I pushed my long, lean legs harder, pulling a deep breath down into my lungs. With every stride, with every breath, I felt my mind unwind and give itself to nature. This was why I ran every morning – to clear my thoughts and make an attempt at a brighter new day.
A wolf howled in the distance from deep within the forest.
It seemed out of place so early in the morning. Didn't wolves howl at the moon, in the dead of night? In the last few weeks, there had been more and more howling…never this early, though. When the mournful cries had started, they made me uneasy, restless. Now, they were familiar and calming. They echoed the ache that was howling within my own heart.
"Good morning, wolves. What kind of day will it be today?" I panted between breaths as I ran. I pretended their cries were their responses.
Talking to the wolves was something I did in private. I could imagine my father's reaction if he knew I talked to wild animals. His pity over my broken heart was bad enough without him thinking I was insane, too. Every time he heard the wolves, he'd look out the window towards the forest with a concerned look on his face, as if he feared they would come too close to town. He never spoke about them, brushing off his concern as if it were nothing. Seth and I finally stopped questioning him about it.
I turned onto a small trail that led into the forest. It was alive with wildlife and the sounds from each creature helped clear my mind just a little more.
I was a few hundred yards into the forest when I realized everything was now quiet. The sudden rustling of leaves nearby sounded unusually loud in the stillness. My heart pounded but I didn't stop running. It was only an animal, no need for concern.
A deep voice called to me from behind. "Leah!"
My heart skipped a beat. I knew that voice better than my own. It was the voice of my dreams and often my nightmares, too. Every ounce of calm I'd pumped through my body this morning was gone in a flash. My heart ripped in two, torn between love and hate.
I didn't stop and I didn't turn around. I didn't want to see his face but he wasn't going to let me just walk away. He caught up to me so fast he must have been closer than I thought. He positioned himself in front of me, blocking my path, forcing me to stop.
"What do you want?" I was too breathless to infuse my voice with the hatred I wanted to feel. Breathless not just from running but also from being so close to him. He wore nothing but a pair of shorts and I tried, in vain, to keep my eyes from traveling over his broad shoulders and chiseled chest. The only thing that spoiled his beauty was the bitter scowl he often wore on his face now. Though a part of me hoped he'd never smile again, hoped he'd never be happy again, there was also the part that missed his smile and wanted nothing more than to see it.
"It's not safe for you to be in the forest. You should go back home." Although his face was as solemn and serious as always, his eyes were soft, gentle.
Don't act like you really care about me, Sam.
I raised an eyebrow. "Not safe for me? You think I'm afraid of those stupid wolves?"
Sam flinched but I continued. Once the words started flowing out of my mouth, I couldn't stop. "You may think you're the protector of the tribe, Sam, but you are not my protector!" You could have been…you were…until she came along…
"Leah, please. If you won't go home, please just stay away from the forest." The pain on his face was obvious; I had to fight back the urge to touch him. No longer mine to comfort.
He looked at me for just a moment longer, pleading with his eyes, before he disappeared into the forest again. Apparently, the forest was safe enough for him.
I took a deep breath, trying to calm my trembling limbs. I'd have to run twice as long now to make up for the heartache this unexpected run-in with Sam would cost me. I ignored his warning and ran deeper into the forest.
I focused on my breathing as I ran slower this time. Deep, fulfilling breaths, in and out. Farther and farther into the forest the trail wound, edging closer to the mountains.
There was a different smell here, unlike anything I'd ever smelled before. It was sweet…sickly sweet. Repulsive. Not like when someone wearing too much perfume walks by you, this was different, stronger. This scent put me on edge; my hands clenched into fists, my heart raced, and my senses sharpened to the sights, sounds, and smells of the surrounding forest.
That's when I saw her. The flash of a brilliant red, behind a tree several yards away, made me stop in my tracks. Wild, curly red hair came out of the woman's head in every direction as if she'd been living on the run for some time. The contrast from her hair to her skin was so strong it made her look pale, almost white. That sweet stench was even stronger here. The woman stood very still, watching me. She was too still; it was unnatural. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up.
Was this the danger Sam was trying to warn me about? This woman?
It seemed silly that this one woman could be so dangerous…and yet, I felt uneasy as she watched me. I had to do a double take, not even sure how I was able to see her eyes from this distance. It was just her hair that made her eyes look red, wasn't it? But her eyes weren't the same flame red of her hair…they were darker. Blood red.
Chills – no, it was heat – ran down my spine and I began to tremble again. Not the way a frightened child trembles in the dark, but violent quakes, shaking my entire body down my arms and legs.
In that instant, I knew one thing and one thing only. This woman had to die. I had to chase her down and rip her into as many pieces as I could. I didn't know how I knew that her body would be hard as stone and make high-pitched screeching sounds when I ripped her apart, but I did. I knew it just as I knew the sky was blue and the grass was green. I also didn't know why I suddenly felt this need – this primal need – to destroy this stranger.
Suddenly, she ran off, faster than I could have imagined possible, in the direction of the beach. The world around me took on a red hue as I lunged towards her. Riiiiip. Tiny scraps of fabric floated to the ground around me. I felt my body falling forward and I reached my hands out to brace my fall.
Two large, grey, furry paws hit the ground, right where I expected my hands to be. What the hell was going on?!
Did you hear that? Someone just phased.
But isn't everyone already in wolf form? Who could it be?
I spun around, looking for the source of the voices, but I was alone. They were so loud, so clear, like they were in my head. The voices were familiar but I couldn't place my finger on who was speaking.
Jacob Black. And you are?
Jacob? Why was I hearing Jacob in my head? Why was I covered in grey fur? Why, when I tried to speak, did I only hear barking and growling?
I shook my head, trying to make the voices go away. Was I crazy? Did I finally crack? I wouldn't know that I was crazy, if I really was, right? Crazy people just think they're normal, don't they?
Leah! It was Sam. Sam's in my head, too? Lovely.
Leah? But she's a girl!
How could that be?
What's going on?
What does this mean?
The party in my head was getting out of hand. I tried to block it all out. At least they all sounded as confused as I felt. Maybe I really was losing it…feeling relieved because the voices in my head were confused, what was wrong with me?
That's when I remembered the woman I had to destroy. I began to run the way she had, towards the beach.
Leah, no! Go straight home. I will meet you there. Sam's voice was urgent but there was something more, a sense of authority I'd never heard before. Jake, you are in charge. Everyone, continue hunting. Go towards the beach. I must speak with the elders.
I tried to continue running towards the woman, but I couldn't. I felt compelled to turn around and head home. No, it was more than compulsion; I couldn't stop my legs if I wanted to. My cry of frustration came out as a whine. Who was that woman?
She is a Cold One, our enemy. Go. I will help you phase back to your human form once we are back to your house.
I heard wolves howling in the distance. I wanted to call to them but all I could do was howl along with them.
You now know my secret, Leah. Sam's voice was low, quiet now. It's your secret now, too. We are werewolves. There's much to explain to you.
Werewolves? Sam's a werewolf? I'm a werewolf? How could this be happening? Was this is what had happened to him those two weeks he went missing? He was running around as a wolf?
Yes. I wanted to tell you everything, but I couldn't.
I felt awkward talking to Sam in my head but obviously, he was hearing every thought…
In wolf form, we can hear each other. It's how we communicate.
Is there no way to turn it off?
No. I could hear the heavy note of regret in his thoughts.
Why was I unable to follow the woman? Why am I only able to go towards my house?
I am the Alpha wolf. You must follow my orders.
Oh, this was just getting better and better.
Sam didn't respond.
I began to run then, slowly at first and then picking up speed. Running in my new body was graceful and fast. The ground flew beneath my legs and soon I was approaching the edge of the forest near my house.
I ran until I was at my front door, scratching at it with my paws. Let me in, I tried to say but, again, only wolfish whines came out.
Leah, no! Go back to the forest, right near the edge.
My head bowed as I was forced to comply with his order. Go home. Go back to the forest. Make up your mind.
From the edge of the forest, I watched my father peek out the door cautiously. When he saw me, barely hidden at the edge of the trees, his eyes widened. He jogged over to me, faster than I'd ever seen him move before.
What kind of person runs towards a big wolf instead of away from it? What was he thinking? For all I knew, I was dangerous. Or maybe I was in danger. Didn't Chief Swan have a hunting party out here to shoot the wolves just a couple of days ago? I shook as I remembered the reason they were hunting the wolves: the missing hikers. Was this what I was destined for? Killing people? Would my father be my first victim?
I took a step back. I tried to walk further back but my legs just wouldn't go.
No. We don't hunt people. We are protectors, Sam assured me. It is the Cold One who is killing the hikers. We are trying to stop her. I will be there in three minutes.
Already I could hear the heavy footfalls of a giant wolf running in this direction. My father had reached my side. He tentatively reached a hand out stroke my fur gently. Why wasn't he afraid? Because he was a Tribal Elder? Did he know about the wolves? Did he know about Sam? All this time?
"Seth?" my father asked quietly. "But you are so young still…"
I shook my head. No, it's not Seth, I wanted to say. It's Leah! Nothing but yelps.
I turned and saw a huge black wolf running towards me. He was larger than any wolf I'd ever seen before. Larger than a horse, maybe. I couldn't be sure if my perception was correct. He was next to me now, almost twice my size. Large black eyes stared at me. They were indeed Sam's eyes. I'd know them anywhere.
"Sam." My father nodded to the wolf in greeting. Sam nodded his large head in response.
I will be right back. Stay here.
I watched Sam the Wolf run back into the forest, ducking behind a large group of trees. I turned back to my father, trying to tell him with my eyes that I wasn't Seth. I heard the lighter footsteps of a person behind me. Sam was walking out of the trees, wearing the same cut-off shorts from earlier today.
"Harry," Sam sighed. I could see that he was not looking forward to this conversation.
"Why so young, Sam? Seth is still a child."
I whined again.
"It's not Seth." Sam swallowed hard. "It's Leah."
My father took a step back, shaking his head. "No. That's not possible. The legends… It's only our sons. Never the daughters."
"The legends are wrong," Sam said simply. "I'm going to help her phase back to human form. Would you get a towel or robe or something of the sort?"
My father stared at me a moment longer. "Yes. Of course," he said before heading back to the house.
Phasing must be messy business if it had to be done in the forest with towels. What was involved in the process? Would it be difficult? How long would I be human before I changed back to a wolf?
Sam walked a few feet further into the forest, motioning for me to follow him. "Phasing back to your human form is all about control and being calm. Clear your mind. Release any anger you have. Picture your human body."
My mind swam. How was I supposed to clear it? I'd just turned into a werewolf, the man I both loved and hated was now my master, and for all I knew I'd have to spend all my days with him now. I was supposed to be calm?
The restlessness in my brain manifested itself in my wolf body by pacing back and forth, a low growl in my throat.
"Clear your mind," Sam repeated. "You must focus. It's the only way back."
Something fell in place for me then. This was Sam's cult: a pack of werewolves. He didn't want this any more than I did and yet, here we both were. I'd always admired his sense of responsibility. Even when we were younger, he seemed wise beyond his years, and he always took charge of a situation before it could get out of control. It was one of the things I loved about him.
Sam said I had to be calm, release my anger. It was nearly impossible to do that while looking at him. His presence both excited and angered me. I closed my eyes and turned back the clock in my head. Back to a time when Sam still smiled at me and held me in his arms. I remembered the feelings that coursed through my body when he kissed me. I focused on those memories, blocking out the ones that came later: the betrayal, the lies.
I could hear the groans and protests from the other wolves, but I forced myself to continue ignoring them. I needed to concentrate. I breathed deeply, in and out, focusing on that happier time. I felt my body pull up and yet shrink at the same time. Suddenly, I was standing on two legs. Two human legs. Sam was holding a towel out to me, his face turned away. My father was here, too, but his back was turned to me. I could hear his heavy breathing, as if the running back and forth had stolen his breath.
I cried out when I realized why they were looking away; I was stark naked! I grabbed the towel from Sam and wrapped it around myself as quickly as I could. I remembered then the ripping sound I'd heard just before I became a wolf…my clothes. Those were my favorite running shorts, too.
Sam turned back to me. "Excellent, Leah."
My father turned around and I saw tears in his eyes. "My daughter. Why? This isn't supposed to be."
"The legends must not tell us everything," Sam replied calmly.
I noticed my father was breathing even heavier now, ragged even. "Father? Are you alright?" I wanted to embrace him but I was holding the towel around me and too embarrassed to let it drop.
"Can't…breathe…," he gasped, clutching his chest. He staggered back a few steps.
"Sam!" I cried. "Help him!"
He reached out for my father as he began to crumple down into a heap. Sam caught him just before his head hit the ground. He laid him out gently, bending his head low over my father's face.
"He's breathing and his heart is beating, though it's irregular. He needs a doctor right away. Go get your mother, call for an ambulance."
I was too shocked to move. My legs were as immobile now, despite his command, as they had been when I tried to follow the woman. At least he couldn't command me in his human form.
"He – he won't go to the hospital," I stammered. "He refuses…"
"He will go there now," Sam replied confidently. Seeing that I still wasn't moving, he ran to the house himself. He returned a few moments later, bending over my father again. My mother followed him shortly.
"Oh, no, Harry!" she cried. "Leah? What…why…?"
The fear, panic, and confusion on my mother's face pushed me over the edge. My body began to tremble again and I felt heat course through my veins, down my back and out to my fingers and toes. It was going to happen again, wasn't it?
"Are you alright?" My mother took a step towards me.
Sam looked up at me and his eyes widened. He jumped to his feet and grabbed my mother around the waist. "Sue, no!" he yelled as he pulled her away from me.
Almost prepared for it this time, I felt my entire body explode. Every inch of me grew in size and yet it was so instantaneous that, from the outside, it must have looked like a kernel of corn popping into popcorn. The fur didn't grow out of my skin; it was just there. One second I was Leah Clearwater and the next, an oversized dog. A freak. A monster.
I took off running when my front paws hit the ground. My mother screamed from somewhere behind me, but I couldn't stop and I couldn't look back.
I killed my father. I killed my father. I killed my father.
I heard the loud thud of two heavy paws hitting the ground behind me and suddenly Sam was in my head.
He's not dead. The doctors will help him.
Sam, what's going on? Jacob Black demanded, confused.
Sam had caught up to me by now and was running along side me. Harry Clearwater. Heart attack, I think.
My sorrow and shame came out as a howl.
Leah, this was not your fault.
I didn't care what Sam said. Seeing me as a wolf had pushed my father's heart to the limit. I knew it.
Leah, you need to phase back. Your father needs you now.
No, I wanted to scream back at him. Haven't I done enough?
Jared, Paul, Embry, stay on the trail. I'm going back to the beach, just in case. Jacob's voice carried nearly as much authority of Sam's.
Visions of the woman with the red hair, the Cold One as Sam had called her, flashed in my mind as the three wolves followed their orders. I yearned to join them. Maybe I could do some good after all.
No, Leah. You are to phase back and be with your father.
BELLA! NO! Jacob's anguish was clear in his thoughts even without hearing his howl. Oh, no, Bella, you didn't! Sam, get here quick – Bella's in trouble!
Sam hesitated for only half a second. Leah, phase back. Find your brother. Go to the hospital. Stay hidden in the forest until you phase, he commanded. Then in a different, softer voice, Remember, clear your mind. Focus. Release your anger. Then, in his strong Alpha voice as I would now call it, Jacob, I'll be there as soon as I can.
I couldn't help but admire Sam's ability to remain in control and make quick decisions even though, once again, he was leaving me.
I'm sorry. I truly am. I promise to explain everything to you, once things are calm again.
He turned to look at me briefly before running towards the beach. I saw flashes of his memories, of the first time he saw Emily – practically my sister – and how everything in his world changed. It had been something he'd never experienced before.
I didn't think it was possible for my heart to break any more than it already had, but it did. Knowing that the love he felt for me – if he loved me at all – was a poor approximation of what he felt for Emily hurt worse than anything else. I didn't move the world for him. And yet, he'd been my world.
I did love you. I still do. It's just…different…now.
As if that wasn't theclassic break up line! I'll always love you, but only as a sister.
I'm sorry, he said again. I was getting tired of hearing it. But this is not helping you to phase back. We will talk about this later. You need to focus now.
He was silent then, as if he realized there was nothing he could say to make things right between us. There probably wasn't. Minutes later, I felt a subtle change in my mind, a lightening, as if the space taken up by Sam was freed. I realized he must have phased to human form.
I turned around and headed back towards my house. If I was able to phase back, I wanted to be near home.
I found the spot where I'd dropped the towel when I phased. At least that was still in one piece. My parents were gone; the ambulance had already come and gone. I paced back and forth, willing myself to clear my mind.
It's time to grow up, Leah, I told myself. No more pitiful girl with the broken heart. You have responsibilities now. You are a Protector. And if you're going to be around Sam often, you'll need to find a way to deal with that.
I threw my head back, my nose straight up in the air, and let out the loudest, most sorrowful howl I'd ever heard in these woods. With every second that passed, my heart hardened more and more, locking up that piece that still loved and wanted Sam. I enclosed that piece in the middle, surrounding it with the part that was full of hatred, anger, and bitterness.
It was easier this way.