Chapter One: WildNess
Three Years Later...
"Grandpa Charlie, why do spiders eat butterflies?" Renesmee pointed to a pale blue butterfly trapped in a sticky spider web. Attracted by the vibrations of struggling prey, the web's creator darted effortlessly toward the desperate insect.
"Honey, spiders are just trying to survive," Charlie told her, trying to think of something to say that she would understand. Nessie stopped looking at the specimen and squinted at Charlie as if he were the insect she was studying. Her down-turned mouth conveyed her dissatisfaction with Charlie's explanation. He tried again. "Really Nessie, they're just doing what spiders do."
"But the butterfly is pretty." Renesmee chewed on her lip the way Bella did.
"So is the writing spider." The striped black and yellow arachnid was not aggressive nor a threat to anything larger than a small bat.
"Butterflies eat nectar."
Writing spiders inject enzymes into their prey to liquify the tissue that could not be ingested otherwise, but Charlie didn't know that. "Spiders drink blood." Everything Charlie knew about spiders came from reading Charlotte's Web to Bella.
Nessie's demeanor changed completely. "Just like vampires," she whispered reverently.
Charlie wondered what kind of stories the Big Bad Wolf aka Jacob Black might be telling Nessie. "You're not old enough to be reading Dracula," Charlie told her. He sighed and shook his head. Today was a day for fishing and you had to learn to simply accept what was and not ask too many questions when you were praying for something to bite.
Nessie and Charlie watched the spider work on the butterfly's body until the wings dropped off and its body was encased in silk. When Nessie showed no interest in further conversation, Charlie moved back to his chair, baited his hook and cast his line into the cold water.
Charlie interpreted Nessie's quietness as a sign that she was still disappointed she had not won the bicycle in the fishing tournament. Charlie was disappointed too, but not because Ness did not win a bike. He figured Renesmee's public outing in Forks would be the only one she would make while she appeared to be a child. Charlie wanted the weekend to be memorable in a good way and not because Nessie had thrown a temper tantrum - the only one she had ever kicked up as far as Charlie knew.
He tried to salvage the day by promising birdwatching in addition to fishing at his favorite spot on the Sol Duc River. How could Charlie have known that a half-dozen grandpas and moms and dads would have the same idea? They were all looking for the antidote that would sooth the burn of disillusionment and quell the bitterness of jealousy.
Every spring, dozens of families gathered at Lincoln Park Ponds in Port Angeles to watch the children fish for trout and compete for the honor of making the first or biggest catch. Hopes were high. Of course, there were prizes to be had: ice cream cones and bowling passes, nightcrawlers from a convenience store, bobbers and balls from Newton's Outfitters and, best of all, a brand new bicycle.
Nessie Cullen really wanted that bicycle. She claimed it the instant she saw the advertisement in the newspaper Charlie carried to the sprawling house east of Bellingham that the Cullens used when they flew in from New Hampshire. Nessie knew that Charlie went fishing when he was not with her family, so she decided she was going to Clallam County. After much discussion and a needless (in Charlie's opinion) lecture about 'the public lie', Bella and Edward granted Nessie's request to spend an entire week in Forks. They had not mastered the word ‘no’.
Charlie shook his head. He had let the idea that Nessie wanted to go fishing with her grandpa get the better of him. At least Nessie was content to explore the river bank, looking for worms and bugs that Charlie could use for bait.
Beneath the surface of the river, something tugged Charlie's pole. Charlie let the line out a little and started reeling it back. Detecting a lack of resistance, Charlie's hopes deflated. Fishing expeditions never came with guarantees since outcomes were utterly unpredictable. It didn’t pay to let expectations build; for Charlie, nothing ever worked out as he hoped it might.
When Charlie's line finally popped out of the river, a fish that was barely big enough to tackle Charlie's lure appeared. "Are you going to eat that fish?" Nessie asked, watching the wriggling trout. The fish's effort to free itself from the hook was as ineffective as the butterfly's fight had been.
"No; he's not big enough to eat, but if he was, I would cook him and eat him all up." Charlie didn't see why some parents went squeamish over telling their kids about the carnivore part of being an omnivore.
"I don't like to eat anything that's dead."
"Okay, I'll remember that." Charlie’s lips curled slightly.
"I'm going to try and get him back in the water. We can hope he'll get better and live long enough to make babies just like himself," Charlie said. He carefully tried to ease the hook out of the spastic fish. When he momentarily lost his grip, the hook gouged his thumb, releasing crimson fluid. "Dang," muttered Charlie as he released the trout and squeezed his thumb, decreasing the flow of blood.
"What if he dies." Nessie pushed the last few syllables into her nose, whining.
"Everything dies, Nessie."
"Not everything. I won't. Mommy won't and Daddy won't.
"Not for a very long time." Charlie wanted to groan. He had already introduced Renesmee to the unforgiving concept of random chance. He sure as heck did not want to be the one to explain the notion of mortality to his granddaughter. Let Edward and Bella do it. That is what parents are for: exposing the small fry to the harsh realities of the world.
"No, we are going to live forever. Mommy and Daddy said so," countered Nessie.
He decided to ignore the nervous itch in his gut. "Dying is a part of life."
"Only for humans like you, Grandpa." Nessie put her hands on her hips defiantly.
"But not for girls like you?" He laughed.
"No, and not for vampires like Mommy and Daddy." Nessie licked her lips as she watched Charlie bandage his wound.
Charlie shook his head. It was definite: someone had been reading creepy stories to Renesmee. Charlie wondered how developmental psychology worked for, as Bella would say, mythical creatures—people like the Cullens. He was fairly certain that for every detail he did know, there were hundreds he did not. Charlie supposed a child raised in an environment like that might develop a peculiar imagination.
Charlie glanced at the river almost expecting to see a mermaid.
The sound of a motor vehicle drew Charlie's attention and saved him from having to respond to Nessie's comment. A Forks Police Department cruiser parked beside the shiny four-wheel drive truck that Edward and Bella had given Charlie for his birthday. (Bella insisted Charlie needed a vehicle capable of inconspicuously making the regular trips north for their weekend visits. Besides, Bella said that her daughter would never be caught dead riding in a police car. No need to tell Bells that Nessie got a kick out of playing with the lights.)
"Hey Chief." The words were casual, but there was a brusqueness in Deputy Mark's intonation. "We're looking for one of Reverend Weber's boys. Kid won a bicycle over in Port Angeles this morning. The family's been fishing down river a ways and the kid was pedaling around on that mountain bike."
"Isaac or Joshua? They've got be thirteen or fourteen by now."
"Isaac. Yeah, he's thirteen. Thirteen."
"No chance he tried to ride home?"
"Doesn't look like it. No sign of him. The boy knows his dad meets the pizza guy before the Saturday night musical ministry gets started. The family says he had a phone on him. The boy probably got off in the woods and is out of range."
Nessie stood up and hid behind Charlie. During their week together, Nessie had proven to be a little shy.
"Lord, Missy. I could almost swear you've grown half an inch since Charlie brought you into the station the other day." Charlie introduced Renesmee as Edward's niece. When she inadvertently called Charlie "Grandpa", he winked and nodded. Charlie’s deputies all remembered how hurt he was by Renee's insistence that Bella refer to Charlie by his first name.
Charlie recalled how anxious he had been when Bella disappeared. "Let's get a call over to La Push." Charlie said. "They've always got men ready to deal with this kind of thing.” Sam Uley and his boys could track and locate Isaac faster than anyone, unless the child had been abducted and taken out of the area. Charlie knew that if there was any chance a pedophile had taken Isaac, rapid law enforcement intervention might be the difference between life and death.
"The bunch from the Reverend's church followed the kid’s tire tracks, but it looks like he crossed a stream. It's rocky; they couldn't find tracks on the other side."
"I'll get her to Sue's," Charlie said, pointing to his granddaughter. "And then I'll come back for the search." Charlie began to inventory and pack his gear.
"You think he got out there and got hurt?" Deputy checked his watch. "Or is he just lost?"
"He grew up here and knows things hereabouts well enough." When the Webers first arrived in Forks, they lived in the parsonage behind the Lutheran church. The house was cramped, but it served its purpose until their new baby came: Angela, born only weeks before Bella.
Reverend Weber did not turn out to be one of those men who thought everyone had to be fixed or think just like he did. The people of Forks took to the minister's casual manner readily enough; and they wrapped the man so tightly in the cloak of community that no one claimed to know of a time when Rev. Weber wasn't around. When opportunities to pastor larger congregations with fatter collection plates were thrown Weber's way, he ignored them, content to mind the aging flock and mentoring local youth.
"Isaac's on a new bike, and he might be tempted to ride on trails beyond his skill level," Charlie noted. "He's probably not wearing a helmet, either."
"We need to get to him before it gets dark. After night falls, we'll have to worry about hypothermia and the coyotes." Deputy Mark had a decade of policing behind him and twice that long in the woods. He knew the dangers darkness would bring.
"I wanna help. I'm a great tracker. Jacob says so." Nessie bent to tighten her shoelaces while Deputy Mark stepped back to his car to use the radio.
"Looking for lost boys isn't something a little girl needs to be doing. It's getting dark and it'll be cold tonight." Even though Nessie looked like she was nine or ten years old , she was only three. Too young to be thinking about matters of a serious nature.
Nessie pushed her lower lip out. She definitely had her mother's manners. "Well, I'm hungry then."
"Already?" Charlie looked in the cooler, but the sandwiches were gone.
"What do you say about heading out to La Push and getting some dinner? Sue's a good cook. I'll need to get back out here and help with this search." Engine noise muffled his words as Reverend Weber drove into view.
"Look, a rabbit!" shouted Nessie. The animal raced across the road in front of the minister's mini-van.
The distraught man stopped the vehicle. He seemed unable to notice anything beyond the confines of the van, so Charlie went over and opened his door. Clearly distracted, the minister stumbled to his feet. "Reverend, sorry to hear about your troubles." When the clergyman’s cell phone began to hum, he patted his pants pockets repeatedly, unable to locate the source of the noise. Charlie spotted the phone on the dashboard and retrieved it.
“Thanks,” Reverend Weber automatically responded. His tone was bright and unnaturally cheerful.
Charlie found watching the typically unflappable reverend disconcerting. “Why don’t you have a seat over here in Mark’s cruiser?” Reverend Weber was in no state of mind to be driving, Charlie thought.
Nessie had no patience for the man's confusion. "Come on, Grandpa. If I can't look for lost boys, I wanna look for rabbits," Renesmee chirped, sprinting into the undergrowth.
Instead of following Nessie immediately, Charlie took for granted that she would stay in the area where they had spent the afternoon, and he consoled the anxious parent. It was a mistake.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, Seth Clearwater showed up driving Billy’s truck with Billy himself riding shotgun. Collin and Brady flung themselves from the bed of the pick-up before it came to a complete stop.
"Where are Jake and Sam?" Charlie asked. The younger Quileutes shrugged. With Reverend Weber and Deputy Mark hanging around, the conversation danced around the facts.
"They got a whiff of a poacher over near Crescent Lake, and they've been tracking him most of the day," Billy related.
At some point during the last three years, Charlie figured out which Quileutes were members of the ‘special tribal security team’. The young men accompanying Billy had apparently tried it on for size, but the fact that they were riding in a truck said they weren't on Sam Uley's roster anymore. Having Sam and his gang around on this particular afternoon would have been a relief. Although Charlie wasn't eager to see those boys busting out of their shorts, he'd learned to appreciate Jake's special talents.
Charlie looked at the tormented father sitting in the deputy’s cruiser. Keeping the parents away from the main staging area for a search was standard protocol. Usually, a professional counselor was on hand to help parents handle their feelings, and keep them from getting under foot, but today the man who usually filled that role needed comforting himself. "Look, I know you guys are anxious to get on over to the search area, but Nessie ran off after a rabbit and I haven't seen her in ten minutes or so.” Under his breath, Charlie added, “Billy, can you stay here with the Reverend while I look for Ness? Mark has his hands full without having to deal with the parents right now." Charlie could see Reverand Weber talking into his cell phone. Occasionally, the minister dabbed at his eyes.
"Of course, I will Charlie. I'll try to call the boys and let them know what is going on here," Billy whispered. "You know their phones probably aren't working." In plain talk, that meant those cell phones were under a bush someplace. "Leah was, um, running commo today, but she picked up something Sam thought she should check out; and well, it's been awhile since we heard from her." Billy twisted his face and looked away. "She's-"
"I gotta find Nessie. Nessie! Nessie!" Charlie's sudden panic caught everyone by surprise. Even though Charlie didn't want to know all the particulars, he knew that if people needed protectors like giant wolves there must be unfathomable dangers in the world.
"Calm down, Charlie. Nessie's okay. Jake says she's a good girl. She's not going far."
"She could fall in the river or run into a . . . a . . . a real wolf." Charlie knew he wasn't setting the right example for Reverend Weber, but he couldn't get his emotions under control.
"Charlie, Nessie can swim better than you can and that real wolf will be a lap dog the minute he lays eyes on our girl,” Billy whispered.
Another frantic twenty minutes past before Charlie found Nessie. She had gone east, away from the search for Isaac Weber. Charlie heard her before he saw her.
"Come on, Mister Bunny. Don't be difficult." She could have been talking to her dolls.
Charlie followed the scratching and pleading. Eventually, he found her covered in damp earth, digging down into a rabbit's den. For a moment, Charlie flashed back to an event that haunted him: the exhumation of a woman's body from the shallow grave that a serial murderer had fashioned for her. Bile burned the back of his throat as panic flooded his mind.
"Come on out of there, Ness. A rabbit hole is no place for a little girl."
"Just one more," she protested, pushing herself further from Charlie's sight.
Finally, Ness stopped moving, allowing Charlie to drag her out of the brush. "Come on, Renesmee. You don't want me to tell your mother and father that you were a naughty girl."
Slowly, Nessie stood. Dazed, she stared at Charlie, her mouth latched onto the throat of a hare. It continued to kick.
Desperately, Charlie surveyed the tree line, struggling to reconcile what his eyes told him with what he thought he knew about his granddaughter. Her clothes and limbs were bloodied and nearby the bodies of several small rabbits were drawing flies.
"Jesus. Nessie what... what have you done?" Charlie began to weep.
When the creature stopped struggling and fell limp, Nessie started to cry, too. "Don't tell Mommy. Please, Grandpa Charlie. Please?"
Charlie didn’t realize that he had vomited until later. "Let's get you cleaned up," he said, taking her hand and leading her back to the river.
Charlie washed the blood off Nessie's arms and legs. "Is this...?” Charlie paused. "Is any of this...“ Again, he paused, unable to say the word. "Blood.” Charlie inhaled and exhaled slowly―once, twice, three times―and deeply. “Is any of this yours? Are you hurt?"
Of course, Nessie didn't have a scratch on her, but there was so much blood. Could rabbits bleed that much? How many rabbits had she killed? Charlie closed his eyes, trying to recall how many bodies he had seen. He could only see the murdered woman from years ago reaching out of her grave.
"You're going to tell on me, aren't you?" Renesmee's red-rimmed eyes peered soulfully at Charlie. "Mommy and Daddy don't like it when I eat like a pig."
Tattling was the last thing he wanted to do, but it felt like she was pushing him to tell her parents everything. He wasn't sure what he would tell them. Bella, your daughter slaughtered Peter Cottontail and his entire family?
Charlie stepped back and looked at Nessie's clothes. He almost wished she had a scratch of some kind, so he could offer an excuse for the blood on her clothing. There was no way the men waiting back at Charlie's fishing spot could miss seeing it.
"Here," said Charlie, pulling the bandage from his thumb. "Let's wrap this around your hand. If someone says anything about your clothes, we're going to tell them that you cut your hand."
Nessie began to cry again.
"Look at me, Nessie." Going to Sue's was no longer an option.
"I like rabbit. They taste good―like cucumbers and marigolds―and I was hungry." Nessie chewed on a fingernail and stared at the ground.
"Ness, are you listening to me?" Gently, Charlie cupped her face in his hands, but she refused to lift her eyes.
He didn't realize that the wound on his hand had opened until Nessie snaked her tongue out to taste his blood. Whatever warmth and comfort Charlie had derived from his wall of 'need to know' disappeared.
"I think it's time to go home," Charlie mumbled, as he turned away.
"I don't want to go home. You're going to tell on me and then I'm going to be in trouble," Nessie shrieked.
A stomp froze Charlie, cementing him to the ground. He expected to hear the sound of her throwing herself down and kicking like she had done in Port Angeles that morning, but instead, he caught her footfall. Nessie was fast and before Charlie could turn, she had reached the river and scrambled onto a pile of debris wedged between a partially submerged boulder and the riverbank.
The spring thaw had washed the scrub and decaying detritus into the Sol Dul, where they rushed toward the Pacific. Occasionally, a fallen tree snared the flotsam, forming a natural jetty that stretched out into the cold surging river. The tangle of trees, broken saplings, rotten leaves, vines, and branches was deceptively stable, and animals creeping onto the mire were often thrown into the rolling current. This time of the year, the water flowed swift and deep, claiming the careless scavengers and, occasionally, a fisherman.
Nessie was sitting atop wet rock. Her shoes were still dry, but the spray had already matted her hair to her face. "Nessie, come on back in sweetheart. We need to talk. Nobody's in trouble. " Charlie lied. He could not imagine a situation with a greater potential for utter disaster.
Nessie watched Charlie's lie shadow his face. Charlie could not be trusted; even Bella and Edward had warned Nessie to keep the family secrets to herself. Now, Nessie had revealed too much, and she was certain that as soon as the missing boy's body was found, there would be hell to pay. Nessie knew what she had to do; she needed the protection of her Jacob and the family, and nothing could be allowed to jeopardize that.
"Please, Nessie," Charlie begged, as he removed his fishing vest and belt. If the debris shifted, the belt might help him hang on to Nessie.
Nessie interpreted Charlie's action as confirmation of an intent to harm her. She watched enough television to know that some adults committed cruelties upon children. Nessie stood and purposefully brought her foot down hard, upsetting a tangle of limbs as she stepped onto a water-covered tree trunk. She thrashed, encouraging the splintering of wood, but remained in place.
From Charlie’s perspective, his granddaughter looked trapped. "Hold on, Nessie. I'm coming to get you. Don't move."
"I'm scared," Nessie cried.
Charlie began crawling out on the jetty. Charlie felt the pile shift slightly, but it held his weight. "Hang on, honey. I'm almost there."
"Hurry, Charlie." Nessie would never think of him as grandpa again.
Nessie was almost within arm's reach when the logjam began to snake back and forth under Charlie. "Give me your hand."
"No; you're going to tell."
"Nessie, do as you’re told.”
"I said no!" Nessie hissed, easily leaping back to shore. Nessie had never been trapped.
"What the-" Charlie felt the twisted barrier come apart. For a moment, everything―the branches, the rotting leaves, Charlie―everything disappeared under the water. He resurfaced several feet away, dazed and bloodied. The current pushed him toward the riverbank, but he was only able to use one arm to grab an overhanging vine. "Call... call-."
Without any apparent urgency, Nessie casually rifled through Charlie's fishing vest until she found his cell phone. "Hello, nine-one-one? Charlie drowned. He drowned. Help me." Nessie ended the call before she could report their location.
If Charlie heard Nessie's description of their emergency, he didn't acknowledge it. "Run back to the car, Nessie. Go tell Billy." Charlie speech was slurred. "Call your mother."
"Lost the signal, sorry." Nessie frowned. The longer this took, the more likely someone would come looking for them. For all Nessie knew, Seth and his friends were still with Billy.
"Try to call... again." Unconsciousness threatened.
"Nope, still no signal." Her voice carried a smug indifference. Seconds later, the buzzing phone revealed Nessie's duplicity. She ignored the sound.
Charlie's devotion to 'need to know' had made him blind. "Nessie..." In law enforcement circles, it is known that statistically the cop who is too friendly is more likely to get shot during a traffic stop than a by-the-book man. Where Bella and the new family were concerned, Charlie was far too trusting. "I can't think straight. Nessie, you've got to go for help." Muscle spasms wracked his body, making speech difficult.
Hypothermia is an insidious condition that results from a loss of core body temperature, and exposure to water that is less than fifty degrees Fahrenheit can cause death in one hour. On that late April day, the Sol Duc River was a chilly forty-six degrees.
Charlie was already dying, but Nessie needed him to die faster.
“My family will be here any minute. I can’t take any chance that you are going to tell Mommy and Daddy what I did, so you’re going to have to go away. Right. Now,” said Nessie, snapping the thin branch Charlie gripped.
Mercifully, Charlie was too numb and confused to realize his granddaughter intended to kill him. This time, the current pushed Charlie out into the middle of the river where he sank quietly.
Leah was the first person to reach Nessie. “Where's Charlie?” Nessie pointed to the water, but did not answer. She would not speak for days. Her family would think she was traumatized; she wanted them to focus on her rather than worry over their loss. Charlie was water under the bridge, or in this case, a body under a rotting log.
Although Edward and Emmett arrived only a few moments after Leah, they were too late to recover Charlie without being seen. Of course, Nessie had known the Cullens would not let anyone in Forks aside from Charlie and the Quileutes see them, and their need to work covertly would limit their response. Nessie had little cause to be concerned that Edward or Carlisle might try to resuscitate and change Charlie, because the river dragged his body downstream into the area where the search for Isaac Weber was taking place.
A/N: Special thanks to the best beta on the planet, Alby Mangroves.
Disclaimer: I'm just playing with Stephie's toys. Copyright infringement not intended.