"Thanks!" I called out with a wave as the silver, beat-up Dodge Ram rolled off down the highway. "Thanks for nothin'," I muttered afterward. "A whole hell of a lot of it, too. Very generous."
I guess I should have been thankful they at least stopped the damn truck before pushing me out of it. And thankful I had a second to grab my backpack from the dusty bed of the truck. I should've been thankful for all of that.
I just wasn't.
Instead, I squinted against the California sunset and shrugged. I didn't want to spend the night wandering; too dangerous.
There was some forested land about a hundred yards off to my right and I trudged in that general direction. I grew up in Forks, Washington and forests were home to me. My friends and I used to take off overnight without a blanket between us. Just some soda and a bologna sandwich or cold chicken to share.
At least 'til we started noticing girls. Then, well…
Her name was Mary Alice Brandon. She was a townie and had moved up from Louisiana, bringing the softest, sweetest voice with her. What she saw in me when I was thirteen I have no idea, but I didn't mind at all. She was twelve and we were what the magazines call "childhood sweethearts."
I was thinking about her as I reached the forest. A spring mist was settling and the setting sun shone yellowish through it as I reached the cover of the overhanging branches. I took a little walk, getting beyond the visible entrance to the branch-twined path. I was reminded of Mary Alice… I kissed her for the first time on a dirt path in the forest. We were closer to the same height then than we would be later. I got taller and every year, on "Our Anniversary," as she called it, I'd lift her up to kiss her.
She didn't make it to me one day when we were eighteen and nineteen. But I heard her scream and my heart about jumped out of my body as I chased the sharp but fading echo of my girlfriend's terror. I heard one final shriek – my name! – before it was abruptly cut off.
We found some shredded clothes. Blood splashed on a hunk of granite. Two torn fingernails…
I got dizzy when I saw them, and started crying like a baby. Her uncle Charlie – my dad's best friend and my Mary's guardian – cried with me.
I started feeling a bit dizzy again as I remembered. I was traveling – after two years, I needed a change. Some place that didn't remind me of Mary. So, I settled down about twenty yards into the forest, pulling out my coat and untying my sleeping bag from the frame of the backpack. I also had my buck knife. I wasn't stupid.
The light was fading while I ate some nasty-tasting freeze-dried something or other. I dropped the bag when I heard the gasp.
And saw a pair of feet across the dirt path from me. Pale and delicate, they were attached to a pair of legs that ended with a denim skirt. The legs were kicking. The left leg twice and the right leg once…
My heart thunked in my chest. I rubbed at my eyes, but I couldn't move anything else. "I'm dreamin'," I decided out loud.
Had to be dreaming. But there she was, leaping lightly from the tree just across the path. Skirt, a yellow t-shirt, her hair pulled up in a ponytail so that it wouldn't get it her face – she hated messing with it. "No freaking way," I rasped. "You're dead. I saw where you were when you –"
Solemn eyes met mine – but they weren't the eyes I remembered. Still enormous in her pretty face, they weren't the deep lake blue I'd fallen into as a little boy and never managed to swim out of. Her eyes were golden.
Scrambling to my feet, I kicked myself free of my sleeping bag and started to go to her. But I stopped when she held out a hand. "Jacob…you can't. I can't believe I got to see you again, but –"
Hearing her uncertain denial, I had to cross to her and cup her face in my hands. "Where've you been? Mary Alice Brandon, I've been going crazy."
She gazed up at me, her focus on my eyes before dropping to my lips. I felt it then, the difference in her skin. It was hard, cool to my touch. I frowned until her small hands brushed up my arms, across my chest and came up around my neck. "I've missed you, Jacob Black. So much."
Then, I didn't much care how different she felt; she kissed me. Like our first kiss when we were kids, it was careful and closed-mouthed. But then, it was as if our entire relationship sped through our lips and hands and I slid her body up against mine so I could taste her skin. It was sweet. She was practically edible and entirely the girl I knew as her legs came around my waist.
And later, when her teeth pierced my skin and it was my turn to scream her name… I knew what had happened to her.
The following year, after my bloodlust had cooled a little, we went to Canada. Mary knew of a family up there that she said I'd like very much. And every year, on the anniversary of my change, we run until we find a forest. We make love against a tree and remember.
Who knew a simple walk through the trees would lead me to finding my happily ever after?