I packed that night and we left for the airport early the following morning, but not without a traditional drawn-out Cullen goodbye.
As the last of our things were stored in the cars, I looked around at the faces of my family and friends. Adelaide moved first. She hugged me tightly. “Stay safe, Nessie.”
She smiled and stepped back. Everyone came forward to embrace me now. First Rob (I didn’t entirely like hugging him), then Tara, then Ian, then Aunt Alice (who only released me because Uncle Jasper physically removed her), Uncle Jasper, Grandpa Carlisle, Uncle Emmett (which was not unlike being crushed by a well-meaning boulder), Aunt Rose and finally Grandma Esme, who was, as ever with goodbyes, crying.
“Call as soon as you can,” she said. Her voice was thick with emotion.
“Of course, Grandma,” I reassured her.
She stroked my face. “Just feel better. For me.”
I nodded and hugged her again.
Grandpa Carlisle hugged me last. I was surprised by how soothing his silence was. After a moment, he kissed my hair and drew back.
I kissed his cheek. “Bye, Grandpa.”
“Don’t get lost,” he teased, chucking my chin. “We need you back.”
I smiled slightly. He was one of the few people I knew who didn’t need words, but always seemed to have the right ones.
Aunt Alice and Uncle Emmett took my parents and their luggage while Adelaide and Tara took me. “You’ll love Quebec,” Adelaide said, smiling at me in the rear view mirror. “It’s the oldest major settlement in North America. The people, history, and culture are extraordinary.”
“Yeah, it’ll be great,” I said, coaxing some enthusiasm into my monotone. “How many times have you been there?”
“We’ve lived there many times over the years,” Adelaide said. “When I was born, Nova Scotia was still a French settlement called Acadia.”
I nodded and played with the leather bracelet. I’d debated whether or not to bring it. It was a bit masochistic, perhaps, but I hoped it would help me remember to be a better person than the one I’d been to Jacob.
We were in Montréal by that evening. At first, finding distraction wasn’t hard. The myriad languages, accents, foods and places I’d never seen before were both fascinating and a bit overwhelming. But by the time we returned to our hotel, I found a familiar ache taking root.
After watching my parents try to figure out how to pretend to eat Montreal steak sandwiches, I retreated to my room, across the hall from theirs, and curled up on the plush mattress. What if I called him? Would he take the call? If he did, what would he say? What would I say?
I pulled my phone from my pocket and studied it for a moment, the screen glinting temptingly at me. Maybe I didn’t have to call him. Maybe I could call Quil or Embry, or Seth. They’d probably talk to him for me.
You can’t turn them into your messenger pigeons, a voice sneered. They deserve better than to be dragged into your mess.
I set the phone on my nightstand and closed my eyes. When the last words I’d said to Jacob began to replay again, I put my headphones on and listened to music until at last sleep claimed me.
* * *
Several weeks passed, and my heart improved as slowly as my French. As I learned the world in French, I smothered my own world beneath it. I spent afternoons drifting through markets, listening to the voices echoing in the streets to drown out the ones reminding me of what I’d done.
There was a certain reassuring predictability about the ache in my chest. I was getting used to it. It was becoming as normal as assuring everyone that I was fine. My parents did their best to keep me in good spirits. They were painfully accommodating and considerate. They even fielded the scores of daily calls from my overly-concerned grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends.
My life settled into a new rhythm. My parents did their best to become pseudo-Jacobs, doing all of the things with me that Jacob had done — hunting, walks, late-night talks, teasing. But it wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same. There were times at dinner when, in the beats of silence, I knew they, too, felt the Jacob-shaped void that refused to be ignored, like a furrow in the heart of the moment.
Dad and I walked along the St. Lawrence one night, watching the lights glisten on the darkness of the water. I leaned against the railing and sighed quietly.
“Are you okay?” Dad asked for the eleventh time that day. Not bad. He was at fifteen by this time yesterday.
“Fine,” I said, twisting my bracelet on my wrist.
“You know I don’t believe you, right?” he murmured.
“We’re thinking of going home the day after tomorrow. Is that okay?”
He said nothing for a long time. “I do somewhat know what you’re going through.”
I looked at him.
“I left your mother behind once.”
“I know. She told me,” I said.
“I know the feeling of walking through each day, feeling like you’re being pulled by a magnet, wanting nothing more than to take back everything you said. I know the fear of facing eternity with the weight of the world crushing your heart, dreading the notion of feeling the way you do for all of time without any hope of ever escaping it.”
“You did what you did to protect Mom,” I murmured after a while. “I sent Jacob away because I’m stupid and selfish.” I swallowed against the gathering thickness in my throat. “Even if he does like Mom more than me—”
“It’s not like that, Nessie; it’s never been like that,” Dad interjected. He sighed. “He’s trying to do what he thinks is right, not just for the pack, but for you as well.”
I nodded. “I know,” I murmured.
“Not now doesn’t mean not ever.”
I looked at him. He’d avoided the subject of Jacob entirely until this point.
“I just don’t want you to go back as miserable as you came,” he said softly.
“I don’t know what to do, Daddy,” I admitted in a near-whisper.
He slipped his arm around me and held me close. “I know.”
We returned to the hotel slowly. I stretched out on the bed and performed my nightly ritual of staring at my phone for a few moments before laying it on my bedside table and closing my eyes. I was beginning to drift off when it rang suddenly, jolting me awake. I picked it up quickly, my eyes widening when I saw Seth’s name on the call display. I mashed the “Answer” button and lifted the phone to my ear as I bolted upright. “Seth?” I exclaimed.
“Hi, Nessie,” he said, his voice considerably more subdued than usual. “How are you?”
I swallowed. I could hear the disappointment in his voice. I hadn’t just failed Jacob; I’d failed all of them too. Hurting their Alpha meant hurting them. “I’m…” How could I say fine? “How’s Jacob?”
“He’s…you know. Look, he doesn’t know I’m calling you, but I think you should come down. Billy’s dying.”
I gasped, tears rushing to my eyes. There was the initial shock of the thought of a world without Billy, followed closely by the horrible realisation that his death would destroy Jacob.
“He’s in the hospital. His heart started giving out today, and…well, if he passes, I don’t know how Jake will be able to handle it. He’s had a really hard time since…you know.”
I felt myself beginning to tremble. “I can be there tomorrow morning.”
“Does he…does he want me there?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it. But I think he needs you right now.”
I swallowed hard and nodded. “Okay. I’m coming.”
“Bye.” I hung up quickly and took a deep breath to try to stave off the tears already lining my eyelids. I rushed to my feet and knocked on the door to my parents’ room. Dad opened it a second later.
I broke down before I could even get my message out, so I ran the conversation through my head.
“Oh dear,” he murmured.
“What is it?” Mom asked anxiously as she studied me.
I barely heard Dad explain the situation to her. What if I had taken up his last years with his father, as well as everything else?