“Jacob, do you think this is going to take too much longer?” Leah demanded. Impatient. Whiney.
My teeth clenched together.
Like anyone in the pack, Leah knew everything. She knew why I came here — to the very edge of the earth and sky and sea. To be alone. She knew that this was all I wanted. Just to be alone.
But Leah was going to force her company on me, anyway.
Besides being crazy annoyed, I did feel smug for a brief second. Because I didn’t even have to think about controlling my temper. It was easy now, something I just did, natural. The red haze didn’t wash over my eyes. The heat didn’t shiver down my spine. My voice was calm when I answered.
“Jump off a cliff, Leah.” I pointed to the one at my feet.
“Really, kid.” She ignored me, throwing herself into a sprawl on the ground next to me. “You have no idea how hard this is for me.”
“For you?” It took me a minute to believe she was serious. “You have to be the most self-absorbed person alive, Leah. I’d hate to shatter the dream world you live in — the one where the sun is orbiting the place where you stand — so I won’t tell you how little I care what your problem is. Go. Away.”
“Just look at this from my perspective for a minute, okay?” she continued as if I hadn’t said anything.
If she was trying to break my mood, it worked. I started laughing. The sound hurt in strange ways.
“Stop snorting and pay attention,” she snapped.
“If I pretend to listen, will you leave?” I asked, glancing over at the permanent scowl on her face. I wasn’t sure if she had any other expressions anymore.
I remembered back to when I used to think that Leah was pretty, maybe even beautiful. That was a long time ago. No one thought of her that way now. Except for Sam. He was never going to forgive himself. Like it was his fault that she’d turned into this bitter harpy.
Her scowl heated up, as if she could guess what I was thinking. Probably could.
“This is making me sick, Jacob. Can you imagine what this feels like to me? I don’t even like Bella Swan. And you’ve got me grieving over this leech-lover like I’m in love with her, too. Can you see where that might be a little confusing? I dreamed about kissing her last night! What the hell am I supposed to do with that?”
“Do I care?”
“I can’t stand being in your head anymore! Get over her already! She’s going to marry that thing. He’s going to try to change her into one of them! Time to move on, boy.”
“Shut up,” I growled.
It would be wrong to strike back. I knew that. I was biting my tongue. But she’d be sorry if she didn’t walk away. Now.
“He’ll probably just kill her anyway,” Leah said. Sneering. “All the stories say that happens more often than not. Maybe a funeral will be better closure than a wedding. Ha.”
This time I had to work. I closed my eyes and fought the hot taste in my mouth. I pushed and shoved against the slide of fire down my back, wrestling to keep my shape together while my body tried to shake apart.
When I was in control again, I glowered at her. She was watching my hands as the tremors slowed. Smiling.
“If you’re upset about gender confusion, Leah . . . ,” I said. Slow, emphasizing each word. “How do you think the rest of us like looking at Sam through your eyes? It’s bad enough that Emily has to deal with your fixation. She doesn’t need us guys panting after him, too.”
Pissed as I was, I still felt guilty when I watched the spasm of pain shoot across her face.
She scrambled to her feet — pausing only to spit in my direction — and ran for the trees, vibrating like a tuning fork.
I laughed darkly. “You missed.”
Sam was going to give me hell for that, but it was worth it. Leah wouldn’t bug me anymore. And I’d do it again if I had the chance.
Because her words were still there, scratching themselves into my brain, the pain of it so strong that I could hardly breathe.
It didn’t matter so much that Bella’d chosen someone else over me. That agony was nothing at all. That agony I could live with for the rest of my stupid, too long, stretched-out life.
But it did matter that she was giving up everything — that she was letting her heart stop and her skin ice over and her mind twist into some crystallized predator’s head. A monster. A stranger.
I would have thought there was nothing worse than that, nothing more painful in the whole world.
But, if he killed her . . .
Again, I had to fight the rage. Maybe, if not for Leah, it would be good to let the heat change me into a creature who could deal with it better. A creature with instincts so much stronger than human emotions. An animal who couldn’t feel pain in the same way. A different pain. Some variety, at least. But Leah was running now, and I didn’t want to share her thoughts. I cussed her under my breath for taking away that escape, too.
My hands were shaking in spite of me. What shook them? Anger? Agony? I wasn’t sure what I was fighting now.
I had to believe that Bella would survive. But that required trust — a trust I didn’t want to feel, a trust in that bloodsucker’s ability to keep her alive.
She would be different, and I wondered how that would affect me. Would it be the same as if she had died, to see her standing there like a stone? Like ice? When her scent burned in my nostrils and triggered the instinct to rip, to tear . . . How would that be? Could I want to kill her? Could I not want to kill one of them?
I watched the swells roll toward the beach. They disappeared from sight under the edge of the cliff, but I heard them beat against the sand. I watched them until it was late, long after dark.
Going home was probably a bad idea. But I was hungry, and I couldn’t think of another plan.
I made a face as I pulled my arm through the retarded sling and grabbed my crutches. If only Charlie hadn’t seen me that day and spread the word of my “motorcycle accident.” Stupid props. I hated them.
Going hungry started to look better when I walked in the house and got a look at my dad’s face. He had something on his mind. It was easy to tell — he always overdid it. Acted all casual.
He also talked too much. He was rambling about his day before I could get to the table. He never jabbered like this unless there was something that he didn’t want to say. I ignored him as best I could, concentrating on the food. The faster I choked it down . . .
“. . . and Sue stopped by today.” My dad’s voice was loud. Hard to ignore. As always. “Amazing woman. She’s tougher than grizzlies, that one. I don’t know how she deals with that daughter of hers, though. Now Sue, she would have made one hell of a wolf. Leah’s more of a wolverine.” He chuckled at his own joke.
He waited briefly for my response, but didn’t seem to see my blank, bored-out-of-my-mind expression. Most days that bugged him. I wished he would shut up about Leah. I was trying not to think about her.
“Seth’s a lot easier. Of course, you were easier than your sisters, too, until . . . well, you have more to deal with than they did.”
I sighed, long and deep, and stared out the window.
Billy was quiet for a second too long. “We got a letter today.”
I could tell that this was the subject he’d been avoiding.
“A . . . wedding invitation.”
Every muscle in my body locked into place. A feather of heat seemed to brush down my back. I held onto the table to keep my hands steady.
Billy went on like he hadn’t noticed. “There’s a note inside that’s addressed to you. I didn’t read it.”
He pulled a thick ivory envelope from where it was wedged between his leg and the side of his wheelchair. He laid it on the table between us.
“You probably don’t need to read it. Doesn’t really matter what it says.”
Stupid reverse psychology. I yanked the envelope off the table.
It was some heavy, stiff paper. Expensive. Too fancy for Forks. The card inside was the same, too done-up and formal. Bella’d had nothing to do with this. There was no sign of her personal taste in the layers of see-through, petal-printed pages. I’d bet she didn’t like it at all. I didn’t read the words, not even to see the date. I didn’t care.
There was a piece of the thick ivory paper folded in half with my name handwritten in black ink on the back. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, but it was as fancy as the rest of it. For half a second, I wondered if the bloodsucker was into gloating.
I flipped it open.
I’m breaking the rules by sending you this. She was afraid of hurting you, and she didn’t want to make you feel obligated in any way. But I know that, if things had gone the other way, I would have wanted the choice.
I promise I will take care of her, Jacob. Thank you — for her — for everything.
“Jake, we only have the one table,” Billy said. He was staring at my left hand.
My fingers were clamped down on the wood hard enough that it really was in danger. I loosened them one by one, concentrating on that action alone, and then clenched my hands together so I couldn’t break anything.
“Yeah, doesn’t matter anyway,” Billy muttered.
I got up from the table, shrugging out of my t-shirt as I stood. Hopefully Leah had gone home by now.
“Not too late,” Billy mumbled as I punched the front door out of my way.
I was running before I hit the trees, my clothes strewn out behind me like a trail of crumbs — as if I wanted to find my way back. It was almost too easy now to phase. I didn’t have to think. My body already knew where I was going and, before I asked it to, it gave me what I wanted.
I had four legs now, and I was flying.
The trees blurred into a sea of black flowing around me. My muscles bunched and released in an effortless rhythm. I could run like this for days and I would not be tired. Maybe, this time, I wouldn’t stop.
But I wasn’t alone.
So sorry, Embry whispered in my head.
I could see through his eyes. He was far away, to the north, but he had wheeled around and was racing to join me. I growled and pushed myself faster.
Wait for us, Quil complained. He was closer, just starting out from the village.
Leave me alone, I snarled.
I could feel their worry in my head, try hard as I might to drown it in the sound of the wind and the forest. This was what I hated most — seeing myself through their eyes, worse now that their eyes were full of pity. They saw the hate, but they kept running after me.
A new voice sounded in my head.
Let him go. Sam’s thought was soft, but still an order. Embry and Quil slowed to a walk.
If only I could stop hearing, stop seeing what they saw. My head was so crowded, but the only way to be alone again was to be human, and I couldn’t stand the pain.
Phase back, Sam directed them. I’ll pick you up, Embry.
First one, then another awareness faded into silence. Only Sam was left.
Thank you, I managed to think.
Come home when you can. The words were faint, trailing off into blank emptiness as he left, too. And I was alone.
So much better. Now I could hear the faint rustle of the matted leaves beneath my toenails, the whisper of an owl’s wings above me, the ocean — far, far in the west — moaning against the beach. Hear this, and nothing more. Feel nothing but speed, nothing but the pull of muscle, sinew, and bone, working together in harmony as the miles disappeared behind me.
If the silence in my head lasted, I would never go back. I wouldn’t be the first one to choose this form over the other. Maybe, if I ran far enough away, I would never have to hear again. . . .
I pushed my legs faster, letting Jacob Black disappear behind me.