I was so busy looking busy that the ferociously empty day ahead didn't really crash down on me until after I'd watched him drive away. It only took about two minutes of staring at the silent kitchen phone to decide that I wasn't staying home today. I considered my options.
I wasn't going to call Jessica. As far as I could tell, Jessica had crossed over to the dark side.
I could drive to La Push and get my motorcycle—an appealing thought but for one minor problem: who was going to drive me to the emergency room if I needed it afterward?
Or. . . I already had our map and compass in the truck. I was pretty sure I understood the process well enough by now that I wouldn't get lost. Maybe I could eliminate two lines today, putting us ahead of schedule for whenever Jacob decided to honor me with his presence again. I refused to think about how long that might be. Of if it ever would be.
I felt a brief twinge of guilt as I realized how Charlie would feel about this, but I ignored it. I just couldn't stay in the house again today.
A few minutes later I was on the familiar dirt road that led to nowhere in particular. I had the windows rolled down and I drove as fast as was healthy for my truck, trying to enjoy the wind against my face. It was cloudy, but almost dry—a very nice day, for Forks.
Getting started took me longer than it would have taken Jacob. After I parked in the usual spot, I had to spend a good fifteen minutes studying the little needle on the compass face and the markings on the now worn map. When I was reasonably certain I was following the right line of the web, I set off into the woods.
The forest was full of life today, all the little creatures enjoying the momentary dryness. Somehow, though, even with the birds chirping and cawing, the insects buzzing noisily around my head, and the occasional scurry of the field mice through the shrubs, the forest seemed creepier today; it reminded me of my most recent nightmare. I knew it was just because I was alone, missing Jacob's carefree whistle and the sound of another pair of feet squishing across the damp ground.
The sense of unease grew stronger the deeper I got into the trees. Breathing started to get more difficult—not because of exertion, but because I was having trouble with the stupid hole in my chest again. I kept my arms tight around my torso and tried to banish the ache from my thoughts. I almost turned around, but I hated to waste the effort I'd already expended.
The rhythm of my footsteps started to numb my mind and my pain as I trudged on. My breathing evened out eventually, and I was glad I hadn't quit. I was getting better at this bushwalking thing; I could tell I was faster.
I didn't realize quite how much more efficiently I was moving. I thought I'd covered maybe four miles, and I wasn't even starting to look around for it yet. And then, with an abruptness that disoriented me, I stepped through a low arch made by two vine maples—pushing past the chest-high ferns—into the meadow.
It was the same place, of that I was instantly sure. I'd never seen another clearing so symmetrical. It was as perfectly round as if someone had intentionally created the flawless circle, tearing out the trees but leaving no evidence of that violence in the waving grass. To the east, I could hear the stream bubbling quietly.
The place wasn't nearly so stunning without the sunlight, but it was still very beautiful and serene. It was the wrong season for wildflowers; the ground was thick with tall grass that swayed in the light breeze like ripples across a lake.
It was the same place . . . but it didn't hold what I had been searching for.
The disappointment was nearly as instantaneous as the recognition. I sank down right there where I was, kneeling there at the edge of the clearing, beginning to gasp.
What was the point of going any farther? Nothing lingered here. Nothing more than the memories that I could have called back whenever I wanted to, if I was ever willing to endure the corresponding pain—the pain that had me now, had me cold. There was nothing special about this place without him. I wasn't exactly sure what I'd hoped to feel here, but the meadow was empty of atmosphere, empty of everything, just like everywhere else. Just like my nightmares. My head swirled dizzily.
At least I'd come alone. I felt a rush of thankfulness as I realized that. If I'd discovered the meadow with Jacob . . . well, there was no way I could have disguised the abyss I was plunging into now. How could I have explained the way I was fracturing into pieces, the way I had to curl into a ball to keep the empty hole from tearing me apart? It was so much better that I didn't have an audience.
"What the hell are you doing out here? Do you have a death wish?" a furious voice bellowed at me from the other side of the meadow.
I looked up from my position and found a figure charging towards me, crushing the grass under his big, stomping feet. In an act of pre-emptive defense, I straightened up and got ready to run—or my version of running that most would call stumbling.
"Well? Do you care at all? Of course, if there's something dangerous within fifteen miles you just have to migrate to it like a God damn magnet!"
The closer he got, the better I could make out the features of his angry face. He was one of the boys from the reservation. His russet skin made my heart skip a beat when I matched it to the same shade as Jacob's.
Suddenly, I didn't care that he was yelling at me. He stopped about five feet away, breathing like an enraged bull and shaking with an intensity that made me genuinely believe that he was about to burst out of his skin.
"Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you?" he demanded. "It's not like you aren't aware of what kind of danger you're in. We all know about you and the . . ." His voice trailed off and he looked to my face more intently. The deep scowl melted away and the boys chocolaty skin seemed like it physically softened.
It was only for a split second—enough time to notice, but not long enough to comment—then an even deeper set of creases etched back into his muscles and a frustrated scream erupted from his mouth, sending me stumbling backwards in surprise.
"For fuck's sake! Can't I catch a fucking break? Does every motherfucking thing in this fucking world have to be ten times more fucking difficult for me?" he shouted at the top of his lungs, leaving me to wonder what it was that I'd done to suddenly make things so much more terrible that it warranted that amount of cuss words.
Before I realized it, before I even saw a reason to do it, I was crying. I was uncontrollably bawling. Doubled over again as I had been just a couple of minutes ago when this boy had found me.
"Fuck, why the fuck are you fucking crying? He's gonna fucking kill me when he sees this. Is it my fault? What the fuck am I saying; of course it's my fault—Paul, the epic fuck up who makes his fucking imprint cry as soon as he fucking meets her. God forbid there be one person in this motherfucking world who doesn't in some bizarre way aggravate me."
"I'm sorry," I stammered through my heaving breaths. I felt like a child witnessing an argument; hiding under the table while my parents screamed at each other. That was why I was crying. Only, there was just one of him, and he seemed to be having a very intense internal argument with himself.
"What?" he muttered, seemingly just realizing that I was still here. "Oh, no no, it's not your fault, it's just—fuck, I'm such a moron—I'm not sure what to do right now. I'm supposed to get you out of here, but I didn't know this was going to happen. Fuck."
I tried to stop my tears, sniffing and wiping them from my eyes, but that just got his attention and before I knew what was happening I was surrounded in warmth and the smell of fresh, salty sweat.
Paul—I think I'd heard him call himself that—was hugging me, and for whatever reason, I wasn't stopping him. His warmth felt nice, like Jacob, like the sun that hadn't appeared despite the dryness of this particular day. Beyond the screaming and anger and cussing, Paul was welcoming—a place I wanted to be.
The next few minutes were peaceful and almost comfortable. When Paul spoke again, it wasn't at some outrageous volume or consumed with fury.
"Where was I?" he asked calmly.
"Somewhere between 'fuck' and your own confusion," I answered, mumbling into my shoulder from my position against his chest with my head turned to the right under his chin.
His chest vibrated a little as he laughed under his breath. "I'm sorry about that; I have this little issue with control," he apologized.
I couldn't decide whether it was sincerity I was hearing in his voice, or just the fact that he wasn't yelling and hadn't said "I'm fucking sorry about that". Either way, I didn't reject or call him out on it.
"C'mon, let's get you somewhere safer—before you see something you really don't want to," Paul said decidedly and released me from the pleasant cage of his arms.
Oddly, I missed the constriction. It wasn't like being imprisoned, more like being protected. His muscles were so hard and long over his body—reassuring to me in the forest that had been scaring me not too long ago. Now that assurance was gone too, like everything this meadow had ever held for me.
When I looked to his face I was surprised to see his dark brown eyes staring back at me already. Did he feel the same yearning for the broken touch I did?
"I should probably carry you or something, huh? I saw in—Jacob said you were accident prone," he stammered.
The idea of being carried out of here, as if I were an infant incapable of walking, wasn't a very appealing one. It reminded me of how he would carry me around because I wasn't fast enough.
. . . I wasn't good enough more like it . . .
"I'm fine. I can walk," I told him with a surprising amount of firmness.
"That wasn't what I meant," he said as we began walking towards the edge of the clearing. "The question is, should you?"
"I don't think you know me well enough to make decisions about my physical capabilities. I can find my own way back, thanks," I muttered bitterly. Who was he to insult me and my legs like that? I made a few longer, quicker strides forward, leaving him behind as I headed back the way I came. I still had the map and the compass, and I could remember—somewhat—the way I came.
About five minutes of walking through the forest—stomping to both scare off snakes and express my anger—passed and I allowed myself to slow down. My heart and mind were racing at a hundred miles an hour. This whole day had been so overwhelming from the second I left the house. I should have known better than to hope for a good day—the weather was about as much as I should have taken.
Now the hole in my chest was sporting fresh wounds, the fantasy of what I would find in the meadow was shattered, and I'd met quite possibly the most erratically rude person in the world while I was there. The effort I'd put into finding the once mystical place was pointless . . . well, except for the time I spent with Jacob. That was one upside of the otherwise pointless expedition.
"You're going in the wrong direction," the same deep voice I'd left several minutes ago said from my right hand side.
I stopped and whirled around to find Paul standing twenty feet away looking back at me. Apparently I hadn't been direct enough when I'd told him I could manage.
"I can find my own way," I replied, irritated.
He laughed a tiny bit. "To where? Oregon? You've been heading south-west for the past five minutes."
I started to glare at him. "Don't you have something better to do than follow me around hurling insults? First it's my self preservation, then my walking capabilities, now my sense of direction—"
"Did it ever occur to you that those qualities are genuinely lacking in you? It's not an insult if it's true. I'm a cocky, hot-headed, asshole; that's not an insult because it's true. You're klutzy, couldn't find your way out of a U-shaped tunnel, and if faced with a situation where one door said 'peril' and the other said 'safety' you'd head for the danger just so someone could come and save you. It's nothing to get your panties in a twist over."
My teeth clenched so tight my molars hurt as I fought the urge to verbally attack him. Maybe even physically—there were plenty of rocks by my feet. I'd never met someone who took such delight, such joy in infuriating me.
"Well I'm sorry I can't be perfect! I found my way in here and I can find my way home again. I don't need your help. I don't need anyone!" I growled through my teeth. Angry heat brewed in my face and spread down my neck and spine. My hands clenched into fists and for the first time in months I felt something other than pain and sadness. I felt angry . . . alive.
"Who are you trying to convince?" he asked, smirking arrogantly. "Jacob seems to think you needed help, so did Sam."
Jacob? How did Jacob know where I was? "Wh-what do you mean?" My voice had softened without my consent and my muscles had loosened a fraction, unclenching my fists. "How do they know where I am?"
Paul looked away from me then and his face changed to a pinched look of confliction. "That doesn't matter," he muttered.
He was keeping a secret from me. Jacob knew where I was, even though he refused to talk to me in person. Sam, their cult leader, knew where I was. Were they all stalking me or something?
"Oh yes it does," I snapped, finding my anger again. "How did you know where to find me? How did Jake know where to send you? Why did he send you at all?"
I started walking forward to where Paul was kicking the ground with his bare feet—big chunks of clay-mud came up with each strike and I wondered, briefly, how it wasn't hurting him.
"Are you all following me?" I continued as the gap between us closed.
Still, I got no response.
"If I have to get a restraining order—"
"We weren't following you," he hissed under his breath. "We were chasing that filthy bloodsucker that is following you. He was on the other side of the trees when we got there, watching you, practically drooling where he stood. So if I were you I'd be a little more grateful that we saved your life."
My whole body was paralyzed by the time he finished. They were following vampires? A little concern over the fact that there was a vampire after me fluttered through my mind, but mostly I was terrified with the fact that human boys were naively trying to kill it.
"Y-you . . ." I stopped for a moment to regroup, taking a much needed breath before continuing, "You can't kill vampires."
"Why not?" he asked simply.
I almost laughed. They supposedly spent their time tracking vampires, but had no clue about them. "They're too strong, they'll kill you," I explained.
Paul scoffed loudly and laughed a quick bark. "You're so sheltered." He sighed, smiling a little. "You're not dead right now, are you? So clearly we're stronger than them. The only real weapon they've got against us is their venom, and that's pretty hard to use when their head is ten feet from their bodies. Your beloved vampires aren't the only thing in the forests at night. They bump and we bump back." Paul grinned at me—I couldn't help the pity that was forming in me for him. He just didn't get it. He didn't understand how wrong he was.
Words wouldn't form in my mouth. My head just shook from side to side, disagreeing with him silently.
"Your head's stuck on repeat," he teased, mimicking my head shaking.
"Paul, stop," I murmured. This day just kept getting worse—even more overwhelming. "What are you doing chasing vampires? Who got it into your head that you could hurt them, let alone kill them?" My tone was softer now; I'd lost the anger, now I was just scared for them. This cult was going to get them, all of them, killed.
"I've seen it," he explained. "I've never actually killed one myself, but I've seen it in—" He cut himself off suddenly; I didn't like that.
"The vampire's following me. Do you think you could stop leaving bits out?" I requested, once again I could feel myself getting annoyed. I'd never been this emotionally uneven before, and I wasn't sure I liked it. Though one thing I couldn't deny was how much more real I felt when my blood was coursing through my veins like it was now. The raw edges of the hole in my chest started to heal over and go numb when I had something else to focus on.
I made a quick note to get mad more often.
"It's not as eas—" Paul held his hand up to me and froze completely.
"Are you capable of saying a full—" In an instant, I was pinned against him with my back to his stomach and his hand clamped tightly over my mouth.
"Shut the fuck up!" he whispered into my ear with his mouth so close that I could feel his hot breath across my jaw. I had instinctively gone to pull his hand away from my mouth, but when a series of loud bangs reached my ears I'd stopped fighting against him and tightened my hold to the point that it must have been painful to him. Eyes wide, body tense, I searched through the trees for the source of the commotion. Nothing was in sight, but the sounds were getting closer.
So abruptly that I got a little motion sick, Paul shoved me between a cluster of tree trunks, bushes and ferns—they scratched my hands, face and the small section of skin on my lower back that was exposed when I was forced into the tiny space.
"Don't move unless I tell you to," he ordered hastily.
When I looked up, he was gone. A blue heat flooded down my back and I stuck my hand behind myself to feel for the branch that surely must have been impaled in my spine. There was nothing there, I could move freely and a few seconds after it started, the pain left.
The scuffling and banging sounds drew closer and got progressively louder. I estimated that it was coming from my right side and closing in fast. A few more seconds and whatever it was would be right in front of me.
My heart was pounding in my chest and I could feel myself starting to shake. It didn't take much, just the sound of a branch breaking behind me, and I screamed loudly. Something heavy landed on the ground right next to me then and I bit back another scream, managing purely from the fact that it was so close. Heavy breathing noises started on the other side of the ferns.
This was it. Paul was gone, Jacob was off trying to kill a vampire, and Ed—no one else was here. Whatever it was, was about to tear me apart, or at the very least, maim me to an irreparable state. I closed my eyes tight.
But no pain came; no massive claws or teeth sank into me. The ferns around me were pushed down on top of my head, covering me further, and then the thing was gone.
I drew in a shaky breath of relief and crossed my arms around my chest to try and stop my heart from falling out of the hole with its frantic beating. Maybe Paul was right in putting me here. Maybe I was relatively safe—if not uncomfortable.
A strange sound interrupted my thoughts then, a snarl. The same scuffling sound continued, then, a blur raced past my window of sight. It was followed by something considerably bigger—that appeared to be on four legs.
The bear, I realized, that's what it must be.
Vampires, bears, and delusional teenaged boys. The forest was a living nightmare.
More scuffling came on the right hand side and I stayed as still as I could. The bear wasn't alone. Just before the cause of the sounds reached the opening in front of me, something came crashing down on the leaves just ten feet from me.
A body . . . minus the head.
A bear pounced from the right and swiftly tore an arm off the body. I was shocked even further when there was no blood in the wound. It was dry and jagged, like a rock. It was then that I looked to the bear.
It wasn't moving now.
It wasn't a bear.
Standing on the strange corpse was an enormous, eight foot tall wolf!
My heart stopped for a second and the wolf looked down to me. He knew where I was despite all the branches covering me. I was his next kill. This time I couldn't make myself close my eyes. I stared back to him stupidly—dark brown, piercing eyes sitting between narrowed lids.
But he didn't attack. He just stared . . . until something landed on the ground by his tire-sized paw that distracted him.
I looked down at the same time as the wolf, and my eyes widened even further. The missing head.
It had long inky black hair and a face I recognized even in its dismembered state.
The impossibly large wolves had killed a vampire.
Three more of them came in from both sides at that moment and began tearing at the body. I watched—both terrified and enamored—as they ripped through the impenetrable skin with nothing but their teeth. Having seen the strength of vampire skin myself, I didn't even want to guess how hard their teeth were to make them strong enough to do that. I didn't want to guess how easily they could slice through my skin.
They piled up the pieces with eerily human-like co-ordination, and once they were done, the atmosphere changed. It got insanely tense in the blink of an eye.
One of the brown wolves, the largest from what I could see, turned on one of the grey ones. He barred his teeth and dug at the ground with his huge claws, growling and snapping.
The grey one responded; his hackles rose as he dropped his head below his shoulders and growled back. It took only ten seconds, maybe even less, for the grey one to lunge. They gargantuan bodies collided with a deep thump and both reared up onto their hind legs, making attempts for the others throat.
I realized all too late just how close to me they were. The brown one took a step back and his foot grazed my knee, then with a hard lunge from the grey one, both fell to the ground—collecting all the trees on my right. I struggled to get out of the way and forced myself into a space that was far too small between the plants on my left to prevent myself from being crushed. The two of them continued fighting on the ground.
They'd gone from working together to kill Laurent, to fighting amongst themselves. These creatures were volatile and impulsive. Dangerous.
The snarls and snapping jaws continued for a few more long seconds, then, with a yelp, the fight was finished. The brown wolf stood and growled deeply before sprinting off—taking three of the others with him. Now I was left with the grey wolf and another black one.
Silence followed the departure of other four wolves. The two remaining animals looked at each other for a long while, then—as if admitting defeat—the black wolf exhaled loudly and walked off in a much calmer manner than the other had.
Now it was just the grey wolf and I. Had that whole fight thing been about who'd get to eat me? Had he won? There was no way I'd be able to out run him or fight him off. He knew where I was, so hiding was impossible.
I watched him pace back and forwards in front of me like a caged lion. Several times, he paused and looked directly to my eyes, then growled as if frustrated before continuing to pace.
It was such a bizarre thing to watch an animal seemingly experiencing a high level of confliction.
Maybe he had a conscience or something. He didn't want to kill me.
Had the brown wolf won and it was now the grey wolf's job to execute me?
Holy crap, the tension was going to kill me before the wolf could get around to it.
The wolf paused in his tracks once again and snarled a deafening roar, then threw back his head and started to tremble. His body shrunk and his fur seemed to disappear. In a second, maybe less, the wolf was gone and a naked man lie on the ground here it once stood.
I couldn't breathe anymore. My eyes went wide and my mouth fell open. This couldn't be real!
But then again, vampires are. Who's to say giant wolves aren't? The factor that shook me the most—one I refused to acknowledge immediately—was just how much the hunched over man looked like Paul.
When I focused my eyes again and came out of my thoughts, he was moving—struggling with what looked like pants. He kicked angrily for another second, then stood up and buttoned the cut-off jeans as he moved. I recognized the shorts, the shade of brown that his skin was, the quietly spoken "Fuck this fucking shit to fucking hell" that was just audible to my ears.
It was him. Paul had just transformed from a massive wolf to a human. It was the impossible proved possible. And it was too much.
My neck went limp and the world faded to black.