazing in the firelight.
“Actually, they called to say theyʼd pulled you out about a minute after they called to say you were in,” said Meredith.
“But the agony I suffered in that minute,” Bonnie said in an injured voice. “Or has velociraptor sisterhood just collapsed?”
“Of course not,” Elena said, displacing Matt to comfort her. And eerily, with no visible signal, four voices rose in the darkness. “Velociraptor sisterhood! You bite us; we bite you back!”
“All Iʼm worried about,” Matt said snuggling deeper into his coat is: “is what happened to my wallet?”
“Oh, yeah, we found it,” Caroline said carelessly. “It was empty, though.”
For a moment, Matt felt a terrible pang. Then he saw that Elena was smiling at him.
“Maybe Uncle Joe went off on some new adventure,” she said.
“Yeah.” He did his best to smile back and managed it pretty well. It did seem . . . well, kind of too bad for somebody who would think it was just money, and not realize it might be something more. But he couldnʼt honestly complain. He had his life, he was out of the water, and he had Elena Gilbert, too—for a while still, anyway. Elena was notably a rover.
“But Elena, your dress,” Bonnie wailed, almost wringing her hands, going from the humanitarian to the cosmopolitan in seconds. “Itʼs—done for.”
“Weʼll have to put it down for its own good,” Meredith agreed, dryly, not a muscle moving in her lovely olive-skinned face.
“Youʼre definitely a spectacle,” Caroline said, with a certain note of relish in her voice.
“Itʼs been . . . quite a date,” Elena said softly. “But then, it was our tenth date anniversary.”
There! That was it. Elena said the words with a slow, dropping inflection. If you didnʼt know what she really meant by it, you might think it had been “quite a date” in another way.
But now that Matt knew Elena, he found he didnʼt care. Didnʼt care? Ye gods, he wished it had been that kind of date, even if everybody, including his mom, came to know it.
Looking at Elena now, with her coat covering up most of the damage, she was like a pale and lovely pioneer. She was dressed in her Sunday best, but ready to go out and pluck a few chickens for dinner. The cut on her forehead was neatly bandaged, and the sparkle was back in her lapis lazuli eyes.
God bless you, Uncle Joe. Thanks for tonight, and have a good trip, Matt thought. Elena offered her arm, and unhesitatingly Matt took it. Weʼll hold each other up, he thought.
Just then a small round personage bustled up to him, who always seemed to Matt to smell of fresh-baked cookies.
“Matt! I got the news just after Mrs. Sulez, and she brought me down here—you know what itʼs like with me trying to drive at night—but the last I heard you were under the water. Oh, Matt, Iʼve been so worried—and Elena, some kid said it was your idea . . .” Her voice rose a little, both in volume and in pitch. Matt tried to move in front of Elena. If his mother said anything to hurt her—
“They said it was you who kept him from drowning,” his mother finished. “And, all I can say is—”
And then, by some mysterious means of feminine transportation Elena was in his motherʼs arms, having apparently teleported through him, and they were both crying.
“This is the girl who saved my Mattʼs life,” his mother announced to all within earshot—and at the top of his momʼs range, that covered quite a few ears.
“This girl kept his head above water until rescuers could come and she didnʼt leave him until he was safe.” she announced. “And I say this girl is a hero, and anybody who says different, that person can stand up right now and say it to me!”
“Mom—ʼʼ Matt groaned softly.
But there was an outbreak of applause, while Elena, blushing brushing away traces of tears, said, “Well, Matt is the real hero. He got Lindie—Jacobs, isnʼt it?—out of the water. And Dr. Alpert got him out. All I did was a little talking.”
And a little kissing, Matt thought luxuriously. So what if I didnʼt really feel it? Iʼll feel it tomorrow.
And just then as he and Elena stood blushing and beaming near the fire, one of the tall men, a parent or neighbor, said, “Hey, kid, you really shouldnʼt be leaving your money in a wallet in an open car. I took it out and kept it for you. But a credit card and a hundred dollar bill like that—well, some kid mightʼve been too tempted, get me?”
And with that, he restored Uncle Joe (and Aunt Judithʼs Visa card) into Mattʼs still-numb hand. He looked up and saw Elena looking at him with an expression of speculation.
“Looks like Uncle Joe isnʼt through having adventures with you,” she said finally. “Oh, thatʼs clever,” she added, as she watched Matt automatically fold up the bill and slide it into the hidden compartment.
Thatʼs right, Matt thought. I did that before once before, too, on our first date, when that old man at the restaurant found it. That time, I could understand how it could fall out; I was fiddling around with it. But this time—how could the tall guy know where the hidden compartment was . . .?
He looked around for the man, whom he had registered as a pair of legs, but couldnʼt see him. And anyway, there was suddenly a tumult at the other side of the bonfire.
Caroline appeared beside them, bursting with feline excitement. “Bonnieʼs gone and fainted for real. She said she saw a ghost disappear. And then she went . . .” Caroline put a hand to her forehead, palm up, staggered back like Hamlet, and then made as if to swoon forward. “If Meredith hadnʼt caught her sheʼd have fallen in the fire.”
“Well, for heavenʼs sake, go get her some water to drink—in a sippy cup, too, or sheʼll spill it all over. Tesha—youʼre still Tesha, right? Go run to Dr. Alpert. Make sure she knows thereʼs a girl whoʼs fainted. And, Matt”—she paused, looking at him where he stood warming by the fire— “just one question—did you ever see pictures of your Uncle Joe when he was a younger man?”
“No,” Matt admitted. “I guess we werenʼt a very picture taking family. I only saw him when he was dying.”
“I see,” Elena said, slowly. “so itʼs perfectly possible that . . .”
“That what?” but Elena didnʼt answer. Because she knew he knew what she would say.
“Oh, well,” she said turning her back on the bonfire to toast her other side. “Weʼll think of it as good luck, shall we?” She held up her sippy cup of cocoa toward him. “Hereʼs to lots and lots more adventures!”
There was only one thing to say to that, and Matt said it. After the first word, Elena joined in, ignoring the stares of bystanders.
Bubala bubala BUM!”