Chapter 5 CHEATER
"BELLA, WHY DON'T YOU TAKE OFF," MIKE SUGGESTED, his eyes focused off to the side, not really looking at me. I wondered how long that had been going on without me noticing.
It was a slow afternoon at Newton's. At the moment there were only two patrons in the store, dedicated backpackers from the sound of their conversation. Mike had spent the last hour going through the pros and cons of two brands of lightweight packs with them. But they'd taken a break from serious pricing to indulge in trying to one-up each other with their latest tales from the trail. Their distraction had given Mike a chance to escape.
"I don't mind staying," I said. I still hadn't been able to sink back into my protective shell of numbness, and everything seemed oddly close and loud today, like I'd taken cotton out of my ears. I tried to tune out the laughing hikers without success.
"I'm telling you," said the thickset man with the orange beard that didn't match his dark brown hair. "I've seen grizzlies pretty close up in Yellowstone, but they had nothing on this brute." His hair was matted, and his clothes looked like they'd been on his back for more than a few days. Fresh from the mountains.
"Not a chance. Black bears don't get that big. The grizzlies you saw were probably cubs." The second man was tall and lean, his face tanned and wind-whipped into an impressive leathery crust.
"Seriously, Bella, as soon as these two give up, I'm closing the place down," Mike murmured.
"If you want me to go��" I shrugged.
"On all fours it was taller than you," the bearded man insisted while I gathered my things together. "Big as a house and pitch-black. I'm going to report it to the ranger here. People ought to be warned��this wasn't up on the mountain, mind you��this was only a few miles from the trailhead."
Leather-face laughed and rolled his eyes. "Let me guess��you were on your way in? Hadn't eaten real food or slept off the ground in a week, right?"
"Hey, uh, Mike, right?" the bearded man called, looking toward us.
"See you Monday," I mumbled.
"Yes, sir," Mike replied, turning away.
"Say, have there been any warnings around here recently��about black bears?"
"No, sir. But it's always good to keep your distance and store your food correctly. Have you seen the new bear-safe canisters? They only weigh two pounds��"
The doors slid open to let me out into the rain. I hunched over inside my jacket as I dashed for my truck. The rain hammering against my hood sounded unusually loud, too, but soon the roar of the engine drowned out everything else.
I didn't want to go back to Charlie's empty house. Last night had been particularly brutal, and I had no desire to revisit the scene of the suffering. Even after the pain had subsided enough for me to sleep, it wasn't over. Like I'd told Jessica after the movie, there was never any doubt that I would have nightmares.
I always had nightmares now, every night. Not nightmares really, not in the plural, because it was always the same nightmare. You'd think I'd get bored after so many months, grow immune to it. But the dream never failed to horrify me, and only ended when I woke myself with screaming. Charlie didn't come in to see what was wrong anymore, to make sure there was no intruder strangling me or something like that��he was used to it now.
My nightmare probably wouldn't even frighten someone else. Nothing jumped out and screamed, "Boo!" There were no zombies, no ghosts, no psychopaths. There was nothing, really. Only nothing. Just the endless maze of moss-covered trees, so quiet that the silence was an uncomfortable pressure against my eardrums. It was dark, like dusk on a cloudy day, with only enough light to see that there was nothing to see. I hurried through the gloom without a path, always searching, searching, searching, getting more frantic as the time stretched on, trying to move faster, though the speed made me clumsy�� Then there would come the point in my dream��and I could feel it coming now, but could never seem to wake myself up before it hit��when I couldn't remember what it was that I was searching for. When I realized that there was nothing to search for, and nothing to find. That there never had been anything more than just this empty, dreary wood, and there never would be anything more for me�� nothing but nothing��
That was usually about when the screaming started.
I wasn't paying attention to where I was driving��just wandering through empty, wet side roads as I avoided the ways that would take me home��because I didn't have anywhere to go.
I wished I could feel numb again, but I couldn't remember how I'd managed it before. The nightmare was nagging at my mind and making me think about things that would cause me pain. I didn't want to remember the forest. Even as I shuddered away from the images, I felt my eyes fill with tears and the
aching begin around the edges of the hole in my chest. I took one hand from the steering wheel and wrapped it around my torso to hold it in one piece.
It will be as if I'd never existed. The words ran through my head, lacking the perfect clarity of my hallucination last night. They were just words, soundless, like print on a page. Just words, but they ripped the hole wide open, and I stomped on the brake, knowing I should not drive while this incapacitated.
I curled over, pressing my face against the steering wheel and trying to breathe without lungs.
I wondered how long this could last. Maybe someday, years from now��if the pain would just decrease to the point where I could bear it��I would be able to look back on those few short months that would always be the best of my life. And, if it were possible that the pain would ever soften enough to allow me to do that, I was sure that I would feel grateful for as much time as he'd given me. More than I'd asked for, more than I'd deserved. Maybe someday I'd be able to see it that way.
But what if this hole never got any better? If the raw edges never healed? If the damage was permanent and irreversible?
I held myself tightly together. As if he'd never existed, I thought in despair. What a stupid and impossible promise to make! He could steal my pictures and reclaim his gifts, but that didn't put things back the way they'd been before I'd met him. The physical evidence was the most insignificant part of the equation. I was changed, my insides altered almost past the point of recognition. Even my outsides looked different��my face sallow, white except for the purple circles the nightmares had left under my eyes. My eyes were dark enough against my pallid skin that��if I were beautiful, and seen from a distance��I might even pass for a vampire now. But I was not beautiful, and I probably looked closer to a zombie.
As if he'd never existed? That was insanity. It was a promise that he could never keep, a promise that was broken as soon as he'd made it.
I thumped my head against the steering wheel, trying to distract myself from the sharper pain.
It made me feel silly for ever worrying about keeping my promise. Where was the logic in sticking to an agreement that had already been violated by the other party? Who cared if I was reckless and stupid? There was no reason to avoid recklessness, no reason why I shouldn't get to be stupid.
I laughed humorlessly to myself, still gasping for air. Reckless in Forks��now there was a hopeless proposition.
The dark humor distracted me, and the distraction eased the pain. My breath came easier, and I was able to lean back against the seat. Though it was cold today, my forehead was damp with sweat.
I concentrated on my hopeless proposition to keep from sliding back into the excruciating memories. To be reckless in Forks would take a lot of creativity��maybe more than I had. But I wished I could find some way�� I might feel better if I weren't holding fast, all alone, to a broken pact. If I were an oath-breaker, too. But how could I cheat on my side of the deal, here in this harmless little town? Of course, Forks hadn't always been so harmless, but now it was exactly what it had always appeared to be. It was dull, it was safe.
I stared out the windshield for a long moment, my thoughts moving sluggishly��I couldn't seem to make those thoughts go anywhere. I cut the engine, which was groaning in a pitiful way after idling for so long, and stepped out into the drizzle.
The cold rain dripped through my hair and then trickled across my cheeks like freshwater tears. It helped to clear my head. I blinked the water from my eyes, staring blankly across the road.
After a minute of staring, I recognized where I was. I'd parked in the middle of the north lane of Russell Avenue. I was standing in front of the Cheneys' house��my truck was blocking their driveway��and across the road lived the Markses. I knew I needed to move my truck, and that I ought to go home. It was wrong to wander the way I had, distracted and impaired, a menace on the roads of Forks. Besides, someone would notice me soon enough, and report me to Charlie.
As I took a deep breath in preparation to move, a sign in the Markses' yard caught my eye��it was just a big piece of cardboard leaning against their mailbox post, with black letters scrawled in caps across it.
Sometimes, kismet happens.
Coincidence? Or was it meant to be? I didn't know, but it seemed kind of silly to think that it was somehow fated, that the dilapidated motorcycles rusting in the Markses' front yard beside the hand-printed FOR SALE, AS IS sign were serving some higher purpose by existing there, right where I needed them to be.
So maybe it wasn't kismet. Maybe there were just all kinds of ways to be reckless, and I only now had my eyes open to them.
Reckless and stupid. Those were Charlie's two very favorite words to apply to motorcycles.
Charlie's job didn't get a lot of action compared to cops in bigger towns, but he did get called in on traffic accidents. With the long, wet stretches of freeway twisting and turning through the forest, blind corner after blind corner, there was no shortage of that kind of action. But even with all the huge log-haulers barreling around the turns, mostly people walked away. The exceptions to that rule were often on motorcycles, and Charlie had seen one too many victims, almost always kids, smeared on the highway. He'd made me promise before I was ten that I would never accept a ride on a motorcycle. Even at that age, I didn't have to think twice before promising. Who would want to ride a motorcycle here? It would be like taking a sixty-mile-per-hour bath.
So many promises I kept��
It clicked together for me then. I wanted to be stupid and reckless, and I wanted to break promises. Why stop at one?
That's as far as I thought it through. I sloshed through the rain to the Markses' front door and rang the bell.
One of the Marks boys opened the door, the younger one, the freshman. I couldn't remember his name. His sandy hair only came up to my shoulder.
He had no trouble remembering my name. "Bella Swan?" he asked in surprise.
"How much do you want for the bike?" I panted, jerking my thumb over my shoulder toward the sales display.
"Are you serious?" he demanded.
"Of course I am."
"They don't work."
I sighed impatiently��this was something I'd already inferred from the sign. "How much?"
"If you really want one, just take it. My mom made my dad move them down to the road so they'd get picked up with the garbage."
I glanced at the bikes again and saw that they were resting on a pile of yard clippings and dead branches. "Are you positive about that?"
"Sure, you want to ask her?"
It was probably better not to involve adults who might mention this to Charlie.
"No, I believe you."
"You want me to help you?" he offered. "They're not light."
"Okay, thanks. I only need one, though."
"Might as well take both," the boy said. "Maybe you could scavenge some parts."
He followed me out into the downpour and helped me load both of the heavy bikes into the back of my truck. He seemed eager to be rid of them, so I didn't argue.
"What are you going to do with them, anyway?" he asked. "They haven't worked in years."
"I kind of guessed that," I said, shrugging. My spur-of-the-moment whim hadn't come with a plan intact. "Maybe I'll take them to Dowling's."
He snorted. "Dowling would charge more to fix them than they'd be worth running."
I couldn't argue with that. John Dowling had earned a reputation for his pricing; no one went to him except in an emergency. Most people preferred to make the drive up to Port Angeles, if their car was able. I'd been very lucky on that front��I'd been worried, when Charlie first gifted me my ancient truck, that I wouldn't be able to afford to keep it running. But I'd never had a single problem with it, other than the screaming-loud engine and the fifty-five-mile-per-hour maximum speed limit. Jacob Black had kept it in great shape when it had belonged to his father, Billy��
Inspiration hit like a bolt of lightning��not unreasonable, considering the storm. "You know what? That's okay. I know someone who builds cars."
"Oh. That's good." He smiled in relief.
He waved as I pulled away, still smiling. Friendly kid.
I drove quickly and purposefully now, in a hurry to get home before there was the slightest chance of Charlie appearing, even in the highly unlikely event that he might knock off early. I dashed through the house to the phone, keys still in hand.
"Chief Swan, please," I said when the deputy answered. "It's Bella."
"Oh, hey, Bella," Deputy Steve said affably. "I'll go get him."
"What's wrong, Bella?" Charlie demanded as soon as he picked up the phone.
"Can't I call you at work without there being an emergency?"
He was quiet for a minute. "You never have before. Is there an emergency?"
"No. I just wanted directions to the Blacks' place��I'm not sure I can remember the way. I want to visit Jacob. I haven't seen him in months."
When Charlie spoke again, his voice was much happier. "That's a great idea, Bells. Do you have a pen?"
The directions he gave me were very simple. I assured him that I would be back for dinner, though he tried to tell me not to hurry. He wanted to join me in La Push, and I wasn't having that.
So it was with a deadline that I drove too quickly through the storm-darkened streets out of town. I hoped I could get Jacob alone. Billy would probably tell on me if he knew what I was up to.
While I drove, I worried a little bit about Billy's reaction to seeing me. He would be too pleased. In Billy's mind, no doubt, this had all worked out better than he had dared to hope. His pleasure and relief would only remind me of the one I couldn't bear to be reminded of. Not again today, I pleaded silently. I was spent.
The Blacks' house was vaguely familiar, a small wooden place with narrow windows, the dull red paint making it resemble a tiny barn. Jacob's head peered out of the window before I could even get out of the truck. No doubt the familiar roar of the engine had tipped him off to my approach. Jacob had been very grateful when Charlie bought Billy's truck for me, saving Jacob from having to drive it when he came of age. I liked my truck very much, but Jacob seemed to consider the speed restrictions a shortcoming.
He met me halfway to the house.
"Bella!" His excited grin stretched wide across his face, the bright teeth standing in vivid contrast to the deep russet color of his skin. I'd never seen his hair out of its usual ponytail before. It fell like black satin curtains on either side of his broad face.
Jacob had grown into some of his potential in the last eight months. He'd passed that point where the soft muscles of childhood hardened into the solid, lanky build of a teenager; the tendons and veins had become prominent under the red-brown skin of his arms, his hands. His face was still sweet like I remembered it, though it had hardened, too��the planes of his cheekbones sharper, his jaw squared off, all childish roundness gone.
"Hey, Jacob!" I felt an unfamiliar surge of enthusiasm at his smile. I realized that I was pleased to see him. This knowledge surprised me.
I smiled back, and something clicked silently into place, like two corresponding puzzle pieces. I'd forgotten how much I really liked Jacob Black.
He stopped a few feet away from me, and I stared up at him in surprise, leaning my head back though the rain pelted my face.
"You grew again!" I accused in amazement.
He laughed, his smile widening impossibly. "Six five," he announced with self-satisfaction. His voice was deeper, but it had the husky tone I remembered.
"Is it ever going to stop?" I shook my head in disbelief. "You're huge."
"Still a beanpole, though." He grimaced. "Come inside! You're getting all wet."
He led the way, twisting his hair in his big hands as he walked. He pulled a rubber band from his hip pocket and wound it around the bundle.
"Hey, Dad," he called as he ducked to get through the front door. "Look who stopped by."
Billy was in the tiny square living room, a book in his hands. He set the book in his lap and wheeled himself forward when he saw me.
"Well, what do you know! It's good to see you, Bella."
We shook hands. Mine was lost in his wide grasp.
"What brings you out here? Everything okay with Charlie?"
"Yes, absolutely. I just wanted to see Jacob��I haven't seen him in forever."
Jacob's eyes brightened at my words. He was smiling so big it looked like it would hurt his cheeks.
"Can you stay for dinner?" Billy was eager, too.
"No, I've got to feed Charlie, you know."
"I'll call him now," Billy suggested. "He's always invited."
I laughed to hide my discomfort. "It's not like you'll never see me again. I promise I'll be back again soon��so much you'll get sick of me." After all, if Jacob could fix the bike, someone had to teach me how to ride it.
Billy chuckled in response. "Okay, maybe next time."
"So, Bella, what do you want to do?" Jacob asked.
"Whatever. What were you doing before I interrupted?" I was strangely comfortable here. It was familiar, but only distantly. There were no painful reminders of the recent past.
Jacob hesitated. "I was just heading out to work on my car, but we can do something else��"
"No, that's perfect!" I interrupted. "I'd love to see your car."
"Okay," he said, not convinced. "It's out back, in the garage."
Even better, I thought to myself. I waved at Billy. "See you later."
A thick stand of trees and shrubbery concealed his garage from the house. The garage was no more than a couple of big preformed sheds that had been bolted together with their interior walls knocked out. Under this shelter, raised on cinder blocks, was what looked to me like a completed automobile. I recognized the symbol on the grille, at least.
"What kind of Volkswagen is that?" I asked.
"It's an old Rabbit��1986, a classic."
"How's it going?"
"Almost finished," he said cheerfully. And then his voice dropped into a lower key. "My dad made good on his promise last spring."
"Ah," I said.
He seemed to understand my reluctance to open the subject. I tried not to remember last May at the prom. Jacob had been bribed by his father with money and car parts to deliver a message there. Billy wanted me to stay a safe distance from the most important person in my life. It turned out that his concern was, in the end, unnecessary. I was all too safe now.
But I was going to see what I could do to change that.
"Jacob, what do you know about motorcycles?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Some. My friend Embry has a dirt bike. We work on it together sometimes. Why?"
"Well��" I pursed my lips as I considered. I wasn't sure if he could keep his mouth shut, but I didn't have many other options. "I recently acquired a couple of bikes, and they're not in the greatest condition. I wonder if you could get them running?"
"Cool." He seemed truly pleased by the challenge. His face glowed. "I'll give it a try."
I held up one finger in warning. "The thing is," I explained, "Charlie doesn't approve of motorcycles. Honestly, he'd probably bust a vein in his forehead if he knew about this. So you can't tell Billy."
"Sure, sure." Jacob smiled. "I understand."
"I'll pay you," I continued.
This offended him. "No. I want to help. You can't pay me."
"Well�� how about a trade, then?" I was making this up as I went, but it seemed reasonable enough. "I only need one bike��and I'll need lessons, too. So how about this? I'll give you the other bike, and then you can teach me."
"Swee-eet." He made the word into two syllables.
"Wait a sec��are you legal yet? When's your birthday?"
"You missed it," he teased, narrowing his eyes in mock resentment. "I'm sixteen."
"Not that your age ever stopped you before," I muttered. "Sorry about your birthday."
"Don't worry about it. I missed yours. What are you, forty?"
I sniffed. "Close."
"We'll have a joint party to make up for it."
"Sounds like a date."
His eyes sparkled at the word.
I needed to reign in the enthusiasm before I gave him the wrong idea��it was just that it had been a long time since I'd felt so light and buoyant. The rarity of the feeling made it more difficult to manage.
"Maybe when the bikes are finished��our present to ourselves," I added.
"Deal. When will you bring them down?"
I bit my lip, embarrassed. "They're in my truck now," I admitted.
"Great." He seemed to mean it.
"Will Billy see if we bring them around?"
He winked at me. "We'll be sneaky."
We eased around from the east, sticking to the trees when we were in view of the windows, affecting a casual-looking stroll, just in case. Jacob unloaded the bikes swiftly from the truck bed, wheeling them one by one into the shrubbery where I hid. It looked too easy for him��I'd remembered the bikes being much, much heavier than that.
"These aren't half bad," Jacob appraised as we pushed them through the cover of the trees. "This one here will actually be worth something when I'm done��it's an old Harley Sprint."
"That one's yours, then."
"Are you sure?"
"These are going to take some cash, though," he said, frowning down at the blackened metal. "We'll have to save up for parts first."
"We nothing," I disagreed. "If you're doing this for free, I'll pay for the parts."
"I don't know��" he muttered.
"I've got some money saved. College fund, you know." College, schmollege, I thought to myself. It wasn't like I'd saved up enough to go anywhere special��and besides, I had no desire to leave Forks anyway. What difference would it make if I skimmed a little bit off the top?
Jacob just nodded. This all made perfect sense to him.
As we skulked back to the makeshift garage, I contemplated my luck. Only a teenage boy would agree to this: deceiving both our parents while repairing dangerous vehicles using money meant for my college education. He didn't see anything wrong with that picture. Jacob was a gift from the gods.